Celebrations, Consumerism and Charity

The season of festivals has begun. Ganesh-ji has been bid adieu and plans for Navratri and Diwali have already begun. An interesting trend has been the diminishing importance given to rituals and the increasing importance given to buying things. Do we really need to dress our bodies or our homes with new possessions in order to celebrate? And when did we give permission for special days to be hijacked by consumerist market forces?

Imagine a mall…
Colour, people, products, choices and chaos. A mall is full of tantalizing promises, made by the thousands of things, that say, “Look at me”, “Pick me up, “Buy me and take me home”. So a pair of earrings tantalizes with the promise of beauty, never mind the price tag or the already-full jewellery box at home. A trendy looking pair of shoes seems like an instant passport into the world of cool. A shirt beckons simply because it is on sale, never mind the wardrobe already has enough shirts to dress a team! “Make your life better with me”, they all claim. To top it all, these products are positioned to match festivals, making the consumer feel morally justified in his or her purchase.
More products = more happiness?

And thus we often end up ignoring a critical truth: it isn’t the product that makes our life better, but what we do with it, how we use it to the most complete extent, in our lives. And this use can happen only when we truly need it. When this is forgotten we buy clothes and then must discard the old ones to save the packed wardrobe. We buy furniture that looks great but is not really necessary in our homes. We replace perfectly working cell phones with whatever is the newest model, happy like a child with a new toy. Many of us even manage to convince ourselves that these are the fruits of monetary success and hence meant to be enjoyed. “What’s the use of earning if I can’t buy things?” we ask. And a festival seems to nudge the mind towards self-indulgence. But if we were to reflect, we might find that bulging bags filled with store-bought goodies might bring a temporary rush of adrenalin but also create a vague sense of restlessness and discontent. Buying things seldom goes hand in hand with joy.
The spirit of celebration:

A better way to celebrate is to share. Call it giving, charity or generosity, the act of sharing what one has, with those who don’t have, brings a deep and profound sense of satisfaction. This is especially true during festivals, when the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in India seems stark. “But I give gifts to friends for Diwali”, we might counter. Tiruvalluvar, the poet-philosopher says: The only giving is to the poor. All else is but exchange.

Ask yourself: Can you help the domestic service providers with more than mere token gifts? Is there an orphanage nearby that might benefit from your thoughtfulness? Is there a local municipal school whose library might be grateful for a set of new books? Or, is there a shelter for elders who might value your time and gain immensely from even a modest monetary contribution?

Swami Vivekananda says:

Do not stand on a high pedestal and take five cents in your hand and say, "Here, my poor man"; but be grateful that the poor man is there, so that by making a gift to him you are able to help yourself. It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver.
It is our privilege to be allowed to be charitable, for only so can we grow.
This is the gist of all worship--to be pure and to do good to others.
--Collected Works

So make your plans for the upcoming festivals by drawing up a list – not of things to buy for yourself and the kith and kin, but of people whose face you would dress with a smile, and lives you will touch.

Speaking Tree: Celebrations, Consumerism and Charity, October 01, 2015

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