Pondering Beggars

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Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

I spend a lot of my time in India walking the streets looking at beggars or, I should say, looking at the poor.  I am very interested in learning their stories, just like I do in Boston with the homeless. How does a human being find themselves so destitute?
India is much more complicated than the US because of its own social order, colonial history, religious beliefs and economic problems around huge populations.
But, none the less, I am still trying to understand not only their lives but my responsibility to that life… especially when they ask me for money.
One day I asked our guide about the beggars we were walking by and their answer surprised me. “Begging is a sin. These people are not trying to help themselves. They want something for nothing. And, furthermore, it is a sin to encourage them to keep begging.”
I kept rolling this around in my head as I do in the US. I have learned the matter is much more complicated – poverty, lack of education, mental health and disability, and lack of familial support system. But in India, another issue is “karma” – their faith telling them they were meant to suffer for past life transgressions.
On the flip side, we visited an ashram which feeds over 1000 sadhus a night. Not only do they get good food but new clothes and even cash from wealthy families. Sadhus decide at some point in their life to give up all material things and ties to family. Basically they give up everything, even the right to be cremated. So, they are considered holy and worthy of gifts.
Both these groups are given things. Both these groups are needy but for different reasons. So, who are we to judge? I see these people and my heart just wants to take over and relieve their suffering. My intellect kicks in and reminds me I can’t help everyone but I can still try to help in some small way.

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