The merchant Karnasen was a generous giver. He had always provided shelter to the homeless, the sick, and the dispossessed. Everyone agreed that there was no one like him. It was as if Lord Brahma himself had descended from the heavens in human form to banish the sorrows of his subjects.
Even though he lived modestly, Karnasen was very wealthy. Distributing all this wealth had always given him great pleasure. When he came across other miserly rich people, riding in their expensive horse-drawn carriages, he would think to himself – I am a much bigger person than these selfish rich men. The next moment he would control himself and think – No, no. Who is giving, and to whom? Is it not true that God is giving riches to his subjects, and I am just the mediator? Then he would think – I am so humble. It must be, if there wasn’t something special about me would God have chosen me, out of so many … and then he would immediately control himself and think – no, no, what is this, shame!
Yet no matter how much he tried to get rid of his pride, in some secret corner of his mind the feeling would persist – I am such that I am trying to suppress even the self-satisfaction from giving. I am so different from all those people. I am indeed a great man!
One year there was a plague in the country. People were dying like flies. The whole country was plunged into mourning. The hospitals of the city were full with patients. No new patients could be accommodated, corpses started piling up in the streets of the city.
Karnasen was usually the first one to think of any good deed. He lay down at night and thought – Oh, why don’t I do this? If I donated this mansion of mine to the hospital, so many of the afflicted could come take shelter here. Why do I need a mansion so big?
The next moment he thought – Yes! Only I thought of this because I alone am God’s chosen servant. Nobody else…
And immediately he thought – Shame! These are thoughts of vanity.
All day he kept thinking – Let me donate this house. Let people take shelter here.
And then he would think, let it be. There’s no need to donate the house. There’s no end in sight to this plague. Giving up the house, it would be very inconvenient.
While on the street he would notice the helpless, shrunken faces of the homeless sufferers. His heart would well up with sympathy and he would think – let me give the house away. It does belong to them. God is expressing His kindness through me, this is His desire…
And then from the deep recesses of his mind would come a thought – Oh! Just look! Look how big my heart is!
Thinking of the poor unlucky shriveled faces brought tears to his eyes.
Waves of noble thoughts would come to his mind – then recede. Other times these emotions would lead him to try tirelessly to put an end to others’ suffering – but this time he suppressed those emotions. He thought – no, not my house, I’ll give money, like I usually do.
From that secret corner of his mind came the thought – It’s not that I am a bad person. I have already given so much so many times – what if I don’t this time? And it’s not even like I am a miserly person – I am noble. But this time …
The air of the city grew heavy with the stench of the rotting corpses. The poor were dying from the lack of treatment and care.
One day there was news that one of the rich misers of the town – who had never given even a cent to any good deed – had donated his huge mansion to the homeless for their treatment.
The city buzzed with paeans for the great man.
Karnasen thought – Huh, this messes things up. Now what do I do?
The next day he heard, inspired by the miserly rich man, another wealthy merchant had donated his house to the patients.
Loud rejoicing spread across the city.
Most of the times Karnasen led the way with his good deeds. Others would follow him. This time he was denied that satisfaction. He kept thinking – I thought I was His chosen one. I had misunderstood. God can melt even stone to do his bidding. Otherwise that tried and tested miser, him giving up his house…
Karnasen’s pride was shattered. He thought – God has no chosen or unchosen ones – everyone is the same. What great nobleness do I have? Others have made the sacrifice I was not able to make.
The self-satisfaction he felt from thinking of himself as a sacrificing, altruistic person was gone. He started to feel contemptuous towards himself.
Yet everyday there was news of more people giving away their houses. Karnasen’s friends came by and quietly entreated him to do something quickly. People were surprised at him remaining quiet this time. In the past he had always done every good deed before others, this time if he didn’t do something soon his reputation would be damaged.
Karnasen thought – he would have to donate because others were and because of the fear of ruining his reputation. What glory was there in such a donation? And even if people praised him for it, he knew there was no greatness in this giving. He was giving just to save face. Just thinking of this donation would make him feel less noble. Where was the sense of satisfaction like other times?
Quite irritated, Karnasen decided he would do nothing. People could say what they wanted. A gift which was impelled by selfishness, and motivated by an urge to save face, was a donation he would never make.
Late at night, Karnasen awoke in his bed. Looking out the window he saw, across the blue ocean of the sky, a constellation shining at him like the ever-watchful eye of the great Protector amid a deluge engulfing the world. The waves of white moonlight in the calm blue sky seemed to resonate with the silent tunes of His creation.
Karnasen thought – Oh! What an opportunity have I lost. If I had donated my house, my life would have had a connection with this night. I have no relationship with God anymore, because I am selfish, because I have disrespected his wishes.
Karnasen closed the window to save himself from the reproaches of the far off constellation.
Suddenly the faces of the sufferers, shadowed by death, floated up in his mind – tonight they were all lying under the stars for lack of shelter.
Karnasen thought – let me donate the house. There is no glory left for me in this donation, but even if that is so, the homeless people will get shelter at least? They are dying on the streets in this cold weather.
There was no humming in that secret corner of Karnasen’s mind. The next day the city folks heard that Karnasen had donated his palatial house to make a hospital for the afflicted. This wasn’t a new thing anymore. Some people praised him a little. Some people thought he didn’t want to, but had to, just to save face.
In due time, Karnasen died. He presented himself at the court of Yamaraja, the God of Death, to hear the judgement upon him.
Yamaraja looked at the books and said – the giver’s paradise is the best paradise among them all. Each act of donation gives you the right to live in that paradise for a hundred eons. For you, a stay of a hundred eons has been approved.
Chitragupta sat there with his giant book open in front of him.
Karnasen scratched his head and said – there may have been a mistake in the calculation, if you could please once again, because …
Chitragupta glanced at the pages of his book again and said – no, there has been no mistake. You gave up your house once in the time of a plague to help your poor neighbors – I don’t see the record of anything else written here.
Karnasen stood there like a fool.
Yamaraja was busy doing something else. He was omniscient, he heard Karnasen’s thoughts. He looked up and smiled and said – I know. But the rewards for your other donations were given you as soon as you had made them. Did you not enjoy a nice feeling of self-satisfaction after donating?
Karnasen nodded in polite confusion.
Yamaraja said – that was your reward. The fame of your generosity had spread across your motherland, you felt satisfied and happy, that was the reward for those donations. But one time you made a donation just to ease others’ pain. You didn’t think about yourself that time. The reward for that donation we did not want to give you immediately and disrespect that sacrifice. That is the one you are still owed.Published in Parabaas, March 2019
The original story The Giver's Paradise (Daataar Swargo, দাতার স্বর্গ) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was first collected in the book titled Mouriphul (মৌরীফুল) published in 1932.