Three Pillars for a Fulfilled Life Part 2: Daan – Altruism

Dr. (Bhai) Harbans Lal

Daan is the second of the three doctrinal terms, Naam, Daan, Isnaan, that formed the basis of Guru Nanak’s teaching. As stated earlier, an exhaustive treatment of Daan is not possible here, especially when one considers that there have been volumes written about it. I, myself, wrote many articles on the subject.

A simple translation of Daan in English is altruism; in Punjabi vernacular, Daan is perupkaar.

Daan is defined behaviorally as acting out of concern for the well-being of others, without regard to the practitioner’s own self-interest. Biological altruism refers to behaviors that help the survival of a species without benefiting the particular individual who’s being altruistic, a sort of hard-wired compassion.

AltruismIn my religious tradition, Sikhi-sm, Daan is both a type of meditation and societal engagement that exceeds the average levels of social cooperation. We give Daan to the needy, but we also supplicate for Daan of benevolence, right wisdom, Naam, and other God’s gifts to bridge over our own shortcomings. We praise God for attributes of Mercy and Grace.

ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰੀ ਸਰਬ ਸਧਾਰੀ ਸਫਲ ਦਰਸਨ ਸਹਜਇਆ ॥  SGGS, p. 533

The Divine is an altruist, generous and benevolent, the beautifier of all, the embodiment of peace; the Blessed Vision (philosophy) of His is so rewarding!

Tangible Benefits

Modern research tells us that when we give without expectations of reciprocity, we experience the deep feeling of energy and fulfillment leading to quality happiness. Asking for charity (Daan) of Naam, one derives all benefits of a real meditation, and also ensures the health of mind and body.

Sikh theologian Bhai Gurdas describes the innate urge to do good as a deep and genuine fulfillment through altruism.

ਤਪਦਾ ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰ ਨੋ ਠੰਢੇ ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰ ਵਿਹਾਣੀ। ਅਗਨਿ ਬੁਝਾਏ ਤਪਤਿ ਵਿਚਿ ਠੰਢਾ ਹੋਵੈ ਬਿਲਮੁ ਨ ਆਣੀ।

A Sikh gets fired up with an urge to engage in altruism that is chilled down by indulging in the altruistic actions. The altruistic activity extinguishes the fire in the hearts of life to cool it down without any delay. Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 29, Pauri 13.

B Hunger

For Some a Trait

Bhai Gurdas went as far as saying that the trait of altruism is the most satisfying occupation; this is a conclusion one would reach after acquiring education in all specialties.

ਚਉਦਹ ਵਿਦਿਆ ਸੋਧਿ ਕੈ ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰੁ ਅਚਾਰੁ ਸੁਖਾਣਾ॥ Gurdas, Vaar 25, Pauri 9

While offering his altruist help Bhagat Puran Singh is remembered as saying to the physically compromised, “Sorry for helping you, but it’s a trait I picked up from my ancestor’s thousands of years ago, and I just can’t seem to get rid of it.”

With such a belief, Bhagat Ji could not accommodate narcissism even if he wanted to. As I have written in the previous blogs, Bhagat ji was heroically altruistic. He displayed courage and generosity often in the face of unending barriers.


We live in a world with much need of help and moral rearmament. We also live in a mean-spirited tit for tat world (just watch any cable news reports) always feeding on narcissism. Only a culture of altruism as designed by holy spirits can save humanity. Further, altruistic behaviors effectively attract others to join in improving the world culture. The scripture says,

ਪਰਉਪਕਾਰੀ ਸੁਫਲ ਫਲਿ ਵਟ ਵਗਾਇ ਸਿਰਠਿ ਵਰੁਸਾਣੀ। ਚੰਦਨ ਵਾਸੁ ਵਣਾਸਪਤ ਚੰਦਨੁ ਹੋਇ ਵਾਸੁ ਮਹਿਕਾਣੀ।

An altruist is a winning trait that distinctly nourishes the whole world. This individual and his/her selfless societal contributions are like sandalwood that lives among the bamboo vegetation that is always at the edge of striking at others to cause fatal fires, but altruist is there to always impart fragrance to the entire forest.

Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 12, Pauri 13

Send all communications to:

Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons)

Professor Emeritus & Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.


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4 thoughts on “Three Pillars for a Fulfilled Life Part 2: Daan – Altruism

  1. Guru Nanak Dev ji phylosphy of life about God , religion and social life was very simple to fallow but our own scholar and followers of Sikh religion has made it very difficult to understand . Rituals which Guru ji had tried to discard have become trove part and parcel of our daily lives . Formal appearance like others religion are more important than actual teaching .

  2. Thank you Bhai Sahib Ji!

    It’s also worth pointing out that intelligently motivated charity is very much discouraged in Gutmat. The Gurbani alerts us as follows:

    • ਅਕਲੀ ਪੜ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ਕੈ ਬੁਝੀਐ ਅਕਲੀ ਕੀਚੈ ਦਾਨੁ ॥ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਆਖੈ ਰਾਹੁ ਏਹੁ ਹੋਰਿ ਗਲਾਂ ਸੈਤਾਨੁ ॥੧॥: One should read (Bani) with intelligence, and then understand its real essence (i.e., assimilate it). Also, one should use intelligence in giving charity. Says Nanak, this is the True Path; other things lead to Satanic life ||1|| (sggs 1245).
    • ਅਭਿਆਗਤ ਏਹ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਹਿ ਜਿਨ ਕੈ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਭਰਮੁ ॥ ਤਿਨ ਕੇ ਦਿਤੇ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਤੇਹੋ ਜੇਹਾ ਧਰਮੁ ॥1॥: Do not call the wandering beggars holy men, if their minds are filled with doubt. Whoever gives to them, O Nanak, earns the same sort of merit. || 1 || (sggs 1413).

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