Charles Dickens scribed on something completely different from his prose in May 1850, when he portrayed the Nigerian 419 scam where 419 wealthy people were approached seeking financial assistance for orphaned children, emergency surgery and quoting numerous examples of begging letters he had received over the years from various individuals beseeching and supplicating for money. This goes to illustrate the fact that panhandling or begging, adopting various ploys, is equally an old profession, akin to the world famous profession of prostitution.
Last week TV news exposed how people begging on high streets, by walking in and out of traffic lanes, causing traffic jams. When a chap selling burning incense in a crowded traffic lane was gestured by a motorist to move away, vendor's remarks were: Me Yakka Masso Elawanawa! (This devil is chasing flies). This reveals to what extent these 'beggars' are a crafty lot engaged in a daily routine. Panhandling basically signifies pleading from another person or seeking a favour. Some beggars demand cash only. In the case of a beggar crying out of hunger and his request for food is heeded, surprisingly his stance changes to demand cash only.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and Jainism charity is emphasized as an acceptable means of support for certain classes of devotees focussing on spiritual development as against getting caught up in worldly pleasures. Buddhist monks and nuns, from historical times of Gautama Buddha, traditionally lived by begging for alms. Buddhists believe by complying with such religious traditions in giving food, medicine and other vital items to monks, the laity will gain merit to pursue moksha (freedom) from Samsara (death and rebirth in a karmic circle).There are several references in the New Testament too where Jesus Christ considered "beggars as the most wretched portion of society."
In the UK begging is illegal under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. It is an offence to sleep rough or beg; anyone found scrounging for money for survival could be arrested. However, it neither carries a jail sentence nor rigidly enforced in many cities except on public transport. In Sri Lanka, it is just the opposite where public transport is infested with beggars and all kinds of vendors.
At every street corner, near traffic lights, bus stands, opposite supermarkets, and religious abodes beggars appear as a bunch of flies. Whenever one gets off a motorcar, quite often a man or woman carrying a child approaches with a stretched hand.
Destitution and genuine hardship of a person is understandable as every human heart is impregnated with compassion to a great degree, but should such empathetic hearts be taken as suckers by tricksters, who turn begging into a profession and appear on a daily basis at the same place to take one's kindness as a weakness? The other side of the coin is, one may argue that every human has a certain amount of self-respect and pride within and no one dares to stoop to degrading levels of humiliating themselves by becoming a nuisance to others, as a means of survival, in the absence of a society, which does not have a developed social security system. In such a scenario where does a compassionate heart fit?
More sophisticated methods adopted currently by desperados are linked with the cyber-begging or Internet panhandling, which give them a clear advantage for gambits to plead incognito, making hay while the sun shines. This has helped fraudulent organizations to raise funds ingeniously by making use of the World Wide Web elaborately using Internet techniques.
Karyn Bosnak was a shopaholic, who drowned in credit cards debts up to $20,000 but she managed to panhandle and sell her cherished possessions on eBay to get rid of her debts in just four months. Her charming and cautionary tale of glamorous rise, embarrassing fall and how the kindness of strangers can make a difference, could be read on the Internet (http://www.karynbosnak.com/save-karyn/).
In the Catholic Church, followers of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic were mendicants who adopted a lifestyle of poverty, travelling and living in urban areas for the purpose of preaching and evangelisation. They begged for food, while they preached to the villagers. In traditional Christianity the rich are encouraged to serve the poor. In Hindu tradition spiritual seekers begging for food is regarded as a materialistic distraction from the spiritual liberation and begging promotes humility and gratitude, not only towards those who give food, but also towards the universe in general. Dervishes, members of Sufi Muslim Order, have taken vows of poverty and austerity to make Zakat (similar to a wealth tax), which is compulsory during one's lifetime that is open-ended to one's heart's content. In the monastic orders of Buddhism, begging is called Pindapatha. In every such case a meritorious deed of the contributor seems naturally to fulfil another dimension of one's spiritual self-advancement 'to seek' a better spiritual station after death.
The current trend of begging in Sri Lanka has turned into an industry no doubt, where certain type of 'pleading families' have earned for generations and accumulated sizeable wealth by recruiting new beggars. These groups are supposed to have their own territories where unknown beggars coming to such areas end up with verbal and / or physical abuse. In a world of organized embezzlers, tricksters and felons who begin to play a different ball game by employing beggars on a payroll basis with commissions paid off at the end of each day, it becomes extremely difficult for those who want to genuinely help the poor.
When will the general public be allowed to move freely on roads or avoid having to answer their doorbell constantly for numerous categories of begging prevalent in our society today? Solicitation becomes an intimidation when beggars keep on harassing the public without taking 'no' for an answer and the innocent citizen becomes subjected to wild gesticulations with abuse, insults, curse or veiled threats by attempting to avoid beggars who follow them in Pied Piper fashion.
"Never stand begging for that which you have the power to earn" -– Miguel de Cervantes.