In America today the hungry are fed through generous contributions made from citizens to various charitable institutions. The government also offers a food stamp program for the poor which is funded through taxes collected from the general population. While these programs may seem nice, they are not ideal.
The Vedas tell us that it is the responsibility of people in the grihashta ashrama to offer food in charity to others. A person’s life is divided into four stages or ashramas, they being brahmacharya (celibate student life), grihastha (householder or family life), vanaprastha (retired family life) and sannyasa (the renounced order of life). Of all these stages, only those in the grihastha ashrama are supposed to give in charity, and people in the other three stages are the recipients of said donations.
According to the Mahabharata, the primary duties of a householder are to feed the gods and to feed guests. Householders engage in fruitive activity earning money, so it is recommended for them to use the fruits of their labor toward offering food to Krishna, or God. They are also required to host as many guests as possible. Shrila Prabhupada says that prior to eating, a householder is supposed to go out in the street and ask if anybody is hungry. The needy then come over and the householder serves them.
In today’s age of Kali, we are all very suspect of each other. Married people often don’t like to invite guests over because it is a burden to them. They think, “Well, so and so never invite us over to their house, so why should we call them over to ours?” This kind of tit-for-tat mentality is not prescribed by the scriptures. In Sanskrit, such people are referred to as kripanahs, or misers. The Ebenezer Scrooge character from the classic Charles Dickens short story “A Christmas Carol” is a famous example of a miser. Mr. Scrooge was a very unhappy and stingy businessman who paid his workers low wages and never gave money to charity. Through the miracle of Christmas and visits by three ghosts, he eventually changed his ways, but his last name is synonymous today with miserliness.
The Vedas advise everyone, especially the grihasthis, to avoid miserly behavior. A householder earns tremendous spiritual merit by hosting guests and feeding them sumptuously. A guest is to be received very warmly, offered a nice place to sit, and given sumptuous foodstuff to partake of. Householders are not supposed to eat until after the guest has finished eating. In this way, married couples purify themselves by eating the remnants of the offered food.
It is actually considered a great sin for a householder to receive a guest improperly. A famous example of this can be found in the Mahabharata. The five Pandava brothers, cousins to Lord Krishna, were serving an exile period in the forest when they were visited by Durvasa Muni, a great Brahmana who had brought a large group of fellow sages with Him. The Pandavas and their wife Drapaudi had just finished their midday meal, so there was no food available to serve their exalted guests. Fearing the wrath of the Brahmanas, Draupadi prayed to Krishna to alleviate the situation, and the Lord obliged. While the sages were bathing in a nearby river, Lord Krishna appeared at the scene and took a morsel of food that happened to still be in the serving bowl used by the Pandavas. The Lord then declared that His hunger was satisfied and miraculously the hunger of all the sages was satisfied at the same time. The sages returned from their bath and declared that they were pleased with the hospitality they received from Drapaudi, relieving her of any sin she might have incurred.
Though the ideal householder life may be difficult to implement in this age, the best thing a family can do is to become devotees of Lord Krishna and offer all their food to Him prior to eating. This prasadam should also be distributed to as many friends, family, and neighbors as possible. Through this system, there is no need for government programs or food donation charities. In this way, the householders can perform the highest service to their fellow man and satisfy society’s real hunger, the hunger for spiritual life.