Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Lay people offering food or alms to mendicants is a basic aspect of the broader concept of giving – dāna – in Jain belief and the most valuable in practice. Since the Jain monks and nuns do not possess anything and have never been allowed to cook for themselves, they survive on the daily alms the Jain laity give them.
One of the common words for alms is Sanskrit bhikṣā, used in modern Indian languages as well. Another familiar word used in this context, especially in modern times, is gocarī, which literally means 'going like a cow'. This describes the monk going for food from place to place like a cow, which eats mouthfuls of grass at different places in a field. From the point of view of the donor, offering food to mendicants is technically known as 'the vow of sharing with a guest' – atithi-saṃvibhāga-vrata – or 'the gift of food' – āhāra-dāna.
Food can be seen as central to Jain belief and identity, and the values and practices relating to food are spread through stories and scriptures. The offering and accepting of food has rules for both the lay donors and the ascetics who receive it that date back to the earliest texts and oral traditions. Mendicants may also choose to take on extra vows to enhance their spiritual progress. The giving and accepting of food alms is highly ritualised for both sides of the relationship, which are part of the fourfold community of Jains. However, there are significant differences between the rituals of the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects, as there are in the mendicant lifestyles of each of these major sects.
To a large extent, the fundamental values of Jainism can be seen in the regulations relating to food. This is especially clear in the rules for the laity’s offering of food and the mendicants’ acceptance of food offerings. Both the mendicant, who will eat the food, and the lay person, the donor, are closely involved in the process. Both have their own part to play so that the offering and acceptance conforms to doctrine.
Jain mendicants spend most of their time separated from lay people and meet them only for specific purposes. Begging for alms is a key moment in the mendicant’s daily life because it brings him or her into the outside world and into contact with others. This necessary daily contact is full of risks, which include injuring living beings, breaking the rules by offering the wrong food or in the wrong conditions.
From the earliest times, both major sects of the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras have produced chapters or full treatises dealing with the complex set of rules that have to be obeyed by both the mendicant and the lay donor. Over the centuries these rules have at least partly changed and adjusted to fit new environments. Hence the differences between what happens today and what is set out in a large body of ancient texts are not surprising.
Proper alms-giving requires the potential donor to take into account certain factors. These apply to offering food but also to any other form of religious giving, such as offering a seat, lodging or clothes. Though classified and described in different ways in the scriptural tradition, they can be summed up under four main principles.
quality of the recipient – pātra
The best of all the recipients is the Jain mendicant, who is therefore sometimes called supātra – 'a good recipient'. This word may also be used instead of the more common sādhu or muni.
the thing given
In the case of food, it should accord with certain rules so the mendicant can accept it.
timing of the offering
There are two parts to this rule, as follows:
quality of the donor and the manner of giving
This is an extremely important element. The lay person who offers the alms should do it whole-heartedly, without any reluctance and with a pure and sincere mind.
These are essential regulations, particularly the last. Narrative literature is full of characters who feel interrupted when a monk turns up on his alms round. Either they bluntly refuse to give anything or, when finally convinced to give something, they decide to get rid of something unpalatable and offer damaged or unsuitable food. There are two main outcomes. Either the mendicant eats it and dies or, realising that the food is improper after inspecting it, leaves it and survives. The bad donor always has to go through several rebirths to make up for this grave fault.
Theoretically, the donor of alms can be male or female. However, in practice both food preparation in the kitchen and the serving of food, whether to the family or to the mendicant, is mainly a woman’s role. Several Jain texts take this situation for granted, using the feminine form of words wherever they describe the rules relating to the donor.
Ascetics must also follow strict rules when seeking and accepting alms of food from Jain householders. These rules are long established in scriptural tradition, though there is disagreement surrounding certain points in some texts.
Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its fullest.
The head nun of Mahāvīra’s community, who first came to his notice by offering him an appropriate gift of food after he had been fasting for five months.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.
Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:
A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history.
Conventions or rules governing how images, symbols and the placement of elements and figures are used in art to represent ideas and convey meaning. Also the term for the academic study of such artistic conventions.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
An enemy of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The Śvetāmbaras claim Gośāla was Mahāvīra's disciple, who later joined the Ājīvka mendicants and battled with Mahāvīra. The Digambaras say he was a follower of Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, who wanted to become Mahāvīra's chief disciple. When he was rejected he set up his own mendicant community spreading the teachings of the Ājīvka movement.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
The ritual in which a faster ends his or or her fast.
A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
The 11th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the rhinoceros. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
In line with the key principle of ahiṃsā – non-violence – Jains are traditionally vegetarian. They do not eat meat, fish, eggs or anything that contains potential life, such as onions, potatoes and aubergines. They do generally eat dairy products.
A Sanskrit term that describes the wandering lifestyle of Jain mendicants. Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. They wander constantly on foot, never staying more than a few days in one place. They may walk around 30 kilometres a day in small groups. However, every year, during the monsoon, monks and nuns stay in one location to avoid travelling.
British Library. Or. 13524. Matisāra. 1726
Bodleian Library. Prakrit c.1. Unknown author. 1465 CE