Article: Giving alms

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.

Regulations on food

White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered may take hours.

Lay women give alms to nuns
Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah

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.

Rules for donors of alms

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.

Principles behind giving alms

Principles

Explanation

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:

  1. food should only be offered when it is proper for the mendicant to eat – that is, at particular times
  2. it should also be offered only in a suitable place – that is, somewhere that is not polluted by the presence of small animals, insects and so on.

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.

Rules for mendicants seeking alms

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.

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