Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Rules in scriptures

There are comprehensive sections on the alms regulations in the early Śvetāmbara canonical books as well as in old Digambara treatises.

The main Śvetāmbara books are:

  • the Ācārānga-sūtra, the first book – Aṅga – of the canon and representing the oldest strata of the Śvetāmbara Jain tradition, it has a special section on begging for food
  • the Daśavaikālika-sūtra, which is one of the 'fundamental' texts – Mūla-sūtras – that Śvetāmbara mendicants learn at the beginning of their religious life, discusses the rules at length in the fifth chapter.

Among the Digambara books, the most important is chapter six of the Mūlā-cāra.

There is also a long tradition of specific treatises on searching for alms in both the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects. They are generally extremely detailed, covering the many various situations that could arise. Here it is only possible to give a sample, highlighting the reasoning behind them.

Hunger and thirst are the first two in the list of 22 troublesparīṣaha – that the mendicant must conquer. This is vigorously stated in the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, which discusses rules for the mendicant life:

Though his body be weakened by hunger, a monk who is strong [in self-control] and does penance, should not cut or cause another to cut [anything to be eaten], nor cook it or cause another to cook it. Though emaciated like the joint of a crow’s [leg] and covered with a network of veins, he should know the permitted measure of food and drink, and wander about with a cheerful mind. Though overcome by thirst, he should drink no cold water, restrained by shame and aversion [to forbidden things]; he should try to get distilled water. Wandering about on deserted ways, in pain, thirsty, with dry throat, and distressed, he should bear this trouble [of thirst]

translation by Hermann Jacobi
chapter 2, stanzas 2 to 5

Everyday food
Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The guiding principle of the rules is that mendicants should not eat food that has been prepared specially for them. They should take small quantities from the food that the housewife has already prepared for the family for their everyday meals.

This is a form of non-violence because then the potential donors do not feel pressured into producing special food for the mendicants.

It also encourages the lay Jains to eat food that is suitable for their ascetic counterparts.

Seeking alms
In this detail of a painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript, a monk receives alms. Though dressed in white like a Śvetāmbara mendicant, the monk makes the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Monk receives alms
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

It has always been easier to search for alms in villages or urban areas where Jain families live because they will be ready to give and at least will know of the basic rules to which the food should conform. But if Jain mendicants have to pass through areas with few Jains, this can be difficult. The possibility of being in such a situation is considered in the textual tradition, where the various obstacles that can arise on the begging tours are described at length. An example can be found on page 100 of Jacobi’s translation of the Ācārānga-sūtra.

The difficulty of getting proper alms is part of the 'troubles'parīsahamendicants must overcome. They should neither ask for something nor complain if they do not get what they want because they should be calm at all times.

On this subject the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra states:

It will always cause difficulties to a houseless monk to get everything by begging, and nothing without begging. The hand [of the giver] is not always kindly stretched out to a monk when he is on his begging tour; but he should not think that it would be better to live as a householder. He should beg food from the householder when his dinner is ready; a wise man should not care whether he gets alms or not. ‘I get nothing to-day, perhaps I shall get something to-morrow’; a monk who thinks thus will not be grieved by his want of success

Jacobi’s translation
page 13, chapter 2, stanzas 28 to 31

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