Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Vegetarian diet
Food is central to Jain belief, with Jains eating vegetarian food to uphold the core value of non-violence. Many contemporary Jains are vegan. Giving food to mendicants, who may not cook their own food, is a duty for lay people.

Vegetarian dishes
Image by Ewan Munro © CC BY-SA 2.0

Followers of the Jinas have been associated with strict vegetarianism from time immemorial. Even so, a few passages of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures show that in the distant past meat may have been eaten in extreme circumstances, as a remedy for illness for instance. These passages can be found in chapter 5 of the Daśavaikālika-sūtra or chapter 15 of the Vyākhyāprajñapti.

This possibility has given rise to many heated debates among Jains, with the medieval commentators of the texts frequently interpreting the problematic words as referring to fruit.

The notion of earlier Jains eating meat is a highly controversial matter, even among contemporary believers.

Purity of food

In order to be 'acceptable' or 'pure' according to the scriptures, the food or water which mendicants accept should not contain any living things because they have souls. This includes even the most minute or most invisible ones such as mildew, seeds or sprouts, water, dust or insects.

If a woman of the house wastes the food when distributing it, he [the monk] should refuse the giver [thus]: “I may not accept such alms”. If she crushes living beings, seeds and plants with her foot, he should avoid such a house, knowing that she performs that which is not suitable to self-control.

translation by Walther Schubring
chapter 5, section 1, pages 28ff

Source of food

The alms-seeker must also think about where the offered food comes from. For instance, it cannot be accepted if it has been stolen or gained through acts of violence, because non-violence is a key tenet of Jainism. Keeping this in mind, mendicants should avoid places where a festival or banquet is being held because forbidden foods may be prepared there.

Ascetics should inspect the offered food carefully. Once they are back at their lodgings, they should offer a detailed report to their teacher about how it was obtained and what it contains before eating it.

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