Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Amount of food

There are rules relating to the quantity of food that may be eaten. The theoretical amount is 32 mouthfuls, which can be interpreted differently depending on the size of a mouthful.

Availability of food
Rice is a staple food of the Indian subcontinent, especially in the south.

Cooked basmati rice
Image by Pearl Pirie © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Finally, what can be consumed also depends on what is available. This varies according to the season and the region.

Acceptable food includes the various types of Indian breads – roṭī – rice, vegetable dishes and fruit. In order to be considered pure, water must be boiled so that it does not have any minute living beings and should not be chilled.

Self-imposed restrictions

Śvetāmbara monks walk down a Mumbai street accompanied by lay men. The monks are barefoot and holding their mouth-cloths and monastic staffs. Jain mendicants live in small bands and travel most of the year in the traditional wandering lifestyle – vihāra

Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Hoorob – Robert Tyabji © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

All the rules laid out in the scriptures make seeking alms difficult but the daily search can be made harder deliberately. This happens when monks and nuns set themselves extra restrictions or resolutions – abhigraha. The underlying motivation is that a greater degree of asceticism is more efficient in destroying karmas. These restrictions may be connected to the type of food and/or to specific conditions relating to the donor. The restrictions may be set for different lengths of time.

When the predetermined conditions are not fulfilled, the mendicant remains without food. Digambara mendicants commonly hold these extra resolutions and, as a result, might not eat for some time.

The story of Candanbālā illustrates an especially difficult case, where the self-imposed restrictions are such that the mendicant can effectively accept alms from only one individual.

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