Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Stories and heroes

The significance of the acts of offering and receiving alms explains why alms are a prominent theme in narrative literature. From the earliest period, stories have been a popular way to demonstrate and pass on the central values of the faith to every Jain.

Tales revolving around the most valuable aspect of dāna – offering of food to Jain mendicants – have been transmitted in various versions in all the languages Jains use. They have been both narrated separately and collected together in thematic anthologies. There is a large stock of such heroes in these stories, with the starting point of their eventful lives and rebirths an alms-giving scene.

Early examples from Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures

This detail of a painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows a monk about to receive his daily alms. Even though he wears white robes like a Śvetāmbara monk, the mendicant is making the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Giving alms to a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

There are three good examples of the centrality of alms in Jain belief in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures.

Firstly, in the 11th book – Vivāgasuya – of the Śvetāmbara canon, there are short episodes describing alms-giving, rather than full stories. They show a fixed pattern that underlines the various stages of the process of giving. The first story tells how the householder Vijaya gives food to Mahāvīra so he can break his fast. Then the same outline is repeated with the names changed.

Prominent features of these outlines are:

  1. the situation
  2. the monk's arrival at the lay man’s house and the welcome ritual
  3. the monk’s receiving the food
  4. the glory awaiting the donor.

The first stage involves offering food to a monk after he has observed a fast. This is considered excellent because it implies a certain solemnity, although it is more common to offer food on a daily basis to mendicants on regular begging rounds.

In the second stage, the lay man demonstrates the proper attitude and performs the ceremony of welcome when the mendicant arrives at his house for alms:

he sees the monk coming;
full of joy and happiness, he gets up from his seat,
leaves his stool,
takes off his shoes,
puts his cloth on one side of his shoulder,
goes seven or eight feet following the monk,
turns around him three times from left to right,
bows down before him, pays his respects with a large quantity of the fourfold food;
he says[,] full of happiness: “I shall give alms”; also while he is giving, he is full of happiness; also after having given, he is full of happiness.

extract from the Vivāgasuya
translation by Nalini Balbir

The third stage is expressed by a verb meaning 'to get in return' – the Prakrit paḍilāhei:

The monk was given the gift [of food], which was pure in three ways [mind, speech and action], and, in respect of the three modes of action [doing, causing someone to do, letting someone do], pure with regard to the substance, the donor and the taker.

extract from the Vivāgasuya
translation by Nalini Balbir

The final stage emphasises that when the monk receives the food the lay man receives merit. Therefore the link between both parties is extremely close and based on reciprocity.

This is symbolised by the list of five heavenly presents the donor can expect for his act of giving:

  1. a rainfall of riches
  2. flowers of all colours fall from the sky
  3. garments are tossed in celebration
  4. the gods' drums are beaten in celebration
  5. shouts are heard in the sky: “Wonderful! A gift! A gift!”

This list is not to be understood literally, of course. What it means is that properly offering alms to a monk is an act of merit – puṇya – that will have good results for the donor in this life and in his next births.

The second example of alms-giving in Śvetāmbara holy writings can be found in an episode starring Revatī, narrated in the fifth main book – Aṅga – the Viyāhapannatti. The recipient of her gift is the Jina Mahāvīra himself, who is suffering from an attack of fever caused by his religious opponent, Makkhali Gośāla. Revatī offers the medicine – a kind of food – that cures him and which she gives him through his disciple.

The final example demonstrates how offering improper food has negative consequences. The story of Dharmaruci is given in the sixth main book – Aṅga – of the Śvetāmbara canon. Dharmaruci is a monk who is offered food reluctantly by the lady of the house where he begs alms. She gives him a sweetened, juicy preparation of bitter melon. When the monk shows the food to his superior for inspection, as the rule prescribes, the latter realises that the food is poisonous and tries to convince Dharmaruci not to eat it. Yet he eats it in order to save the numerous ants that would otherwise be attracted to the sugared food. Dharmaruci dies.

Donors and the Jinas

Knowledge of rules concerning food offering is not thought of as having always existed. Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras both believe that proper giving – dāna – is a kind of social custom that was not widespread before it was discovered in the time of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina.

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