Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Śreyāṃsa and Ṛṣabha

Prince Śreyāṃsa of Hastināpura offers sugar-cane juice to Ṛṣabha, the first Jina. He has fasted for over a year because no one knows how to give alms. Ṛṣabha's story is told with hundreds of models at the Digambara temple in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Ṛṣabha is offered sugar-cane juice
Image by Vaibhavsoni1 © CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

The origin of the rules surrounding the offering and accepting of food is conveyed through a story associated with the life of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. It is said that he wanders for a full year without food. All the people he meets offer him things he cannot accept, such as improper seating, clothes, perfumes, flowers and improper food.

Then a prince called Śreyāṃsa has various dreams or, according to other versions, remembers memories of his previous life and thus knows the characteristics of proper gifting. He offers Ṛṣabha sugarcane juice, which the Jina can accept and thus he can break his fast – pāraṇā. Therefore Śreyāṃsa is considered the first proper donor on earth.

From the tenth century onwards, this event became associated with a specific date. This date is the third day of the ‘bright fortnight’ of the month of Vaiśākha, which falls over April and May. This is known as Akṣaya-tṛtīyā – the 'Indestructible Third'. In the 20th century, celebrating and commemorating this mythical event has become one of the main festivals of the Jain religious calendar. On this day people who have observed a year-long fast, called varṣītap, break it, in imitation of the mythical event.

Candanā and Mahāvīra

Candanā or Candanabālā is another woman associated with giving to Mahāvīra. She is an exemplary donor because she turns out to be the only one who can fulfil the very specific conditions of the resolution Mahāvīra secretly makes regarding the food he will accept.

This resolution has four points, as listed in an old version of the story.

Mahāvīra's rules for accepting alms

Vow

Detail

type of food

This should be black beans placed in the corner of a basket

the place

The food should be offered by a person who is confined indoors and not allowed over the threshold of the door

the time

After people looking for alms would have already visited, which implies a risk of not finding any food left

the donor

The donor should be a princess reduced to slavery, with iron chains around her feet, a shaven head, and weeping, having kept a fast of three days.

In this case also, as with Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, Mahāvīra’s wandering is lengthy, and people are worried because he does not accept the food they offer. Such narrative features are meant to underline the merits – or in European terms the 'luck' – of Candanā.

Śālibhadra

This painting from an 18th-century manuscript telling the story of Śālibhadra shows a monk being given milk-rice. After Sangama's poor widowed mother makes the milk-rice he has requested, the boy happily donates the delicacy to a monk seeking alms.

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

The story of Śālibhadra figures prominently in both the textual and the iconographic traditions. Sangama is a poor boy who is the son of a widow. One day he wants to eat milk-rice, a delicacy. His mother cannot afford to buy the ingredients, but her neighbours bring them to her. She thus prepares the milk-rice for her child. When he is about to eat, a monk happens to pass near their house. The child gives part of the dish to him, then another part, then finally the full dish.

The poor boy is reborn as Śālibhadra, the son of a rich couple, and later married to 32 maidens. After numerous events, he decides to give up worldly life and become a monk. He is encouraged to do so by Dhanya, his brother-in-law. Dhanya is married to Śālibhadra’s sister, who tells him about Śālibhadra’s wish. Dhanya also wants to make the same decision. Before they can renounce the world, both men overcome opposition from their wives and mothers.

Later on, when they have become monks, followers of Mahāvīra, he predicts that they will receive the food for their fast-breaking from the hands of Śālibhadra’s mother. When the two monks reach the gate of their former house, the doorkeeper does not recognise them and turns them away. But later, a woman selling milk feeds them curdled milk. This woman was Śālibhadra’s mother in his earlier birth as Sangama. Mahāvīra’s prediction thus comes true. Both Śālibhadra and Dhanya end their lives in the most pious way, by fasting to death.

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