Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Śvetāmbara ritual

In this detail from a manuscript painting Śvetāmbara monks receive alms from lay people. This manuscript of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, a major text outlining the rules of monastic life, dates back to the 16th century

Giving alms to Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Śvetāmbara mendicants go for alms twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. This ensures that they usually eat before sunset. They receive the food in their alms-bowl – pātra.

The Āvaśyaka-cūrṇi describes the traditional Śvetāmbara ritual for donating and receiving alms.

Traditional Śvetāmbara ritual for alms-giving

1

When mealtime approaches, the lay person puts on his best clothes and ornaments and goes to the mendicants’ lodgings to invite them to come and accept alms.

2

If they accept, two mendicants go with the lay man on behalf of all of them. They walk in front of him.

3

The interaction between the mendicant and the donor is usually limited to a set of formal gestures of giving and receiving. Ideally, there should not be any words exchanged. There should be no chance for the monk or nun to ask for anything specific.

4

The lay man directs them to his house and invites them to sit down.

5

While entering and before leaving a household the mendicants usually say the word dharmalābha – '[this is an occasion for] acquiring / respecting dharma' or karmic merit.

6

Either the man himself gives them food and drink or he holds the platter while his wife offers the alms.

7

He bows to the mendicants and accompanies them for a few steps as they leave.

8

Then he may eat himself. He should eat the same food that has been offered to the mendicants because the food should not have been specially prepared for them.

There are variants of this routine, for instance:

  • there may not be an invitation to the mendicants because during their begging-tour the ascetics may come without notice to any house in the area, as shown in the Vivāgasuya
  • nowadays food is not usually eaten in the donor’s house, but generally placed in the alms-bowl to be eaten at the mendicant’s lodgings.

Digambara ritual

A sculpted column depicts Digambara monks making the ritual gesture to show they seek alms.

Sculpture of the Digambara alms-seeking gesture
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

In contrast to the Śvetāmbaras, Digambara mendicants beg alms once a day, in the morning. They do not use any sort of receptacle or alms-bowl to receive food offered to them. Their cupped hands are the container – pāṇi-pātra.

Comparing the historical evidence of paintings and stone-carvings with contemporary practice in India, some gestures have clearly persisted down the centuries. There is a particular ritual of food-giving that is specific to the Digambara tradition and is very elaborate, though there are only a few hundred Digambara monks. With certain acts assigned to both the donor and the mendicant, the ritual unfolds in stages, each with its precise gestures. At almost every step the lay donors speak certain set phrases. Complex ceremonies surround the steps of:

  1. the monk signalling that he seeks alms
  2. potential donors inviting him to accept alms
  3. the lay people preparing to offer alms
  4. the monk taking the alms
  5. the end of the alms-giving.

A similar ritual takes place when food is offered to a Digambara nunāryikā – except that she eats sitting down. Preliminary worship rituals to her are not always performed.

Monk shows he seeks alms

The monk follows a ritualised process each morning to indicate that he is looking for food.

Traditional Digambara mendicant ritual for begging alms

1

The monk walks through the village or the area where he is seeking alms while holding his only two implements in his left hand:

  • the broom made of peacock feathers – picchikā or piñcha
  • the water pot – kamaṇḍalu.

2

He places the tips of the five fingers of his right hand, which are pressed together, on his right shoulder. This typical gesture is called āhāra-mudrā – 'food-gesture'.

3

From this moment onwards, the monk will not speak until he has got and finished his meal.

4

He also resolves not to take any food after eating that day till the next day.

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