Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Potential lay donors

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Lay people who wish to offer alms to the monk must follow a sequence of ceremonial steps and utter ritual phrases. If they do not complete the rite properly, the monk will not accept alms from them. They will thus not gain any merit from giving alms that can aid their karma.

Lay people invite a Digambara monk to take alms

1

To ensure they are pure enough to offer alms to a monk, the potential donors must first perform the morning religious duties and dress in ritually pure clothing, untouched by others.

2

Then they wait for the monk, holding a pot of pure water, topped with a washed coconut, a rosary or some other auspicious object.

3

When they see the monk, they greet him with an invitation formula in Sanskrit or in a mixture of Sanskrit and the local language. The invitation phrase says: “Honour to you, honour to you! Stand still, stand still! The food and water are pure.”

4

If the monk stops before these people, it means he is considering accepting their offer. Then they move clockwise around the monk thrice, keeping him on their right – pradakṣiṇā – side and saying, “Respects!” each time.

5

Then the lay people tell him that they are pure in mind, body and speech, and that the food they will offer is pure as well.

Preparing to eat

It is very important that lay people from whom a monk chooses to accept alms perform the necessary ceremonies properly. These involve ritual purifications, demonstrating respect and creating auspicious symbols. There are several stages they must follow to make sure that everything is ready for the monk to accept their alms.

Lay people prepare to offer alms

1

The lay donors ritually purify the ground leading to the house by sprinkling water on it.

2

Before the monk enters the house, they sprinkle water on his feet to wash off any dust.

3

The monk carries only the peacock broom inside, leaving the water pot at the entrance.

4

Once in the house, he is offered a low stool or a raised platform on which he will stand. This is a way to show him respect.

5

The lay people wash the feet of the monk, using a bowl of water. When they have finished, they dip their fingers into the bowl and sprinkle some of this water on their heads, to show their respect.

6

They perform three short rituals in front of the monk. They use sandalwood paste or rice grains to draw auspicious symbols, such as the svastika.

7

They perform and utter another respectful formula in front of the monk.

8

They again assure him that the food they offer him will be pure.

9

Finally they ask the monk to show them his hands, as a sign that he is ready to accept food from them.

10

The monk stands on the low stool ready to eat.

Accepting the offering

When the monk has signalled that is he is ready to receive the alms the lay people offer, the ritual of giving and accepting food begins.

The ceremony of giving and offering alms

1

The monk holds his hands above a bowl on the floor.

2

The lay people pour some water on his hands and offer him some rice flour so he can wash his hands.

3

He then interlaces all his fingers except the thumbs. It is crucial that the hands are not separated at all during the eating process. If this happens, it is an obstacle that puts an end to the offering and eating of food.

4

When the food is poured into his hands, the monk uses his thumbs to sift through it so he can inspect it and see that it contains no hair, insect or similar. If he finds anything like that, it ends the whole process. Once he is satisfied that the food is acceptable, he can eat it.

5

When the mendicant has finished the handful of food, he interlaces his joined hands for the donors to put more food in them. He indicates that he has had enough by folding his hands.

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