Article: Giving alms

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Lay people offering food or alms to mendicants is a basic aspect of the broader concept of giving – dāna – in Jain belief and the most valuable in practice. Since the Jain monks and nuns do not possess anything and have never been allowed to cook for themselves, they survive on the daily alms the Jain laity give them.

One of the common words for alms is Sanskrit bhikṣā, used in modern Indian languages as well. Another familiar word used in this context, especially in modern times, is gocarī, which literally means 'going like a cow'. This describes the monk going for food from place to place like a cow, which eats mouthfuls of grass at different places in a field. From the point of view of the donor, offering food to mendicants is technically known as 'the vow of sharing with a guest' – atithi-saṃvibhāga-vrata – or 'the gift of food' – āhāra-dāna.

Food can be seen as central to Jain belief and identity, and the values and practices relating to food are spread through stories and scriptures. The offering and accepting of food has rules for both the lay donors and the ascetics who receive it that date back to the earliest texts and oral traditions. Mendicants may also choose to take on extra vows to enhance their spiritual progress. The giving and accepting of food alms is highly ritualised for both sides of the relationship, which are part of the fourfold community of Jains. However, there are significant differences between the rituals of the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects, as there are in the mendicant lifestyles of each of these major sects.

Regulations on food

White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered may take hours.

Lay women give alms to nuns
Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah

To a large extent, the fundamental values of Jainism can be seen in the regulations relating to food. This is especially clear in the rules for the laity’s offering of food and the mendicants’ acceptance of food offerings. Both the mendicant, who will eat the food, and the lay person, the donor, are closely involved in the process. Both have their own part to play so that the offering and acceptance conforms to doctrine.

Jain mendicants spend most of their time separated from lay people and meet them only for specific purposes. Begging for alms is a key moment in the mendicant’s daily life because it brings him or her into the outside world and into contact with others. This necessary daily contact is full of risks, which include injuring living beings, breaking the rules by offering the wrong food or in the wrong conditions.

From the earliest times, both major sects of the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras have produced chapters or full treatises dealing with the complex set of rules that have to be obeyed by both the mendicant and the lay donor. Over the centuries these rules have at least partly changed and adjusted to fit new environments. Hence the differences between what happens today and what is set out in a large body of ancient texts are not surprising.

Rules for donors of alms

Proper alms-giving requires the potential donor to take into account certain factors. These apply to offering food but also to any other form of religious giving, such as offering a seat, lodging or clothes. Though classified and described in different ways in the scriptural tradition, they can be summed up under four main principles.

Principles behind giving alms

Principles

Explanation

quality of the recipient – pātra

The best of all the recipients is the Jain mendicant, who is therefore sometimes called supātra – 'a good recipient'. This word may also be used instead of the more common sādhu or muni.

the thing given

In the case of food, it should accord with certain rules so the mendicant can accept it.

timing of the offering

There are two parts to this rule, as follows:

  1. food should only be offered when it is proper for the mendicant to eat – that is, at particular times
  2. it should also be offered only in a suitable place – that is, somewhere that is not polluted by the presence of small animals, insects and so on.

quality of the donor and the manner of giving

This is an extremely important element. The lay person who offers the alms should do it whole-heartedly, without any reluctance and with a pure and sincere mind.

These are essential regulations, particularly the last. Narrative literature is full of characters who feel interrupted when a monk turns up on his alms round. Either they bluntly refuse to give anything or, when finally convinced to give something, they decide to get rid of something unpalatable and offer damaged or unsuitable food. There are two main outcomes. Either the mendicant eats it and dies or, realising that the food is improper after inspecting it, leaves it and survives. The bad donor always has to go through several rebirths to make up for this grave fault.

Theoretically, the donor of alms can be male or female. However, in practice both food preparation in the kitchen and the serving of food, whether to the family or to the mendicant, is mainly a woman’s role. Several Jain texts take this situation for granted, using the feminine form of words wherever they describe the rules relating to the donor.

Rules for mendicants seeking alms

Ascetics must also follow strict rules when seeking and accepting alms of food from Jain householders. These rules are long established in scriptural tradition, though there is disagreement surrounding certain points in some texts.

Rules in scriptures

There are comprehensive sections on the alms regulations in the early Śvetāmbara canonical books as well as in old Digambara treatises.

The main Śvetāmbara books are:

  • the Ācārānga-sūtra, the first book – Aṅga – of the canon and representing the oldest strata of the Śvetāmbara Jain tradition, it has a special section on begging for food
  • the Daśavaikālika-sūtra, which is one of the 'fundamental' texts – Mūla-sūtras – that Śvetāmbara mendicants learn at the beginning of their religious life, discusses the rules at length in the fifth chapter.

Among the Digambara books, the most important is chapter six of the Mūlā-cāra.

There is also a long tradition of specific treatises on searching for alms in both the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects. They are generally extremely detailed, covering the many various situations that could arise. Here it is only possible to give a sample, highlighting the reasoning behind them.

Hunger and thirst are the first two in the list of 22 troublesparīṣaha – that the mendicant must conquer. This is vigorously stated in the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, which discusses rules for the mendicant life:

Though his body be weakened by hunger, a monk who is strong [in self-control] and does penance, should not cut or cause another to cut [anything to be eaten], nor cook it or cause another to cook it. Though emaciated like the joint of a crow’s [leg] and covered with a network of veins, he should know the permitted measure of food and drink, and wander about with a cheerful mind. Though overcome by thirst, he should drink no cold water, restrained by shame and aversion [to forbidden things]; he should try to get distilled water. Wandering about on deserted ways, in pain, thirsty, with dry throat, and distressed, he should bear this trouble [of thirst]

translation by Hermann Jacobi
chapter 2, stanzas 2 to 5

Everyday food
Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The guiding principle of the rules is that mendicants should not eat food that has been prepared specially for them. They should take small quantities from the food that the housewife has already prepared for the family for their everyday meals.

This is a form of non-violence because then the potential donors do not feel pressured into producing special food for the mendicants.

It also encourages the lay Jains to eat food that is suitable for their ascetic counterparts.

Seeking alms
In this detail of a painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript, a monk receives alms. Though dressed in white like a Śvetāmbara mendicant, the monk makes the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Monk receives alms
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

It has always been easier to search for alms in villages or urban areas where Jain families live because they will be ready to give and at least will know of the basic rules to which the food should conform. But if Jain mendicants have to pass through areas with few Jains, this can be difficult. The possibility of being in such a situation is considered in the textual tradition, where the various obstacles that can arise on the begging tours are described at length. An example can be found on page 100 of Jacobi’s translation of the Ācārānga-sūtra.

The difficulty of getting proper alms is part of the 'troubles'parīsahamendicants must overcome. They should neither ask for something nor complain if they do not get what they want because they should be calm at all times.

On this subject the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra states:

It will always cause difficulties to a houseless monk to get everything by begging, and nothing without begging. The hand [of the giver] is not always kindly stretched out to a monk when he is on his begging tour; but he should not think that it would be better to live as a householder. He should beg food from the householder when his dinner is ready; a wise man should not care whether he gets alms or not. ‘I get nothing to-day, perhaps I shall get something to-morrow’; a monk who thinks thus will not be grieved by his want of success

Jacobi’s translation
page 13, chapter 2, stanzas 28 to 31

Vegetarian diet
Food is central to Jain belief, with Jains eating vegetarian food to uphold the core value of non-violence. Many contemporary Jains are vegan. Giving food to mendicants, who may not cook their own food, is a duty for lay people.

Vegetarian dishes
Image by Ewan Munro © CC BY-SA 2.0

Followers of the Jinas have been associated with strict vegetarianism from time immemorial. Even so, a few passages of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures show that in the distant past meat may have been eaten in extreme circumstances, as a remedy for illness for instance. These passages can be found in chapter 5 of the Daśavaikālika-sūtra or chapter 15 of the Vyākhyāprajñapti.

This possibility has given rise to many heated debates among Jains, with the medieval commentators of the texts frequently interpreting the problematic words as referring to fruit.

The notion of earlier Jains eating meat is a highly controversial matter, even among contemporary believers.

Purity of food

In order to be 'acceptable' or 'pure' according to the scriptures, the food or water which mendicants accept should not contain any living things because they have souls. This includes even the most minute or most invisible ones such as mildew, seeds or sprouts, water, dust or insects.

If a woman of the house wastes the food when distributing it, he [the monk] should refuse the giver [thus]: “I may not accept such alms”. If she crushes living beings, seeds and plants with her foot, he should avoid such a house, knowing that she performs that which is not suitable to self-control.

Daśavaikālika-sūtra
translation by Walther Schubring
chapter 5, section 1, pages 28ff

Source of food

The alms-seeker must also think about where the offered food comes from. For instance, it cannot be accepted if it has been stolen or gained through acts of violence, because non-violence is a key tenet of Jainism. Keeping this in mind, mendicants should avoid places where a festival or banquet is being held because forbidden foods may be prepared there.

Ascetics should inspect the offered food carefully. Once they are back at their lodgings, they should offer a detailed report to their teacher about how it was obtained and what it contains before eating it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

After the offering of food

This painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts ladies venerating a monk. Though he is dressed in white, like a Śvetāmbara monk, the mendicant is of the Digambara sect. His water pot and broom nearby, the monk sits on a low platform

Ladies pay their respects to a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

When the alms have been given and received, there is a further rite to perform before the ceremony of alms-giving is considered to have ended. This mainly involves the lay people who have donated alms.

Digambara ritual after the monk has eaten alms

1

When the monk has finished eating, he sits down on the low stool.

2

The lay people give him water to wash his hands and rinse his mouth.

3

If any food has fallen on his body, they wipe it off with a moist piece of cloth.

4

When the monk stands up to go, the donors accompany him to his lodgings and hand him the peacock-feather broom and water pot.

5

The food that has been left is distributed among those present as a back-offering – prasāda.

The monk has remained silent from the moment he makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms, known as āhāra-mudrā – 'food-gesture'. After the alms-giving ceremony has finished, he may talk once again.

When he leaves the donors, the monk goes back to his teacher or to the group to which he belongs and gives a report on the food he has been offered, giving details about the laity’s behaviour and so on.

Images

  • Lay women give alms to nuns White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered in a complex ritual may take hours. The staff – daṇḍa – of one of the nuns can be seen on the right.. Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah
  • Śvetāmbara monastic bowls Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles. Rules on the bowls and jars are set out in scriptures. Monks and nuns are not allowed to cook for themselves so beg alms from the lay community.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Monk receives alms In this detail of a painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript, a monk receives alms. Though dressed in white like a Śvetāmbara mendicant, the monk makes the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect. He holds his water pot and broom in his left hand and presses all the fingertips of his right hand on his right shoulder in the āhāra-mudrā – 'food-gesture'. When he is ready to eat he stands on a platform above the lay man offering him food. The donor holds a pot of purified water with which he washes the monk's feet in a gesture of respect. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Vegetarian dishes A selection of vegetarian dishes. Food is central to Jain belief, with Jains eating vegetarian food to uphold the core value of non-violence. Many contemporary Jains are vegan. Giving food to mendicants, who may not cook their own food, is a duty for lay people and gains them merit. This food must be prepared and offered correctly, so that a monk or nun seeking alms can accept it.. Image by Ewan Munro © CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Cooked basmati rice Rice is a staple food of the Indian subcontinent, especially in the south.. Image by Pearl Pirie © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • Śvetāmbara monks A group of Śvetāmbara monks walks down a street in Mumbai accompanied by lay men. The monks are barefoot and holding their mouth-cloths and monastic staffs. Jain mendicants live in small bands and travel for most of the year in the traditional wandering lifestyle – vihāra.. Image by Hoorob – Robert Tyabji © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Giving alms to a monk 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. Holding his water pot and broom in his left hand, he presses all the fingertips of his right hand on his right shoulder in the āhāra-mudrā – 'food-gesture'. When ready to eat, he stands on a dais above the donor. The lay man offering him food holds a pot of purified water, which he uses to wash the monk's feet in a mark of respect.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Ṛṣabha is offered sugar-cane juice Prince Śreyāṃsa of Hastināpura offers sugar-cane juice to Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina. As a wandering monk, Ṛṣabha fasts for over a year because no one knows how to give alms but Śreyāṃsa remembers from his past lives. This event is commemorated in the Akṣaya-tṛtīyā festival. Covered in gold leaf, these 19th-century wooden figures depict a crucial scene in the story of the first Jina, which is presented in hundreds of three-dimensional models at the Digambara temple at Ajmer in Rajasthan.. Image by Vaibhavsoni1 © CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)
  • Giving milk-rice to a monk 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.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Giving alms to Śvetāmbara monks 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.. Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Sculpture of the Digambara alms-seeking gesture A sculpted column depicts Digambara monks making the ritual gesture to show they seek alms. . Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Digambara monk seeks alms 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 Digambara ritual of alms-giving consists of complex rites, in which both the lay donor and the mendicant perform certain acts and utter set phrases at particular times. . Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Ladies pay their respects to a monk This painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts ladies venerating a monk. Though he is dressed in white, like a Śvetāmbara monk, the mendicant is of the Digambara sect. His water pot and broom nearby, the monk sits on a low platform while the ladies bow in homage.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Further Reading

‘The Micro-Genre of Dāna-Stories in Jaina Literature: Problems of Interrelation and Diffusion’
Nalini Balbir
Indologica Taurinensia
edited by Nalini Balbir and Colette Caillat
volume 11
International Association of Sanskrit Studies; 1983

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

'Âkârâṅga Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras: Âkârâṅga Sûtra and Kalpa Sûtra
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 22: 2
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1884

Full details

'Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras Part II: Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra and Sûtrakritâṅga
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 45
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1895

Full details

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains
James Laidlaw
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series
Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK; 1995

Full details

‘Le don de nourriture aux ascètes jaïns digambar: dynamique sociale et évolution’
Marie-Claude Mahias
Rites hindous: Transferts et transformations
edited by G. Colas and G. Tarabout
Puruṣārtha series; volume 25
École des hautes études en sciences sociales; Paris, France; 2006

Full details

‘Daśavaikālikasūtra’
Walther Schubring
Kleine Schriften
edited by Klaus Bruhn
Glasenapp Stiftung series; volume 13
Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH; Wiesbaden, Hesse, Germany; 1977

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Mediaeval Śrāvakācāras
Robert Williams
London Oriental series; volume XIV
Oxford University Press; London, UK; 1963

Full details

‘The Ritual Giving of Food to a Digambara Renunciant’
Robert J. Zydenbos
Approaches to Jaina Studies: Philosophy, Logic, Rituals and Symbols
edited by N. K. Wagle and Olle Qvarnström
volume 11
Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Canada; 1999

Full details

Glossary

Alms

Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.

Ascetic

Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.

Asceticism

The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.

Auspicious

Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 

Bright fortnight

The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its fullest.

Candanā

The head nun of Mahāvīra’s community, who first came to his notice by offering him an appropriate gift of food after he had been fasting for five months.

Commentary

An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:

  • bālāvabodha
  • bhāṣya
  • cūrṇi
  • niryukti
  • ṭīkā.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Disciple

An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.

Doctrine

A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.

Donor

A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.

Fast

Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:

  • help destroy karmas that bind to the soul
  • gain merit – puṇya.

Festival

A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history. 

Iconography

Conventions or rules governing how images, symbols and the placement of elements and figures are used in art to represent ideas and convey meaning. Also the term for the academic study of such artistic conventions.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Jina

A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

Mahāvīra

The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.

Makkhali Gośāla

An enemy of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The Śvetāmbaras claim Gośāla was Mahāvīra's disciple, who later joined the Ājīvka mendicants and battled with Mahāvīra. The Digambaras say he was a follower of Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, who wanted to become Mahāvīra's chief disciple. When he was rejected he set up his own mendicant community spreading the teachings of the Ājīvka movement.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Pāraṇā

The ritual in which a faster ends his or or her fast.

Penance

A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.

Prākrit

A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.

Pūjā

Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Puṇya

Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.

Renunciation

Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

Sāgāra

Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.

Sallekhanā

The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Śreyāṃsa

The 11th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the rhinoceros. There is no historical evidence of his existence.

Śvetāmbara

'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra

An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.

Vegetarianism

In line with the key principle of ahiṃsā – non-violence – Jains are traditionally vegetarian. They do not eat meat, fish, eggs or anything that contains potential life, such as onions, potatoes and aubergines. They do generally eat dairy products.

Vihāra

A Sanskrit term that describes the wandering lifestyle of Jain mendicants. Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. They wander constantly on foot, never staying more than a few days in one place. They may walk around 30 kilometres a day in small groups. However, every year, during the monsoon, monks and nuns stay in one location to avoid travelling.

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