A Philosophical And Sociological Analysis Of The Role Of ‘Charity’ In Jainism...

Author:  Image of Sean BevisSean Bevis
Published: 25.04.2010
Updated: 30.07.2015

“A Philosophical and Sociological analysis of the role of ‘charity’ in Jainism, with specific reference to the nature of dāna and aparigraha in both Jain and non-Jain environments.”

This essay aims to analyse the role that ‘charity’ plays in the Jain religion both in terms of its importance in its philosophical systems, and in terms of the practical role it plays for both Jain and non-Jain society. The essay will examine the nature of ‘charity’ with reference to specific Jain principles that are of vital importance to the religion as a whole, namely those of ‘giving’ (dāna) and ‘non-possession’ (aparigraha). Dāna constitutes the main, or original, type of donation, or ‘charitable act’, seen throughout the history of Jainism, while aparigraha is a key philosophical tenet that encourages laymen and women to limit their possessions, thus encouraging the act of ‘donating’ existing possessions to “good causes” both within and outside the existing community. The “value” of charitable acts performed by Jains to other Jains, and those to non-Jains, are perceived to have varying levels of importance within the community, when examining the philosophical and sociological manifestations of these acts, as will be seen later. I believe it will be particularly interesting to compare the motivations and consequences of giving and donating from the philosophical and sociological standpoints because of the variations of opinion amongst different people.

The essay will start with an introduction to the concepts of dāna and aparigraha, describing their philosophical importance in the context of the Jain religion as a whole, as well as the overall social impact of these principles on charitable rituals and practices. This will be followed by an explanation of the role of charitable acts in the Jain religion to provide an insight into why such acts are performed with reference to the spiritual motivations of the Jains themselves, and the social effects these acts have on both Jains and non-Jains. The discussion will involve a brief discussion on the importance of wholesome (puṇya) and unwholesome (pāpa) acts, addressing the potential karmic consequences of ‘charity’ which will again raise the question of individual and collective motivations for practising ‘charity’. I will then define the different types of ‘charity’ performed by Jains, and will assess whether the theory of puṇya and pāpa influences the types of ‘charity’ carried out, and the philosophical and sociological justifications for these acts. The nature of ‘relationships of exchange’, and the importance of ‘giving’, in the Jain religion will be key themes throughout. Finally, I will put forward my conclusions along with brief points on how this subject can be taken further in future.

Dāna,or Dānavrata, constitutes the fourth vow of spiritual discipline for a layman or woman (śikṣāvratas)[1] that requires him or her to perform “charity” by offering food, residence, medicine and books to mendicants and others[2]. Literally, dāna is used to denote ritualistic gift-offerings to religious beneficiaries especially brāhmaṇa priests, mendicants and other religious institutions[3]. Ofcourse in the Jain context, it would be primarily Jain ācāryas that would receive the gifts instead of brāhmaṇa priests. As an initial point, it is interesting to note that the ‘offering’ can be made to “others” as well as monks (sādhus) and nuns (sādhvīs) which denotes the “collective” nature of the ‘ideal charitable act’ while also highlighting that it is not an act restricted to the lay-mendicant relationship. In order for a Jain aspirant to perform the act of charity properly, he or she must firstly be aware of the characteristics of a “proper donor”, and then aim to fulfil these qualities in his/her charitable activities[4]. Therefore, there are certain requirements, or steps, that must be observed in order to ensure the act of charity is performed in the right manner. Once these qualities of a proper donor have been determined and observed, he/she must also have the ability to determine the criteria by which a “worthy recipient” of the gift is characterised[5]. The last requirement of a donor, is to be very careful with the offering itself by not committing indiscriminate acts of charity but rather to offer donations/gifts that are suitable for that particular recipient, and to do this in strict accordance with the methods prescribed by ritual[6]. This is highlighted by Umāsvāti in the Tattvārtha Sūtra:

“The worth of a charitable act is determined by the manner of giving, the nature of the alms offered, the disposition of the giver and the qualification of the recipient.

(vidhi-dravya-dātṛ- pātraviśeṣāt tadviśeṣaḥ)” 7.34 (SS[7] 7.39)[8]

   In terms of ritual, the canonical texts outline six obligatory duties (āvaśyakas) for the monastic community to observe but which have also been recommended to the laity[9]. The laity have no real obligation to observe the āvaśyakas but an amended version of the monastic format is performed regularly in Jain households[10]. It is widely accepted that both the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras have “āvaśyaka”lists, however, only the Digambara list contains dāna as one of the six obligations. The fact that the Śvetāmbara list does not include dāna is a surprising omission, as the alms-round, in particular, is an essential activity to ensuring the continuation of the monastic-lay Jain relationship, and not to mention is the earliest known ritual of dāna in Jain society. It is also fascinating that the Digambaras included it as a requirement because they have virtually no canonical texts (sūtras), apart from the Tattvārtha Sūtra, from which to legitimise the dāna ritual philosophically, while the Śvetāmbaras have managed to preserve most of their original Prakrit sūtras and therefore have been able to practice virtually the same traditional rituals that were being used at the time of the Valabhi Council in the fifth century A.D.[11] According to P.S. Jaini in The Jaina Path of Purification, the Digambaras Somadeva (tenth century A.D.) and Jinasena (circa 840 A.D.) decided to place greater emphasis on the popular and secular aspects of ritual in their writings[12], which could explain the inclusion of dāna as the sixth duty in their āvaśyaka-style list. Regardless, it is important to note that the prescribed conduct in the ‘Books of Discipline for Laymen’ (śrāvakācāra), of which the āvaśyaka system is a part, is not adhered to by the laity in its complete textual form but observed more as a result of social communal conventions, so as to ensure positive interpretations of the community from within, and also by external political and cultural agencies in society. In other words, maintaining knowledge and practice of ritual, although not in keeping with the “ideal” format, has been regarded as essential for securing the future of Jain identity and culture by the lay Jains themselves.

Critical in interpreting lay Jains and their relationship with ritual, is to understand that they have a varied concoction of daily ritual and intermittent ceremonies and festivals, that emphasise the need for a group identity more than anything else, possibly even having greater importance than the sacred religious meanings of the acts[13]. Furthermore, even though the rituals and ceremonies resemble the “ideal” lay path outwardly, they are not performed because the layman/woman are bound by a vow that insists on the act being carried out according to a religious schedule and style but rather that the layperson desires to carry out the act, and can easily not perform it without any religious or spiritual “regulation” by the monastic community.[14] Although this may seem quite rebellious or disrespectful to the original, ascetic (śramana) tradition, it does make the act of dāna even more interesting to investigate because despite this lack of pressure, there are many examples of laypeople performing acts of charity from both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras sects. So why are charitable activities still so prominent in Jainism?  

Aparigraha or Aparigrahavrata is one of the five limited vows (aṇuvaratas) recommended to the Jain laity, that encourages ‘limiting one’s possessions or attachments’. The Jain scriptures regularly describe ‘possession’ (parigraha) as the delusion (mūrcchā) of possession, which causes a person to develop false notions such as “this is mine” or “I made that” and thinking that one can hold onto what he or she currently “has” forever[15]. Parigraha is also equated with the four passions (kaṣāyas) and nine sentiments (no-kaṣāya), combined they are known as the “internal possessions” and avoiding acts that generate them represents the essence of the aparigrahavrata in Jainism[16]. In order to renounce parigraha and mūrcchā  the individual has to detach themselves from the ten “external possessions” which are land, houses, silver, gold, livestock, grain, maidservants, manservants, clothing, and miscellaneous goods such as furniture[17]. From the mendicant point of view, all these possessions must be given up entirely, apart from in the ‘white clad’ Śvetāmbara sect whose renunciates are allowed to wear clothing[18]. From the point of view of the laity, aparigraha is adhered to by imposing limits on what he or she may own which means that once they have reached the ceiling on the number of goods owned, they should not exceed it as this would constitute parigraha[19]. The śrāvakācāra texts highlight five devious methods by which lay members of the community could attempt to bend the rules of the fifth aṇuvarata. These five are: (1) acquiring land by extending your boundaries, which some would argue is not going beyond the position of their “property line”; (2) masquerading excessive accumulation of gold and silver as “donations” to one’s husband or wife; (3) exceeding the volume of grain and foodstuffs by repackaging them in compact containers; (4) not counting newborn offspring of livestock as an increase in overall holdings as they were “not purchased”; and finally, (5) reducing the number of household goods by combining them, eg. welding plates together[20]. There are also ‘four infractions’ which are also to be avoided, they are: (1) driving cattle over excessive distances or with excessive loads in order to increase profits; (2) hoarding grains to drive up the price; (3) hoping for larger than reasonable profits from any transaction; (4) being emotionally dejected after selling something at a low price[21]. Ideally, the layperson undertakes the aparigrahavrata in order to reduce the chances for him/her to be influenced by these passions thereby protecting their soul (jīva) from acquiring more karmas, and making progress towards non-attachment and the mendicant way of life[22].

Aparigraha is often regarded as one of the three key principles of Jainism, along with the doctrines of ‘non-violence’ (ahiṃsā) and ‘non-absolutism’ (anekāntavāda). As we have seen above, it is a key principle in developing restraint as well as a strong reminder to the lay community that renunciation is, and always will be, an ideal principle of Jain philosophy and conduct. It is a concept that highlights the relationship between non-possessionand ahiṃsā through the correct treatment of animals for transportation of goods and other means, while anekāntavāda  is emphasised with respect to accepting, or tolerating, less financial gains in certain circumstances, and the consideration of other businesses in your community, or surrounding environment, by not hoarding goods. There is an obvious benefit here for all members of society if these principles are observed and adhered to, whether Jain or non-Jain. With respect to dāna, there is a clear reference to it in the ‘five devious methods’ by which a householder could breach the aparigrahavrata, by increasing his or her pieces of gold and silver by “donating” them to one’s husband or wife. A householder may attempt to do this because “donations” are generally regarded as positive acts of charity within the Jain community however; I see this is an excellent example of how both aparigraha and dāna can be regulated within the Jain context, even if the acts themselves are regarded as voluntary on the part of the layperson. Simply put, excessive possession of one thing or another cannot be justified by an act of charity, as this constitutes both a philosophical and sociological contradiction according to the Jain canon because excessive possession would not bring about aparigraha or fair trading for the benefit of society. Furthermore, this act would constitute the exploitation of those rules that determine whether the donor has behaved in a proper manner, and represents the systematic abuse of choosing a “worthy recipient” due to greed, although it’s worthy to note that evaluating the “donor options” available is probably often seen through very subjective eyes. Nevertheless, it is the motivations or intentions behind the act, and the resulting consequences, that determine whether the rules of dāna or aparigraha have been respected, or breached, by an individual.

Now that we have had a brief introduction to the concepts of dāna and aparigraha, we can analyse the place charity holds within Jainism while considering its place in the historical Indian context. Vijay Nath, in her book, Dāna: Gift System in Ancient India: A Socio-economic Perspective, wrote:

“Ancient Hindu lawgivers were always cognizant of the spiritual merit arising from the act of dāna. So much importance was to attached to it as a primary social need that it came to be assigned an exalted place in the rituals of the time. No religious ceremony was deemed complete without it; no act of religious devotion was considered fruitful unless accompanied by it. Charity was sought to be inculcated as the cardinal virtue, through which all could be atoned for and which held the key to the highest heaven.”[23]

Therefore, dāna has a long history within the context of Indian spirituality and philosophy, playing a vital role in both the Indian people’s spiritual psyche as well as the practice of their rituals in society as a whole. It can therefore be assumed that Jainism, as an Indian religion, would incorporate this principle, and practice, into their belief system to function as a means through which to develop on the spiritual path of purification. Taking into consideration the principles of ‘non-violence’ (ahiṃsā) and ‘non-absolutism’ ((anekāntavāda), the act would be a symbolic representation of these philosophies, at the very least, to the Jain communities themselves as well as the rest of Indian society. The Tattvārtha Sūtra is considered to be the first text to systematise the Jain religion, and is acknowledged by both the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects as a legitimate scripture. Following the emergence of this text, the Jains were able to represent their philosophy in a structured format that could stand up to criticism from rival religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, therefore, it was extremely important in establishing the foundations for the existing institutionalised religion. The first reference to ‘charity’ in this text is within the context of compassion (anukampā) and action (karma):

“Compassion through charity for all living beings, especially those observing religious vows, self-restraint of a person with attachment and the like, blameless activity, forbearance, and purity cause the inflow of pleasure karma. (bhūta-vratyanukampādānaṃ sarāgasaṃyamādi yogaḥ kṣāntiḥ śaucam iti sadvedyasya)” 6.13 (SS 6.12)[24]

According then to this key Jain text, the ‘motivation’ to do a charitable act is twofold, firstly, it is born out of compassion for others and, secondly, it is done to promote the influx of karma that brings about pleasure (puṇya) for the ‘doer’ or ‘giver’, consequently resulting in a more positive spiritual future for the doer. In Pūjyapāda’s commentary on section 7.33 below, he emphasises the importance of practising charity with a ‘pure heart’ on the behalf of the giver, without this, pleasure karmas cannot be accrued (pāpa)[25]. In other words, an act of ‘charity’ has positive repercussions for both individuals provided positive motivations inspire the act but it’s important to note that the Tattvārtha Sūtra clearly states that the giver performs a charitable act for their own benefit and then expresses gratitude to the recipient:

“Charity consists in offering alms to the qualified person for one’s own benefit.” (anugrahārthaṃ svasyātisargo dānam).” 7.33 (SS 7.38)[26]

Philosophically, it is essentially the giver who benefits from the charitable act despite the fact that it requires two individuals for ‘the act’ to take place because the outcome is purely dependent on his/her motivation. However, I think this raises an important question of who is the ‘true giver’ in this relationship considering the giver is grateful to the recipient for accepting the gift / donation? Without the recipient’s willingness to receive, the exchange could not take place, thereby preventing the influx of positive karma (puṇya) for the giver, rendering charity, and its associated acts, redundant. We can see that the philosophical perspective on charity, as expressed in older texts such as the Tattvārtha Sūtra, refers to charity in the context of a layperson giving to an ascetic to acquire the karmic merits of such an act. But in more modern accounts of Jain charity, we see greater discussions on the benefits of this social activity in Indian society as a whole, particularly in the context of non-Jains. The sociological perspective presents a different interpretation in which Jains, as a minority community, have had to rely on the good acts of other people around them to survive. Therefore, the ‘reciprocal’ type of charity becomes more prevalent in this sense as pointed out by V.A. Sangave:

“A minority community for its continued existence has always to depend on the goodwill of the other people and that goodwill could be persistently secured by performing some benevolent activities. The Jainas did follow and are still following this path of attaining the goodwill of all people by various means like educating the masses and alleviating the pain and misery of people by conducting several types of charitable institutions. From the beginning the Jainas made it one of their cardinal principles to give the four gifts of food, protection, medicine and learning to the needy (āhāra-abhaya-bhaishajya-śāstra-dāna) - irrespective of caste and creed. According to some this was by far the most potent factor in the propagation of the Jaina religion.[27]   

Here we see a very different type of ‘motivation’ for Jains to perform charity that is completely separate from the philosophical justification we have seen in the Tattvārtha Sūtra. It is directly linked to the social survival of the Jains as a whole, and is therefore, obviously of great significance. If the Jains were to have strictly adhered to the philosophical/textual prescription to solely perform charity to support the monastic community, then the quote above suggests this may have greatly diminished their chances for survival. In this instance, which is more important to the Jains, performing charity for social survival or performing it for philosophical correctness and the accrual of positive karmas (puṇya)?

In conclusion, the role of charity can be viewed in two broad spectrums, that of the philosophical which, as described in the Tattvārtha Sūtra promotes the need to perform charitable acts with a ‘pure heart’ and for the compassion of others in order to accrue positive karma. Secondly, the sociological spectrum which takes a more reciprocal form in which the Jains will return goodwill from non-Jain communities, whom they rely on greatly for their survival as a minority group, with extensive acts of charity in the form of education, creation of hospitals etc. The Jain philosophy makes it very clear that charity is performed for the benefit of the ‘giver’ but I think it is important to question this because the giver expresses his/her gratitude to the receiver for receiving the ‘charitable gift’. Without genuine motivation and intention from the giver, and the willingness to receive the gift by the second individual, the practice of charity could not exist in the Jain philosophical context. However, in the context of the earlier discussion on aparigraha and dāna, charitable acts in both the philosophical and sociological spectrums could exist but this would require different types of motivation with the potential for varying consequences. As we have seen, it is quite possible for Jains in the lay community to place the social forms of charity, that ensure their survival as a group, as a greater priority than those that are related to spiritual progression. Therefore, we have had a brief insight into the complex dichotomy between the philosophical and social interpretations of Jain charity, and the need for more in-depth investigation into the motivations and consequences of such acts. If done, it will allow us attain more accurate insights into which types of Jain charity play the greater roles in Jain and non-Jain society, thereby further clarifying the relationship between dāna and other central principles of Jainism in the modern world.



  1. Jaini, P. S., The Jaina Path of Purification, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited: Delhi, 1998.
  2. Nath, V, Dāna: Gift System in Ancient India - A Socio-economic Perspective, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 1987.
  3. Sangave, V. A., Jaina Community: A Social Survey, Bombay Popular Prakashan Publishers, 1980.
  4. Umāsvāti (Nathmal Tatia translation), That Which Is - Tattvārtha Sūtra, Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.



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