By Swami Harshananda
Dāna literally means ‘gift’ and is the most commonly used word in Sanskrit. Giving gifts to worthy persons is considered to be a meritorious act. It has its origin in the Ṛgveda and has gradually evolved to an astonishing degree of details and finesse over the centuries. It has been extolled equal to tapas or austerity and is considered as a primary religious duty of this Kaliyuga or Iron-age.
- Giving dāna or gifts is a sacred act that helps one to earn religious merit
- One can give gifts only from what one has earned by right means
- One should never give beyond one’s means and capacity
- Things given should be useful to the recipient
- Rules concerning time, place and occasion should be observed as far as possible
Dāna As per Ṛgveda
The concept first appears in the Ṛgveda as dakṣiṇā or sacrificial fee to be paid to the priests, as gifts of cows and gold to deserving persons, and as anna-dāna or giving food to hungry beings.
Dāna As per Upaniṣads
The Upaniṣads describe dāna as a religious duty and a discipline that helps overcome greediness. The Bhagavadgitā describes dāna as a divine quality.
Dāna as per Dharmaśāstras and Purāṇas
The dharmaśāstras and purāṇas eulogize certain special gifts like
- godāna: gift of cows
- suvarṇadāna: gift of gold and
- tulāpuruṣa: gifts equal to the weight of the recipient.
Gifts given in places of pilgrimage are also extolled highly. Gift of knowledge, especially spiritual wisdom, has been considered as the highest and the best gift.
Categories of Dāna
Following are four categories of dāna:
- Nitya - obligatory daily-duty, for e.g. Giving food to hungry beings
- Naimittika - Occasional, for e.g. Gifting of useful things on special occasions like the periods of eclipses
- Kāmya - Desire-motivated, for e.g. Presenting cows or other prescribed things as a part of rituals performed with desires
- Vimala - Pure, for e.g. Donations conferred upon persons of saintly character with the sole object of pleasing God
Rules for Giving Dāna
Dāna should be given ostentatiously and unknown to others. Since dāna has been considered to be a religious act, it has acquired a ritualistic color with associated rules, regulations and formalities. The rules are defined for those giving the gift (dātā) and the person receiving the gift. The dātā must
- Be free from incurable diseases and heinous sins
- Be virtuous, clean, and must have acquired his wealth by right means
- Possess śraddhā or faith in the act of giving as religious or meritorious. Only śraddhā matters and not the quality or the quantity, though a minimum standard is expected to make it really useful
- Must be in real need of what he is asking for and these may be the basic things required for a living like food, clothing, shelter or money
- Persons of evil or doubtful character like gamblers, cheats, drunkards or criminals should not be helped with gifts
Restrictions to Give and Accept Dāna
- The dharmaśāstras vehemently oppose the gifts made by persons who have amassed wealth by unrighteous means and the receiver too should never accept them if he knows about it.
- A householder should never give gifts beyond his means and should not make his family and dependents suffer on account of it. Generally ten per cent of the earnings is given as the limit for giving gifts.
- Certain things which cannot be offered or accepted as gifts has also been mentioned like no one can gift away things that do not rightfully belong to him, as for instance, things that have been borrowed from others or kept in one’s safe keeping.
- If the dāna is against one’s svadharma or sense of righteousness and prescribed duties one should not accept it. For an instance, a brāhmaṇa devoted to Vedic learning and a purely spiritual life should not accept weapons or intoxicating substances even if offered.
- Gifts given by mentally deranged persons or those suffering from very serious illnesses or immature young children are considered invalid.
- Objects once given away as a gift should never be taken back. This applies even to promises of gifts.
Auspicious Period to Give Dāna
The religious works prescribe certain periods or times as very auspicious for giving gifts. These days include:
- The two solstices - summer and winter
- Days of eclipses of the sun and the moon
- New-moon and full-moon days
- Important festival days
- Ṛgveda 1.125.6
- Ṛgveda 10.117
- Bhagavadgitā 16.1; 17.20-22
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore