By Swami Harshananda
Bhikṣā literally means ‘begging’.
Though begging has been looked down upon in the modern, in ancient and medieval times, it was generally given an honorable place initially. Bhikṣā or begging as described in the smṛtis and dharmaśātras falls into two categories:
- Bhikṣā which is prescribed as a religious duty
- Bhikṣā which is allowed as a means of sustenance
A brahmacārin (initiated Vedic student) had to obtain alms by bhikṣā since it was considered as very pure. On the day of his upanayana (investiture with the sacred thread, yajñopavīta, making initiation into the Vedic studies) he has to beg the first morsel of food from his own mother. He could, later on, get it from the ladies (or men) from several houses. The food got thus had to be kept before his teacher and the boy could consume only that much as was allotted by him. Excess food was not to be wasted but given to the needy persons, or even left under a tree for animals.
Though alms could be accepted from persons of all castes (except the caṇḍālas or outcastes and patitas or the morally depraved) in the earlier years, restrictions regarding caste were gradually tightened, so much that a brahmacārin could not, often, get enough food to eat. On such occasions he was permitted to beg from the members of his own family or even from the teacher himself.
It was obligatory for the householders to give food to the brahmacārins and the monks according to their ability and any refusal would result in the destruction of their religious merits. A sanyāsin or a monk was expected to be a ‘parivrājaka’ or an itinerant, and hence, bhikṣā was the only means of his sustenance. However, he was allowed to beg alms only once a day (in day-time) and that too, not from more than seven houses, without selecting them beforehand. Such bhikṣā was called ‘mādhukarī’ (collecting food like bees collecting honey; madhu = honey) and was considered very pure.
Regarding the caste of the persons from whom alms could be accepted, opinion is divided in the dharmaśāstras. Begging was allowed to others, but under certain restrictions. Begging (whether for food or for wealth) was permitted for the sake of the teacher, for one’s first marriage, for a sacrifice, to support one’s parents or as a prāyaścitta (expiation). Whatever obtained from such begging had to be utilized for that particular purpose only.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore