Hinduism and Begging (Bhiksha)
In today's world begging is prohibited in many countries. Beggars are usually considered a nuisance, and sometimes even a threat since they often indulge in petty crimes. In many countries in Africa and elsewhere, beggars are part of the street gangs who demand money from the passersby and harm them if they do not comply. In some countries begging has become an organized profession with people recruiting children and street urchins to do the begging for them.
Begging (bhiksha) has been a long religious and spiritual tradition of Hinduism. When the Buddha founded Buddhism, he called his monks Bhikshus (bhikkus). Wandering monks and mendicants dotted the Indian subcontinent since the beginning of civilization, searching for food for the day (bhikshatana), and liberation (moksha) for life. Thus, in India's spirituality, bhiksha (seeking food) was an integral part of the search for mokhsa (liberation).
In worldly life, begging is the last resort of survival when people are left with no other choice. Sometimes it becomes the path of least resistance for those who want to escape from the burdens of life. In the first chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Arjuna argues that it is better to seek alms and live like a beggar than to kill his friends and relations. It is usually the mindset which pushes them into that thinking when people are too frustrated or feel hopeless as Arjuna felt upon the prospect of living a responsible life and the consequences that might arise from them.
Beggars and mendicants lived on the fringes of society but in the past they served an important purpose in reminding people of their religious and spiritual duties and helping them in return with blessings and healing. As per the Hindu varnashrama dharma it is obligatory for householders not to refuse anyone who approaches them for food or water, and give whatever they have even if it means they have to remain hungry. From the Upanishads we learn that if a Brahmana, or anyone approached any person for food he should not be refused. According to the Chandogya Upanishad (1.10),when Usita Chakrayana, a Brahmana scholar, asked a village landlord to give him the beans he was eating, the landlord gave them even if it was a leftover food because the Brahmana insisted so.
Hindu ethics do not discourage people from helping beggars because it is a great way to practice charity, which Brahma specially advised humans to practice, knowing their weakness. However, in Hinduism begging for food and water only is allowed, since it is vital to survival. Begging for money and other worldly things is viewed unfavorably from ethical perspective since it may encourage indolence. A person may seek them and someone may give them, but it is not obligatory. Helping the poor and the needy is also part of a king's duty. However, the practice of bhiksha is mainly for food and water.
Spiritually speaking, a bhikshak (beggar) is an embodied soul and a victim of his own karma. He may have chosen to become a beggar, but he is part of the order and regularity of the world and subject to the will of God. Through his dependence and helplessness he serves others by providing them with numerous opportunities to help him and earn good karma in return. The world cannot continue unless people help each other when needed. Therefore, a beggar many not enjoy social status, but he has spiritual and religious value.
People who are allowed to beg
In Hindu spiritual practice, begging is a prescribed method of austerity and a means to cultivate detachment and spiritual purity. It is an acceptable code of conduct for the following groups of people.
- People who are disabled and have no other support.
- Mendicants and ascetics who have taken the vow of renunciation and given up cooking.
- Students who have taken the vow of celibacy and the study of the Vedas and other scriptures under a traditional guru.
- People who have committed grave sins and want to redeem themselves through penance and atonement.
- Anyone whose survival is at stake because of famine or pestilence.
In Hinduism it is obligatory for worldly people not to abandon their duties and responsibilities and escape from life. Hence, begging is strictly prohibited for householders, until they enter the last phase of Sanyasa. As householders (grihastas), it is obligatory on their part to perform daily sacrifices and give food, water, and if necessary shelter to those who approach them. There is no obligation to help them with money. Cooking food solely for oneself and not giving to others when required is considered sinful. The Bhagavadgita states that those who make food for themselves verily eat sin.
Why people should practice charity
Giving alms to the needy people is encouraged and considered a virtue in Hindu ethics for the following reasons.
- It helps in the preservation of life, continuation of dharma and the order and regularity of the world.
- It gives you an opportunity to serve God who is present in all. When you offer food and water to others, you are offering food to God only because he is present in all.
- By helping others you have an opportunity to overcome selfishness, greed, egoism, and attachment to food and other worldly things.
- It is good for your liberation, since helping others without expectations is a good karma and part of your dharma (duty).
- Serving others with food and water is a sacrifice because you are offering the food and water not to the person but to the gods in the body. The body is made up of several organs and tattvas, who are divinities in the microcosm. When you nourish them through your offering, you are indeed performing a sacrifice to gods, in which food is the offering, and water is the oblation.
- It gives people an opportunity to shun all planning, desire-ridden actions and live spontaneously without expectations and with trust in God.
When begging is justified
India had a long tradition of Brahmanas, seers, saints, ascetic people, and even kings seeking alms in the streets from strangers either to fulfill their vows or wash away their sins. There are numerous stories and legends, which suggest that gods often descend to the earth in the guise of beggars to test their devotees. One of Shiva's aspects as a wandering ascetic is known as Bhikshatanamurthy. Begging, therefore, is not a despicable act, but has certain dignity and nobility about it. Seeking alms from others is accepted in Hinduism for the following reasons.
- Begging is the only means for the renunciants to keep their bodies alive and continue their spiritual journey.
- The person who seeks alms from others actually gives them an opportunity to practice the virtue of charity and earn good merit. So there is merit on both sides of the exchange.
- For a student or a renunciant, begging is the best means to overcome ego, pride, vanity, and attachment to status, name and form, and cultivate virtues such as humility, detachment, dispassion, endurance, and tolerance.
- When a person goes around seeking alms, he develops a distaste towards worldly life. As he sees the hardship and the suffering that is inherent in existence, and as he observes the world and the people in their true colors, it becomes easier for him to withdraw from the world of suffering and strive for his liberation.
In Hinduism begging is permitted only with regard to food and water, and as part of a religious or spiritual practice, or in cases where a person is unable to support himself. The scriptures are clear as to when and how it should be resorted to. They do not encourage begging as a profession, or as an escape from their duties and burdens of life. Under right conditions, it is a form of sacrifice, and the means to overcome worldly attachments and withdraw from worldly life.Culturally and spiritually, it is important for Hindus to remember their duty and obligation towards the mendicants and ascetics who renounce worldly life and strive for liberation.
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