Impact of Vedic Culture on Society

by Kaushik Acharya | 2020 | 120,081 words

This page relates ‘Dana in the Age of Dharmashastras’ of the study on the Impact of Vedic Culture on Society as Reflected in Select Sanskrit Inscriptions found in Northern India (4th Century CE to 12th Century CE). These pages discuss the ancient Indian tradition of Dana (making gifts, donation). They further study the migration, rituals and religious activities of Brahmanas and reveal how kings of northern India granted lands for the purpose of austerities and Vedic education.

1.B: Dāna in the Age of Dharmaśāstras

[Full title: The Concept of Dāna and its Understanding in the Indian Context (B): The Age of Dharmaśāstras]

In the age of theology (Dharmaśāstra) the idea of giving gifts were validated with systematically framed rules and regulations. For example, dāna was the transference of ownership according to Jaimini.[1] P.V. Kane points out that according to Manu (I. 86) and others the principal aspects of religious life in the four yugas (ages) viz, Kṛta, Tretā, Dvāpara and Kali, were respectively tapas, metaphysical (spiritual) knowledge, sacrifices, and gifts. Manu (III. 78) eulogizes the stage of the householder as the most worthy because all men in the other āśramas are cherished and fed with (vedic) knowledge (as a teacher of vedic students) and with food by him. Yama specifies the characteristic features of the four āśramas as follows: quiescence (calm) is the dharma of ascetics, cessation from taking ordinary food as that of forest hermits, dāna (making gifts) as that of householders and obedience (or service) as that of brahmacārins. Dakṣa 1.12-13 also speaks of the specific characteristics of the four āśramas. [2]

There are examples of donation according to one's means, but it was a formal practice at the time. Besides, giving was recognized as an important way to cleanse one’s sin. Dāna had to be given with immense respect and good feelings towards the donee; otherwise, the donor, whoever he was, would not get the desired thing or positive results. Gradually dāna became a dharma (religious obligation or common duty) of people during this era. Spiritual merits that were acquired through dāna at the time of sacrifice was iṣṭa-dharma, and dāna given on non-sacrificial occasions was pūrta- dharma, [3] which included charitable works like the establishment of wells, tanks, temples, groves, etc,distribution of food to needy people and making gifts on several occasion like a solar eclipse etc.[4] Thus, according to Manu,[5] iṣṭa, or pūrta according to someone's way should be given to a worthy person with a joyous attitude. It is more interesting that dāna could be performed even by women and Śūdras, while the latter could perform only the pūrta- dharma[6] during this age.

The Manusmṛti[7] emphasizes on some of the new forms of charity and their benefits. Feeding a hungry person gives us great satisfaction. Charity of sesame seeds helps beget healthy offspring. An individual who provides a lamp or some form of light is blessed with good eyesight, and those who donate silver are blessed with beauty. And the one, who gives land, receives lands in return; hence he would become a person with too many properties, and he will be blessed with fame and prosperity in the near future. When asked, he (the donor) should give something, without showing any displeasure because he (the receiver) may turn out to be a worthy recipient and will save him (the donor) from everything. He who receives respectfully, as well as he who gives respectfully,—both these, go to heaven. An exception to this leads to hell.

The Dharmaśāstras also mention people eligible for receiving donations and also those who are not. In the list of those who are not to be given dāna are found the brāhmaṇas who did not know the Vedas, are hypocrites, those who are suffering from disease, who sell the Veda, are wicked,and those who preside over the sacrifice for Śūdras and the like. However, giving donations to the needy ones is always praised. Mutual respect was repeatedly emphasized when giving donations to deserving individuals because it was felt that both the giver and the recipient would go to heaven.[8]

Things that were to be given (deya) were divided into three categories according to quality. The superior kind includes cow, land, gold, horse, elephant, protection, food, curd, honey. The second or middle section includes learning facilities, shelter, housing, and medicine. The last or inferior category includes boats, seats, lamps, shoes, swings, umbrellas, wood, fruit, and other materials. Treatises differ on the nature of the best gift, but the list of gifts that could be given was more or less similar to the listmentioned above.[9] There were provisions in ancient law books which stated that one should donate only what one ownsproperly and that too within one’s own ability and means. Law writers also specify what could not be given, e.g. the loan that was taken, the property that was jointly owned, children, son and wife, the undivided property etc. Dāna was further divided into nitya (daily), naimittika (on special occasions such as eclipse or atonement), kāmya (with a desire for things, crops, victories or persons like wives or descendants), and dhruvadāna (permanent gifts like a reservoir, step-well or a well or garden, temple, maṭhas, etc).[10] Dāna was also divided into sāttvika, rājasa and tāmasa according to the Bhagavadgītā as discussed earlier.[11]

The Dharmaśāstras consider the gifting of property as highly meritorious, among other gifts. It was the common belief that land contains all the wealth,[12] as wealthy persons like the kings had immense landed properties. The land was the most coveted possession by an individual. During the medieval period donating the land and also receiving the same were considered as one pious and sacred act, which brings merit to both the donor and the donee. The very idea had compounded if the land was donated, especially to the vedic brāhmaṇas.

The Dharmaśāstras determined the appropriate time and places for dāna. [13] Special emphasis was placed on gifts given on the first day of ayana (the transition of the sun to the north or south), grahaṇa (eclipse of the sun or moon), pūrṇimā (full moon day), the twelfth day of a particular seasonal month, saṃkrānti[14] and other such tithis. Gifts were not usually given at night except during eclipses, marriage, or birth of a child and saṃkrānti.

In the context of the appropriate place, there was mention of an increase in the benefit depending on where (the place) the gift was given. Gifts given at home would yield tenfold as much puṇya (merit), in an enclosure or a barn house for confining livestock (especially cows) would hundred times, at tīrthas (sacred places) a thousand times and would yield infinite times of merit if the grant is made near a Śiva-liṅga. There were references to places like Vārāṇasī , Puṣkara , Kurukṣetra, some well-known forests and river banks like the Gaṅgā , Yamunā , Narmadā, etc. and besides, there were other such places. The benefit of giving gifts in the places mentioned above was declared as infinite.

Footnotes and references:


Vijay Nath, op. cit., p. 18.


P.V. Kane, op. cit., part II, p. 837.


Vijay Nath, op. cit., p. 18.


P.V. Kane, op. cit., p. 844.


Loc. cit.


Ibid., p. 845.


Ganganath Jha, Manusmṛti with the Commentary of Medhātithi, section XV- Charity, (4.227-4.235).


P.V. Kane, op. cit., p. 846.


Ibid., pp. 847-848.


Ibid., p. 848.


Ibid., p. 849.


It is well to recall the famous Vāmana episode here, wherein god Viṣṇu in his Vāmana incarnation requested the king Bali to give him three steps of land as a gift in appreciation of the greatness of bhūdāna since the common belief was that the land was precious, it contained all the resources (ratnagarbha). Medieval and late medieval records equally declare that the mother earth has everything; the earth contains nidhi, nikṣepa, jala, taru, paṣāṇa, akṣinī, agami, siddha, sādhya etc. In this way, the land was the most sought after and coveted alluring possession by an individual and also the temple because it was held universally during the medieval period, donating land and receiving the same was considered a pious and sacred act which brings religious and spiritual merit to both the grantor and the grantee, both in heaven (afterlife) and on this earth. However, the very idea had further compounded while the land was donated especially to a temple. (C. S. Vasudevan, Temples of Andhra Pradesh, p. 26).


P.V. Kane, op. cit., pp. 851-853.


Transmigration of the Sun from one month [Rāśi (constellation of the zodiac in Indian astronomy)] to the next is called a Saṃkrānti. There are twelve Saṃkrāntis in a year. Each Saṃkrānti is marked as the beginning (followed in in the sidereal solar calendars in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Odisha and Nepal) or end (followed in the sidereal solar Bengali calendar and Assamese calendar) of a month.

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