Impact of Vedic Culture on Society

by Kaushik Acharya | 2020 | 120,081 words

This page relates ‘Dana in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-gita’ 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.C: Dāna in the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad-gītā

[Full title: The Concept of Dāna and its Understanding in the Indian Context (C): The Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad-gītā]

The Mahābhārata recommends that one-third of our assets be used for public works. The epic states that a person must first acquire wealth by honest means, then embark on charity, be hospitable to those who come to him and never inflict pain on any living being;and share a portion with others whatever he consumes[1] and recommends public projects as a form of dāna. These include planting public gardens with trees that give fruit to strangers and shade to the travelers, construction of drinking water tank for people and the like.[2] In a conversation between Yudhiṣthira and Bhīṣma we find them discussing the best and lasting gifts among people.[3] Again the Mahābhārata recommends that one must conquer the mean through charitable acts, untrustworthy by truth, wicked by forgiveness and dishonesty by integrity.[4]

Granting lands was an appreciable donation at the time of the Mahābhārata as well. In Anuśāsanaparvan of the Mahābhārata, there is a chapter about the praise of granting land (bhūmidāna- praśaṃsā).

Dāna was also divided into sāttvika, rājasa, and tāmasa according to the Bhagavadgītā. [5] The Gītā also talks about the instances when dāna is proper and when improper. According to the Gītā, each person has a mixture of three properties - sattva (knowledge), rajas (action), and tamas (ignorance). The donation (gift) for a person depends on these properties in them.

Depending on the dominance of a property, the kind of donation is different for a person. The gift which is given to one who does no service in return, with the feeling that it is one’s duty to provide and which is given at the right place, at the right time and to a worthy person is considered as sāttvikadāna. And the alms that are given to the right person at the right place and time, and in the spirit that charity is a bounden duty done without any expectation are said to be good.

dātavyam iti yad dānaṃ dīyate'nupakāriṇe |
deśe kāle ca pātre ca tad dānaṃ sāttvikaṃ smṛtam || (Mahābhārata, 17.20)

The gift which is given only to receive something in return or expecting a reward, again reluctantly, is considered as rājasikadāna. The best attitude of charity is to give without even being asked to do so. The second-best approach is to provide happily upon being requested for it.

The third-best sentiment of charity is to give begrudgingly, having being asked for a donation, or to regret later,

“Why did I give so much? I could have gotten away with a smaller amount ”

Śrī Kṛṣṇa classifies this kind of charity in the mode of passion (Mahābhārata, 17.21):

yat tu pratyupakārārthaṃ phalam uddiśya vā punaḥ |
dīyate ca parikliṣṭaṃ tad dānaṃ rājasaṃ smṛtam ||

The gift that is given at a wrong place and time, to unworthy recipients, without respect or with insult, is declared to be tāmasikadāna (Mahābhārata, 17.22):

adeśa-kāle yad dānam apātrebhyaśca dīyate |
asat-kṛtam avajñātaṃ tat tāmasam udāhṛtam ||

Charity in the mode of ignorance is done without consideration of proper place, person, attitude, or time. No beneficial purpose is served by it. For example, if money is offered to an alcoholic, who uses it to get inebriated, and then ends up committing a murder, the murderer will be punished according to the law of karma. Still, the person who gave the charity will also be culpable for the offense. This is an example of charity in the mode of ignorance that is given to an undeserving person. The inferior kinds of gifts are those that are offered with disrespect and scorn to the undeserving at an inopportune place and time.

The charity must be done only from the surplus income, that is to say, only when one has enough for oneself first, should one consider doing charity. Charity done without any expectation of reward is beneficial to both the giver and recipient. Charity is harmful when the giver makes it look like a favor and embarrasses the recipient. Interestingly, the Gītā added,one may find many deserving persons in this world but one should not keep on saying that no one deserves to get dāna. If one has this attitude, one can never enjoy eternal happiness like one who gets it by being involved in charity.

These three-fold divisions of dāna, which are described above, indicate the importance and relevance of charity in the later vedic period (4th century BCE-2nd century CE approx.).

Swami Muktananda said in his commentary on verse 20 of the Gītā in his book Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God (Chap. 17):

“It is an act of duty to give according to one’s capacity. The Bhaviṣya-purāṇa also states:

dānamekaṃ kalau yuge [v5]

“In the age of Kali, giving in charity is the means for purification.”

The Rāmāyaṇa states this too:

pragaṭa chāri pada dharma ke kali mahuṅ ek pradhāna/
jena kena bidhi dīnheṅ Dāna karai kalyāna

“Dharma has four basic tenets, one amongst which is the most important in the age of Kali—give in charity by whatever means possible.”

The act of charity bestows many benefits. It reduces the attachment of the giver toward material objects; it develops the attitude of service; it expands the heart, and fosters the sentiment of compassion for others. Hence, most religious traditions follow the injunction of giving away one-tenth of one’s earnings in charity.

The Skanda-purāṇa states:

nyāyopārjita vittasya daśhamānśhena dhīmataḥ/
kartavyo viniyogaśhcha īśhvaraprityarthameva cha [v7]

“From the wealth, you have earned by rightful means, take out one-tenth, and as a matter of duty, give it away in charity. Dedicate your charity for the pleasure of God.”

Charity is classified as proper or improper, superior, or inferior, according to the factors mentioned by Shree Kṛṣṇai n this verse. When it is offered freely from the heart to worthy recipients, at the proper time, and the appropriate place, it is bequeathed to be in the mode of goodness.”

Although wealth is valuable, collecting wealth for one’s greed is against the principle of religion whichmeans living a godly life. The Bhāgavatapurāṇa states that we have no right to claim more than what we need for our original purpose. Like the Gitā, the Bhāgavatapurāṇa (8.19.36) also discusses when dāna is proper and when improper. It states that charitable acts are inappropriate if they jeopardize and cripple a person’s biological dependence or his mediocre lifestyle. Charity from surplus income is recommended in the Purāṇas as well.[6]

Footnotes and references:


Mahābhārata, Ādiparvan, chap. 91.


Ibid., Anuśāsanaparvan, chap. 58.


Ibid., chap. 59.


Ibid., Vanaparvan, chap. 194.


P.V. Kane, op. cit., p. 849.


Sanjay Agarwal, Daan and Other Giving Traditions in India, p. 43.

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