DAN (Sanskrit Dana from the root da ‘to give’) means the act of giving or that which is given either as charity or alms or as offering, fee or reward for spiritual instruction received or for religious rite or ritual performed. The latter, however, is more appropriately called daksina. Dan (charity or alms-giving), according to the Brahmanical code as well as the code of Manu, is a means or earning spiritual merit, and is thus a religious obligation and may not necessarily be the result of a feeling of compassion or pity, though the humanitarian motive cannot be completely excluded from the concept of dan. The mode of dan and the selection of person worthy of receiving it may, however, differ. For example, a Brahman, according to Hindu tradition, retains preferential status as a fit recipient of dan. Next come wandering ascetics, and then ordinary beggars seeking alms. Orphans, widows and destitutes are also considered to be deserving of sympathy and help. According to Hindu texts, Ksatriyas and Vaisyas are expressly forbidden to receive dan, while “all mendicants subsist through subsistence afforded by householders,” and “for the Brahmacharis (celibate students) not to beg alms is a sin” for it is their special duty to beg alms for their teacher.” On the other hand, most unworthy recipients of dan are the criminals, drunkards, gamblers and evil-doers. There are unworthy donors too, such as prostitutes, gamblers and bandits.
Buddhism and Jainism laid great stress on compassion and liberality, but they rejected the claims of Brahmans as special recipients of alms. The Jataka literature celebrates the virtue of giving; the Boddhisattva gives away everything—his wealth, clothes, food, his own body and even the religious merit he may have accumulated. But both Buddhist and Jain monks themselves depend for their subsistence on the alms and donations from the laity. The householders are therefore enjoined to give alms to the monks and to donate liberally for the upkeep of monasteries and other charitable institutions.
The word dan as well as the concept has been assimilated into the Sikh tradition. Though there exist no codified injunctions about it, the practice of dan is a significant feature of the Sikh way of life. The emphasis here is more on giving than on receiving. No fixed group or class of people is specified as favoured recipients of dan. Nor is any particular commodity out of material belongings considered especially sanctified for purposes of dan. However, whatever is given away in dan must have been earned by one’s honest labour. Says Guru Nanak: “He, O Nanak, who lives by his honest labour and yet gives away something out of his hands, has alone found the (true) way” (GG, 1245). There are numerous other verses in the Guru Granth Sahib extolling the virtue of dan. Also from Guru Nanak, “He alone realizes the truth who is truly instructed, who is compassionate towards all living beings and who dispenses dan” (GG. 468). A Gurmukh or true devotee is advised to practise “nam (remembrance of the Divine Name), dan and isnan (holy bathing)” (GG, 942). Guru Arjan Nanak V: “Meditate on the Lord’s Name, listen to the Lord’s Name being recited and to all render dan” (GG, 135). For himself Guru Nanak seeks the dan “of the dust from underneath the feet of the holy ones which, if obtained, to my forehead would I apply” (GG, 468). In the words of Guru Arjan: “the most desirable boon to beg for is to beg of the Guru love of singing the Lord’s laudation” (GG, 1018). In his daily ardas or supplicatory prayer, the highest form of dan (danan sir dan) a Sikh seeks is the nam-dan, gift of God’s name.
Sikhism does not countenance renunciation of material goods, nor does it deprecate worldly callings. The popular aphorism kirt karni, naam japna, vand chhakna (to earn one’s living by the labour of one’s hands, to repeat the Name of God and to eat only after sharing with the others one’s victuals) forms an essential part of its ethical code. Whereas dan of material goods is commended, one overriding implication is that what is given away has been acquired through honourable means. Another requisite is that dan must be given with a willing heart. It should be the result of a spontaneous urge for an humanitarian act. As Guru Angad, Nanak II, says, “Giving under compulsion earns no merit nor does it benefit anyone; excellent is the deed, O Nanak, which is performed with pleasure” (GG, 787). Another shade especially stressed in the Sikh tradition is that dan be proffered in all humility and in an utterly selfless spirit. It should not create a sense of pride or ego in the mind of one who gives. Ego (haumai) vitiates the act of charity. Says Guru Tegh Bahadur: “If one performing pilgrimages, observing fasts and giving dan nourishes in his mind a sense of pride, all such acts remain fruitless like the bathing of an elephant (who casts dust over his body after the bath)” (GG, 1428). To dispense dan, one need not necessarily be affluent. A simple meal served by an humble labourer to a casual guest is more meritorious than a sumptuous feast given by a rich man to professional mendicants.
In the Sikh tradition, all dan or offering is in the name of the Guru and, usually, through golak (treasure, or receptacle kept in a gurdwara for the devotees’ offerings) of the Guru or the Panth representing the Guru. The channels for dan to flow into the Guru’s treasury are by now well established. First, the dictum gharib ki rasna, Guru ki golak (a destitute’ tongue, i.e. mouth, is the Guru’s till) sets the general principle that the primary object of charity is to feed the needy. This is done through the systematized and organized institution known as Guru Ka Langar. The second institutionalized channel for dan is dasvandh (lit. tithes) or one-tenth of his earning a Sikh is required to set apart for the welfare of the community. Contributions may be made at any recognized centre—the local gurdwara, any historical shrine, an orphanage, school, charitable hospital, and the like.
In the ardas or Sikh’s daily prayer are listed the categories of dan a Sikh supplicates for. The primary one is the dan or gift of the Holy Name. He prays, besides, for the dan of the ideal Sikh way of life, the dan of true Sikh conduct and discipline, the dan of unfaltering faith in Sikh principles, the dan of unflinching trust in the Guru, the dan of company of pious Sikhs, the dan of pilgrimage to the Harimandar at Amritsar and other sacred places, and the dan of holy bath at Amritsar. The gifts that a Sikh supplicates for are for the whole community and not for himself alone. This sharing of blessing is part of the Sikh way of life.
1. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
2. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala 1970
3. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi 1990
Above adapted from article By Taran Singh