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I admire Maria Heim‘s research on gift-giving in classical India. There’s one point that I think her work misses, however – a topic I had intended to cover in my dissertation on Śāntideva but never had room for. It’s not a constructive philosophical point – I’m not taking any ideas of my own from the ideas I discuss here – but it’s helpful to think about in order to understand philosophies like Śāntideva’s that I do draw significantly from. (And it will be relevant to next week’s post.)

Heim sees Buddhist and Jain ideals of gift-giving as being quite different from brahmanical (“Hindu”) ideas in at least one important respect. But I’ll argue here that the three are actually much closer to each other.

Anthropologists of modern India have often said brahmins believe in a “poison in the gift” – a bad and potentially deadly consequence of receiving gifts. (The words used in India do not literally mean “poison”, though they are somewhat close; I suspect the “poison” terminology may be a pun on the fact that Gift means poison in German.) For example, studying brahmins in northern India, Jonathan Parry and Gloria Raheja found they believed that, by accepting ritual gifts, they believed they not only threatened their own ascetic integrity but themselves took on the bad karma of the giver. This bad karma, they thought, would inevitably cause them to sicken and die, and it caused others to regard them as inauspicious (bad luck); but they had no choice, because taking it was the only way to feed themselves and their families.

Heim considers these cases of the “gift as poison,” but sets up Jain and Buddhist tradition in sharp distinction to them:

The case of Jain and Buddhist mendicants differs considerably. There is no inkling of the poison in the gift, however conceived, in either contemporary anthropological or premodern textual accounts of Jain and Buddhist practices of gift giving…. The logic of the ideal recipient being the one most disinclined to accept gifts is present in the Buddhist and Jain sources, but it follows from the religious values of renunciation as opposed to ideas about the transfer of inauspiciousness or moral evil. Since renouncers are aloof (ideally) from the normal patterns of exchange, Jain and Buddhist monastics are unambiguously free from the cycles of worldly exchange and no ambivalence is encountered in their status as receivers. Their removal from economic intercourse, with its patterns of give-and-take, generates the purity that allows them to receive gifts.

Heim is right to a certain extent. While Śāntideva clearly believes that good karma can be transferred from person to person, he never suggests any such transfer of bad karma. For him, monks receiving gifts are never despised in the way that Parry’s brahmins can be. On his account, to the extent that the gift is dangerous, it is dangerous because it interferes with renunciation, not because the gift carries bad karma with it. I wrote on this point a while ago: wealth, for Śāntideva, is suspect because it can produce mental attachment.

And I think Heim misses a significant consequence of this danger. Her parenthetical “ideally” is crucial here. For Śāntideva, one who has an adequate degree of mental renunciation will indeed remain “aloof from normal patterns of exchange,” and it is therefore safe for him to receive an upward gift. But not every monk does. Some may be apātribhūta – in an unsuitable state to receive gifts. Monks’ “removal from economic intercourse” is not sufficient to purify them and the gifts they receive. I noted in the dissertation (pp. 136-9) that a bodhisattva who receives gifts must specifically take steps to ensure he has the appropriate attitude of non-possession; only then is the gift appropriately pure. If he does not, then there is a poison of sorts in the gift, though it comes from the danger of attachment rather than transfer of bad karma.

In the diss I argued further (p. 94) that in Śāntideva’s work gifts, qua property, are dangerous for householders just as they are for monks, because they interfere with the state of nonattachment. It is that mental renunciation (tyāgacitta), rather than the literal renunciation of a monastic livelihood, which is crucial to purifying gifts. Renunciation is not an ideal for monks that stands separate from the ideal for householders; there are not two ideals but one. Mental renunciation is an ideal for everybody; monks are just better at it.

And so, for a renouncer who has not yet achieved the great nonattachment of a buddha or advanced bodhisattva, the status of his gift receiving can be ambiguous and ambivalent indeed. In Śāntideva’s Buddhist “premodern textual account,” the gift can be poison — but there is an easily available antidote.