The Tradition of Giving

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Why are gifts given in the ashram? What is meant by daan, bhet, prasad and akshat?

To accumulate is basic to human nature. It happens on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, psychic and spiritual. Accumulation is known as bhoga, enjoyment. We derive enjoyment from collecting things, and we become attached to them. If somebody we love and respect gives us a pen, we will keep it for years, and when the time comes to part with it, suddenly it has sentimental value. Bhoga is the outcome of the association between the senses and sense objects.

The five senses give birth to different experiences. Through the skin we experience touch, through the eyes sight, through the ears sound, through the nose smell, through the tongue taste. The senses are in continual association with their sense objects. When the eyes see a beautiful flower we want to possess it, so we take the flower. When we eat, the taste buds in contact with the food create a feeling, a desire, a need, and we want more till we are fully satisfied. When the nose follows a nice smell, we derive enjoyment and pleasure.

Bhoga is enjoyment, but when it is not balanced then roga or disease develops. If we eat too much because we like the taste, we'll have digestive problems. Excessive enjoyment always gives birth to problems which the body and mind have to face. When enjoyment is balanced, it is known as yoga. Bhoga represents the rajasic tendency. Roga represents tamasic over-indulgence. Yoga represents the sattwic aspect, the proper management of the senses and sense objects.

Accumulation and possessiveness are basic traits in bhoga. These traits are seen more in some people and less in others, but the tendency to possess and accumulate is in everyone. Many people keep diaries for years in which they record their thoughts and events. That is also accumulation. Possessiveness represents a negative, rajasic attitude. To balance that rajasic attitude and to free the mind from attachments and associations, an attitude or act different to the usual one is adopted. Instead of accumulation, the act or idea becomes one of giving and sharing.

In India, giving is a very ancient tradition from the vedic era. Once everybody used to give. If a stranger came during meal time, he would be invited to share the food even if it was only two dry rotis, not told to come back later. This is also the tradition in the Christian teachings. A beggar would not be turned away from the door empty-handed. He could collect all that he required for the day by going to only three houses, not have to sit by the roadside all day as is the case today.

In the vedic culture the act of giving and sharing was mandatory. You had to share your income with those without a source of income. Ten percent of what you earned did not belong to you and it was compulsory to set it aside for those who had nothing. Even today the tradition is that you set aside a percentage of your money to help others. The income tax laws state that five percent of your profit has to be used for charitable or religious work. It applies to every industry and factory, even to the ashram, but whether or not people do it is up to them. We always look after our own pleasure and comfort, rather than caring for the have-nots, who comprise the majority in society. But as Paramahamsaji has said, "How long can you sit in your air-conditioned room when there is fire raging outside. Eventually the fire will engulf you as well." By re-introducing the vedic culture, in the course of time poverty could be eradicated.

People who come to the ashram contribute to it and the ashram returns that contribution in one form or another. It is part of the natural evolution of the ashram. In the beginning we did not give gifts because we were in need. The ashram was being built and all the finances and resources were required. But now we have everything, so we want to return to people what they have given us in their faith and sincerity. One basic principle we have always followed is that whatever you give is not for us but is held in trust. You give because of a feeling, but we are only the postman. This is why there are no luxuries in the ashram.

Prasad, bhet, akshat and daan are different names given to the act of giving. Daan means charity.. Any giving by a householder is known as daan. Prasad means an offering of goodwill. Any giving that happens in an ashram or in a temple is known as prasad. This offering or present carries good wishes for your health, happiness, prosperity and peace.

Bhet means gift. It is given to people, not for their pleasure or enjoyment, but because of their need. In Rikhia, one year we gave a complete set of kitchen utensils to each family for cooking, storing, drinking and serving. This is known as bhet, or a gift to alleviate suffering, to fulfil a need.

Akshat means a never ending gift. It refers to grains, and it is used more in relation to yajna, because in the, yajna everything is offered to Devi, the Universal Mother. What you offer to Devi and then take back is akshat, which means a never ending gift, a continuous stream, just like a flowing river. What you are being given back is a continuous flow of the grace of God. So what you receive during the yajna is akshat, because they are symbolic items. A shawl for the males, a sari for the females, a kilo of rice, a kilo of wheat, 100 grams of barley, different yantras or images and deepaks were common akshat gifts given during the Rajasooya yajna. These gifts of clothes, grains and devotional items will always remind you that divine grace is flowing to you continuously. That sentiment and feeling will stay with you through the gift of akshat. This is the Indian tradition and at every opportunity, on every auspicious day, daan, bhet, prasad and akshat are given.

Please explain Sita Kalyanam, Chandi Yajna and Rajasooya Yajna.

When Swami Satyananda established himself in Rikhia in September 1989, his intention was not to have an ashram, but to live in isolation and absolute solitude and to do his sadhana. During this time of intense spiritual practice, in December 1990 he heard the command:."Provide your neighbours with the same facilities and comforts that I have provided for you." He then conveyed this message to us, and gave us the responsibility of fulfilling the command he had received.

As a start, we looked at the comforts he had - just a tiny hut, just enough grain to survive and clothes to wear. Sivananda Math began the work in Rikhia by taking grain and clothes to the people of the region and constructing homes for them. But then Paramahamsaji said, "An effort should be made to uplift the quality of their life, not to provide them with what they don't have. Rather than giving a person fish to eat when he is hungry, teach him how to fish and give him the means to provide for himself. If that person can learn how to fish, he won't go hungry at all."

In order to bring this understanding to the people of that region, Paramahamsaji coined the term Sita Kalyanam, welfare of womankind. He specifically targeted the welfare of womankind, not mankind, and identified the event with Sita, the wife of Rama, who, in the Indian tradition, represents purity, devotion, one-pointedness and prosperity. Sita Kalyanam became an event during which gifting of prasad to the rural people would take place and efforts were made to uplift the quality of their lives. For example, people went to the villages and taught knitting and weaving to the women. Educational facilities were provided for the girls as well as bicycles so that older girls could commute between their home and school in the town.

To make Sita Kalyanam a spiritual event in which people from every part of the world could participate and experience the ancient spiritual culture, Paramahamsaji inspired the Chandi Yajna, worship of the Cosmic Mother. Worship of the Cosmic Mother is an international tradition, not only an Indian tradition. There is ample evidence that mother worship happened in different societies and tribes of the past as well as the present. Mother worship is an expression of one's love for the Cosmic Mother, who gives us support, protection, affection, encouragement, love and compassion, and inspires us to tread the path of life with our heads held high. So Sat Chandi Yajna, the invocation of the Cosmic Mother in the form of Durga, in the form of Kali, was introduced.

Yajna means production, distribution and enjoyment. It is an act of giving, a process of sharing not only material wealth but also spiritual wealth and prosperity. The first Sat Chandi Yajna was held in November 1995, and it has been performed every year since. During the yajna period donations from all over the world are collected and used to uplift the poor and underprivileged. In 2000 Paramahamsaji announced that it was actually Rajasooya Yajna, an ancient vedic ritual that used to be performed by kings and emperors, who would conquer new territories and return to their kingdoms with wealth, which they would distribute to their subjects. This was the Rajasooya Yajna of ancient times.

In the present age, when there are no kings and emperors, the Rajasooya Yajna can only be performed by sadhus and sannyasins. They are not kings and emperors in the accepted sense, not the owners of land, property and territory. Nevertheless, the sannyasins and rishis are the conquerors of human hearts and minds. They inspire and encourage people to follow the right lifestyle, and in this manner, they become the rulers of people's hearts and minds.

Paramahamsaji worked tirelessly for the expansion of yoga from 1963 to 1984. Wherever he went there was no opposition of any kind, but a ready acceptance of what he was teaching. Although Paramahamsaji has not conquered territory like kings of the past he carried the message of yoga to every culture around the world without any opposition. As an outcome of his efforts and teachings people accepted yoga as a way of life, not only in India but in the West. He conquered the hearts and minds of people.

Keeping this spiritual attainment in mind, Paramahamsaji announced that this was a Rajasooya Yajna whereby the prosperity and wealth that we have received from all parts of the world would again be given back to people to make their lives prosperous. It was like announcing the birth of a child five years after the child had been born. Now, in 2005, we are in the eleventh year of the Rajasooya Yajna, which began with the first Sat Chandi Yajna when prasad was distributed.

This is the history of the development of yajna in Rikhia. It began as Sita Kalyanam for the welfare of womankind, because in any country it is not the prime minister but the home minister who is important. Women are the home ministers and if they can manage their homes, then society will definitely improve. The responsibility for a better society does not fall on mankind, it falls on womankind.

There is always a very intimate connection between mother and child. Although buddhi, the intellect, can cloud that relationship sometimes, there is a very deep psychic link between mother and child. Women by nature are more psychic, more spiritual, more balanced than men. So the Sat Chandi Yajna and Sita Kalyanam events are performed out of a feeling of respect and gratitude to womankind for our existence and out of a desire to contribute to their up-liftment and to nurture their spirituality. This event will continue until 2007, which will complete the sankalpa of twelve years made by Paramahamsaji.

From the tenth year till the completion of the yajna, all the rules of yajna are being enforced. The environment during the yajna is different. The worship, the chanting of mantras, creates a very powerful vibration and environment and the image of the Mother emerges from nothing. It is a powerful mystical, psychic, and spiritual event. The presence of shakti, the cosmic power, is palpable. It is so strong and powerful that you can actually touch it, feel it. Although nothing is there, yet your mind is in absolute harmony with the process taking place, which also awakens the shakti within.

In 2003, the kanyas of Rikhia, young girls aged eight to twelve, who represent the pure virgin aspect of the Mother, were the hosts of the yajna. These girls come from poor, neglected backgrounds and their destiny is to remain in those humble backgrounds. But what we are witnessing is the samskara Paramahamsaji is giving them. The status, dignity and confidence they are cultivating will give them better samskaras, which they in turn will pass on to their own children.

The purpose of yajna is to connect the individual with the cosmic self, to connect one with the higher compassionate and benevolent energy. The sankalpa that guides the performance of the yajna and our participation is: 'Peace, prosperity and well-being for everyone'.

—Ganga Darshan, January 2005