Dāna is a Sanskrit term meaning “charity” or “giving” —the practice of generosity, characterized by unconditional compassion and unattached loving kindness. Generosity leads to rebirth in happy states and material wealth. Dharma teaches that the more we give without seeking something in return, the wealthier we become, because by giving we destroy the acquisitive impulses that ultimately lead to suffering.
Surrendering the fruits of our labor is a fundamental spiritual discipline. It can be undertaken practically by contributing the first portion of our earned and gifted income. Vowing to contribute the first portion faithfully is called adi-bhaga vrata (literally, “first-portion vow”). When we accept adi-bhaga vrata, we promise to contribute regularly each month, for a specified time, or for life, as we wish.
Adi-bhaga is not a gift, but rather a voluntarily undertaken obligation to surrender a portion of our property. In ancient times it was a portion of one’s crops or herd, such as one coconut out of ten, or one cow out of ten. Surrendering the first portion immediately as soon as income is received sanctifies the remaining amount and reaps the greatest punya (merit). It is an acknowledgement of providential care, bringing a greater awareness of love and compassion. Because we are thus uplifted to a purer, spiritual consciousness, abundance naturally flows into our lives. Additional offerings can and should be made after this obligation is met.
We should give what’s right, and not merely what’s left. The suggested proportional contribution varies according to the stage of life: students are encouraged to surrender 15% of earned or gifted income; householders, 10% of gross income; retired persons, 25%; and renounced monastics at least 50%.
We need not begin observing this vow with the full indicated percentage if it is not immediately possible. However, it is important to contribute a fixed proportion of gifted and earned income, even if it is 1%, 3%, 5%, or 7% in the beginning.
Adi-bhaga vrata is absolutely fair. A householder with an income of $300 per month gives $30 a month. Another with an income of $10,000 per month gives $1,000 a month. But both are equal —they surrender the required first portion of their income.
Adi-bhaga vrata is not a gift; it is payment of an obligation. Adi-bhaga is a spiritual tax. We don’t “gift” taxes; we pay taxes. Only after adi-bhaga is satisfied, can true giving become possible. We cannot give before paying our debts to others. Adi-bhaga is an obligation; giving is optional. Giving comes from the heart.
Adi-bhaga vrata is an excellent way to control desire. Most desires are fulfilled by spending money. We desire things —experiences and physical objects— and to get them we spend money. The two go together: spending and sense gratification. In fulfilling the adi-bhaga vrata, the key is what we do first with our income. What we do first sets the tone for how we handle our money, our wealth. First we must surrender a portion of it to benefit others, and thus spiritualize our lives. We think first about others, instead of fulfilling some frivolous desire as our first action. We surrender a portion to others, because without the welfare of others, we cannot be happy.
For those who are just starting this spiritual practice, it is good to perform a small ritual. This is a new habit that we want to establish and until the habit becomes strong, it is easier to fulfill it by performing a short ceremony. In the presence of a representation of the Three Jewels and at least one witness, we take a firm vow:
“In love and trust I recognize the goodness of the Three Jewels in providing for my every material and spiritual need. I accept the adi-bhaga vrata (surrendering the first portion of my earned and gifted income) as the method by which I may acknowledge my gratitude to the Three Jewels. As an act of dedication, I am resolved this day to begin the regular practice of surrendering the first portion of the fruits of my labor.”
After taking the vow, we make our first ‘payment’. The choice of recipient is ours, but we should not expect any material reciprocation. The only stipulation is that it should fulfill one of the three purposes of dana: giving spiritual instruction, giving material aid to those who suffer, or giving protection to those who live in fear. Thus, suitable recipients are Dharma teachers, the poor and ill, and the persecuted and oppressed (such as animals that will be slaughtered).
Thereafter, we continue to surrender our adi-bhaga every month, saying a prayer of gratitude to the Three Jewels, seeking Their blessings. We surrender a portion to the Three Jewels as our first expense. After we have done that for a few years, then it becomes automatic. We never think of doing anything with our income until we have given our adi-bhaga. It will be a strongly ingrained habit.
A further refinement in fulfilling the adi-bhaga vrata is to spend our entire income in a wise way, not just surrendering ten percent and wasting the rest without any particular plan. The goal should be to spend it in a wise way, following a household budget that has been developed according to our income and future plans, to help us spend the money wisely to benefit all the members of the family in appropriate ways, and to set aside money for long term goals, such as children’s education and our own personal retirement. These should be part of the budget and ideally, we should be saving for those on a monthly basis.
The ultimate goal of adi-bhaga vrata is to bring a spiritual perspective into our financial life, harnessing desire and spending our money wisely, for the benefit of all.