Once upon a time, in ancient India, when young children were sent to monasteries or to live with a great sage in order to acquire an education, mothers had to be sure to pack begging bowls (only iron or clay permitted) along with whatever else the child might need. This was because begging was an integral part of the Brahmanical and Buddhist curricula.1
At the time, it was thought that the acquisition of true wisdom was incompatible with a worldly life. Ascetics who sought enlightenment lived off the charity of others. The Buddha himself was famously a wandering mendicant (and the word for a Buddhist monk, “Bhikkhu,” also means “beggar”).
Such mendicancy was a sign of having transcended the ego and of great humility. Recognizing the greatness of these men while simultaneously acknowledging the impracticality of having able young men forego work in favour of begging, a compromise was reached. It was decided that the young and impressionable should emulate the true seekers, but only for a short time, i.e., while they were students.
Once the practice became institutionalized and incorporated into the mainstream of society, it came to be associated less with humility and more with a strict monastic discipline.
Within the Brahmanical tradition, it was a duty of young initiates to go out begging for alms at least once a week. Failure to do so would result in punishment. It was a very disciplined sort of begging, in other words.
Students could use only certain types of language when begging. They could beg only from certain segments of society. They were not permitted to beg for more than they needed. All the proceeds of begging had to be submitted to the teacher.
Similarly strict rules governed the practice among the Bhikkus. The monks had to wear a prescribed dress. Their movements had to be orderly and respectful. They could not look at the face of the giver if she was a woman. The Bhikkhus had to beg in silence.
Members of the laity who gave alms to these students acknowledged their spiritual superiority. The act of giving would reflect well upon the giver when it was time for a final karmic reckoning. In fact, even today it is common for those doing the begging to stand while those who give must kneel. This was definitely not your everyday begging.
With socioeconomic change, accelerated by the arrival of colonialism, the practice of begging disappeared in many Brahmanical-Buddhist societies. There was no place for such esoteric practices in a modern, westernised world.
Still, it’s not as if the western world did not have its own tradition of monasticism, even as late as the Middle Ages. According to Max Weber, this medieval monasticism morphed into the Protestant work ethic. Young men who would have once been sent to the monasteries were told instead to be monk-like for their entire civilian lives.2
Today’s knowledge elite aren’t out begging anymore—well, except for grant money and venture capital—but they do lead obsessive, Spartan lives. The money is besides the point. Think of Steve Jobs, with his monastic uniform of a black turtleneck and jeans.
Perhaps begging wouldn’t be so out of place in modern curricula after all.