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Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

A Free Gift Makes No Friends
Author(s): James Laidlaw
Source: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 2000), pp. 617634
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
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of Cambridge
The givingof almsto Shvetambar
is a specificinstitutionalized
elaborationof theidea ofa freegift,
an idea whichall themajorworldreligions
waysof instantiating,
and whichin northIndianlanguagesis expressed
by theworddan.
This exampleillustrates
natureof theidea of a gift,and why
it is a mistake
to definethegiftas necessarily
and non-alienated.
thepuregiftis characterized
bythefactthatit does notcreatepersonalconcommodity,
nectionsand obligations
betweenthe parties.
This understanding
of the gift,whichis
in Mauss,enablesus to resolvetheapparent
paradoxin theethnography
of dan,
thatalthoughit is a freegiftit is oftenharmful
to itsrecipients.

The notion of a 'pure' or 'free'gifthas been largelyneglectedin anthropology.Malinowski employed it in Argonauts(1922: 177-80), but in Crimeand
custom(1926: 40-1) he accepted the objectionsput forwardby Mauss (1990:
73-4) and discardedit. Following Mauss, anthropologistshave mostlybeen
interestedin gift-giving
as a way in which enduringsocial relationsare establishedand maintained.It seemed to Mauss, and has seemed to anthropologists
since,that a genuinelyfreegift- one, as we say,with no stringsattachedwould play no part in the creationof social relations,for it would create no
even ifsuch a thing
obligationsor connectionsbetweenpersons;and therefore,
existed,it would be of no serious interestto anthropology.
littleattentionhas been paid to the freegift.The most sustained discussion has been JonathanParry'swritingson the giftsin India
known as dan (1980; 1986; 1989; 1994).' Parryhas shown thatthese are unreciprocated,and has relatedthe pure-giftideology which governsthem to
the existenceof a developed,commercialeconomy and an ethicized,salvation
religion(1986: 466-9).
However,thereis a stillinadequatelyexplained relationbetween this and
Parry'sothermajor observationabout dan,which is thatit bringsmisfortune
(1994: 130-1). From the north-Indianvillage of Pahansu,forexample,Raheja
(1988) describeshow dan divertsmisfortune
fromdonors to recipients.Gujars,
describedas the dominantcaste,specialize in this,and make giftsto hereditary clients including Brahmin priests,Barbers,Sweepers,Washermen,and
others.Giftsto wife-takingaffineshave a similareffect(1988: 153). In Parry's
own ethnographyfromBanaras, misfortune,
illness,and even death among
funeralpriestsand theirfamiliesare attributedto giftsreceivedfrompilgrims
and mourners.In contrastto the generallybenign profitsof commerce,dan
C RoyalAnthropological

Inst. (N.S.) 6, 617-634

J. Roy.anthrop.

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bringswith it moral and physicalcorruption,and is likened to a sewer (1989:

69). It is said to carry the donor's sin (pap, dosh),inauspiciousness(ashubh,
amangal),misfortune(kasht),and impurity(ashuddh).2
What kind of a freegift
is that?
The apparentparadox,that pure giftsshould be so dramaticallyharmful,
can I thinkbe resolved.The firststep is to rejectthe view,whose most influential exponent is C.A. Gregory,of giftsas the logical opposite of commodity exchange,and necessarilypersonal,reciprocal,and socially binding.
Malinowski'soriginal intuitiondeserveda betterdefence than he realized:a
comprehensiveconspectusof exchange transactionsrequiresthe categoryof
Because the free gifthas, as we shall see, a paradoxicaland self-negating
character,it may be that convincinginstitutional
enactmentsof it are at best
rare.However,I shall considera particularcase of dan which comes remarkably close to being a trulyfreegift.It enables us to resolvethe interpretative
puzzle of dan,and in so doing show thatthe factthatthe freegiftdoes not
createobligationsor personalconnectionsis preciselywhere its social importance lies. The dan in question is the giving of alms to ShvetamberJain

Giving and grazing

The followingof ShvetambarJainismin India consistsof between 2 and 3
millionlay people, and a few thousanditinerantcelibaterenouncers.
The latter
relyon alms fromlay familiesforfood and fortheirlimitedpersonalpossessions:clothes,prayerbooks, and alms bowls.Justlyfamedfor theirasceticism,
theirdaily routineis one of ritualizedconfessions,prayer,study,and preaching,punctuatedby extended fastingand other austerities.
The ultimategoal of the renouncer'slife is spiritualpurificationand salvation (moksha).As in other Indic religions,the soul is polluted by karma,the
effectsof previous actions (also called karma).Removing karmaaccumulated
over many lives requiresthe heat of austerity(tap) to burn it fromthe soul.
It is impossibleto achieve purificationduringa singlelifetime,
but the injunction to ascetic self-sacrifice
is powerful,forlayJainsas well as renouncers.
A guidingprinciplein the pursuitof purificationis non-violence (ahimsa),
which includes limitationson diet. Since Jain traditionholds that not only
animalsbut also plantsand even bacteriahave immortalsouls,all eating and
preparationof food involvesviolence, and thereare elaborate rules for how
to keep this to a minimum.PractisingJainsare invariablyvegetarian,most
refrainfroma range of vegetablesbelieved to contain many life forms,and
on the preparationof food and when
manyfollowmore elaboraterestrictions
it may be consumed. Renouncers follow exactingversionsof these restrictions,and so must anyone who wishes to give them alms.
Most days around noon, as Jainfamiliesfinishpreparinglunch,renouncers
go out, usuallyin pairs,to collect alms.They do not ask forfood.They make
theirway along streetswhere Jain familieslive - never followingthe same
route on consecutivedays- pausing as theygo near the doorwaysof houses
and waiting to be invitedin. The process is called gocari,or grazing.Like a

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grazing cow, renouncerswander unpredictablyand turn up unexpectedly.

From each household,they take so littlethat the donors will hardlynotice
the loss,just as a cow eats only the top of the grass,withoutpuflingup the
rootsand damagingthe plant.4
Giving dan is the paradigmaticreligiousgood deed (punya),and lay families are activelykeen to give alms to renouncers.In practice,people oftenkeep
a look-out and call renouncersinto theirhomes. Sometimes,theyeven go to
this is
a rest-housein advance, hoping to invite them back home. Strictly,
againstthe rules,and even if they do end up going where they are asked,
renouncersnever explicitlyagree,because theyare supposed to arriveunexpectedly.This has two aspects.Accepting an invitationwould obligate them
and compromise the detachmentand autonomy that is essential to their
In addition,the renounceris not only
pursuitof personalspiritualpurification.
an object of religiousveneration,but also, as a by-definition,
(atithi),the definitivetestin folkloreof someone's true generosity.
On enteringa house, renouncersare taken to receive theirfood directly
fromthe familycooking pots.They will only enterthe kitchenif it is clean,
with no prohibitedfoods in evidence,and cooking musthave finished.Family
membersplace food in the renouncers'alms bowls,generallytryingto ensure
that they give some of each of the dishes in theirmeal, and attemptingto
persuadethem to accept as much as possible.The renouncersrespondwith a
litanyof refusal:'No! Less of that.Not so much. Stop!'
The renouncersofferno thanksand make no positive commentson the
food.At thispoint,as a way of emphasizingthatenough is enough,theyoften
also call out the benediction,dharmlabh.This is ambiguous.It means both,
'May you receive the fruitof good conduct', and 'May your adherence to
good conduct increase'.They then move on to anotherhouse and go through
the same procedurethere.They are not allowed to accept an entiremeal from
just one household,or to accept food fromthe same familiesday afterday.
The image of grazing is important,but one must not be misled.Jain
This is why they must collect alms
renouncersare not collectingleftovers.
before lay familieseat. The food they take would have been eaten by the
who are thereforerenouncing(tyag)part of theirmeal.And only food
which has been purposefullygiven,carefullyand in the prescribedmanner,is
acceptable.Unlike Buddhistsand some Hindus,Jainsconsistentlydeny that
alms given to theirrenouncersare bhiksh- thatwhich is given to a beggar.
Jainrenouncersdo not beg, and what theyreceiveis, in theoryat least,a gift
The food collected is taken back to the rest-houseand mixed with that
broughtby other membersof the group into a single mass and eaten out of
public view.

No realgfts in anthropology
Probablythe mostwidely cited recentanalysisof the giftin anthropologyhas
been Gregory'sopposition between gift and commodity exchange (1980;
1982; 1983; 1997). Gregoryemphasizesthatgiftsand commoditiescreatedifkinds of relationshipsbetween
ferentkinds of debt, and thereforedifferent

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Giftsbelong to,and reproduce,'thesocial conditionsof the reproduction of people'withina clan or kinship-basedsocial order;commoditiesto
'the social conditionsof the reproductionof things'in a class-baseddivision
of labour (1980: 641, originalemphases).These two systemsof social relations
work in logically opposed ways. Gift exchange is 'exchange of inalienable
objectsbetweenpeople who are in a stateof reciprocaldependencethatestabwhereas commodity
lishes a qualitativerelationshipbetween the transactors',
exchange is 'exchange of alienable objects between people who are in a state
of reciprocalindependencethatestablishesa quantitativerelationshipbetween
the objects exchanged' (1982: 100-1).
Gregory'semphasison the way transactions
can createobligationsand social
relationsis of course valid and interesting.
The most common complaintone
sees is that his contrastbetween gift and commodity is overdrawn.The
problemseems to me ratherthat it is incorrectlyformulated.It is a mistake
to insistthatreciprocityand non-alienationare not just observablefeaturesof
but are definingfeaturesof
some relationscreated throughgifttransactions,
which show these feagiftsas such.Accordingto Gregoryonly transactions
turescount as gifts(1997: 65). This analysisobscuresratherthan illuminates
the question of how gift-givingcan create the very effectsGregoryis interested in. And what in Mauss is an explorationof the paradoxicalcharacterof
the giftbecomes, in Gregory,a flawedand counter-intuitive
We can see thatit is counter-intuitive
because it rules out good examples
of gifts:the more so the more intuitively
prototypicaltheyare.The toy I give
to my friend'schild is ruled out if it is not reciprocated(because I have no
childrenof my own, say). My donation to charityis ruled out if I seek no
recognitionfor myself.The drink I buy you becomes more of a gift(rather
thanless) if I feelentitledto drinksome of it myself!
Thus the set of processes
and relationsidentifiedin this definitionis not that denoted by the English
word'gift'or its equivalentsin otherIndo-European languages,includingthat
of Gregory'sown informantsin India. It is strikingthathe makes no use of
his analysis,though it is restatedand defended at the beginning of Savage
when he turnslater in that same book to a descriptionof how Jain
familiesin centralIndia extendtheirkinshipand tradingnetworks(1997: 163210), even though gifts,at marriageand other times,certainlyplay a part in
These curious featuresof Gregory'sanalysisfollow fromthe fact that he
readsMauss in termsderivedfromMarx.This is quite explicit.The intention
is to enlistthe anthropologicaltraditioninto an alliance with Marxistpolitical economy againstneo-classicaleconomics (1982: x; 1997: 42). But Mauss,
as we shall see, is not a suitablerecruitforthisparticulardraft.Marx's notion
of surplus value is logically tied to his essentiallymetaphysical(and also
Romantic) view that'really'value is derived exclusivelyfromlabour,which
the workeris assumed'naturally'to own. The fact thatlabour is commodified,so that the workeris alienated fromhis labour,is what makes possible
the alienationof the productin commodityexchange.When Gregoryclaims
thatthe giftis not alienatedhe is sayingthatjust thoseownershiprightswhich
are violatedin commodityexchange are preservedand reinforcedin the gift.
Mauss is invoked in support of this notion of inalienability,
and indeed
Mauss does speak of enduringconnectionsbetween giversand thingsgiven.

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But Mauss'stalkof the intermingling

of (previouslyseparate)souls and persons
line of thought- one thatought
with things(e.g. 1990: 20) is a quite different
The connectionsMauss
to lead us to think,ifof anythingin Marx,of fetishism.
is talkingof are not ultimatelyderived fromlabour value, and he does not
conceptualizethem as ownershiprights.The conceptualyokingof the giftto
Marx'sanalysisof the commoditypresentsa clearchoice. Eitherthereis alienation of ownership,in which case, as Gregoryrightlyobserves,the recipient
of a giftwould be expropriatingthe donor,and this(as well as being implauof capitalistexploitationwould
sible)would mean thatthe supposedspecificity
evaporate;or else thereis no alienationin the gift.It is the latterpossibility
thatGregoryinsistsupon, even thoughit impliesthatin givinga giftyou are
not reallygivinganythingaway.
The effectis that Gregory'sdefinitionattemptsto tidy away the basic
paradox at the heart of the idea of a gift.I shall next tryto describe what
that paradox is and how the Jain institutionof dan so nearly overcomes
it, before showing how a perception of this paradox lies at the heart of
Mauss's essay,and helps explain why and when we findharmfulfreegiftsin

The impossible
idea ofa gift
What is the basic,irreducibleidea of a gift?One partymakes over something
of theirsto another.Thereis no 'price',and thereis no recompense.It is given,
and thatis that.
This is such a simpleidea thatanyonemighthave it,and thereis no reason
to suppose thattherehas everbeen a societyin which no one has eversought
to enact it. But if we reflecton what would need to be the case for a pure
and incontestableexample to occur, then it emerges as deeply paradoxical.
way by Derrida (1992); and,without
This themeis exploredin an illuminating
I shall draw here on
any broaderphilosophicalor ontological commitments,
what he says (see also the excellentdiscussionin Jenkins1998).
Derrida asks:what are the conditionsimplicitin the idea of a freegift?He
It mustnot be
suggestsfourconditions.(1) First,therecan be no reciprocity.
in returnforsomethingelse, eitherpast or anticipated.A returnwould enter
into or establishan 'economic' cycle - calculation,interest,
so on - and make it partof an interestedexchange.(2) To preventthis,therefore,the recipientmust not recognizethe giftas a gift,or him- or herselfas
recipientof one, which would lead to a sense of debt or obligation.(3) Similarly,the donor must not recognize the gift,since to do so is to praise and
gratifyoneself,to 'give back to himselfsymbolicallythe value of what he
thinkshe has given' (1992: 14). (4) Lastly,and as a resultof the foregoing,the
thingcannot exist as a giftas such.As soon as it appears'as gift',it becomes
part of a cycle and ceases to be a gift.So, Derrida suggests,we cannot even
of the
speak of a giftwithoutmakingit disappear.'The simple identification
gift such,
fiable"ones", would be nothingotherthan the destructionof the gift'(1992:
14). In sum then:'For thereto be gift,it is necessarythat the giftnot even
appear,thatit not be perceivedor receivedas gift'(1992: 16).

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This basic perceptionof paradox is a useful insight:an indubitablegift,

as an actual event in the world, is difficultto envisage.I do not wish to
follow Derrida very far, however,down his never-ending(and probably
and culturallyspecific)regressthroughevermore acute hermeneutic suspicion.The basic paradox,implicitin the veryidea of a giftand thereforepresentwhereverit occurs,is enough forsocial arrangements
to have to
Here and elsewhere(e.g. 1978: 251-77), Derrida uses the term'economy'
in a very broad sense. It refersnot just to the circulationof goods and
services,but also beyond thatto the circulationof time,or ratherto the way
in which,throughthe medium of time,eventsand actionsare relatedcausally
to each other.This economy is the world of common-sense and everyday experience,but within it, Derrida concludes, a gift is impossible.The
routine transitivity
of actions in time, according to which my giving to
you implies that you receive fromme, would have to be overcome.There
could only be a gift,that is to say,on condition that the flow of time were

A giftthatis given,butnotreceived
In the lightof Derrida's analysis,we can see the rulesgoverningtheJainalmsgivingas an institutionalized
attemptto overcomethe problemshe identifies.
Jainrenouncersmustobtain the food theyneed to sustainlifewithoutbreaching the insulationfromthe economy that is the preconditionand point of
The resultdoes not exactlymatchDerrida's freegift
- if he is right,of course,then it nevercould - but perhapsit comes as close
as we can fairlyexpect. Let us then retraceDerrida's main points,in reverse
order,to see how the Jain alms-givingholds back the 'inevitable'transition
fromgiftto economic exchange.
(4) Householdersmake a giftof food,and renouncersreceiveand consume
and in termsof how it is treated,everything
is done
it,but both linguistically,
to underminethe idea that'thereis a something'thatis given by the donor
and receivedby the recipient.
The word 'food' (khana),is neverused forwhat renouncerseat. It is called
'gocari',afterthe process of collectingit. Householders even avoid using the
verb 'to give' (dena).There is no question thatgiving alms is a dan,but it is
to use the word in this context,as it seems to equate renouncers with mere recipientsof charity.A common indirectionis to speak of
'placing' somethingin the alms bowl. More formally,
the act is referredto as
'baharana'.This word seems to be used only by Jains,and its etymologyis
unclear,but the likeliestderivationis from the causative form of a verb
meaning'to fill'.That renouncersare given somethingto eat ought to remain
Not only language separateswhat is given fromwhat is received.When
renouncersgo fromhouse to house, the food collected is added to the same
bowls. It is broughtback to the rest-houseand handed over to the mostsenior
renouncer,who then combines it with that collected by others from the

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group.All thisgocariis mixed togetherin one mass.Partlythis is done as an

because renouncersshould not savourthe separatetastesof different
dishes;but also,and inseparablefromthis,it effectively
subsumeseach family's
The familymakingthe giftstrivesto ensure thatwhat theygive is singularlytheirs.They press the renouncersto accept all the dishes in the family
meal; and on occasions when theytryto inviterenouncershome, theyoften
preparesome time-consumingdish,which one mightnormallybuy fromthe
market.But thispersonalsubstance,closely identifiedwith the donors,is not
what the renouncersreceive and consume,which is instead an anonymous
and undifferentiated
substance.Derrida commentsthatwe cannot speak of a
giftwithoutmakingit disappear.Here, the giftas object is made to disappear
once it has been given,so that thereis no longer the same 'it' of which to
(3) Derrida suggeststhata giftwhich the donor recognizesas such ceases
to be a gift.We should distinguishtwo possible sources of this recognition:
of the otheras the beneficiaryof one's largesseon the one hand,
and of oneselfas donor on the other.While theJainpracticedoes effectively
preventthe former,it actually,and as a result,emphasizesthe latter.
Even if donors were allowed to witnessthe food being eaten, they could
not see theirgiftbeing enjoyed,for it is no longer thereas such.Any gratificationdonorsfeel as a resultof makingtheirgift,and therecan be no doubt
thattheydo, cannot derive fromthis.
This alms-giving,like other instancesof dan (Biardeau 1976; Parry 1980;
1986; Strenski1983), is ideologicallyidentifiedwith sacrifice;but the size of
the sacrificeany donor can make is restricted,
in theoryto the point where
it becomes indiscernible.No experience of hardshipfor the donors,which
might give rise to a sense of personal indebtednessand obligation,should
(2) As for the recipients,the food they eat cannot appear to them as the
gift of someone in particular,because differentdonors' contributionsare
merged.What they receive is depersonalized,being something they have
gatheredfrom among 'the laity'.They need not then, in Derrida's terms,
recognizethe giftas gift.
They know thattheirfood was not made especiallyfor them.This is why
they must leave most of each dish to be consumed by the family,and why
theyare not allowed to take food froma kitchenwhere cooking is stillgoing
on. If food were subsequentlycooked to replace what they had taken,then
be theirs.The same would be
it,and the sin attachingto it,would effectively
true if theywere ever to expressa likingforany particularkind of food,and
someone latermade thatdishwith the intentionof givingit to them.It would
thenbe a gift'forthem',and in acceptingit theywould be enteringinto the
economy of temporaland causal connections.They would be the cause of
actions in the world,and thereforeguiltyof sin.
- thereis no
(1) Therefore- to bring us back to Derrida's starting-point
Renouncers are specificallyforbiddento expresspleasure at the
food offered,
to offerany thanks,or even to be divertedinto generalconversation;especiallywhere,as is sometimesthe case, they know the lay family

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quite well.The whole procedureis got throughas quicklyas possible,and in

a generallyabruptand businesslikemanner.A renouncermay not give,and a
donor familymay not receive,anythingin returnfor the food donated; not
even,as we have seen, praise or blame for its quality.
However, althoughdonors receive nothingback fromthe renouncers,or
indeed fromanyone else on theirbehalf,it is generallyheld that they will
benefitfrombeing the giverof the gift.This is where the alms-givingdiffers
fromDerrida'simpossiblepure gift.The recipientis sparedthe obligationsthat
arise fromreceiving,but the givershave stillgiven. Making a dan is meritorious,an act of punyaor good karma.As such, it is expected,by an entirely
impersonalprocess over which no one has any influence,to bring its own
reward;although one cannot know when or in what manner the resulting
good fortunewill come. It may be in a futurelife,and indeed in Jain religious stories,thisis typicallythe case (Balbir 1982). Everyoneagrees thatthis
only happens if the dan is unreciprocated,because otherwiseit would not
reallybe dan at all, but part of the give-and-takeof worldlylife.
There is not a complete escape fromparadox,however,because Jainteachers,like theirHindu counterparts(Parry 1986: 462; 1994: 128), insistthat if
even an unreciprocatedgiftis motivatedby the desire for merit,then none
will result.A good giftis given 'without desire'. It is unpremeditatedand
promptedby eitherreverence(bhaktt)or compassion (daya) for the recipient.
In line withDerrida'sreasoning,even self-congratulation
is a returnand invaliof the gift
dates the gift.This seems to be the one aspect of the impossibility
which the rules and formalarrangements
of the Jain alms-givingcannot get
around. It is leftas a matterbetween the donors and theirown desiresand
In any case, any good karmathe donor receivesdoes not come fromthe
recipient.The imagery (as in Buddhism) is that renouncersare a 'field of
merit', fertilesoil where a good action will bring forth a good reward
(Williams 1963: 149-66). The more virtuousthe renouncer,the greaterthe
meritin makinga giftto him or her.But renouncersdo not give the merit;
it is the naturalresultof the donor's good action.The biblical image fitsso
well thatJainteachersoftenuse it: as you sow,so shall you reap.
It follows thereforethat the 'dharmlabh' benediction is not, as it might
appear,itselfa returnfor the giftof food.As mentionedabove, it is ambiguous, and can be interpretedeitheras the wish thatdonors will enjoy the fruits
of theirgood action;or as an injunctionto furtherand greaterreligiousobservance. On the second reading,althoughratherterse and formulaic,it could
be regardedas a gift,but the sense in which this mightbe so needs careful

Exchange out of time

As is the case in Hinduism and Buddhism,over the centuriesJain teachers
have shown great interestin gifts.They have laid down rules about how
they should be given and received,5and developed numerousclassifications
of typesof gift(Williams 1963: 149-66). The most prominenttoday is the

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1 abhaydan
2 supatradan
3 anukampadan
4 ucitdan
5 kirtidan



giftof fearlessness
giftto a worthyrecipient
giftgiven out of compassion
giftgiven out of duty
giftgiven to earn fame

These giftsare listed in descendingorder of virtue.The last three are selfand include any dan given forthe specifiedmotives.The last (kirti
but a sin.
dan),because it is motivatedby vanity,is not a dan at all in reality,
The firsttwo categoriesare less transparent.
Abhaydan is the teachingof
Jain religion,and thereforebasicallypreachingby renouncers.It deliversone
fromfear,especiallyfear of one's own death. Lay Jains,if they actuallysave
someone's life,performa pale reflectionof this abhaydan (its merely'material'form),but in its essentialformit is the preserveof renouncers.Supatra
dan is giftsto Jain renouncers,including offeringsbefore statues in Jain
temples.They are the highestformof dan a lay person can make,to the only
Abhay dan and supatradan thus have in common the fact that they are
specificallyconcerned with Jain soteriology.
They are the two formsof gift
which makeJainismpossible and are thereforeon a higherethicallevel than
the ordinarygive-and-takeof worldlylife.They belong to a different
realm fromthe three lower kinds of gift,because their raisond'etreis the
pursuitof escape fromsamsar- the cycle of death and rebirth- and so the
achievementof permanentcessation of embodied temporalexistence.If, as
Derrida suggests,the conditionfora pure giftis thatthe flow of time be suspended,thenwe may note thatthisis exactlythe conditionof transcendence
and salvationto which abhaydan and supatradan are oriented.
Now even though abhaydan is only metaphoricallya giftat all (as in both
its materialand essentialformsnothing is actuallygiven), it is possible to
imagineit and supatradan as makingup a systemof exchange.In the case of
TheravadaBuddhism,Strenskihas argued thatgiftsgiven by lay Buddhiststo
renouncers,and the mostlyritualserviceswhich are providedvice versa,constitutea systemof generalizedexchange (1983). He notes thatthissystemrests
on the factthat dan is an unreciprocatedgift,ideologicallyclose to sacrifice,
and on a firmrejectionof reciprocitybetween particularlay Buddhistsand
particularmonks.6Departing somewhat from Levi-Strausshimself,Strenski
arguesthatalthoughwhat it binds togetheris conceptualizedas consistingof
just two entities(the laityand the sangha),the systemcan be regardedas generalized exchange because it is broughtabout by a great multiplicityof unreciprocatedgiftsbetween multifariouslay familiesand monks. No donor
binds the recipientof the giftwith an obligationto return.Each, in giving,
must take the speculative risk on which generalized exchange depends
(Levi-Strauss1967: 265), thata returnwill come fromelsewhere.
The same applies in the Jain case, where what the laity gives to the
renouncerscan be counterposedto the teachingand example given by the
latter.The imaginativeabstractionwhich enables one to see thingsthis way,
fromthe time of lived experience to the long run of what Levi-Strausscalls
or 'reversible'time,is one thatJainsthemselvesalso make.If the parstructural
ticipantsare imaginednot as particularlay familiesand particularrenouncers,

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but as the abstractordersof laityand renouncers,then 'Jainsociety'consists

of these entitiesand the relationbetween them thatis produced and sustained
by a patternedexchange of gifts.7
So even though'Jainsociety'restson a systemof exchange,it is a system
made up, in real lived time,of unreciprocatedgifts;and the collectiveentities
in kind fromthe partiesinvolvedin the gifts.
which make it up are different
No one is motivatedto make a gift of food in returnfor the teaching
renouncersgive or the example they represent.Householders seek to maximize theirgiftout of devotion,and the desireto performa good karma,and
so gain merit.For renouncers,the priorityis to avoid anythingthatcomproThese apparentlyconflicting
purposesare mutuallyreinforcing(Laidlaw 1995: 314-23).The renouncer'ssurlyindifference
the importunategenerosityof the donor. The latter'spersistenceenables
the renouncerto exerciseexemplaryrestraint,
and yet stillemerge fromthe
encounterwith enough to eat.Thus in so faras thereis calculationand even
agonisticcompetitionin how both partiesbehave, this is not governed by
considerationsof reciprocity.
There is no attemptto calculate equivalence,or
to balance or outdo the other,and no sense in which what is given is conditionalon a return.
In all these respects,it is thereforereasonableto say that supatradan is a
freegift.It is a specificinstitutionalized
culturalelaborationof thatsimplebut
paradoxicalidea: an attemptto give it a real existencein practice.8
It should not only be a voluntaryexpressionof positivesentiments,
an unreciprocated sacrificeof somethingclosely identifiedwith the giver; it should
also createno debt or obligation,indeed no social relationat all betweengiver
and recipient.
Why should anyone go to all thistroublenot to createsocial relations?In
the Jain case the raisond'etrelies, as Parryanticipates,in a radicallysoteriological religion.Reciprocal relationsbetween layJainsand renouncers,unlike
the out-of-timeexchange of abhaydan and supatradan,would preclude the
transcendenceof temporalcausal relations(samsaror Derrida's'economy') and
the achievementof unendingspiritualperfection(moksha).

The idea of a giftin The gift

What is the relation between the free gift and what we may call the
Maussian gift,one thatcreatessocial relations?
Mauss's The giftis about many things,but on the face of it giftsas such
are not among them.He goes out of his way to say thatsome thingswhich
Malinowskithoughtto be so are not in factfreegifts,and explicitdiscussion
of anythingthatmightbe is virtuallynon-existent(Testart1997: 97; see also
Derrida 1992: 24).This is not because the idea of a giftis peripheralto Mauss's
it is because implicitinvocationof it is centralto the
essay;on the contrary,
constructionof the argument.
Mauss tracesthe genealogyof the most importantconceptsin commercial
exchange (1990: 4). He assembles,in Parry'swords (1986: 457), an 'archaeology of contractualobligation'.The giftsthatconcern Mauss are the forerunners of today'smarkettransactions,
they are t,heway 'the market'operated

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before its more characteristic

instruments(such as money,formalcontracts,
and 'selfinterest')had developed.This is a storywhich embracesall of human
history,for 'the marketis a human phenomenon that,in our view, is not
foreignto any known society'(1990: 4). The essaytellsa storyof how contractualobligationgrew out of the bindingof the recipientto the giverwhich
takesplace by means of the gift,and of how the qualitiesof giftswhich made
that possible have been progressively(but not entirely)strippedaway and
replacedduringthe course of social evolution.
The evolutionaryargumentin Mauss has been well broughtout by Parry
(1986). The storyis one of simplification,
as the modern formsof giftand
The freegiftis an idea which has
commodityare progressively
developed and been more clearlyarticulatedas the commodityeconomy has
developed.The articulationhas been pioneered (thisis a point made more by
Parrythan by Mauss in The giftalthoughit is implicitin some of his other
writings)by the world religions.But thisdistinctionbetween the freegiftand
the commodityis not only a historicalproduct,which Mauss's essaydescribes,
it is also a logical tool which Mauss uses in makinghis argument.That argument proceeds by a sort of rhetoricaldouble movement,one that is repeatedly applied to all of the major examples he uses along the way.
Mauss tellsus on the one hand thatthe transactions
he describes'take the
form' of gifts.He never elaborates exactly what this implies, except for
the repeateduse of expressionssuch as 'free','disinterested',
and 'generous'.So
the point is that although these transactionsare serious politics and serious
economics - he insistsagain and again on theirsize and importance- they
are 'given as' freegifts.The complementarymove is where Mauss says that,
theyare alwaysalso obligatory(1990:
e.g. 33, 65, 68, 73).
So these transactionsboth are and are not freegifts.Mauss can only really
make the argumentbecause the idea of what a real freegiftwould be is left
unexamined.The reader'sunderstandingof it is tacitlyinvoked.Because the
invocationis implicit,and because the idea of the giftis,as Derrida has shown
us, anywayunstableand paradoxical,it can be made to work in two quite
contraryways at once.
Our idea thata real giftis free,beneficent,and unconstrainedsuppliesthe
which is requiredfor
moral content,not reducibleto utilitarianself-interest,
Mauss'sDurkheimianaccount of sociality- the non-contractualmoralcontent
that makes contractpossible.Mauss findsthis ethnographically
the widespreadidea thata part of the giver'ssoul or selfis embodied in the
given thing:that'by giving one is giving oneself'(1990: 46; original emphasis). He explicatesthis idea with referencefirstto the Maori notion of the
hau,and then in the other cases he examines (1990: 43-4, 46, 58-9, 62). And
the readerirresistibly
recognizeshis or her own belief thata real giftis personal; that,as Emerson puts it in an essay cited (though for anotherreason)
by Mauss, 'The only giftis a portion of thyself'(1995: 257). Thus Mauss's
explanationfor how giftscan have the capacityto create the moral basis of
of what a pure giftwould be.
socialitymobilizesour everydayunderstanding
On the other hand, he also mobilizes our knowledge of the less elevated
calculation- the'polite fiction,formalism,
and social deceit' (1990: 3) - which
our time-boundgift-giving
necessarilyinvolves.Among us, as much as in his

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'archaic' examples,giftsand invitationsare requiredby custom,and must be

returnedwith the same or more (1990: 65-6); and we, too, make generous
giftsin order to lord it over others (1990: 75). Thus Mauss invitesus to see
that these things,which we have thought of as improprietiesor offences
against'the spiritof the gift',are in factin perfectaccord with it. He commends the gift-exchangesystemsdescribed in the body of his essay to the
attentionof a modern readershipbecause of theircapacityto generatepeace
and social cohesion,as well as prosperity(1990: 25, 32-3, 34, 82-3). They are
an invitationto us to turnback the clock,and pull back fromwhat he rather
snobbishlydescribes as the emerging 'tradesmanmorality'(1990: 65). As
Sahlins says,'If friendsmake gifts,giftsmake friends'(1972: 186). Mauss's
explanationof how theydo thisdepends equally on the calculationand competitionwe know to be at work in competitiveexchange,and on the freedom
and generositythatare implied by the idea of a freegift.Giftsevoke obligationsand createreciprocity,
but theycan do thisbecause theymightnot:what
creates the obligation is the gestureor moment which alienates the given
thingand asks for no reciprocation.
Derrida remarks:'Thetruthof the gift... sufficesto annul the gift'(1992:
27). This self-annulment
is recapitulatedin Mauss's essay.Althoughhe could
only develop his analysisof exchange systemsby means of the concept of the
gift,by the end (1990: 72-3) he is wonderingwhether the essay has really
been about giftsat all. He remarksthat,because the objects are not really
givenfreelyand giversare not reallydisinterested,
the words'present'and 'gift'
do not properlyapply to them.
Mauss's essay thereforeworks by playing on the paradoxical and selfnegating characterof the gift.His explanation of reciprocitydepends on
invokingfeaturesof both the freegiftand its negation,which is franklyinterested exchange.To takeMauss's carefulexploitationof the paradox of the gift,
and to replace it, as Gregorydoes, with a definitionof the giftas necessarily
reciprocal,is to depriveus of Mauss's centralinsight.For Mauss,friend-making
giftexchange is not opposed to, but is an embryonicform of, commodity
in modern
exchange,and itsprinciplesare stillto be found,thoughattenuated,
commerce. It is located on the logical and phenomenological trajectory
between pure giftand commodity,which are thereforeshown to be genetiThe self-negating
freegiftis so to speak
callyrelatedand mutuallyconstitutive.
which make up systems
present,even if only fora moment,in the transactions
of reciprocalgiftexchange.Without the freegift,we only have part of the

If we now turnback to the Indian practiceswhich seek to instantiatethe free
and unreciprocatedgift,how are we to account for the dangers associated
with it? In Parry'smost comprehensivediscussion (1994: 119-48), he concludes that the perils of dan are a culturalidiom in which norms of reciprocityand interdependenceare expressed.Priestsin Banaras sufferbecause
they receive but do not give dan,so contraveningthe norm of reciprocity
(1989: 77; 1994: 134).

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They should not reciprocatedirectly,

but they should be giversof dan in
theirturn.Then the poison theyreceivewould also be passed on harmlessly
in an open-ended cycle of Levi-Straussiangeneralizedexchange which keeps
the poison in motion.But since the Banaras priestsdepend on giftsfortheir
theyare only ever recipients.Flow and circulationstop.As Parry
puts it, the sewer becomes a cesspit.
Parryconsidersanotherpossible solution to theirpredicament.They subscribe to the widespreadidea thatideally a Brahminis a this-worldlyrepresentativeof the renouncer(1994: 123; see also Fuller 1984: 49-71; Heesterman
1964). If, like an ideal Brahmin,they performedtheir ritualscorrectlyand
practised austerities,they could consume the impuritiesthey receive by
burningthemaway throughasceticism.But theydo not know the ritualswell
enough or practiseserious asceticism,and so theysuffer.
Comparison with the Jain case suggeststhat neitherof these points quite
gets to the heartof the matter.The problemof being dependenton dan,and
thereforenot being able to give it oneself,can be resolved or at any rate
glossed over with just a little semiotic ingenuity.Jain renouncersare daily
dependenton alms but are also giversof dan,albeit in a non-materialcurrency.The 'giftof fearlessness'
costs them nothingin materialterms.Some
versionof thisidea mustbe availableto the Banaraspriests.The factthatthey
do not adopt it suggeststhat it would not solve the problem,and indeed it
does not do so forJainrenouncers.Neither does the latter'sasceticism.As we
have seen,Jain renouncersstillhave to take elaborateprecautionsin the way
theyaccept dan,or theytoo would be afflicted
by theirdonors' misdeeds.The
dangeris present,but the rules help them to avertit.
In Pahansu,recipientsof dan are also said to digest it by means of heat.
mostlyby recitingmantras.
Other castes,who do
not, are said to generateheat through'the simple activitiesof householdership (grihasthi):grinding,husking,churning,and sexual intercourse,and so
forth'(Raheja 1988: 91). In other words,no one has to do anythingthey
would not be doing anyway,
which hardlyseemslike evidence of a veryafflicting poison.Thus not being able to dispose of poison receivedwith giftsis not
an insuperableproblem.Moreover,in Raheja's ethnographythereis no indiotherthan thatverydominance
cation of anyoneallegedlysuffering
of the Gujars of which these transactionsare the symbolic performance.
This contrastswith the Banaraspriests,whose giftskeep them in 'a perpetual
state of moral crisis'(Parry 1994: 123). Why is the dan given to priestsand
renouncersso much more dangerousin the firstplace? How are thesedangers
avertedby the renouncersand not by the priests?
It should be emphasized that these possibilitiesof moral and biological
miscegenationare not limitedto dan.The theme of social contactand interdependence as morally entanglingis extraordinarilyprominent in South
Asian social life.The whole elaborateideology of caste is predicatedon the
and transactions
idea thatthiscan occur throughphysicalcontact,propinquity,
not restrictedto dan (Dumont 1980; Marriott 1968; 1976). Cooked food
(Appadurai1981) and cloth (Bayly 1986) are powerfulmedia for the flow of
bio-moralqualitiesbetween persons,even when theyare bought and sold, or
given as non-dangifts.Detached partsof the body,such as hair and nails,can
be conduitsof spiritualand personalqualities,as can sexual fluids.Moreover,

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such bio-moral contactis not alwayspoisonous. Successfulmarriagedepends

on a propitiousmixingof bio-moral substance(Daniel 1984). Blessingsfrom
deitiesand holy men are given in similarways (Babb 1987). Substancebeing
pooled, shared,or mixed,with consequent changesin the physicaland spiritual condition of those involved,is thereforecommon in other kinds of
transactionand interaction.The 'poison in the gift' is not some unique
or mysterioussubstancefound only in gifts,it is the dangers attendanton
social interactionin general: demeaning or demanding connections,debts,
and obligationsto do thingsforotherpeople's benefit.So if thereis anything
distinctiveabout dan,it is not thatit carriespoison.
For most people, the dangersof social interdependenceare bound to be
double-edged.Treatyouraffineswith caution,even suspicion;but you do need
and want to have affines.Try to avoid importunatedemands from your
acquaintances;but make your own on them. Receiving dan and incurring
obligationsis only an unambiguouslybad thingfor those who aim at nonwhich means renouncers,and all those,like many Brahminsand
especiallyBrahminpriests,whose social statusdepends on theirclaim to be
like renouncers.
It is thereforeunsurprisingthat these are preciselythe dangerswhich the
rules governingthe Jain supatradan all work to prevent.The donor and the
renouncermustnot become morallyentangledand responsibleforeach other's
actions.In so faras this dan succeeds in being a freegift,thisis indeed prevented,because no social obligationsare createdby the transaction.Food is
given (though it is somethingelse that is received) without anythingelse
changing:no obligation,reciprocation,
or socialitycomes into being.
Indeed, even if theyknow each other,the partiesbehave as strangersin the
This social distancingis an importantaspect of dan which derivesfromits
characteras a freegift.Raheja notes that people in Pahansu say that dan is
only given to those who are 'other';but she notes also thatthese same recipients are describedas 'one's own people' when theyare recipientsnot of dan
but of reciprocalgifts(1988: 212; 1995). I suggestthat the recipientbeing
'other' is not so much a preconditionas a resultof dan,which counteracts
the mutualityestablishedby Maussian gifts.In the case of supatradan this is
crucial,because everydaymutualitywould be fatalto the renouncer'sproject
of detachmentand purification.
So priestsin Banarassuffernot because theycontravenethe (putativelyunibut because they contravenethe norm of nonversal) norm of reciprocity,
reciprocity:the ideal which governs the free gift they are supposed to be
receiving;and one to which, as aspirantquasi-renouncers,theyare supposed
to subscribe.
They are bad recipients(kupatra)of dan.They do not fulfilthe requirement
(Parry1994: 122) of being unwillingto receiveit.And in generaltheybehave
in such a way that,whatevertheir donors do, they turn a free giftinto an
interestedexchange. Parrygives a vivid descriptionof the inventive,persistent,and at timesby turnsdeceitfuland vituperativehagglingwhich Banaras
priestsemploy in arguingup the dan they are offered(1994: 139-48). They
operate a sophisticatedcartel systemto preventcompetitionbetween them

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fromexertingdownwardpressureon the price of theirservices(1994: 75-90).

No wonder thereis widespreadscepticism,which theythemselvesshare,about
the value-for-moneyof what theyprovide.
The firstpart of an answerto the question of 'whence the poison in the
gift?'is thereforethatit is not poisonous foreveryoneor in all situations.
is clear in the classicaltextswhich,where theymentionsuch dangers,do so
in the contextof dan being performedincorrectly.
What the Jain case makes
clear,then,is that dan is not the problem - the cause of a unique kind of
peril - but on the contraryit is a solution,thoughadmittedlya highlyelusive
one. It is a transactionwhich can, if performedcorrectly,
be free of a peril
which is otherwisehighlyprevalentin this social and culturalenvironment.
In a world in which the mixingof personsand things,which Mauss described
as happening in giftexchange and which Gregorymisdescribesas 'inalienability',actuallyhappens very readilyall the time,the point of a freegiftis
to prevent it.

Dan should be an alienatedand non-reciprocalfreegift.In practice,it can

at best approach to this ideal, because the ideal itselfis impossible(which is
why the textsare full of warnings).Sometimes this does not matterall that
much. However,the matteris serious forpeople, paradigmatically
but also those who model themselveson renouncers,who aspirenot to dominance but to detachmentand social separation(see Fuller 1988; Parry1994:
264-71). For Jain renouncersthis concern is definitionalof theirwhole way
of life.In gocari,theycan more-or-lessentirelyovercome the impossibility
a freegift,and theyreceive without incurringany debts.
For Banaras prieststhere seems to be a contradiction.Although many of
these priestsare known as Mahabrahmins('great Brahmins'),in fact most
people deny they are Brahminsat all. Their contact with death means they
are regardedas hardlydifferent
fromuntouchables.Like the Gujar 'dominant
caste' of Pahansu,theyclaim a high statusthatis denied by many othersand
thisprobablyexplains,in both cases,why dan is such a salientconcern.The
Banaras priestssubscribe to the theory that their statusderives frombeing
quasi-renouncers,and their assertionof this statusis as vehement as their
detractors'denials are contemptuous;but the plain fact is theyare not actually renouncers.And even as priestsgo, they do badly in conformingto the
ideal. They need to maintain their homes and families,and renunciatory
if they
detachmentis a luxurytheycan ill afford.
At any event,and ultimately,
are poisoned by a gift,thisis because theyhave asked forit.

The point thata freegifthas no power to bind was recognized,accordingto
Pollock and Maitland (1898: 213), fromthe earliestperiod in English law.
No courtwould uphold gratuitousgiftsor enforcegratuitouspromises.From
this arose the custom that the giver of a giftshould receive in returnsome
just enough to make an exchange and thereforea legallyvalid
Dan takesthe opposite course:by remaininga resolutelyfreegift,
it remainsfreeof obligation.

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While the concept of a 'pure gift'has oftenbeen dismissedas naive and

unsociological,that of a 'pure commodity'has been shown more latitude.
Carrier,in a generaldiscussionof commodityexchange,makes the point that
commoditiesare fungible.He then notes that this is not always equally so.
Works of design,art,and craftare not interchangeableone for another,and
it mattersby whom theywere made; yet theyare exchangedas commodities.
However,he continues,'these qualificationsdo not contradictthe point that
commoditiesare impersonal.Instead they show that not everythingthat we
buy and sell is a pure commodity'(Carrier 1995: 29). Similarly,
not all that
we give and receive is a pure gift.I have suggestedthatalmost nothingever
could be. But in so faras the Jain case is a guide, it suggeststhatimpersonality,if it is a featureof the commodity(which seems reasonableenough), is
equally a featureof the freegift;ratherthan it being,as incautiousreadingof
Mauss has led us to expect,a dimensionin which these two kinds of transaction are opposed. No doubt this is why religiouscharityand philanthropy
in all the great religionshave repeatedlyrediscoveredthe supremevalue of
the anonymousdonation,only to findthattime and again donors have been
more attractedto the benefitsof the sociallyentanglingMaussian gift,which
does make friends.
This paperbegan as a talkgivento theAnthropological
Theoryseminarat the London
School of Economicsin January
1999. I am grateful
to FenellaCannellforherinvitation
and to theparticipants
questionsand observations.
I am grateful
thosewho readand commented
on subsequent
of thepaper:AlanBabb,MarcusBanks,
JohnCort,Paul Dundas,ChrisFuller,CarolineHumphrey,
and Helen Ward.I am grateful
also for
fromtheEditorand readersof theJRAL
'Otherswho havediscussedthefreegiftincludeSahlins(1972: 185-276)and Carrier(1995:
a freegift
and ideologically
145-67).Otherswho have observedthatdan is unreciprocated
includeTambiah(1970: 213),Trautmann
(1981: 278-93),and Strenski
2See alsoHeesterman
(1981).Raheja wouldexclude
see Parry(1991).
theexampleis thatof theShvetambar
'To be moreprecise,
as I haveobservedit,mostlyin thecityofJaipur,
since 1983.
'Anotherimageusedby theJains(Lalwani1973:3; Laidlaw1995:305) and also by Hindus
(Parry1980; 1994:122) is of thebee whichgathers
practiceis mostinfluenced
by the Dashavaikalika
sutra,whichis studiedby
all Shvetambar
See Lalwani(1973).
(1984) haspointedout thatin practice,
livesamong theirlay followers,
relationsof reciprocity
have tendedto develop,
of forest-dwelling
and thishas been one of the motivations
1983;Tambiah1984).WhileJainhistoryhas also seen schismatic
alongsimilarlines,the itinerancy
has meantthattheJaincase has
7Jainswould denyany implication
thatthe two giftsmightbe of equal value.It is also
but on
are not obligedto offertheopportunity
of givingthemgifts,
to fastas muchas possibleand eat rarely.
8Of courseit is not theonlypossiblewaythismight
be done,and it maybe contrasted,
example,with the paradigmof the 'perfectpresent'which Carrier(1995: 145-67) finds
in contemporary

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Les dons libres, sans bons comptes, ne font pas les

bons amis
d'aumonesaux moinesJainsrenon,ants
de Shvetambar
estune elaboration
specifiquede l'idee de don libre,une idee que toutesles principales
mondialesont leurpropresfaconsd'instaurer
et qui est exprimeepar le mot dandansles
languesdu nordde l'Inde.Cet exempleillustrele caractere
paradoxeinherenta l'idee de
don et les raisonspour lesquellesil est erronede definirle don commenecessairement
Tout commela notionde commoditepure,la notionde don
reciproqueet sansalienation.
et d'obligations
de natureperpurestcaracterisee
parI'absencede creationde connections
du don, qui est implicitechez Mauss,
sonnelleentreles parties.Une tellecomprehension
nouspermetde resoudrele paradoxeapparent
du danqui,touten etant
un don libre,estsouventnocifpour ses recipients.

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