DĀN (Skt. dānā from the root dā 'to give') means the act of giving or that which is given either as charity or alms or as offering, fee or reward for spiritual instruction received or for religious rite or ritual performed. The latter, however, is more appropriately called dakṣiṇā. Dān (charity or alms-giving), according to the Brāhmaṇical code as well as the code of Manu, is a means of earning spiritual merit, and is thus a religious obligation and may not necessarily be the result of a feeling of compassion or pity, though the humanitarian motive cannot be completely excluded from the concept of dān. The mode of dān and the selection of person worthy of receiving it may, however, differ. For example, a Brāhmaṇ, according to Hindu tradition, retains preferential status as a fit recipient of dān. Next come wandering ascetics, and then ordinary beggars seeking alms. Orphans, widows and destitutes are also considered to be deserving of sympathy and help. According to Hindu texts, Kṣatrīyas and Vaiśyas are expressly forbidden to receive dān, while "all mendicants subsist through subsistence afforded by householders, " and "for the Brāhmachārīs (celibate students) not to beg alms is a sin, " for it is their "special duty to beg alms for their teacher. " On the other hand, most unworthy recipients of dān are the criminals, drunkards, gamblers and other evil-doers. There are unworthy donors too, such as prostitutes, gamblers and bandits.
Buddhism and Jainism laid great stress on compassion and liberality, but they rejected the claims of Brāhmaṇs as special recipients of alms. The Jātaka literature celebrates the virtue of giving; the Boddhisattva gives away everything - his wealth, clothes, food, his own body and even the religious merit he may have accumulated. But both Buddhist and Jain monks themselves depend for their subsistence on the alms and donations from the laity. The householders are therefore enjoined to give alms to the monks and to donate liberally for the upkeep of monasteries and other charitable institutions.
The word dān as well as the concept has been assimilated into the Sikh tradition. Though there exist no codified injunctions about it, the practice of dān is a significant feature of the Sikh way of life. The emphasis here is more on giving than on receiving. No fixed group or class of people is specified as favoured recipients of dān. Nor is any particular commodity out of material belongings considered especially sanctified for purposes of dān. However, whatever is given away in dān must have been earned by one's honest labour. Says Gurū Nānak : "He, O Nānak, who himself lives by his honest labour and yet gives away something out of his hands, has alone found the (true) way" (GG, 1245). There are numerous other verses in the Gurū Granth Sāhib extolling the virtue of dān. Also from Gurū Nānak, "He alone realizes the truth who is truly instructed, who is compassionate towards all living beings and who dispenses dān" (GG, 468). A gurmukh or true devotee is advised to practise "nām (remembrance of the Divine Name), dān and isnān (holy bathing)" (GG, 942). Gurū Arjan, Nānak V : "Meditate on the Lord's Name, listen to the Lord's Name being recited and to all render dān" (GG, 135). For himself Gurū Nānak seeks the dān"of the dust from underneath the feet of the holy ones which, if obtained, to my forehead would I apply" (GG, 468). In the words of Gurū Arjan: "The most desirable boon to beg for is to beg of the Gurū love of singing the Lord's laudation" (GG, 1018). In his daily ardās or supplicatory prayer, the highest form of dān (dānāṅ sir dān) a Sikh seeks is the nām-dān, gift of God's Name.
Sikhism does not countenance renunciation of material goods, nor does it deprecate worldly callings. The popular aphorism kirt karnī, nām japṇā, vaṇḍ chhakṇā (to earn one's living by the labour of one's hands, to repeat the Name of God and to eat only after sharing with the others one's victuals) forms an essential part of its ethical code. Whereas dān of material goods is commended, one overriding implication is that what is given away has been acquired through honourable means. Another requisite is that dān must be given with a willing heart. It should be the result of a spontaneous urge for an humanitarian act. As Gurū Aṅgad, Nānak II, says, "Giving under compulsion earns no merit nor does it benefit anyone ; excellent is the deed, O Nānak, which is performed with pleasure" (GG, 787). Another shade especially stressed in the Sikh tradition is that dān be proffered in all humility and in an utterly selfless spirit. It should not create a sense of pride or ego in the mind of one who gives. Ego (haumai) vitiates the act of charity. Says Gurū Tegh Bahādur: "If one performing pilgrimages, observing fasts and giving dān nourishes in his mind a sense of pride, all such acts remain fruitless like the bathing of an elephant (who casts dust over his body after bath)" (GG, 1428). To dispense dān, one need not necessarily be affluent. A simple meal served by an humble labourer to a casual guest is more meritorious than a sumptuous feast given by a rich man to professional mendicants.
In the Sikh tradition, all dān or offering is in the name of the Gurū and, usually, through golak (treasure, or receptacle kept in a gurdwārā for the devotees' offerings) of the Gurū or the Panth representing the Gurū. The channels for dān to flow into the Gurū's treasury are by now well established. First, the dictum gharīb kī rasnā, Gurū kī golak (a destitute's tongue, i. e. mouth, is the Gurū's till) sets the general principle that the primary object of charity is to feed the needy. This is done through the systematized and organized institution known as Gurū kā Laṅgar. The second institutionalized channel for dān is dasvandh (lit. tithes) or one-tenth of his earning a Sikh is required to set apart for the welfare of the community. Contributions may be made at any recognized centre - the local gurdwārā, any historical shrine, an orphange, school, charitable hospital, and the like.
In the ardās or Sikhs' daily prayer are listed the categories of dān a Sikh supplicates for. The primary one is the dān or gift of the Holy Name. He prays, besides, for the dān of the ideal Sikh way of life, the dān of true Sikh conduct and discipline, the dān of unfaltering faith in Sikh principles, the dān of unflinching trust in the Gurū, the dān of company of pious Sikhs, the dān of pilgrimage to the Harimandar at Amritsar and other sacred places, and the dān of holy bath at Amritsar. The gifts that a Sikh supplicates for are for the whole community and not for himself alone. This sharing of blessing is part of the Sikh way of life.