Muṣṭi-bhikṣā (Begging Alms) was first published in Sajjana Toṣaṇī, Vol. 6, issue 3 in 1894. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura explains the system of begging for alms from householders and how it has become degraded.
(translated by Swami B.V. Giri and Sanātana Dāsa)
In Vraja, Vaiṣṇavas go through life adopting the process of mādhukarī by going door to door. In Vraja-maṇḍala, the householders do not eat dhāl and rice like in Bengal. They eat rough things like roṭi, gram flour etc! When the Vaiṣṇavas come to the doors of the householders, they give each Vaiṣṇava one piece of roṭi. When one gets one piece of roṭi from each of ten to fifteen houses it becomes enough food collected for a Vaishnava’s food. For a long time, while following mādhukarī, the Vaiṣṇavas of Vraja-maṇḍala have been spending their lives subsisting upon roṭis. There are no roṭis in Bengal. Bengali householders eat dhāl and rice. In the land of Bengal, food is not obtained everywhere by resorting to the process of mādhukarī. This is because all the houses do not offer any service to the Demigods. Demigod prasāda is not available. Unable to decide what to give as bhikṣā to a Vaiṣṇava, a householder donates a handful of rice from the house. Handfuls of raw rice are given in Gauḍa like roṭis are given in Vraja. The problem is that the Vaiṣṇavas cannot spend their days in Gauḍa-maṇḍala with a fistful of raw rice, just as they spend their days in Vraja-maṇḍala eating a roṭi. If you want to cook rice, you have to collect many things such as wood, pots etc. One’s bhajana will be interrupted if he has to spend time cooking. The dhāma of Vṛndāvana is 16 krośa (32 square miles) and the dhāma of Navadvīpa is 16 krośa. Therefore, in Gauḍa-maṇḍala, in Śrī Navadvīpa-dhāma, just as in Śrī Vṛndāvana, even if it is convenient to do mādhukarī from the householders, it is not entirely proper. There are not so many nearby sevā–sthānas (places of service) where from each sevā-sthānas, a devotee’s belly can be filled with a good meal. Vaiṣṇavas, therefore, do not do mādhukarī, and they do not even bother collecting by the process of muṣṭi-bhikṣā.* Nowadays, many services are appearing in various places in Śrī Navadvīpa-maṇḍala, which we hope will be of great benefit to the Vaiṣṇavas.
* Muṣṭi-bhikṣā literally means ‘begging a handful’ since the donor generally gives a handful of rice to the mendicant.
Whatever it may be, let us consider what is the current state of muṣṭi-bhikṣā. Seeing that the Vaiṣṇavas were not prepared to accept muṣṭi-bhikṣā, a group of unqualified men and women took advantage of the practice of muṣṭi-bhikṣā. The women are too lazy to earn money for filling their bellies, and waking up in the morning and casting aside their used clothes or not, after completing their housework, they put on tilaka, wear a mālā and go door to door in the name of our Śacīnandanana. She comes home with three to four kilos of her rice before lunch. She cooks some of the rice and sells some of it. From whatever she gets from the sale, she serves her lover, takes care of her illegitimate son and collects clothes. The result is that the person who gives muṣṭi-bhikṣā can no longer get any service from a servant or maidservant effortlessly just by providing a way of filling their stomachs. If there is so much profit in just two hours of hard work, then why would a servant work more? Initially, muṣṭi-bhikṣā was done for the benefit of pure Vaiṣṇavas. Now it has become a business. The sick, the blind, the old and homeless children are also eligible for muṣṭi-bhikṣā. Nowadays, nobody looks at them. Pseudo-Vaiṣṇavas and Vaiṣṇavīs, have decided not to collect food by any other means in the world, and have taken to muṣṭi-bhikṣā. There is no saving the householders from their clutches. Men and women come in groups and beg. Unless all of them are given a handful of raw rice, the householders will not be able to survive their insults. If the householder and housewife retreat a little, their bowls, vessels and clothes also move away! Considering that they do not want to be in danger every day, some people only give alms on Sundays. There is no relief for them on that day. The whole day is spent driving away beggars! They are not able to do any auspicious deeds. If these people were actually poor, then it would be worth giving them something. In fact, it is the recipients rather than the donors who benefit greatly, for by accepting some well-to-do donors, in a short period of time, their house acquires money, livestock etc. From time to time, the beggars frighten the householders so much that, out of fear, they give alms by taking loans. What is the income of a poor household? If they have to give half of their rice to such unworthy recipients every day, then how will they take care of their family? There is no fault with this practice once it is improved. Giving some rice to a hungry person and a little sweet to a sādhu-Vaiṣṇava does no harm to a household; at least up to that much it is good to continue giving alms. By giving muṣṭi-bhikṣā to professional beggars, householders commit an offence and thus they degrade themselves. Now is the time to reform society and get rid of this evil practice. Only then will the condition of pious householders improve. The sorrow of actual beggars will be eradicated and the world will be generally benefited. Apātre dīyate dānaṁ tad dānaṁ tāmasaṁ viduḥ (giving alms to an unqualified person is an action in the mode of ignorance) – following this statement of Bhagavān, one should give alms to all qualified persons.