Q3a: What is Sin? What is the Hindu view of Sin?
Q3b: We are all sinners, claimed a Christian friend. Don’t you realize how many times you have sinned, so realize that you are a sinner? As humans we are all having a tendency to always sin, retorted another.
Q3c: I came across many who have been burdened by the sin of the past. Depressed by their repenting mind, they feel they are totally unfit for any good thing or misguided by this baggage feel like a ticking time bomb about to explode on them any time.
Ans: We will have to take a slightly deeper dive into Hinduism, if we need a more satisfactory answer. There are two frames of reference, a more earthly plane, where we transact daily business – Vyavaharika state and a plane of consciousness where we identify God in every state to begin with and then realize that there is nothing except God – Paramarthika state. To a modernized mind, step out and see the blue sky outside. This is Vyavaharika state. For all that matters the blueness is as real as anything else we come in contact with in our daily lives. But a deeper mind, can peer through this blueness and find it nothing more than scattering of a portion of the light spectrum. This is Paramarthika state. As evident from this analogy, the viewpoint will be different in both cases. A proper balance in Vyavaharika state, functional Dvaita, is critical for us to go to Paramarthika, Advaita realization. Vyavaharika is relative; Paramarthika is absolute.
With the above framework in place, let us look at SIN, a central idea for many religions to provide a boundary and structure to its practice. In Indian parlance, Paapa is usually equated with sin and Punya with virtue. Simply put, sin is any action that hurts others or one self. We typically equate morality with sin by examples of stealing, telling lies, killing others, violence. We usually give the opposite qualities of sin or vice as virtue as in non-stealing, truth, ahimsa.
That which takes us Godward is virtue and that which pulls us down is sin. But the modern idea, as most of us have, is not one based on scriptures or great rishis. It is an admixture, based on confusing ideas usually from media – TV serials, movies or books. Add to this the proselytization junkies who seed wrong information to weaken the hindu masses as most of them never read any scriptures. This makes it a perfect recipe for more mental confusion.
Before we dive into Hindu idea of sin, let us take a quick peek into the Abrahamic religions to gain some perspective. The oldest of all Abrahamic outlook is Judaism. Judaism views any violation of the 613 commandments1 as a sin. Broadly they view sins against God, which can be atoned during Yom Kippur, annual day of atonement and the more severe sins against humanity2.
Christianity is the second version of Abrahamic religion. Sin is the most central theme, unlike any religion. Most of us have heard Adam and Eve, the first bibilical man and woman created. They disobeyed God’s word not to eat the forbidden fruit, as they got tempted by the serpent. As they violated, God cursed that them and all their progeny to be sinners. This concept of Original Sin, is very central to Christianity, as everybody is a born sinner. As if God was either repentant or extremely kind, he decided to release humanity from this curse of sin. He wanted to be born to liberate the masses. Only HE could liberate as all of creation was accursed. If HE is born the usual way of marital conjugation, even HE will be a sinner. Hence the birth of Jesus Christ had to be one of virgin birth. Since HE was the only non sinner, he was the only one qualified to atone for all the sins, including the original one. So he suffers on the Cross and atoned on your behalf. If you accept this theology, you are saved, else you are doomed and roasted in hell forever.
The best undistorted version of their viewpoint, can be had from Rajiv Malhotra’s video on the difference between Christianity and Hinduism.
As humans we tend to commit mistakes, be it getting angry or jumping the stoplight or in extreme cases horrible crimes against humanity and nature. As easily observed, Christianity appeals easily to the confused mind, which transposes human non compliance of morality with the idea of Original Sin. Since humans are incapable of even finding their own way out, Christ is the Savior. One can easily observe all the limitations and fallacies in this concept with a simple question, If God were to be so kind, why did he place such a curse on unborn generations? Now that is outside our scope of understanding Sin.
The third flavor of Abrahamism is Islam. Here again there is a strict injunction to follow the scripture. Islam doesn’t believe in the concept of Original Sin, as their narration believes God excused mankind after the initial transgression by Adam and Eve. Islam has gradations of sin3. Dhanb, heinous crimes against God; Ithm, willing violation of unlawful deed; Khati’ah, a moral lapse. There are other terms used like Jurm, similar to Dhanb (The violater is mujrim, a word used in hindi) and Junah/Haraj, similar to Ithm. Atonement is available and is not mediated like in Catholics through a priest. There, in my opinion are two major groupings of Sin in Islam. The one that revolves around the morality of man which prohibits stealing, drinking etc. The other which revolves around Allah. If any other religion is even accepted as a possibility it is the greatest sin, Shirk, which explains the uncharitable violence witnessed around Islamic influences from its first Caliph till the modern terrorism.
Judaism made it very difficult to proselytize as its rulebook was too long. But Christianity and Islam are evangelistic at their heart. This was the only way they could cover their theological loopholes. Christianity’s appeal to connect with the psychology of moral sins, coupled with a strong evangelistic code in built in their scripture when it met the equally powerful evangelistic and intolerant to other religions resulted in the crusades of middle ages and the echoes of their interactions are evident even today in the various skirmishes in Middle East.
The non-dharmic Abrahamic religions offer a certain perspective central to keeping their history centric outlook that certain individuals born in certain times alone had the connection to God. One can have that connection only through the acceptance of that flavor of monotheism, which by definition is based on their exclusivity.
The reasoning behind such a big preface to the concept of sin according to Sanatana Dharma is to enable us teasing out media and missionary infused bias and the wrong ideas that are deliberately perpetuated to weaken the more accommodative Hindu framework, which is inclusive.
Hinduism offers a very practical scientific mindset. Just like the physical world, the psychological world also follows the Law of action and reaction. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, states Newton’s Law. This Law also guides the Law of Karma. But unlike the immediate equal and opposite reaction, in the non physical world, the reaction need not be always immediate, equal or even exactly opposite. It is evident that for many of our actions, we may get results matching our expectations, exceeding it, falling short of it and even opposite to it.
Our every action impinges on the universe and sets up a reaction. This echo of the universe can hit the individual and provide some dividends. If the reaction is acting like a tailwind on an airplane, we refer it as Punya and if it is akin to the headwinds, we refer it as Paapa. Kathopanishad refers the same as Shreyas and Preyas, the path of good and path of pleasant.
The moral injunctions given in Sanatana Dharma like Ahimsa(non-violence), Asteya (non-stealing), Satya (Truth), Dhana (Giving), Daya (Compassion) and many more, were aids to make the individual to achieve a vibrational match with Universe. If we can tune our mind to the cosmic mind and maintain a congruent alignment with the Universe, with a simultaneous elimination of our vasanas, the Universe actions and powers are expressed through that individual. We see thoughts manifesting as actions in case of these individuals. We see impossible expressed as realities.
We have seen many scientists practice this technique. We see numerous examples in Napolean Hill books. But the most evident one was the way Mahatma Gandhi rallied the masses to overthrow the most powerful empire that ever existed through non-violence. A constant self correctional, ahimsa based approach.
Punya or virtue, is nothing but a affirmative nod of the universe that we are on the right directional alignment. On the other hand, it is very obvious to see if a reaction from universe is against a single individual can be. When the Allied forces narrowed the noose against Hitler, all the horror and terror he let loose came back to haunt him that he could not even face the music, so he committed suicide. If paltry Allied forces can set such a reactionary force, imagine the power of Universe. This is what we call it as Paapa or Sin.
Unlike other religions, dharma is very contextual and very subjective. It doesn’t mean that one can bend it to selfish ends, but the line drawn to demarcate dharma and adharma is very subtle. While killing is generally a Paapa, not all killing can be viewed in the same light. Killing of enemy soldiers or insurgents is not a sin, but also venerated as a great act. While traditional culture holds disobeying father as a sin, the world worships Rama for him being obedient to his father’s wishes; we also find Prahlad, whom we like to emulate for not following his father. Classical Indian society viewed husband as a God form and Sita is the best example for living according to her husband, Rama’s words. The same society also adores Meera Bai as she refused to be bound by her husband’s rules.
So who can decide what is Paapa and Punya. The obvious answer can be observed in the fruit of action – Karmaphala. While man’s laws can be skirted around, twisted and misinterpreted, God’s Laws are unerring. We have seen many despots, tyrants seemingly escape the laws of Karma, but if we understand reincarnation, many of the questions get answered. Some modern scientists have started doing an objective research into reincarnation and have started uncovering interesting evidence4.
Atonement is pretty much common prescription across many religions. Hinduism also offers it as Prayaschita. Unlike other religions, which prescribe, acceptance of their faith or their God is sufficient reinforcement for atonement, Hinduism emphasizes that the effects of Karma cannot be shaken off. Even Avatars or Devas are not shown as exempt for their actions. For taking some bad food, an emetic is prescribed. Both the bad food and the emetic have some lingering effects. But the emetic begins the recovery process. In the same way, Paapa will have some bad effects and even the process of atonement will have some bad after taste. This is unavoidable.
Swami Chinmayananda gave a wonderful example. If a traveler comes to a fork at the road and ends taking the wrong turn, the journey at some point is going to show its signs of wrong choice. At the point of realization that one perceives the effects of the choice (or even at the time of choice itself) it becomes a sin. Just because one realizes it as a sin, the effects do not alter. The traveler has to traverse in the opposite direction till he hits the fork. Prayaschita, is this process when one starts this turn around process. It may so happen due to divine grace or due to Guru’s grace or do to the choices of other Karma, a shortcut can take us back to the original direction, without revisiting the fork. Irrespective of the future choice(s), the effects of Paapa are felt. No amount of Punya offsets Paapa, unless the purgation happens within. The inner balance has to be restored. This can happen by an elevated consciousness than the ones that led to Paapa actions or its reactions, Guru or God’s grace. If our Paapa makes us walk bare foot in the hot desert sand, our good punya doesn’t cancel this trip; instead comes to our rescue as a sandal, an umbrella.
The best insight comes from Swami Chinmayananada’s quote
Sin is never in action, it is always in reaction.
Not only does it reemphasize the Karma theory, but also the way out of it.
The following conversation as recorded with Ramana Maharishi, one of the greatest saints of recent times4.
Question: Is it possible to sin?
Ramana Maharshi: Having a body, which creates illusion, is the only sin, and the body is our only hell.
But it is right that we observe moral laws.
Swami Sivananda calls “Sin is a only a mistake”5. It must be understood that viewing the world in the normal human way is what he refers as the mistake, we all commit. Just take a simpler example, do we realize we are nothing but a bundle of energy and information. Going further deeper, we are nothing more than beyond the cosmic Self, Narayana. Interestingly, sin is all EVIL. But the secret to this EVIL lies in rearranging the letters, VEIL. EVIL is that VEILs GOD consciousness.
From a realized soul’s perspective (not the aspirants), the one who can see the ocean in every wave, clay in all the pots, gold in all the (gold) ornaments, the vision is extremely different. They view both Paapa and Punya as bondages, one is an iron chain, whilst the other is a golden chain. We need to unshackle both to raise above, in the view of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
The realized person is not bound by body consciousness or attached to the karmas or their fruits. They remain detached, absorbed in higher consciousness. They are not concerned with the Prarabhda Karma coming to them, as they do not associate or identify with it.
How is it possible that Karma won’t have an effect on JivanMuktas, the ones who are liberated even while living amongst us? Just as a mountain of straw can be reduced to ashes with one spark of fire, so does our Karma when realization dawns. While the Sanchita and Agami Karmas are roasted, the Prarabhda Karma, the reason behind our very existence still remains. Just like a rope binding some object, when burnt, gives the impression of an ash rope, which doesn’t bind, so does Prarabhda Karma not have the ability to bind the realized person.
But how does all these Karma ideas line up with the Abrahamic concepts, especially with the idea of Original Sin. Rajiv Malhotra, one of the pioneers and leader in understanding the multiple aspects involved in these analysis has coined the Hindu Good News6 to counter the proselytization bassed on the Original Sin.
Irrespective of the Paramarthika or Vyavaharika views, Sanatana Dharma views a human as a divine creation. Whether it is Dvaita or Advaita, the divinity of Jeeva (individual) is at the core Hinduism. We are born divine, not sinner, unlike Christian doctrine. Due to the choice of our Karmas, we can either go closer or away from God consciousness. The actions that take us closer are Punya and the ones we throw as obstacles, distancing us conceptually is Paapa. God is not a far off entity unlike in Abrahamic idea, living in heaven. Though it is depicted Vishnu is in Vaikunta, Shiva in Kailasa, when it comes to the idea of God’s presence, it is always expressed as Omnipotent and Imminent.
We do not need a special way of acceptance, as Krishna guarantees that all forms of approaching him is acceptable, though some may be more easier, depending on the mental make up of the Jeeva.
Bhagavad Gita’s View:
Krishna handles this topic deftly amongst the various questions Arjuna poses in Bhagavad Gita. We will take a limited peep into his nectarine wisdom. This is essential to understand the spirit of response, Hinduism provides in response to these related questions.
Krishna highlights that KNOWLEDGE of the ABSOLUTE is able to liberate the most sinful of all sinners. The following three verses give ample evidence into Krishna’s recipe for getting rid of even the biggest sin burden. Note that Krishna is prescribing simple process of atonement alone, as the vasanas are still ready to sprout whenever there is an opportunity. But when the fire of Knowledge roasts the seeds, they can never sprout again.
अपि चेदसि पापेभ्यः सर्वेभ्यः पापकृत्तमः।
सर्वं ज्ञानप्लवेनैव वृजिनं सन्तरिष्यसि॥३६॥
Api cedasi pāpebhyaḥ sarvebhyaḥ pāpakṛttamaḥ|
Sarvaṁ jñānaplavenaiva vṛjinaṁ santariṣyasi|| BG 4.36
Even if thou art the most sinful of all sinners, yet thou shalt verily cross all sins by the raft of knowledge. (One can overcome sin through Self-knowledge)
ज्ञानाग्निः सर्वकर्माणि भस्मसात्कुरुते तथा॥३७॥
Jñānāgniḥ sarvakarmāṇi bhasmasātkurute tathā|| BG 4.37
As the blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the fire of knowledge reduce all actions to ashes!
न हि ज्ञानेन सदृशं पवित्रमिह विद्यते।तत्स्वयं योगसंसिद्धः कालेनात्मनि विन्दति॥३८॥
Na hi jñānena sadṛśaṁ pavitramiha vidyate|Tatsvayaṁ yogasaṁsiddhaḥ kālenātmani vindati|| BG 4.38
Verily there is no purifier in this world like knowledge. He who is perfected in Yoga finds it in the Self in time.
To the devotee, whose intellect may not yet have ripened to track the path of Jnana, Krishna offers another solace. The devotee absorbed in HIS Grace, the path is made easier. Ratnakar, an infamous robber, turned inward, Godward, to become Sage Valmiki. There is no sin haunting him. Buddha was not haunted by the sin of leaving his young wife, Yasodhara or his son, Rahula. Nor was Swami Raghavendra tainted by his wife committing suicide, on account of separation from him. We see innumerable instances in our culture throughout Indian history. We see Ramana Maharishi’s mother who tried her best to emotionally blackmail a 17 year old boy into submission, eventually become his biggest devotee and disciple.
अपि चेत्सुदुराचारो भजते मामनन्यभाक् |साधुरेव स मन्तव्य: सम्यग्व्यवसितो हि स: || 9.30||
api chet su-durāchāro bhajate mām ananya-bhāksādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ samyag vyavasito hi saḥ
Even if the most sinful worships Me, with devotion to none else, he too should indeed be regarded as righteous, for he has rightly resolved.
A careful study of the Bhagavad Gita reveals that though the path of Jnana, Yoga, Bhakti, Karma, may all seem to be different, they are all intertwined and beyond a certain point, it becomes hard to discern the difference.
सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य माम् एकम् शरणं व्रज ।अहं त्वा सर्व-पापेभ्यो मोक्ष-यिष्यामि मा शुचः॥18.66
sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekam śaraṇaṁ vraja.
ahaṁ tvā sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣa-yiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ ||
Abandoning all duties, take refuge in Me alone; I will liberate thee from all sins; grieve not.
Krishna’s message cannot be used as a crutch to discard our daily responsibilities and duties, but to the one who is driven by Mumukshtva, intense desire for liberation, this guarantee that Krishna will liberate that person from all Sins is very powerful.
Our journey through this article should stress only one message, we are born divine; divinity is our birth right. We need to lift the VEIL of EVIL (vasanas) to peer through and this will happen only by our own individual Purushartha, self-exertion and by Guru and God’s Grace.
Om Tat Sat