The Concept of Sin in Hinduism

Sin in Hinduism

by Jayaram V

Summary: Find here comprehensive information on the meaning and significance of sin (papam or patakam) in Hinduism.

Sin is the most dominant theme of every religion and religious philosophy. In Hinduism, sin is a formation or a consequence of desire-ridden actions, evil nature, karma, Maya and dereliction of Dharma. The idea of sin forms the basis of Hindu ethics and morality. Its purpose is to facilitate the order and regularity of the world, enforcement of Dharma and the evolution of beings through a corrective and punitive process. Sin may arise from both intentional and unintentional actions and through negligence and ignorance. In this essay, we will examine the meaning and significance of sin, how it arises and what remedies we have to resolve it.

Before we begin the discussion, let us be clear that the concept of sin in Hinduism is different from that of the Abrahamic religions. For example, there is no concept of original sin in Hinduism. It is an aspect of a duality, its opposite being virtue or dharma. In Christianity sin is inherent in God’s creation. No one can ever be free from sin until the Judgment Day since no one can truly follow the laws of God. Hence, no one can escape from the fires of Hell unless one takes refuge in God and abides by his law.

According to Hinduism, as in Christianity sin may arise from disobedience to God’s eternal law (Dharma). True, it is difficult to follow the laws of God, but it is an obligation for humans. Their mistakes can be forgiven if they uphold Dharma as a service to God. Further, the sins which they accumulate during their lives upon earth can be removed, neutralized or cleansed through austere self-effort and devotion to God. God is all pervading. He pervades his creation also, which is inseparable from him. Hence, it is also divine and pure, although temporarily it may be clouded by impurities, just as the sun is temporarily obstructed by the clouds.

Sin is one such impurity, which arises as an effect or consequence from one’s evil actions, and which can be neutralized through various Yogas and transformative practices on the path of liberation (Moksha). A liberated being (Jivanmukta) is purified of all his sins. He has no rebirth, and does not incur any further sins even if he resides in the physical body and engages in actions. The soul is pure and sinless. Therefore, those who achieve oneness with their Selves become pure and sinless. Sometimes, God himself through his grace may remove the sins of his devotees.

The meaning of sin

The word Pāpam (paap) is mostly used to denote sin in the Vedas and scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita. Its opposite (antonym) is Punyam (punya). There is no equivalent word to the latter in English, since the notion is absent in Christianity and western culture. It may loosely be translated into English as virtue or merit. Pāpam and Punyam are the twin fruits of karma (actions), which arise in conjunction with dharma and adharma. They determine the fate or destiny of beings upon earth.

Literally speaking, pāpam means evil, wicked, mischievous, destructive, vile, low, vice, guilt, and so on. Pa means to drink, inhale or absorb. Apa means water. However, in some constructs it also means bad, inferior, corrupt. Thus, pāpam means taking in or drinking impure water, polluted water or poison.

Papam is the impurity which arises in the waters of the body. It may be probably a reference to the dreadful poison, (halahal) which manifested during the churning of the oceans by the gods and demons and was consumed by Shiva to save the worlds. In the Vedic tradition, Shiva is both the destroyer and the healer, who is invoked by worshippers to take away the poison from those who were injured by snakebites.

Poison may also manifest in the body due to the impurities of worldliness (vishaya-asakti). The human body is subject to many poisons (visham) such as ignorance, egoism, selfishness, delusion, desires, attachments and so on, which arise from our association with material things (vishayas). These poisons (sins or pāpams) bind the beings to the mortal world and subject them to repeated deaths and rebirths. Only God (Papahara) can remove or destroy such sins and grant them liberation.

In some contexts, pāpam (pa+apa) may mean without water or vitality. Pa means without or devoid of, and apa means water. It may be due to the Vedic belief that gods were responsible for rains. If they were pleased with humans, they allowed plenty of rains to fall. Otherwise, they showed their displeasure by not releasing the rain water from heaven. Of the gods, Varuna was feared because he was the god of rains as well as Dharma. It is why the Vedic hymns addressed to him are mostly about seeking his forgiveness and obtaining his blessings.

The philosophy of sin

In a philosophical context, pāpam means the impurity or the aberration, which causes hurt, harm and injury or suffering to oneself, to others or to the world itself. It may arise from physical, mental or verbal actions, due to the impurities such as selfishness, desires, attachments, egoism, ignorance, delusion and negligence of one’s essential duties (Dharma). The underlying belief is that if you harm or hurt others or to yourself by any means or give them pain and suffering, you infuse your body with the poison of sin and bind yourself to the cycle of births and deaths. Pāpam leads to pāpaman, which means evil, misfortune, adversity, crime.

The consequences of sinful actions are fault or mistake (aparadha), worry or anxiety (cintha), impurities or imperfections (doshas), evil intentions (dudhi), evil qualities (dhurta lakshana), immorality (adharma), demonic nature (asura sampatti), chaos or disorderliness (anrta), mental afflictions (klesha), destruction (nirtti), karmic debt (rna), sorrow (shoka), darkness or grossness (tamas) and suffering (pida).

The Dharmashastras list the consequences of sinful actions. Most sins lead to sickness and disease either in this birth or in future births. For example, according to Manu stealing gold shows up as sickness in the nails, drinking liquor blackens the teeth or sleeping with a teacher’s wife leads to a certain skin disease, slander causes bad breath or foul mouth. Leprosy, idiocy, mental illness, physical or mental deformity are attributed in the lawbooks to grave sins only. Other consequences of sinful karma are inferior birth, birth through demonic wombs, downfall into hells, increased suffering to ancestors, adversity, loss of reputation and so on.

The types of Sin, Patakas

Another word which is used mostly in the Dharmashastras to denote sin is Pātaka. It is derived from the root word pat (to fall). Pātaka means that which causes one’s downfall or destruction (patanam). For example, according to the traditional beliefs a woman who indulges in a grave sin (pataka) such as adultery becomes a patita (the fallen or defiled one). She goes by the downward path (pat) to the lowest hell (Patala) and suffers from it. The law books view Pātaka as the state of sinfulness, which may arise from acts of omissions and commissions such as performing yajnas for unworthy people or worthless causes, eating impure food, speaking untruth, failure to perform obligatory duties, forgetting the Vedas, failure to keep the vows, disrespect to gods or gurus, etc.

They identify three classes of sins namely mortal sins (mahapatakas), secondary sins (upa Patakas) and minor sins (prakirna or prasangika patakas). However, in determining the gravity of sins they do not follow a uniform approach, but weigh them in the context of the caste to which the offender may belong. Thus, they offer comparatively milder punishments to higher castes and severe punishments for the same offenses to lower castes. Such caste based distinctions in determining the gravity of sins in the ancient world was meant to ensure the order and regularity of society and keep common people within their bounds. At the same time, the higher castes were entrusted with a greater responsibility to live up to the highest ideals which were mentioned in the scriptures. The three types of sin are described below

1. The Mahapatakas

They are the gravest sins, which lead to one’s downfall into the darkest hells. They cannot be neutralized or washed away without suffering from their consequences. Some Puranas suggest that they may be overcome through devotion or the grace of God. The Dharmashastras identify five gravest sins, known as the Pancha Mahapatakas. According to the Chandogya Upanishad (5:10.9) the five mortal sins are, taking away the wealth that does not belong to one, drinking intoxicating drinks, showing disrespect to a teacher, killing a Brahmana, and those who associate with the sinners who commit such sins. In other words, in Hinduism association with grave sinners is also a grave sin, and why it is important to be careful about the company you keep.

2. The Upa Patakas

These are subsidiary or secondary sins, which may arise from minor offenses. There is no unanimity among the scriptures about what constitutes a minor offence. Some of them may also qualify as major offences. According to one classification, the following five offences constitute Upa Patakas namely failure to perform daily sacrifices, incurring the displeasure of one’s guru, selling intoxicating drinks, disbelief in God, giving false witness, making false claims, and performing a sacrifice for an unworthy person or unworthy cause. Other sins which fall into this category include, neglecting the study of the Vedas, violating the vow of celibacy (brahmacharya), having sexual thoughts when one has taken the vow of celibacy, minor thefts, taking money for teaching the Vedas, cutting of trees, etc.

3. The Prakirna Patakas

Included in this category are minor offenses which are committed intentionally or unintentionally due to ignorance or carelessness. The law books identify more than fifty minor sins such as selling the wife, killing a woman, making salt, studying forbidden Shastras, marrying the younger son before marrying the elder one, killing insects and other creatures, adultery, cruelty to parents, accepting gifts without performing austerities or sacrifices, etc. These sins can be washed away ceremonially by performing sacrifices and expiatory ceremonies (prayaschitta) or by expressing remorse and seeking forgiveness.

Solutions to overcome sin

As stated before, Hinduism is a forgiving religion. It gives many opportunities to sinners to cleanse their sins and improve their behavior and conduct and thereby their chances of liberation. However, certain grave sins cannot be washed away, except perhaps with the help of exceptionally rare grace of God (daiva kripa). They have to be endured over one or more births. Other sins can be removed or minimized with ritual and spiritual means. The following are a few important remedies which are prescribed by the tradition to overcome sinful behavior.

1. Fines and punishments

The Dharmashastras offer corporeal as well as monetary punishments for various offenses, which are in addition to what one may suffer in the hell or in the next birth. The punishments vary from caste to caste. On earth, the authority to inflict punishment rests with the rulers. Manusmriti declares that punishment alone governs all created beings, and it is identical with Dharma. However, it has to be fair and just and determined after due consideration. The world will fall into disorder if the king does not punish those who deserve to be punished or punishes those who are innocent. It is the king’s duty to protect the lives and lawful property of his subjects. He has the obligation to punish or impose fines upon those who make false claims upon properties which belong to others, or steal from them. The king also has to force debtors to make the good money they take from the creditors. The law books also recommend punishments or fines when a litigant in a dispute before the king refuses to speak or present his case.

2. Confession

In Hinduism, the act of confession (papanivedana) is not as structured or mandatory as in Christianity. The sinner who commits minor offenses may directly seek forgiveness from God by confessing to him his intentional or unintentional crimes. He may also make a public confession (abhishasta) before a jury, king, minister, or another person or a relation. The tradition of seeking forgiveness for one’s sin is a very ancient practice in Hinduism. According to Guy L. Beck, "Evidence for humble repentance in Hinduism, including even imperfect contrition, is found to be much earlier than the Israelite and Christian records, going as far as back as the Vedic period (6000-2000 B.C.E) in India. Of the approximately twelve hymns to the Vedic deity Varuna found in the Rigveda, there are several good examples of prayers of repentance and forgiveness. In fact, there is no hymn to Varuna, in which some reference to a plea for forgiveness of sin does not occur."

3. Atonement or expiation

The Vedic tradition has the provision to overcome defects or errors in performing Vedic rituals or resolve the sin which may result from various offenses, and defects or blemishes in character or conduct through atonement, penance or expiation (prayschitta). The offences, actions or situations, which warrant it may be intentional or unintentional. There is no unanimity among the law books regarding which offences require atonement and how it may be expressed. For the offenses committed during a sacrifice, it may be expressed at the end of it, usually by the head priest or a Brahman priest. In more elaborate sacrificial ceremonies it may form part of a separate ritual. The scriptures contain many expiatory remedies to deal with birth related defects, grave misconduct, sinful behavior, negligence of duty and failure to keep the vows. Indeed, all the methods, which are discussed here to overcome sin are approved by the lawbooks for the purpose.

4. Austerities, tapah

They are meant to remove the sins as well as impurities that are present in the mind and body through penances, fasting, virtuous conduct, self-control, celibacy, nonviolence, truthfulness, austere living, practice of silence, concentration and so on. Some practices generate intense heat (tapah) in the body which burn away the impurities and contribute to mental brilliance (medhas) and body vigor (tejas). They also transform sexual energy through celibacy into spiritual energy, which can resolve past sins and past life impressions. Before the emergence of the Yoga philosophy and practice, austerities (tapah) and self-discipline were the standard means, used in the Vedic tradition, to cleanse the mind and body and achieve perfection.

5. Rituals and sacrifices

The Vedas recommend several rituals or sacrifices to remove the impurities (dhosas) which may arise from one’s birth, actions, relationships, accumulated karma of past lives, place or direction related problems, vastu defects or defects in the design of a house or building, negligence of duty, improper conduct, sickness and disease, and association with evil people and practices. Such rituals may be expiatory in nature, invocations for divine help, supplications for healing and restoration, or counter spells. It is believed that by performing them according to the established procedure and making offerings to appease gods and securing their help one can regain the purity and mental brilliance, get rid of the impurities and counter adverse influences. The fire in the sacrificial ritual is a purifier. Hence, the Vedic sacrifices (Yajna, Homa, Agnihotra) are considered the best means to overcome sin, suffering and adversity.

6. Prayers and Mantras

The Vedas are books of prayers and invocations. They are believed to be revelations of God which were conveyed to humans by Brahma. Hence, they are considered to be eternal. The tradition holds that when they are uttered in unison by a group of trained priests, they produce powerful vibrations and purify everything, which they touch. Certain Mantras such as the Gayatri or the Panchakshari or the syllable Aum are used in prayers and worship as part of one’s devotional and spiritual practice because of the belief that they have the power to remove sins if they are correctly chanted for a certain number of times. Many devotional prayers, such as the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, Ashtakams, Stotrams and Dhyanams, addressed to various deities, are extensively used in Hinduism for the same purpose. Vishnu Purana declares that in the Kaliyuga the continuous chanting of the names of God (japam) is more effective than meditation, sacrifices, or ritual worship. Some mantras are also effective in driving away bad spirits and cleansing impurities.

7. Recitation of the Vedas and other texts:

In Hinduism knowledge (jnana) is considered a purifier since it has the power to remove delusion. With right knowledge one can also practise self-transformation and cleanse sins. Knowledge comes from the regular study and recitations of scriptures. In the Yoga Sutras the practice of self-study (swadhyaya) is considered an important part of self-purification. Hinduism encourages the recitation of sacred texts such as the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, Tantras, Puranas and the epics to cultivate knowledge, sattva and overcome sins and other impurities. For example, it is stated in the Bhagavadgita that by reciting the scripture and taking refuge in its knowledge may great kings such as Janaka were cleansed of their sins and attained the immortal world.

8. Vratas

They are ritual observances, which are recommended in the law books to overcome sins. They may be performed separately or as part of sacrificial ceremonies and festivities. Manu prescribes several Vratas (Kriddhra) to remove the sins, which arise from offences such as threatening, striking or shedding the blood of a Brahmana. Although women predominantly practise them, both men and women may participate in them to fulfill their desires or prove their devotion or allegiance to the chosen deity. The Vratas are used in Hinduism as part of self-inflicted punishment or purification to overcome the consequences of sinful karma, adversity, suffering or impurities. They may last for a day or for several days or even months. During that period, devotees undertake vows and adhere to a strict conduct of conduct. Fasting is common to many vratas. The worshippers fast for the whole duration or eat only permitted food at permitted times. At the same time, they also engage their minds in spiritual thoughts, read scriptures, listen to discourses and practice righteous conduct, religious worship, celibacy, truthfulness and other virtues.

9. Visiting pilgrimages

The Indian subcontinent is dotted with numerous sacred places, hills and rivers, associated with ancient seers, sages, gods, sacred events and incarnations, which have the power to cleanse the sins and grant either good birth or liberation. Thus, in Hinduism, making a pilgrimage is a popular form of self-cleansing, declaration of devotion and gratitude, and commitment to Dharma. The Puranas such as the Padma Purana and the Skanda Puranas suggest that making pilgrimages to the holy places (tirthas) provides the devotees with an opportunity to atone for their sins, seek forgiveness and experience peace and happiness. Famous pilgrimage places like Kashi, Gaya, Prayaga, Dwaraka, Manas Sarovar, Jyotirlingas, Shakti Peethas, etc., contain spiritual power which cleanse those who visit them and inculcate in them spiritual inclination to live virtuously and pursue liberation. Visiting popular ancient temples also have the same beneficent effect.

10. Bathing in the sacred rivers

Almost all the rivers that flow in the land of the Vedas are considered sacred and treated as purifiers since they are associated with one or more deities or saintly people. Hence, they play an important role in devotional worship and purification rituals to overcome sins and impurities or make offerings to gods. Many sacred temples are situated on the banks of the rivers to which devotees make pilgrimage and offer worship. It is believed that taking a dip in the sacred rivers such as the Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Kshipra, Krishna or Godavari on auspicious occasions removes all the sins and ensures liberation. Of all the rivers, Hindus venerate the River Ganga as the purest and the most auspicious. They believe that by merely taking a dip in its waters one can overcome sins and qualify for liberation. The Kumbh Mela Festival, which is celebrated once in twelve years at each of the four rivers In India, is also considered auspicious.

11. Yoga and Meditation

Pranayama and meditation are the prescribed methods to practise atonement and overcome past sins. They also form part of the austerities to cleanse the mind and body. Patanjali’s Yogasutras suggest that by the Eightfold practices namely yamas, niyamas, pratyahara, pranayama, asanas, dharna, dhyana and Samadhi lead to the purification of the mind and body, predominance of sattva and inner tranquility. They not only remove the impurities in them but also burn away past sins and latent impressions to facilitate liberation. The Classical Yoga of Patanjali and the various yogas of the Bhagavadgita are meant to overcome the barriers to liberation and achieve union with the Self.

12. The blessings of saints and gurus

Self-realized saints, sadhus and mahatmas enjoy a special status in Hinduism because of their purity and virtue. They possess supreme knowledge and divine powers, with which they cleanse those who approach them for help and blessings. The miraculous powers of Hindu saints and gurus such as Sri Raghavendra or Sri Ramakrishna have been well documented by their followers. Some Gurus are believed to be capable of not only transferring their spiritual power to deserving people for their purification but also taking upon themselves the sins, impurities and sickness of others to relieve them of their suffering. Even if such powers are rarely used, meeting such blessed souls and touching their feet or obtaining their blessings are considered highly beneficial.

13. Virtuous conduct

One of the suggested ways to neutralize sinful karma is to accumulate virtuous karma, although it is not the ideal solution to deal with the problem of karma. The Bhagavadgita suggests that one should perform actions without desires and attachments and as a sacrifice to God. It also counts as virtuous conduct only. Virtue is therefore important to cleanse karma. In Hinduism, the most traditional method to purify the mind and body is to practise virtue or morality and abide in Dharma. The importance of ethical conduct cannot be undermined in spiritual life. The scriptures suggest that virtues such as nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and contentment are very purifying. So are cleanliness, happiness, austerity, self-study and devotional service to God. These practices lead to the accumulation of meritorious karma (punya), which can fully or partially neutralize the accumulated, sinful karma of one’s past lives.

14. Charity

Dana (gift giving) is central to Hindu Dharma and its ritual and spiritual practices. The Vedic sacrifices are meant to facilitate gifting and charity. It is obligatory for the higher castes to perform five daily sacrifices to make offerings of food to gods, ancestors, seers and sages, humans and creatures. In Vedic sacrifices (yajnas and homas) the worshippers make offerings of food to Gods and guests and gifts to the officiating priests. The law books encourage giving gifts to Brahmanas since they selflessly dedicate their lives to uphold Dharma and help humans and gods to establish order and regularity. The Manusmriti declares that God has made it obligatory to Kshatriyas and Vaishyas to offer sacrifices and give gifts (danam). It further states that gifts should be given only to deserving people. A gift given to an ignorant person yields no reward. The timing of the gift is also important. For example, a student should not give gifts to his teacher until his education is completed. Gifting of food, cattle, gold, silver, land, water, and giving wealth for the construction of a temple or a water tank are approved for charity in Hinduism.

References to sin in the Scriptures

Hindu scriptures contain numerous references to Sin and sinful conduct. They also suggest remedies. The triple impurities of egoism, attachments and delusion are the main causes of sin, which in turn lead to sinful behavior, suffering and ignorance and delusion. The following is a brief account of the references to sin, found in important sacred texts of Hinduism.


The Upanishads identify selfishness as the chief cause of sin. It is symbolically explained in the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads. Both the bodies of a being and the world are subject to evil influence because they are vulnerable to selfish desires. Desires are also responsible for death, rebirth, mortality, transience and suffering. Both the gods and the demons wage a constant war to regain control of both. When the organs (deities) in the body are pierced by evil, they become susceptible to sin as people engage in selfish actions. Thus, pierced by evil, the speech utters falsehood, the eyes fail to discern truth, the ears do not correctly hear the truth, the food is eaten for selfish enjoyment, and so on. Of all the deities in the body, only breath is impervious to evil because it is not vulnerable to desire. In other words, you do not breathe because you desire to breathe but because you have to. The Isa Upanishad declares that God is the lord of the universe and everything belongs to him. Therefore, one should not claim ownership of anything and engage in selfless actions.


The Bhagavadgita (3.37) identifies desire under the influence the Gunas as the chief sinner. Desire-ridden actions, or desire for the fruit of one’s actions, leads to sinful karma and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. One can escape from it by offering all actions to God without desiring their fruit. The scripture also recognizes the play of the Gunas in inducing demonic qualities which result in sinful actions. The predominance of rajas and tamas result in demonic nature (asura pravritti), which result in vanity, arrogance, pride, anger, lust and so on, whereby people become caught in the net of delusion and fall down into unclean hell. The scripture states that such people are cast down by God into the world of births and deaths (samsara) through in auspicious and demonic wombs. Upon attaining demonic wombs, they fall down into the lowest world. Lust, anger and greed are the triple gates of hell, which one must renounce and follow the scripture to cultivate discretion and engage in righteous actions.

Yoga Sutras

There is no direct reference to sin (Pāpam) in the Yogasutras. However, the scripture identifies the impurities of the mind such as ignorance, egoism, desires, aversion and attachments as the source of suffering, modifications and afflictions, which can be removed through the Eightfold practice of Yoga. When those impurities are removed, the lamp of knowledge arises. Of particular interest are the Yamas and Niyamas which are meant to purify the mind and body and burn the latent impressions (Samskaras). Their continued practice leads to the predominance of the sattva whereby the mind perceives things with discernment and becomes stabilized in the knowledge of the Self. Although sin is not directly mentioned, we may presume that the idea of Sin is inherent to the Yoga Philosophy as the cause of impurities, which contribute to the modifications of the mind and the bondage of the soul.

Manu Smriti

Manu Smriti uses words such as adharma, karmadhosha, mala to denote sin or sinfulness. It declares that whatever God created in the beginning to each of them he assigned tendencies of violence, nonviolence, virtue, sin, etc. Manu placed a lot of emphasis upon duty. By performing one's duties according to the prescribed code of conduct one can avoid sin and earn the merit to achieve liberation. Such duties include daily sacrifices and prayers, which are prescribed for the higher castes. Manu also declared that a person would incur sin if he ignored his obligatory duties, violated the principles of Dharma, hurt and harmed others, engaged in sinful actions, and showed disrespect to Brahmanas, parents, teachers and elders.

In Manu’s judgment, Brahmanas get away with minor punishments for several offenses. However, he places a heavy responsibility upon them to adhere to their Dharma and perform their duties. A Brahmana earns his right to be a Brahmana by virtue of his duties only. He should not only be conversant with the ethical laws and his own duties but also the ethical laws and duties of all other castes. If he neglects his duties or lowers the dignity of Brahmanas by misconduct, he forfeits his right to be a Brahmana. The same principle is applied to other castes also. They are expected to do their prescribed duties and engage in righteous conduct. Otherwise, they are liable to be punished or declared as outcastes.

He placed great emphasis upon speech, conduct, virtue and caste rules. A learned person should not hurt other with thoughtless speech. He should be afraid of praise and embrace criticism. The students should pay respects to his mother, father and teacher. By censuring the teacher, he would be reborn as lower life form such as an ass or a dog. Manu is particular about avoiding contact and dealings with sinful and evil people. One should follow Dharma and avoid association with sinful ones in choosing friends and marriage partners, engaging in sexual acts or accepting food.

The scripture also identifies certain purifiers which are helpful to cleanse sin or bad karma. In his estimate, austerities, fire, sacrificial food, restraint of the body, water, smearing of sacred materials such as turmeric or cow dung, the wind, sacred rituals, the sun and time are considered the best purifiers. With forgiving disposition, the learned are purified. Similarly, Manu prescribed different solutions to purify various objects such as gems, golden vessels, liquids and objects made of copper, silver, brass, etc. The laws of Manu Smriti are no more practiced. However, its study reveals the values and social standards that guided the lives of people, especially higher caste Hindus, in ancient and medieval India.

Garuda Purana

The Garuda Purana deals with various types of sin and their consequences. It describes how sinners suffer in this world and in the domain of Yama. Its purpose seems to be to inculcate fear in the minds of people and encourage them to practise virtue so that they can escape the torments of hell. It states that sin arises when people indulge in evil behavior due to desires, greed, lust, delusion, lack of righteousness, pride, etc.

The immediate consequences of such evil behavior are disease, sudden and painful death, deformities in the body, indigestion, loss of vitality, difficulty in breathing, etc. The long-term consequences manifest upon their death, when they are taken to the world of Yama. The messengers of Yama chain them and drag them through piercing cold, showers of blood, weapons, boiling water, mud, cruel animals, venomous snakes, scorpions and forests where the leaves are like swords.

The travel takes a year, covering a long distance across sixteen cities and very terrifying terrain, covered with blood, pus, foul smell, etc. Once they reach the world of Yama, they undergo numerous punishments according to their deeds. The scripture states that in the sphere of Yama there are 840,000 hells of which 21 are the most dreaded. Those who fall into them experience severe torments until the end of time. The scripture explains what types of sinner are punished in those hells. They are listed below.

  • Slayers of Brahmanas, drinkers of intoxicants, slayers of infants, murderers of women, and destroyers of the fetus.
  • Those who steal wealth or possessions from their teacher, from a temple, from the twice born, and from women, and children.
  • Those who do not repay their debts, misappropriate the money given to them in confidence, betray the trust of others, or kill unsuspecting people with poisonous foods.
  • Those who take advantage of the faults of others, belittle their merit, envious of those who possess merit, who are attached to the wicked and foolish, and who scorn the company of the good.
  • Those who disrespect places of pilgrimage, good people, good actions, teachers and enlightened ones and criticize the sacred texts such as the Purâṇas, the Vedas and Darshanas.
  • Those who are delighted by the misery of others, who try to make wretched ones happy, who speak evil worlds and who are evil minded.
  • Those who do not listen to sound advice or the worlds of the scriptures, who are conceited, stubborn, foolish and consider themselves wise.
  • Those who disrespect their parents, teachers, wise people, venerable ones, who abandon their wives, loyal friends, good qualities, noble birth and modesty, and who ascribe evil qualities to virtuous and pious people and treat them with disdain.
  • Those who do not keep the promises made to Brahmanas, who take away what they have given in charity or as gifts, who repent after giving gifts, who steal another person’s livelihood or prevent others from making gifts.
  • Those who obstruct sacrifices, who prevent the telling of stories, remove boundaries around properties, or ploughs up pastures;
  • The Brahmanas who sells liquor, keep a relationship with low caste women, kill animals for pride and self-glorification, ignore their priestly duties, eat flesh and drink liquor, lack self-control and do not study the scriptures

Manu also lists many other types of sin and sinners, who undergo various types of punishment in the domain of Yama according to their deeds. He states that the sins of a person may manifest upon his rebirth as physical deformities, disabilities, sickness and suffering. For example, the murderer of a Brahmana becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump backed, and the murders of a virgin become leprous. The murderer of a woman or a fetus becomes a savage, full of diseases. Those who engage in illicit sex become eunuchs. A student, who through pride insults a teacher, becomes an epileptic, and who despises the Vedas and other scriptures becomes jaundiced. A person who lives by violence becomes a goat in a butcher’s house. On earth, the king is also vested with authority, as the representative of God, to punish sinners according to their crime in a just and equitable manner as God himself.

Suggestions for Further Reading



1. Survey of Hinduism, A: Third Edition By Klaus K. Klostermaier

2. Dharma, Hindu and Christian According to Roberto de Nobili: Analysis of its meaning and its use in Hinduism and Christianity, by Soosai Arokiasamy, S.J, Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, Roma 1986

3. Encyclopedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses By Suresh Chandra, Sarup & Sons, New Delhi, 2001

4. Manu Smriti, Translation by Ganganatha Jha, Mahamahopadhyaya, Part 1 & 2, The Indian Press Ltd, Allahabad,

5. Manu Smriti in Sanskrit Sloka with English Translation, Translator Unknown.

6. The Bhagavadgita Complete Translation by Jayaram V, Pure Life Vision LLC, 2011

7. Garuda Purana, Translated by Ernest Wood and S.V. Subrahmanyam

8. Fire in the Atman: Repentance in Hinduism, Essay by Guy L.Beck, from Repentance: A Comparative Perspective, Editor Amitai Etzioni, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, USA, 1997

9. The Concepts of Sin and Grace in Hinduism, Theodore Adolf Michalk, Concordia Seminary (Saint Louis, Mo.), 1953


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