Verses on Praayaschitta – Repentance
with Introduction by Dr Shanie Heads-Mahadeo
प्रायश्चित्त Praayashchitta means atonement, penance, repentance, expiation.
The Hindu concept of repentance embraces the admission or confession by anyone who has partaken or been involved in wrong or sinful actions, committed against another. Such acts can arise from harsh and hurtful words or deeds that are done by a person directly but can also arise indirectly by someone either by consent or commission (i.e. giving permission) and omission (not acting to prevent avoidable pain and suffering). Such undesirable thoughts, words or action can also have different intensities such as mild, middling or extreme.
The process of prayaschitta or atoning for such wrongful actions are done by undertaking appropriate practices including austerities, fasting, pilgrimage and other acts, aimed at lessening the heavy burden in one’s mind.
To practice prayaschitta effectively, it is important to recognize that the source of all our negative thoughts and actions arising from the five kleshas, ignorance, ego, attraction, aversion or fear and to understand how such thoughts and actions affect our lives at every level. Although the person committing such wrong acts may not think that it will be injurious to him or her, this is not so. This is because in Hinduism, the over-arching philosophy of Karma is “as you sow, you shall reap”. The consequences of actions will occur, at some stage whether it is in this life or another. Thus, the concept of “forgiveness” is, arguably, absent. However, this essential concept of Karma is also underlined by taking ownership of one’s action and thereby be able to determine one’s destiny.
This can be best understood by considering how such negative thoughts and actions arise. In the Sankhya system of philosophy, the Purusha is the eternal and pure consciousness principle that provides the life force to Prakriti, the principle of matter which masks our existence. Prakriti, itself, consists of three gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas and the balance of these three gunas are manifested at grosser levels as solid forms including our physical body and in the subtler forms of energy, as layers of the mind-field. The light of Purusha illuminates the mind-field to give the semblance of consciousness to Prakriti.
Wrong or troubling thoughts and actions arise from an imbalance in the gunas of Prakriti that gives rise to modifications (vrittis) of the mind-field. All vrittis are rooted in avidya (ignorance) which in turn gives rise to identifying the mind-field as the source of life and light, referred to as Asmita (I-Am-ness or egotism). From such false knowledge and identification, there arises raga (attraction), dvshya (aversion) and abhinevasha (fear of death). These five kleshas (poisons) affect every aspect of our life including our thoughts and actions but more importantly remain as imprints or samskaras that influence our future life choices either in this life or in other lifetimes such as when and where we are reborn, our lifespan etc.
By understanding that the consequences of our every thought and action affects our lives not only in this moment but for all time, the wise sages with great insight knew that sins and wrongful acts would naturally weigh heavily on one’s mind and can lead to depression and even further negative actions; further sins.
To overcome the kleshas, it is recommended that we practice the eternal and immeasurable qualities that are opposite of such negativity, which include:
(i) Mitri (amity or friendliness) towards all
(ii) Karuna (compassion) towards the less fortunate
(iii) Mudhita (Joyfulness), towards those who are meritorious
(iv) Upaksha (equanimity and evenness) towards those who wish to harm
The practice of Prayaschitta is also important for overcoming negative thoughts and habits and thereby effectively thinning of the kleshas and purification of the mind field to overcome negative karma.
The verses provided here are taken from the Vedas, Manusmriti and Yoga Sutras. These verses represent a fraction of the complete scriptural thesis of prayaschitta. The spiritual Approach in prayaschitta is wholly aimed at rebuilding oneself, avoiding depression, for confessing and admitting wrong-doing and for building spiritual and emotional strength so as to be protected from conducting in similar acts again.