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Title: Prāyaścitta  
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Subject: Hindu law, Hinduism, Daṇḍa (Hindu punishment), Madhusūdana Sarasvatī, Revathi Pattathanam
Collection: Ancient Indian Law, Hindu Law, Hindu Texts
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Prāyaścitta (Sanskrit: प्रायश्चित्त) is the Hindu term for atonement and, along with vyavahāra (legal procedure) and ācāra (customary law) makes up the dharmaśāstra. It is the word used for the portion of Hindu law and the dharmaśāstra that has to do with the expiation of sins. It "denotes an act or rite...intended for the destruction of sin."[1] Though the sins it pertains to is often punishable by the king as well as through legal proceedings, it is considered a different sphere of the law.


  • Effectiveness 1
    • Goals 1.1
    • Intentional sins 1.2
  • Classification and means of reducing sin 2
  • Procedures for penance 3
  • Types of penance 4
    • Pilgrimages 4.1
    • Vratas 4.2
    • Śāntis 4.3
  • Penance according to age 5
  • Evolution of penances 6
  • Overlap with Vyavahāra 7
  • References 8



Prāyaścittas are not necessary only for the cleansing of one's own soul, but also for the satisfaction rest of society, as they are not permitted to have social contact with one who has sinned and not completed their penance.[2]

Intentional sins

It is disagreed upon within the smṛtis whether prāyaścittas are applicable and capable purifying if the sins were done intentionally. Manu says that some believe that passages from the Vedas indicate that all sins, whether intentional or otherwise are demolished by prāyaścitta, while his own belief is that unintentional sins are expiated through Vedic recitation and intentional sins can be obliterated by performing various prāyaścittas.[3] At the same time, Yājñavalkya suggests that the results of sins committed intentionally cannot be undone through prāyaścittas. However, he continues with the thought that this will cause social contact with the sinner to be permitted.[4] Alternative interpretations of this verse suggest the opposite, and that the purposeful perpetrator will be saved from Hell upon performing penance, but will not be allowed contact with upstanding citizens. There is also distinction made between a single occurrence of a sin and repeated infractions.

Classification and means of reducing sin

The classification of sins varies between sources. Some state that there are only two types of sin, that which will result in a loss of caste (patanīya) and that which taints the soul, yet allows one to remain a part of their caste (aśucikara). Other sources have divided it between mortal sins (mahāpātakas), minor sins (upapātakas), and those committed by ordinary sinners (enasvins). The mortal sins are numbered five according to some sources. These five are engaging in intercourse with the wife of a guru, drinking spirits, killing a learned Brahmin, stealing from a Brahmin, and associating with an outcaste. The minor sins include abandoning the Vedic fires, atheism, earning a livelihood through atheists and the selling of soma, an important ritual plant.[5]

In P.V Kane's well known work, the Literary History of the Dharmaśāstras he outlines the means for reducing the consequences of sin. It is important to stress that these means are a sort of methodology for penance. The do not outline specific penances for specific crimes. The literature on that topic is extensive in its own right. The reasons for reducing sin are as varied as the dharmasastric literature that they come from, however, the most important ways include confession, repentance (anutāpa), restraint of breath (Prāṇāyāma), austerity (Tapas), sacrifice into fire (Homa), muttering of Vedic passages as prayers (Japa), gifts (Dāna), fasting (Upavāsa) and pilgrimages (Tīrthayavartra).[6]

Procedures for penance

Laugākṣigṛha proscribes the procedures for all penances, while others, like the Śankha and Madanapārijāta also provide elaborate rules about undergoing procedures of prayascittas.."[7] Some particular procedures a sinner must undergo take the form of paring his nails, shaving his head, bathing with clay, cow dung, and holy water, drinking clarified butter, and making a declaration of performing the penance indicated by the assembly of the learned men Brahmins, all on the day prior to commencing his penance. On the next day, he is to bathe, perform Śrãddha and Homa, and give gifts to the Brahmins and feed them. Also during the time of prāyaścitta, the sinner must observe certain rules on food and other matters.[8] This includes that the sinner refrain from taking food at another's house, from sexual intercourse, from speaking at an improper time, and from everything that might cause him to feel strength or sexual passion. It is customary that when undergoing a penance, the sinner begins with a mantra that translates "O! Fire, lord of vrata! I shall perform a vrata." In the same way, when one has finished his penance, he recites a mantra that translates, "O! Fire, lord of vratas: I have performed the vrata, I had the strength to do it, may it be propitious for me.".."[9] There are also particular virtues that should be practiced while doing penance such as honesty. These are known as yamas.[10]

Two kinds of Prāyaścitta exist: one which is done openly, prakāś, and one which is done secretly, rahasya. Many smŗtis lay down rules about performing secret prāyaścittas. One reason a man would perform a secret prāyaścitta is because no one but himself knows about the sin he has committed. A general rule exists that secret penances are meant for those who have consecrated the Vedic fires, who are disciplined, old or learned, and that the open penances are meant for other people. It is even said that women and Śǔdras can perform secret penances because they too can give gifts and prāṇāyāmas.[11]

While some smṛtis prescribe the enactment of a penance immediately as needed, some other place restrictions on the time (i.e. the Prāyaścittattatva says that a penance should not commence on the 8th or 14th tithi of the month). If one is in mourning, he may also wait to perform penance until the period of mourning has been completed.[12]

Types of penance


Pilgrimages (tīrthayātrā) to a tīrtha, or holy place, are a part of dharmaśāstra and can be considered part of prāyaścitta. Pilgrimages were originally not very prominent within the early smṛti texts, but become more popular at a later time.[13]

The type of sin that may be expiated through pilgrimages is referred to as anupātakas.[14] Several sources say that the benefits of pilgrimages are open to both men and women and people of all four varnas. Some go even further to extend the rewards of visiting a tīrtha to non-Aryans as well.[15] However, some smṛtis also call attention to the fact that doing one's duty as a householder is more important than going on pilgrimages, and it is only in special cases or once one has paid his Three Debts (to his parents, his teacher, and the Vedas) that he should resort to pilgrimages.[16]

The proper procedure for a pilgrimage is debated within the smṛtis, with questions such as whether one should cut his hair before a pilgrimage arising or whether a fast at the tīrtha is required.[17] The mode of travel is also widely discussed, as to whether one may reap any benefit from traveling in a conveyance. The most widely accepted view appears to be that the greatest austerity comes from traveling on foot, and that the use of a conveyance is only acceptable if the pilgrimage is otherwise impossible.[18] A portion of the merit obtained from a pilgrimage can also be gained vicariously, through the pilgrim thinking of another while bathing, or an effigy in one's image being lowered into the bath. By enabling others to go on pilgrimages, the benefactor also vicariously reaps a portion of the merit.[19]


The concept of vratas date back to the Ṛgveda. Many commentators have tried to establish a definition for the word vratas, and what exactly it pertains to. However, these descriptions are varied.[20] The general description used for vratas as portrayed in the dharmaśāstra is that of the religious vow or religious rite.[21] They generally have to do with restraint and refraining from certain activities, though according to some commentators, it may also be a positive vow (i.e. "I must do this").[22] Vratas may be used for many different reasons. Like pilgrimages, it can also be expiatory, placing it within the realm of prāyaścitta, but it can also be used for other means, such as a voluntary vow or the obligatory ones commonly practiced by householders. Utsavas, or religious festivals, share some elements with vratas. They may contain elements of are often difficult to distinguish from the practice of vratas.

Vratas can consist of many different activities. Many vratas had to do with the feeding of Brahmins, a very auspicious activity, as well as giving to the poor and destitute.[23] Other examples of vratas can include fasting. The śmrtis go into great detail on the subject of vratas,[24] discussing even the details pertaining to what type of flowers should be used in worship.[25]

Events such as death and birth, which can cause one to become impure, prevents a practitioner from observing his vows. A vow cannot be undertaken if one is impure. However, if one is in the middle of a vrata when impurity comes over them, they may continue with the vrata without any loss of merit, however there are still activities a person observing vrata must avoid. It is considered a grievous sin to abandon a vrata once one has undertaken it.[26] Like pilgrimages, if one is unable to perform a vrata, they may have a representative do it for them, though this is only is the vow is obligatory or has to do with a special event. One may not have a representative if the vow is undertaken out of desire for something.[27]

Any caste is able to expiate their sins through the use of vratas. Women also are able to perform vratas, however, she must have the permission of her father, husband, or son.[28] Likewise, any caste is able to expiate their sins through the use of vratas, though some only pertain to a specific caste.[29]


Śāntis are a form of appeasement done in order to avoid the wrath of the gods, as well as other bad omens such as bad dreams, the sounds made by unlucky birds, and the seizure by an evil spirit.[30] All of the different śāntis for different occasions were considered to be prāyaścitta.[31] In Vedic times, the śānti could be as simple as reciting a verse from the Vedas, though the use of water was also recommended.[32] In post-Vedic texts, the number of situations requiring a śānti was expanded, and a massive amount of literature was dedicated to subject.

The śāntis are divvied into different groups. The first is adbhuta. This relates to unusual instances, like earthquakes, eclipses, and also the unusual omens, like a rainbow occurring at night. These are signs that the gods are angry at an individual. These adbhuras are then placed into one of seven different groups, each which is related to a specific deity that must be appeased. The śānti for these involve feeding and honoring Brahmins. The second is called utpāta. Utpatas are omens that reveal the gods’ anger and foretell evil coming to all people. It is sometimes defined as the reverse of the natural order. The final category is nimitta. As opposed to the other two, which only foretell evil and harm, nimitta can be signs for either good or ill. Nimitta generally refers specifically to the throbbing of one's limbs.[33]

Penance according to age

Prāyaścitta can vary according to the age and capacity of a person. If a young boy commits a minor crime, they do not have to undergo a penance, but an older male member of their family should in their stead. If one is younger than five, they are considered unable to commit a crime or sin, and therefore the need for penance need not be addressed, though some texts argue that this only applies minor infractions.[34] Though the particular ages vary between the different smṛtis, the penances for boys below a certain age, men above a certain age, women, and the ailing are reduced to a half or a quarter, depending on the source. Also, when the penalty is death, women can be cleansed by the cutting of a limb.[35]

Evolution of penances

Adjusting to new times, new penances were made. This is due to the fact that the sages realized that the penances of the old smŗtis were very harrowing and even involved the loss of life. In this way, more humane and easier penances were created for more modern times. These were known as pratyāmnāyas. Hārita 288 states, "brahmanas who have studied dharmaśāstra should prescribe a penance appropriate to the age, the time and the strength of the sinner, the penance being such that he may not loss his life and yet may be purified; one should not prescribe an observance that will cause great distress to the sinner."[36]

Overlap with Vyavahāra

There are times when prāyaścitta and legal punishment by the king, which would be in the realm of vyavahāra, overlap. If one does the prāyaścitta to expiate themselves from their sins, depending on the gravity of their crime, they may still be punished by the king. Sometimes, the punishment by the king was deemed enough that penances were not needed, and the sins of the perpetrator are eliminated. According to Manu, "Men that commit sins and sins and are punished by the king become purified and reach heaven like good men who perform meritous deeds."[37] However, some sources say that this is only the case when the punishment would be death.[38] In these cases, the punishment is counted both in a legal sense and as prāyaścitta. This combining of penance with legal procedure appears to make the prāyaścitta more effective as penance ending in death can result in full expiation even from intentional sins.[39] If one does not make preparations for performing prāyaścitta within a year of his crime, his sin doubles and he must make twice the reparations, as in paying twice the fines to the king and performing twice the penance.[40]


  1. ^ Kane, P.V. History of the Dharmaśāstras Vol. 4 p. 60
  2. ^ Manusmṛti 11.189
  3. ^ Manusmṛti 11.45-46
  4. ^ Yājñyavalkyasmṛti 3.226
  5. ^ Kane, P.V. History of the Dharmaśāstras Vol. 4 p. 12-14
  6. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 41-
  7. ^ Ibid. p. 121
  8. ^ Ibid. p. 124
  9. ^ Ibid. p. 125
  10. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 121
  11. ^ Ibid. p. 125
  12. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 119
  13. ^ Ibid. p. 561
  14. ^ Ibid. p. 106
  15. ^ Ibid. p. 567-569
  16. ^ Ibid. p. 570-571
  17. ^ Ibid. p. 573
  18. ^ Ibid. p. 576-577
  19. ^ Ibid. p. 577-578
  20. ^ Kane, P.V. History of the Dharmaśāstras Vol. 5 p. 1-11
  21. ^ Ibid. p. 23
  22. ^ Ibid. p. 28-29
  23. ^ Ibid. p. 39
  24. ^ Ibid. p. 57
  25. ^ Kane, P.V. History of the Dharmaśāstras Vol. 4 p. 37
  26. ^ Kane, P.V. History of the Dharmaśāstras Vol. 5 p. 48-49
  27. ^ Ibid. p. 53
  28. ^ Ibid. p.51
  29. ^ Ibid. p. 57
  30. ^ Ibid. p. 734
  31. ^ Ibid. p. 736
  32. ^ Ibid. p. 727
  33. ^ Ibid. p. 741-743
  34. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 78-79
  35. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 79-80
  36. ^ Ibid. p. 126
  37. ^ Manusmṛti 8.318
  38. ^ Kane, P.V. History of the Dharmaśāstras Vol. 4 p. 72-73
  39. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 63
  40. ^ Ibid. Vol. 4 p. 75
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