“A sinful life can be counteracted by various processes of religion such as yajna, vrata and dana—that is, the performance of sacrifices, the taking of a vow for some religious ritual, and the giving of charity. In this way one may become free from the reactions of sinful life and at the same time awaken his original Krishna consciousness.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.27.1 Purport)
Mention the concept of sin or sinful life in general conversation and there may be an immediate disavowal based on past experiences with threats of hellfire and eternal damnation. The dogmatic insistence was too much to take, as logic dictates that flawed individuals can’t correct every error merely through blind allegiance to a particular institution or a profession of faith. Moreover, the people pushing the hardest seem to have the most flaws themselves, deep enough to warrant legitimate skepticism.
The Vedas explain that papa [sin] is paired with punya [piety]. Something like the reverse of up or good. High and low. Hot and cold. These are dualities in a material existence, representing relative positions. Piety is like moving forward, progressing, and sin like retreating, regressing.
At the basic level sin is doing something the wrong way. As an example, driving on the left side of the road in America is sinful. There are negative consequences in most circumstances. Even if nothing should happen because the roads are empty on a particular day, there is still a negative consequence in that the illusion of lack of punishment promotes the dangerous behavior going forward.
Other than the risk of a tragic accident, the most basic punishment for this transgression is apprehension by police. Suspension of the driving license. Perhaps jail-time. After doing the time for the crime, the penalty is hopefully removed. The slate is wiped clean, so to speak.
In Vedic culture there are different ways to be absolved of general sin. In truth, there is an original mistake, so to speak, which led to the fall from a specific place, causing residence in the land of duality. Correcting that error is the best way to be absolved of all subsequent sinful behavior and their reactions, including vulnerability to recidivism.
This is sacrifice. A formal worship ceremony. Something where you call a priest over to the home and gather certain items. Repeat specific mantras and offer oblations into a fire. Sometimes the individual can do the yajna themselves, if they happen to be qualified in the area.
Yajna brings all-around auspiciousness, as well. As an example, King Dasharatha of Ayodhya was extremely pious, but at an advanced age he still lacked an heir to the throne. At the advice of a priest-like person he conducted a yajna. Soon thereafter his queens became pregnant and Dasharatha was blessed with four capable sons.
This is a vow. In the religious context, there is some kind of austerity. Something equivalent outside of the religious realm would be avoiding a specific activity after a certain mistake was made.
“Last week I drove on the wrong side of the road, so I am taking myself away from driving for at least one week. I won’t get behind the wheel. This way I will learn my lesson.”
In Vedic culture there is the Satyanarayana Vrata, commonly observed once a month on the full moon day to bring general auspiciousness to the individual and their surroundings. Wives fast for an entire day once a year to bless their husbands. Twice a month a person may observe a vow of abstaining from grains and beans. This both avoids sin and helps to increase consciousness of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who happens to be synonymous with yajna.
This is charity. To an appropriate recipient and at the right time. Not randomly giving money away, especially to someone who won’t use it properly. I may think I am helping the beggar on the street with offering a few dollars, but if the money is subsequently used for committing a sinful act, then I am partially implicated. I lent some support to a behavior that requires absolution.
Dana is a kind of austerity, as well. It is said that a person who gives away in charity properly receives much more in return. The benefit may not arrive in the present lifetime, but surely the future looks brighter. It is a way to clear the consciousness, as well, for ahankara fools a person into associating with their acquired possessions, which are merely on loan from a higher authority.
This is correcting the original mistake mentioned previously. Sinful life at its core is turning away from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The many mistakes committed after this turn are classified as sinful since they keep a person away from their natural state.
Though bhakti should not be used for the express purpose of counteracting sin, there is no denying the effect. Shri Krishna is the swift-deliverer from danger for the people surrendered to Him. There is no discrimination in terms of how long such a person has surrendered, where they come from, how many lifetimes they have spent in sin, or what their motivations may have been in the recent past.
ये तु सर्वाणि कर्माणि
मयि सन्न्यस्य मत्-पराः
मां ध्यायन्त उपासते
तेषाम् अहं समुद्धर्ता
भवामि न चिरात् पार्थ
ye tu sarvāṇi karmāṇi
mayi sannyasya mat-parāḥ
māṁ dhyāyanta upāsate
teṣām ahaṁ samuddhartā
bhavāmi na cirāt pārtha
“For one who worships Me, giving up all his activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, who has fixed his mind upon Me, O son of Pritha, for him I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.6-7)
Assessing the different methods, a wise person would conclude that bhakti is the best option. There is additional protection against future mistakes. This is because a person seriously engaged in bhakti-yoga has little time for life outside of yoga, which is connection with the Divine. If I am on the right path, then there is no question of getting lost. If I correct myself here and there but return to the place of danger, there is every chance of slipping up again.
In this age of Kali practicing bhakti-yoga and enjoying its benefits have been made easier. Simply chant the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. As a routine followed under proper authority and guidance, this single practice has the potency to remove concern for piety and sin altogether.
Punishment soon to be paid,
By that costly mistake made.
From Vedas way to counteract,
Like yajna with mantra exact.
Dana for possessions to give,
And vrata with restriction to live.
But bhakti the best of them all,
Because Krishna helping on call.
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