By Swami Harshananda
Pātaka literally means ‘that which takes one down to nether regions like hell’.
Belief in a Supernatural Being or Power, generally called as ‘God’, is ingrained in the human psyche. The words of a scripture of the men of God are considered as sacrosanct and hence, inviolable. Not following them or going against them has always been regarded as a sin resulting in grave consequences. These consequences having grave results are called Pātaka.
Synonyms of Pātaka
The scriptures have designated such sins by various names such as:
Concept of Pātaka
The concept of pātaka or sin is as old as the Ṛgveda wherein prayers have been offered to the deities like Āditya, Mitra and Varuṇa for redemption. The question as to what causes sin and how it is committed has been discussed in the dharmaśāstras. The Gitā declares that kāma, krodha and lobha born out of the rajoguṇa are responsible for a person to perpetrate evil deeds, thereby accumulating sins.
Pātaka as per the Scriptures
Some of the earliest dharmaśāstras like those of Gautama, Yājñavalkya and Manu list the following lapses and misdeeds as leading to sins:
- Doing yajña for an unworthy person
- Eating forbidden food
- Speaking untruth
- Neglect of prescribed duties
- Committing deeds declared as evil by the śāstras or holy books
- Lack of self control
In course of time, the list was enlarged to include many more such pātakas.
Results of Pātaka
All the sins will result in physical and psychological suffering. Graphic descriptions of hells given in the purāṇas seem to be an attempt at dissuading human beings from committing sins.
Classification of Pātaka
Sins have been classified in several ways. The most common classification is into three groups:
- Mahāpātakas or atipātakas - they are the most heinous or mortal sins.
- Upapātakas - they are the minor sins, venial sins.
- Prakīrṇa or prāsaṅgika - they are the miscellaneous or incidental sins.
Mahāpātakas or Atipātakas
Under the first category are given the following sins:
- Prohibited sexual relations like incest
- Drinking liquor
- Association with those who have committed these sins
- Reviling the Vedas
- Giving false evidence to harm others
The second category includes such minor sins as:
- Forsaking the sacred fires
- Offending the guru
- Becoming an atheist
- Minor thefts
- Accepting remuneration for teaching the Vedas
It is interesting to note that cutting of big trees for fuel was also included in the latter list.
Prakīrṇa or prāsaṅgika
Sins omitted from these two groups and considered as very minor, are relegated to the third or the last group. The dharmaśāstras and the purāṇas have also specified the prāyaścittas or the various means of reducing the consequences of these sins. They are:
- Pāpanivedana - It means confession. It should be done before God or the sacred fire or the pariṣad.
- Paścāttāpa - It means repentance and a firm resolve, not to repeat the sin.
- Prāṇāyāma - It means restraint of breath. It burns up the impurities of the mind and purifies it. The number should be as prescribed in the śāstras or by the pariṣad.
- Tapas - It means austerity. It has many aspects such as fasting, celibacy, truthfulness, bathing thrice a day, wearing of wet clothes until they dry up on the body, sleeping on the ground, not injuring others, serving the preceptor and so on. The period may extend from one month up to 12 months, depending on the nature of the sin.
- Homa - It means sacrifice into a duly consecrated fire. It it is the Kuṣmāṇḍahoma, using the mantras of the Taittiriya Āranyaka, that is normally prescribed. It has been specially recommended for the expiation of sins. Gaṇahoma and Gāyatrīhoma are also sometimes prescribed. These are preceded by a dīkṣā wherein a set of rules and discipline such as abstaining from meat, sex and falsehood, sleeping on the ground, subsisting on milk and so on are also to be observed strictly. These homas please the deities for whom they are done. They forgive the sins and also grant boons.
- Japa - It means repetition of Vedic passages as prayers. It can be with the Vedic or the Agamic mantras. Certain passages like the Aghamarsanasukta and the Purusa- sukta or the sāmans like Rājata and Rauhineya and also some Upaniṣadic passages are prescribed in the Vedic group. Well-known mantras like the Gāyatrī, the Pañcākṣarī and the Aṣṭākṣarī are recommended in the Agamic group. Any mantra of any deity, duly received from a competent guru, can be used for expiation.
- Dāna - It means giving gifts. For dāna or giving gifts, many things are mentioned such as gold, cow, clothes, horse, land, food etc. Gifts may be offered to the temples and religious institutions also.
- Upavāsa - It means fasting. During upavāsa or fasting, which can be total or partial, the sinner is advised to avoid luxury articles, sleeping in daytime and sex completely.
- Tīrthayātrā - It means pilgrimage. Tīrthayātrā or pilgrimage should be undertaken to well-known and highly recommended places like Kāśī, Badarī, Kedāra and Rāmeśvaram. Association with a saint and serving him is also an aspect of pilgrimage.
Ultimately, following the prescribed disciplines are the best means of overcoming or attenuating the evil effects of sin on one’s life. They are:
- Sincere repentance
- Resolving not to repeat the sinful deeds
- Repetition of God’s name
- Earnest prayer
- The company of holy persons
- Ṛgveda 1.17.1
- Ṛgveda 8.47.2
- Gitā 16.21
- Kāma means lust.
- Krodha means anger.
- Lobha means greed.
- Rajoguṇa is born in the mind.
- Yajña means sacrifice.
- Prāyaścittas means expiations.
- Pariṣad is an assembly of learned persons of unblemished character.
- Fasting can be either partial or full.
- Taittiriya Āranyaka 2.3-6
- Dīkṣā means initiation.
- Rāmamantra often called the Tārakamantra also finds an important place in this group.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore