What does Hinduism say about sin and atonement?

Part 2 of a multi-faith series

Thank you to Padma Kuppa

The definition of the English word sin is “a transgression of a religious or moral law, especially when deliberate; disobedience to the will of God.” Similarly, atonement is “reparation or expiation for sin.”

While the Sanskrit word “paapa” is returned as the translation for the word “sin,” and the word “prayascitta” translates to “atonement” in the Apte English Sanskrit Dictionary, the gold standard recommended by my former Sanskrit teacher, there are no specific commandments for Hindus to follow, or any will of God that one is commanded to adhere to.  Instead, there are yama and niyama – these are more like ethical guidelines that help one in living life well. The words punya and paapa are commonly paired – sort of “merits” and “demerits” which can be acquired as a result of one’s actions, words, and thoughts – an accumulation that impacts one’skarma.

But there are a wide variety of ways to understand the Hindu concept of punya and paapa, and one is presented by the monks at Hinduism Today. In discussing sin and suffering, they have this to say, in answering the questions “What Is Sin? How Can We Atone for It?:

“Sin is the intentional transgression of divine law. There is no inherent or “original” sin. Neither is there mortal sin by which the soul is forever lost. Through sadhana, worship and austerities, sins can be atoned for.

The great sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharishi, answered the question “Is it possible to sin?” thus: Having a body, which creates illusion, is the only sin, and the body is our only hell.  But it is right that we observe moral laws.

And the great Hindu monk who initiated interfaith dialogue at the Parliament of World Religions over a century ago, Swami Vivekananda said, “Sin may be said to be the feeling of every kind of weakness. From this weakness spring jealousy, malice, and so forth. Hence weakness is sin… Have no weakness even in the face of death. Do not repent, do not brood over past deeds, and do not remember your good deeds; be âzâd (free).