One of the most fascinating aspects of Hinduism is how it constantly reinvents and transforms itself. And yet it is the embodiment of the French saying, plus ça change plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Take for instance the seismic shifts in the ontology of the divine, unimaginable by the way in any other religion.
Through the ages, divinity has resided in forces of nature, in personal iṣṭa devas, in an impersonal substratum of the universe — in a river, a tree, a stone. The same is true for forms of worship – from early Vedic sacrifice to temple worship as we know it today. Despite this protean nature, Hinduism remains a valid analytical category and is instantly recognisable to its followers.
One aspect of Hinduism, which has metamorphosed through the ages but has not received sufficient consideration is that of prāyaścitta. To me it was always a curiosity that Arjuna, who was doing a 12 year prāyaścitta managed to marry two princesses along the way and even procreated. How different that sounds to atonement of sins as we know it today! How did these changes take place, and why don't we know more about them? It could be because most of the details are to be found in some of the most difficult and inaccessible Sanskrit texts – the brāhmaṇas, śrautasūtras and dharmasūtras. Also, with the rise of Bhakti, older practices were marginalised. With the grace of the divine becoming instrumental in washing away sins, there are fewer processes of prāyaścitta that we need to know about.
Examining the reasons why prāyaścitta changed so much through the ages is outside the scope of this article. But in describing the transformations, I hope to intrigue you enough to embark on a journey of discovery yourself. The word prāyaścitta appears for the first time in the Atharva-veda (14.1) and was unknown in earlier saṃhitas. The Ṛg vedic form, the earliest, is in fact is closer to atonement as we know it today. The apogee of asking for pardon for sins is found in book seven, where Vasiṣṭha implores Varuṇa to tell him what his sins are and to release him from them. Whatever I've done wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, may the divine lord show mercy and release me, his sakhā (friend), his stotā (one who praises).
Fast forward to the brāhmaṇa period, perhaps 800 years later, and an epistemic change seems to have taken place. Far from inviting and imploring the gods to attend one's sacrifice, the Vedic yajña has become so powerful and overwhelmingly supreme that when performed correctly, the gods are compelled to come and fulfil the objective of the yajamāna (sacrificer). Prāyaścitta now becomes a mode of mending, healing, or putting right wrongdoings in the sacrifice. Because if the sacrifice is compromised, all is lost. The personal sins of the yajamāna are removed by the performance of the sacrifice, as in the Aśvamedhayajña of Yudhiṣṭirato atone for sin of fratricide in the Mahabhārata.
Ritual mistakes, accidents, pollution, acts of nature, ominous portents, all have to be immediately redressed. For instance if one of the fires goes out, or an insect falls into the oblation, or the sky darkens, or the priest's wife dies, or the sacrificer falls ill or dies, one of the pots breaks; whether deliberate or unintentional, even the slightest error must be corrected. This is normally done through cleansing with water or fire, and/or the recitation of specific mantras from the appropriate saṃhita.
Entire sections of the brāhmaṇas are devoted to expiatory rites for the yajña covering every imaginable mishap. Chapter 25 of book 5 and chapter 32 of book 7 of Aitareya Brāhmaṇa contain such rites. You could sample some from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, which is more easily accessible.
The Brāhmaṇas are most fascinating texts, full of ritual detail about the Vedic sacrifice, myths of origin, explanatory back stories about specific rituals, and etymological speculation of how gods and sacrificial elements are named. That does, however, make them very long, and therefore manuals called śrautasūtras were abstracted, which dealt only with the performance of the Vedic sacrifice and with expiatory prāyaścitta rites. For instance, Chapter 25 of the Kātyāyanaśrautasūtra (KS) and chapters 27-30 of Baudhāyanaśrautasūtra.
In reading these examples, note the rural milieu of the sacrifice and its proximity to the araṇya or wilderness: For instance in KS 25.6.8, "If a crow sits on the yūpa (sacrificial post), the udgātṛ offers an oblation (into the Āhavanīya fire) with the mantra ā pavasvahiraṇyavat … etc" and in KS 25.6.10, "If the cow from which the milk for the gharma rite is to be obtained is killed by a tiger the (adhvaryu) should offer (six) oblations known as the spṛtihomas with the formulas candrāt spṛṇāmisvāhā…etc."
In the dharmasūtras, yet another epistemic shift seems to have taken place. The sacrifice by this time has lost its primacy and the burden of removing sins shifts to the individual. However, as Walter Kaebler points out in his fascinating book Tapta Marg, the austerities and abstinence the yajamāma undergoes when he is a dīkṣita (consecrated for the sacrifice) are reinvented as prāyaścitta in the dharma texts.
Fasting, abstinence from sexual intercourse, not eating meat, sitting before a fire, bathing in cold water – all these are recast as expiatory rites, now undertaken not as part of any ritual which will bring reward, but in themselves, to atone for sins.
The dharmasūtras predate Manu by quite a few centuries. If you wish the read them in Sanskrit, search for them by their names here. And the sins are many. Āpastambadharmasūtra (ĀD) 1.21.5-11 enumerates "transgressions serious as to lead to a loss of caste and requiring very severe punishment. Killing a brahmin, having sexual intercourse with the wife of the guru, stealing (gold), drinking alcohol. Others are theft, acts causing infamy, homicide, neglect of the Vedas, abortion, sex with the siblings of one's mother or father, or with their children, sex with those with whom sex is forbidden, sex with a friend of one's female or male elders or with the wife of another man.
Lesser sins that may or may not lead to loss of caste are sex with śūdras on the part of ārya women; eating the meat of forbidden animals; eating a śūdra's leftovers and sex with a degraded woman on the part of Āryas ((ĀD)1.21.13-17). The prāyaścittas are severe to moderate depending on the gravity of the transgression. They range from recitation of the symbol Om and certain formulae/verses like abliṅga, bahiṣpavamāna, gayatrī, kuṣmāṇḍa and vāruṇī ;reciting the entire Veda, bathing, fasting, holding one's breath, submerging oneself in a cold river in the winter, standing in the scorching sun in the summer. You will find a fairly detailed description in Vasiṣṭhadharmasūtra(VD) 20.1 to 28.15.
Meanwhile girlfriends and sisters, you'll be pleased to know that other than exceptional circumstances, you don't have to do prāyaścittas since your monthly period itself is a continuous purification. (VD 28.4) The next (and current) episteme is that of Bhakti, which begins at the turn of the common era, as exemplified by Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagvad Gita (although mūrtis of Devī in her Mahīṣāsuramardinī form have been found in Mathura and dated several centuries earlier). Here we find a completely different formation of prāyaścitta. All one needs to do is surrender one's self with pure intent to one's iṣṭa deva/devī and beg forgiveness.
We still perform austerities - we fast, give up things, do tapas but it is mostly to ask for a boon and occasionally in keeping with the dharmasūtraspirit of self-purification and punishment. Why these changes took place, how these forms came about, how is it that Hinduism can change so much and still stay the same? I'm still looking for answers.
Happily, nearly four thousand years on, I can go back to reading one of Vaṣiṭha's hymns and just substitute Varuṇa with my own iṣṭa-deva, Vaṣiṭha with myself and so long as I do it with a pure heart and good intent, I'm home and dry, rid of my sins… Sample Ṛg Veda 7.86 1-4 as it was translated during the Sanskrit appreciation hour on Twitter here.