With the advent of mega-retail marketing in In dia, one ubiquitous feature is the rash of ex change offers – from jeans to blenders and from TV sets to luxury cars almost everything that you do not like in your life can be exchanged. Only if you can pay the proper difference in price. How nice would it be if someone could take our bad karmas and for some fee replace them wirh good ones? Previously those who believed in the Vedic way of life also believed in the principle of prilyascitta or atonement. The following tale from the Nitisastra highlights the importance of proper atonement.
There were two sages by the name of Sankha and Likhita. One day, Likhita, the younger brother, happened to visit the asrama of his elder brother. As Sankha was away Likhita decided to wait for him. After considerable time had passed Likhita became hungry and thinking that this was his brother's asrama, he decided to help himself to some ripened fruits that were lying on the ground. As he was in the midst of his small meal Sankha returned and noticed that his brother was enjoying fruits without taking his permission. Even before they exchanged pleasantries, Sankha admonished Likhita for his wrongdoing and ordered him to go to the king and confess his crime. As an obedient younger brother, Likhita stood in front of the king and enquired from him the proper punishment for a thief. The king replied that in his kingdom the only punishment for theft is cutting off the thief's hands.
Likhita then ordered the king to punish him accordingly. The bewildered king denied outright that he would do such a thing unless he has heard the whole story. Therefore, Likhira narrated the entire episode. The king begged the sage not to request the punishment as he had eaten fruits from the household of his own brother and not from a stranger's. Still Likhita stood firm and finally got his hands lopped off.
Profoundly sad fo r losing his limbs and at the same time satisfied that he had followed the proper conduct he returned to his brother's asrama. Without saying a word, Sankha took him to the nearby holy river and both began to take their baths. No sooner than Likhita entered the waters, his hands miraculously re emerged. Likhita happi ly fell at the feet of his brother con fident that this was a result of his prayers.
Upon asked as to why did he impose the ordeal of punishment when he could perform such miracles, Sankha replied that the whole purpose of this episode was to delineate the ways of proper behavior.
Of course, in today's times people would scoff at the whole thing as 'impractical'. And it is so. As a 'sin' becomes a 'sin' taking into consideration the situation under which the particular acrivity was conducted, similarly atonement is also dependent on various factors. In a famous conversation between the learned sage Sukadeva Goswami and his equally illustrious disciple, Pariksit Maharaja, the topic of 'sinful activity and its nullification by prtiyascitta' was discussed. Upon hearing that a ritualistic atonement can adjust the situation, the intelligent king criticized the process. If the atonement does not cleanse the heart of the sinner then what is the value of such a process. The main problem is that the heart of the conditioned soul is filled up with dirty things technically called anarthas that which has negative value. These anarthas fall in six prominent categories cflust, anger, pride, madness, envy and illusion. Maharaja Pariksit cites the example of an elephant taking his ritualistic bath. An elephant is a very big animal, and it takes bath in a lake, very nicely washing his body. Then, as soon as he comes on the bank, he immediately takes some dust and throws it over the body.
Something similar happens to the person performing ritualistic atonement. One reaction to sinful activities is a desire to commit more such sinful activities. While atonement may soften the suffering from past sins, it does not lessen the stockpile of desires that motivate one to commit more such activities. That is why Sukadeva Goswami says (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.11), "Persons who subject themselves to the rules and regulations of atonement are not at all intelligent." Furthermore, pious activities condition one to the resultant enjoyment and thus provide the motivation to perform more such pious activities. Since a soul is forced to accept a material body to live out these reactions, the self-perpetuating reactions of any endeavor bind one to the cycle of birth and death. Sinful acts give me painful reactions and pious acts condition me to enjoy the results and while doing so, I inadvertently commit some more sinful activities and thus again suffer in the future. Is there any end to this neverending story? Mercifully yes.
In Bhagavad-gita Sri Krsna offers a way out. While Krsna concedes, "One cannot even maintain one's physical body without work," He goes on to explain that by abandoning attachment to the results of one's activities, one becomes free of karmic reactions. Such a person is satisfied by gain that comes of its own accord, is undisturbed by success and failure, and is never entangled although performing actions. For such a person the cycle of karma ceases. In verse 18.66 Sri Krsna emphatically states, "Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear." It is important to note that Sri Krsna is recommending that one abandon all varieties of religion, including piolls activities, since such activities will also bind one to the material world. While activities performed in the mood of detachment do not have any reactions, devotional service, performed only for the pleasure of the Lord, goes one-step further. It not only stops the cycle of karma; it relieves one from one's due distress and eradicates the unmanifest desires in various stages of maturity. In Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (1.1.17), Srila Rupa Gosvami describes devotional service, or bhakti, as klesaghni one which eradicates distress: and subhada one which bestows auspiciousness, which means that if one takes to devotional service, all kinds of unnecessary labor and material distress cease entirely and one achieves all good fortune.
In Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.14.19) Krsna explains: "Just as a blazing fire turns firewood into ashes, devotion unto Me completely burns to ashes sins committed by My devotees." The conclusion is that one should not strive too hard for mundane things that may come of their own accord and bind one to material existence, but rather use o ne's valuable time in the service of the Lord.