The Bhagavad Gita

My journey through the Bhagavad Gita

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Sankhya Yoga: What is sin?

June 10th, 2008 · 6 Comments

I found the Lord’s use of the word “sin” to be very interesting.  I am sure a more detailed explanation follows later in the Gita, but for the purposes of the argument here, Sin is defined as not doing ones Dharma (duty, responsibility).  I think this is a unique definition that seems to serve us well.

Most other religions or philosophies have lists of things that you shall not do.  There seem to be such moral absolutes like gluttony, pride, adultery, lying, robbery, not worshiping 5 times a day etc.  This has always seemed as a very rigid system to me.  Because of this definition, we are constantly commiting sins.  For example, we all seem to use what we call “white lies” to smoothen our daily interactions and tactfully deal with people.  In such cases it even seems appropriate and “the right thing to do”.

This aspect of being constant sinners has never sat well with me.  Its like telling a kid in school that he is always doing something wrong: we only get negative feedback.    But worse is the fact that its absolute, with no flexibility to the current situation.  Arjuna also succumbs to this misconception and hence he thinks that fighting against his relatives, teachers and friends will be commiting the worst sin possible.  Thats because he thinks fratricide is moral absolute sin.

Thats why I think its great that the Lord defines sin as not doing ones duty.  There are no moral absolutes.  Everything depends on what your duty is at that time and place.  If your relatives or your kin are doing bad things and it is your duty to protect people, then the execution of your duty is the right thing to do and hence is not sin.

One can argue that all this does is moves the concept of sin one level up from action to duty and that instead of figuring out whether our action is wrong, we have to figure out what our duty is and thats the same thing.  I think this is a critical difference which we shall see in the succeeding stanzas and chapters.   Infact Chapter 3 is on Karma Yoga: the Yoga of Action which teaches us how to perform any action.

Going back to the lack of moral absolutes, can it be really true that there is nothing that is completely wrong or completely right?  How about actions like rape and child molestation?  Can such things be the “right thing” in any conceivable situation?  Or do we still have moral absolutes where these action cannot ever be someones duty and hence will always be sin?

Tags: Asides · Chapter 2

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Suchandra dasi // Nov 3, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Positive reinforcement is really great! It certainly works for me! I guess our job is to find out what our service in life is and do it as nicely as we can.

  • 2 Omkar // Jan 5, 2009 at 10:47 am


    I don’t think the Gita “defines” sin as not doing one’s duty. Broadly speaking, sin can be of two types:
    1. Doing what one should not do. [performance of acts that come under 'adharma']
    2. Not doing what one should do [non-performance of your 'dharma']

    Non-performance of dharma is a type of sin. It is not the only way of sinning. For example, cooking food to satisfy your own palate (and not for offering to Ishvara/devatas) is considered a type of grievous sin in verse 3.13 ( There are many ways of sinning, and by forsaking his svadharma, Arjuna would be committing sin (which doesn’t mean that is the only way of sinning) – note the wording of verse 2.33 –
    svadharmam hitvA pApam avApsyasi = by giving up your svadharma, you will accrue sin
    This is not the same as saying “giving up your svadharma is the only way to sin”.

    The key question here is – if performance of adharma and non-performance of dharma is sin, how does one determine one’s dharma? Dharma is determined by one’s varNa and Ashrama. The scriptures describe what is the svadharma of people in different varNas and Ashramas and that is what is supposed to be followed – see 16.23 ( and 16.24 (


    I don’t think any tradition based on Gita would accept that there are no moral absolutes. The difficulty is in determining what the moral absolutes are. There are disagreements on this, but everyone agrees that there are moral absolutes.

    …to be continued..

  • 3 Omkar // Jan 6, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Before continuing, I just want to clarify that in my comments, I tend to mix up three things:
    1. What I have to say about the issue.
    2. What I feel the Gita has to say about the issue.
    3. What different commentators/scholars on the Gita have to say about the issue.

    My comments generally belong to category 2, and I usually tend to be clear when I’m making comments that belong to category 1 or 3.

    Also, when I give a link to ISKCON’s commentary on the Gita, it is more out of having a speedy reference than out of total agreement with whatever that commentary says. The idea is just to point out what the verse itself in Sanskrit says – it’s very easy to just directly look it up there instead of opening a book.

    As for this:

    “Everything depends on what your duty is at that time and place. If your relatives or your kin are doing bad things and it is your duty to protect >people, then the execution of your duty is the >right thing to do and hence is not sin.”

    ..we can look at it a little more closely. Arjuna’s kShatriya dharma (or varNa dharma) mandates that he needs to fight against injustice. Arjuna’s grihastha dharma (or Ashrama dharma) mandates that elders in the family should not be even verbally insulted, what to speak of killing one’s own grandfather and guru.

    Thus, there is a conflict between his varNa dharma and Ashrama dharma, because the people who are fighting on the side of injustice are also his relatives. The result is that Arjuna finds himself in a conflicting situation where he is unable to decide what to do – “dharma-sammUDha-chetAH” (

    Overpowered by his emotional attachment to his family members, Arjuna argues for why he should not fight because it would violate his Ashrama dharma. However, Krishna points out that there is nothing more important than carrying out his kShatriya dharma –

    Thus, Krishna favors a resolution of the conflict in total favor of kShatriya dharma. A modern analogy would be that of a high court judge who has to pass a sentence on a bunch of criminals (the same role that kShatriyas had in those days). Suppose it dawns on him that the criminals who he has to sentence are his own family members. Can he argue for letting them go because it would be sinful to harm one’s family members? Rather, it would be considered a petty weakness, as Krishna calls it – kShudram hR^idaya-daurbalyam tyaktvA uttiShTha parantapa! –

    Thus, there is “one morally right thing to do” in the context, a resolution between the two conflicting duties. Arjuna may not be able to clearly discern what it is, but as far as the Gita is concerned, that “moral absolute” is for Arjuna to fight. And by not following that “moral absolute”, Arjuna would incur sin.

    Thus, if we merely define sin as “not doing one’s duty”, it would lead to a logical objection – which duty? Duty towards family members as a grihastha or duty towards society as a kShatriya? No matter what decision Arjuna takes (fight/not fight) he would be giving up one of these duties!

  • 4 admin // Jan 7, 2009 at 8:45 am

    I see no conflict in my definition of doing ones duty and I think that Arjuna is giving up one of his duties while performing the other. I think what the Lord says is that there is no sin attached because of the way the duty is performed without attachment to the outcome.

    Secondly, your comment does not show how moral absolutes can exist. My point about moral absolutes is that while in general not killing things is the right thing to do, in certain circumstances as in the case here, it is the appropriate thing. Hence the absolute is not in the action, but the motive behind the action.

    So my question is whether there is any rightful motive that would deem actions such as rape as ever appropriate?

  • 5 lg // Mar 7, 2009 at 6:08 am

    I think this is very radical approach to this problem.

  • 6 bhattathiri // Apr 4, 2009 at 7:31 am

    Excellent article.What makes the Holy Gita a practical psychology of transformation is that it offers us the tools to connect with our deepest intangible essence and we must learn to participate in the battle of life with right knowledge?. It shows us the path to handle the situation with equipoise mind irrespective of what comes our way and reminds us time and again, that what the right action is.

    Indian Vedic contribution is a reservoir of Vibrant Information and Harmonious Creativity. May the Womb of Nature Embrace all with Tranquil Blessings from this day forward. Let this attract one’s attention affecting them Positively. It is a Sanctuary of the Self , a Creative Venue which serves as an Enduring Expression of Lightness, where a peaceful Atmosphere with Sunlight Flows and serene atmosphere prevail.

    In the storm of life we struggle through myriads of stimuli of pressure, stress, and muti-problems that seek for a solution and answer. We are so suppressed by the routine of this every life style that most of us seem helpless. However, if we look closely to ancient techniques we shall discover the magnificent way to understand and realize the ones around us and mostly ourselves. If only we could stop for a moment and allow this to happen. May all beings be happy (Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu)

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