What is a definition of a sin? What are the criteria by which an act becomes sinful?

  • 2
    Dharma is that, doing which, brings us good (hitam, purushartham). Adharma is that which brings us harm (mentally, physically, in this life, or next). Sin is english word for papa (doing adharma). Shastras declare what is to be done, and what is to not be done. Not doing what is to be done, and doing what is not to be done is Adharma. Dharma is may be applicable to all people, places & times, or varying based on many factors. Punya/Papa is very sukshma (fine/invisible), so it is best to learn from elders and guru. Yudhistira (Dharma Raja) himself says so in Mahabharata Yaksha Prashna.
    – ram
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 20:59
  • Related: What is the definition of Dharma? Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 19:35
  • "paropakara punyaya paapayah parapeedanam"
    – user1195
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 2:48
  • @moonstar2001 translation? Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:11
  • @Rohit. Translation :- "helping others is meritorious, and hurting others is a sin." Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 5:09

4 Answers 4


Sin: Actions performed out of desire or anger.
If the One (Purusha / consciousness) is attached to the actions performed under the influence of rajas guna (mode of passion), would incur sin.
Rajas is directly related to Adharma.

BG 3.36 - Arjuna said, O scion of the Vrsni dynasty (Krsna), impelled by how does this person(Purusha) commit sin even against wish, as of constrained by force?
BG 3.37 - The blessed lord said: This desire(kAma), this anger(krodha), born out of passion(Rajas) -- are great devourers(consumers), great sinners; Know that to be enemy here.
BG 14.7 - Rajas is the nature of passion, which is produced from lust & attachment; That binds the embodied [soul] through attachment to action.

The result of sin / Rajas is sorrow(dukha).

BG 18.38 - From the combinations of sense subjects (desires), which appears nectar in the beginning, but results in poison, -- that enjoyment is considered from Rajas

Important to note that, one has to be attached to the actions of Rajas, to be able to incur sin, not otherwise.

To extend further, all initiations (Arambha) are faulty, one way or the other way. Hence one should act, depending on own nature & circumstances. Because outside the context of Prakruti, the supreme reality doesn't care about sins & good deeds:

BG 18.48 — O son of Kunti, trivial(natural) Karma should never be given up, even though [it is] faulty; All initiations [of Karma] are faulty, like how smoke covers the fire.
BG 5.15 - The Omnipresent neither accepts anybody's sin nor even virtue. Knowledge remains covered by ignorance. Thus the creatures become deluded.

  • You have given sufficient condition for an act to be labeled as a sin, not necessary. I want both necessary & sufficient condition. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:03
  • @Rohit, can you clarify by an example, what do you mean by "necessary"? According to the answer, if one performs an action with "desire & anger -- i.e. passion", it's sufficient to generate a sin. However the necessity is that one has to attach to it. For example, if A kills B, then it could be incurring a sin. However, if the A genuinely believes that the killing was destined, then it's not a "sin" from A's perspective. 'A' doesn't care about reactions in this case. Just a coarse analogy.
    – iammilind
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:09
  • 2
    Good one. I think Tamas can also result in sins. Anything against Dharma can be termed as sin, we can even perform some acts out of ignorance.
    – The Destroyer
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:46
  • @TheDestroyer, thx. Actually Tamas (ignorance) is orthogonal to both sattva & rajas. (like 3D X, Y, Z axis). The rajas i.e. sins still keep one on the same level. Strong desires would transform one into a pitru or demon after the death. But the tamas brings one towards the downward regions like -- bhuta/preta, animals, insects etc.. They actually don't know what/why they are doing something. They just do things, but in wrong way. That goes towards the downward liberation, where the lifetime reduces to lowest minimum durations & then 0.
    – iammilind
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:54

While its very easy to ask such questions but at the same time extremely difficult to answer IMO.

But, still i have managed to come up with an extremely short answer :D.

Te hlAdaparitApaphalAh punyApunyahetutvAt


Because Punya (merit) and PApa or Apunya (demerit) are their causes, their effects are respectively Ananda (happiness or bliss) and Dukkha (sadness).

PAtanjala Yoga Sutras, SAdhana PAda-14.

We don't need to know what "they" are in this verse because that's irrelevant here.

So, going in the reverse order, any act whose effect is Dukkha (sadness) is demerit or sin.

Now, if you say that this is highly subjective, then i would say even what's sin and what's not is also highly subjective and changes with person, context etc.

We can also see the following verse from Manu Smriti:

Manu Smriti 2.12. The Veda, the sacred tradition, the customs of virtuous men, and one’s own pleasure (or own conscience), they declare to be visibly the fourfold means of defining the sacred law.

VedAh smritih sadAchArah swayasya cha priyam Atmanah- These are the fourfold means.

1) So, anything that's being declared in Vedas or Smritis as sin is a sin.
2) Anything that's not according to the principles of righteous living (sadAchAra) is a sin.
3) Even anything that our own conscience is marking as sin is a sin.

  • Few queries: any act whose effect is Dukkha (sadness) is demerit or sin. -- did you mean immediate effect or long term effect? The immediate effect of sAtvika actions is dukha (BG 18.37) and immediate effect of rAjasika actions is sukha (BG 18.38). anything that's being declared in Vedas or Smritis as sin is a sin -- does that also include those people, who don't have an access to Veda/Smriti? Somewhere I read that, action committed due to lack of knowledge may not result in sin.
    – iammilind
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 6:10
  • @iammilind 1) I guess any act that eventually leads to Dhukkha. 2) Yes i have also read something similar. If a person does some act with an innocent mind (not realizing that he is committing a bad karama) then he does not incur any sin. But this point is debatable.
    – Rickross
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 6:59

What is the criteria by which an act becomes a sin?

There cannot be an exact criteria for sin (pāpa) simply because there isn't exact criteria for dharma (righteous action). According to the Mahābhārata (Arjuna speaking to Draupadī):

There is no act that is wholly meritorious, nor any that is wholly wicked. Right or wrong, in all acts, something of both is seen.

I've tried to explain in this answer how using a knife on someone, depending on the context, can be considered dharmic (righteous) or adharmic (sinful).

Ramana Maharshi, however, suggests everyone is born in sin because mere thoughts give rise to sin.

Devotee: What is yoga?
Bhagavan: Yoga (union) is necessary for one who is in a state of viyoga (separation). But really there is only One. If you realize the Self there will be no difference.

D: Is there any efficacy in bathing in the Ganges?
B: The Ganges is within you. Bathe in this Ganges; it will not make you shiver with cold.

D: Should we sometimes read the Bhagavad Gita?
B: Always.

D: May we read the Bible?
B: The Bible and the Gita are the same.

D: The Bible teaches that man is born in sin.
B: Man is sin. There is no feeling of being man in deep sleep. The body-thought brings out the idea of sin. The birth of thought itself is sin.

D: The Bible says that the human soul may be lost.
B: The 'I' thought is the ego and that is lost. The real 'I' is 'I am that I am.'

[True Happiness: The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi]

  • Ramana Maharshi is right about "birth of thought as sin". Actually any action which is distinguishable as good or bad, is sinful according to some of the saints (like Ramana). They are in the context of liberation & binding. If a good deed also binds, then for those saints it's a sin. For them there may not be a concept of prAyashchita (repent = sin). For the other saints & majority of the common people, sin is counted in context of binding. Good bindings are not sins, but bad bindings are sins. Both the groups are right in their own way. BTW good answer. This made me edit my answer as well.
    – iammilind
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 12:13
  • So far I have concluded - Ideally : Any act which hinder self realization is a sin (As Ramana Maharshi too say). Practically : Any act which causes lower birth (like of animal, insect) is a sin. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:10
  • And have you completely read the book? What books of Ramana Maharshi have you read so far? Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:18
  • @Rohit I don't have the book I only linked to it because I was searching for a proper source for the quote I read somewhere else on the same topic. 'Any act which causes lower birth' - I don't take it to be literally true. I think it's meant to be a deterrent to immoral behavior and also a man cannot lead a normal life constantly wondering if his next birth is going to be a pig, mosquito etc. after each sin :) Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 21:14
  • @Rohit lower birth is caused by "ignorance" (tamas), & it may not be sin always (BG 14.5)
    – iammilind
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:12

From the direct inference from the verse which I am gonna post below,

Sin is the opposite of Yoga. Any act which breaks the bond of unity with the fellow creatures or the creator or the ultimate reality is sin.

From ShivRahasya chapter 11.I have answered on another answer about Explanations on the laws of unity.

  1. Verily, My Love for man manifests itself in that I give him life of my Own Life and that I offer him sustenance, guidance and protection. And man's love of Me shall be seen in his following of My Law. By the following thereof he abides in Unity with Me. Therefore, he who desires a long and happy life in this World and the next, shall ever abide by the Law of Unity. He who abides not thereby goes the Path of Separation which is the Path of Sin and Discord.
  • Sin is the opposite of Yoga. Any act which breaks the bond of unity with the fellow creatures or the creator or the ultimate reality is sin. Can we have source of this verse? Commented Jun 13, 2021 at 14:19

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