While carrying out actions in our day to day life, we reap the consequences of those actions in the form of merits and sins. Merits and sins determine the amount of happiness or sorrow we experience. Therefore, it is important to understand how to avoid sinful actions. Although most people strive towards a happy life, those who have a desire for spiritual growth may be curious to understand why merits too, are undesirable on the spiritual path towards God-realisation.
2. Definition of merit and sin
A merit is the consequence of a virtuous act, due to which we experience happiness. Merits are the special energy gained or ability developed by devotedly following a righteous lifestyle. For example, helping friends with finance or advice invites merit. Righteousness and righteous conduct have been described in great detail in a number of Holy texts. Through merits, we bestow welfare on others. For example, donating towards a cancer charity may help a number of patients suffering from cancer, which in turn brings us merits.
A sin is the consequence of a bad act and it brings us sorrow in return. Sins are generated by those acts which are responsible for someone else’s decline. They are generated by acts which bypass or are against the Laws of Nature and God. For example, a market seller who cheats his customers incurs sin. Sins are also generated when one does not fulfil their duties e.g. when a parent does not look after their children’s needs or a doctor doesn’t look after their patients.
Merits and sins may be faced in this life, in the afterlife, or in one of our next lives.
Merits and sins are subtler than the give-and-take account. This is because it is fairly easy to understand the give-and-take account e.g. within a family, but it is more difficult to understand why someone would have insulted a stranger.
3. Causes of merits and sins
There are a number of reasons one may incur merit. The most common ones are:
- Carrying out benevolent acts
- Following righteous conduct as described by Holy texts
- Sacrificing ourselves for the sake of another person’s spiritual practice (sādhanā). For example, a daughter-in-law takes leave from work and looks after the household chores so that her mother-in-law can go on a pilgrimage, then the daughter-in-law gets half the merit that the mother-in-law gains by going on the pilgrimage. However as far as possible it is advisable not to perform spiritual practice by relying on others.
Some of the reasons we incur sin are:
- Selfishness and desire in the form of anger, greed and envy that provoke an individual to sin
- Being unprincipled or cruel
- Speaking disrespectfully to a beggar
- Eating meat and drinking alcohol
- Selling prohibited articles, not repaying debts, conducting ‘black money’ transactions, gambling
- Giving a false testimony, making false accusations
- Adultery, incest, rape etc.
- Killing animals
- Inappropriate expenditure and misappropriation of wealth belonging to God, a temple, spiritual organisation etc.
- Sins are incurred by lawyers when projecting the truth as untruth and vice versa
- A husband gets half of his wife’s demerit since not restraining the wife from committing sin makes him party to her sins
- A wife spending money earned by her husband through unrighteous means and not objecting despite knowing about it.
- By associating oneself with a sinner for a year one also becoming party to their sins
4. Effects of merits and sins
4.1 Effects of merits in the form of happiness
Depending on the quantity of merit, a person experiences proportionate happiness on the Earth region (Bhūlok) as follows, and finally based on merits gained by doing actions with expectations during life on Earth they acquire the happiness of Heaven (Swarga) :
- Birth in a wealthy and cultured family
- Growing income
- Worldly pleasures
- Fulfilment of desires
- A healthy life
- Praise and recognition from society, organisations and government
- Spiritual progress
- Joy of Heaven after death
Being born as a human, being born into a family of good lineage, riches, longevity, a healthy body, good friends, a good son, a loving spouse, devotion to God, intelligence, courteousness, winning over desires and an inclination towards making offerings to the deserving are aspects which are impossible without merit from previous births. When all these are present, the individual who benefits from them and performs spiritual practice, progresses spiritually.
When collective merit increases, the nation excels in its philosophy and conduct, and becomes prosperous.
4.2 Effects of sins in the form of unhappiness
Please see our article on the consequences of sin.
5. How are sins and merits earned?
To understand the concepts of merit and sin, it is important to understand the intention behind any action. This will be clear from the following table, where we have presented the attitude behind the act of earning money and the intention of spending it through several examples. The gravity of sin and merit incurred through this is given next to each example.
6. Limitations of merits
From the perspective of spiritual growth, there are limitations with regards to merits.
6.1 The consequence of merits has to be experienced
A meritorious life takes the individual to the Heaven region in the afterlife, but once the merit is exhausted, the person has to return to Earth in their next birth. Therefore merits are also a type of bondage. Only spiritual practice can take us to the Final Liberation (Moksha).
6.2 Experiencing happiness eventually depletes the merit
As we experience happiness every moment, we deplete our merit, so one has to work towards increasing the merit. This is possible through meritorious actions or spiritual practice. The difference is that meritorious actions bestow happiness, whereas spiritual practice brings about spiritual progress, meaning it bestows Bliss (Ānand), which is beyond merit-sin and joy-sorrow. As a by-product, there is happiness.
7. Summary – merits and sins
Understanding the difference between merits and sins as well as the depth and length of their effect on us helps steer our behaviour and actions. However to become free from both, it is necessary to perform regular spiritual practice.
“Neither is merit saviour in nature, nor is sin destroyer in nature, only spiritual emotion (bhāv) is saviour in nature.” – His Holiness Kane Maharaj, Narayangaon, Pune, Maharashtra, India.