Reparations, expiations and prāyaścittas

Mīmāṃsā authors distinguish broadly between prescriptions (vidhi) and prohibitions (niṣedha). The first ones are linked with a result, so that if one has fulfilled them, they get a reward. The latter, if respected, don’t lead to any result, whereas they lead to sanctions if transgressed.

Prescriptions are further divided into three groups (fixed, occasional and elective). The first two groups are configured as strong obligations (leading to rewards if fulfilled, but omitted only at the risk of sanctions), whereas the latter are configured as recommendations. As for prohibitions, they are divided into prohibitions applying to the person throughout their lives and prohibitions applying only to a specific context.

Next comes the somehow controversial case of reparations or expiations (prāyaścitta). These are in fact contrary-to-duty prescriptions. Such prescriptions have as their addressee someone who did some- thing wrong during the performance of a sacrifice; therefore, they can be taken to be contrary-to- duty (ctd) prescriptions.

Expiations can be used to eliminate the negative consequences of a transgressed prohibition. That is, after having performed the corresponding expiation, a transgressed kratvartha prohibition does no longer lead to a negative output on the sacrifice, and a transgressed puruṣārtha prohibition does no longer lead to a sanction. In Dharmaśāstra (jurisprudence) texts, for instance, authors discuss expiations to be performed after having transgressed the duty to live in Āryāvarta (the part of South Asia where nobles people live and where liberation can be achieved).

There seems, however, to be a basic difference between the first and the second type of expiations, since the first ones seem to be routinely performed in case of contextual errors. By contrast, the second type of expiations seems to be an undesired alternative. In other words, more research is needed, but it is possible that puruṣārtha expiations are of this form:

F (p) → ¬ p ∨ p ∧ Expiation

By contrast, puruṣārtha expiations seem to have this form:

F (p) → ¬ p ∨ p ∧ Sanction ∨ Expiation ∧ Lesser Sanction

What do readers think? Does my understanding match your knowledge of Mīmāṃsā and/or Dharmaśāstra?

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

4 Replies to “Reparations, expiations and prāyaścittas”

  1. Elisa,

    First, a possible correction: the first logical form represents the kratvartha (not purushaartha) expiation, right?

    Not being schooled in Mimamsa or Dharmashastra, I may not be a suitable commenter on this post. Because I cant yet grasp the intended distinction between kratvartha and purushaartha expiations.

    I assume that “F(p)” represents a prohibition, which always comes with sanctions in case of its violation. Then it seems to be that the two kinds of expiation will have more or less similar logical forms.

    kratvartha ver.1:
    F(p) –> (~p or (p & sanction) or (p & expiation & ~sanction))
    katvartha ver.2:
    F(p) –> (~p or (p –> (sanction or (expiation & ~sanction))))

    purushartha ver.1:
    F(p) –> (~p or (p & sanction) or (p & expiation & lesser sanction))
    purushartha ver.2:
    F(p) –> ~p or ((p –> (sanction or (expiation & lesser sanction)))))

    In other words, the logical forms will be the same, only the content will be slightly different. Is this correct, or hopelessly wrong?

  2. I am still trying to grasp the distinction between prescriptions and prohibitions. I understand from your post and previous comments that the fundamental distinction between these two categories is: prescriptions come with rewards and prohibitions come with sanctions. These Mimamsa concepts are still foreign to me, so I hope you will understand my first efforts at trying to understand them in the terms that are familiar to me.

    (1) In Kantian terms, are prescriptions hypothetical and prohibitions categorical?
    (2) If prohibitions are categorical, why do they come with sanctions? Is there any way that we can construe these sanctions as similar to the rewards that follow upon fulfilling prescriptions? For instance, if prescriptions have the form “if I want X, I ought to Y”, then is there any way to construe prohibitions as having the form “if I do not want X, I ought not to Y”? In that case, prohibitions will be hypothetical after all.
    (3) How are we to understand these sanctions? Are they supernatural, imposed by the gods as punishment? Or do they involve karmic retribution? Or social disapproval? Or can they also involve “internal sanctions” as Mill calls it, involving the disapproval of one’s own conscience?
    (4) How do the Mimamsakas understand the Gita’s recommendation of performing one’s duty while relinquishing the fruits of action? How would it fit with their understanding of duties associated with prescriptions, or with their theory of action?
    (5) You do not mention sanctions in relation to the prohibitions associated with kratvartha expiation. Does that mean these prohibitions do not have sanctions consequent upon their violation?

    As you can see, still trying to climb my way up to a better view of the Mimamsa system. Perhaps with your help I can kick away the ladder.

    • Hi Boram,

      you raise very interesting questions, thanks. Are you sure you don’t want to be involved in our project (see Anyway, please consider dropping me an email (my name dot my surname at
      Here come some preliminary answers:
      1–2) In general, different Mīmāṃsā authors conceptualise commands in different ways. For instance, Maṇḍana consistently explains prescriptions of the form “If you desire X, you should sacrifice” as meaning “sacrifice is the tool to get X”. He did not rephrase prohibitions in the way you suggest, but rather as “doing the forbidden thing is the tool to get to some aniṣṭa”.
      3) again, different authors have different solutions. The more standard one seems to be karmic retribution, but Śabara and Rāmānujācārya also mention social disapproval and inner discontent. Gods never play a role, unless in the Viśiṣṭādvaita revival of Mīmāṃsā.
      4) Vaiṣṇava authors who cherished the BhG considered its duties to be nitya karmans, to be performed independent of desire. Some of them used Prabhākara’s understanding of kārya in this connections, others said that all kāmya karmans should be given up eventually.
      5) I am not sure I am following. If you perform a prāyaścitta upon having transgressed a kratvartha-prohibition, most authors say that you have avoided the sanction.

  3. Hi Elisa,

    I very much appreciate your point-by-point replies to my questions. It is kind of you to encourage my curiosity, rather than pass over it.

    I’m hesitant to accept your offer to join the Mimamsa project. Both Mimamsa and deontic logic are fields that I know little of, though I am very much interested in accounting for normative statements and normativity. Anyway, I will email you about this later.

    Your answers suggest that there is a variety of answers to my questions in the Mimamsa and related traditions.

    The answer to Q(4) sounds esp. intriguing, since I do not know what Prabhakara’s understanding of kaarya is. How would it be possible to engage in action (even if it is nityakarman), independently of desire? Would external sanctions be involved or no?

    Hume also faces a similar problem, because his theory of action/reason is desire- or passion-based (Treatise Desires set the ends of action, which are transferred to the means via instrumental reasoning. One is moved to act by one’s strongest occurrent desire, which often arises in response to one’s immediate circumstances, and often leads one to act on the basis of one’s immediate self-interest. This is why government is needed, to provide the necessary rewards and sanctions to make people abide by the rules of justice.

    However, it seems to me that Hume’s moral psychology does contain an element that can explain how we can abide by general rules independently of our strongest occurrent desires at any given moment, even in the absence of external sanctions. This element I suggest is habit. It provides facility for performing any given type of action that is repeated over time. In Indian moral psychology, perhaps samskara plays a similar role. I wonder if it can be used to account for the performance of nityakarman independently of desires.

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