During the early phases of the classical Indian law literature (dharmaśāstra) all elements in the life of the brāhmin householder had been gradually ritualized. Now, the institution of penance (prāyaścitta) – rituals that had the power to negotiate the invisible karmic effects of wrong acts or undone duties – became increasingly important. This was a break with the normative doctrines of karma formulated in the early Upanishads. According to these doctrines karma and rebirth were the negative elements of a life in the world that the groups behind the Upanishads themselves rejected. But as this ascetic ideal was gradually modified and included in a more worldly householder ideology, attitudes to karma and rebirth changed. The stress was laid on a good birth rather than on liberation, and techniques to control the bad karma, which was now seen as an unavoidable part of life, were therefore developed. Behind these developments was a struggle for religious dominance, in particularly in relation to economic support. At the same time penance, which made hidden transgressions visible, was a strong means of social control. The article highlights penance as rituals that negotiate power at these different levels. In doing so, penance is compared to other karma-negotiating rites described in the law books, such as votive rites (vrata) and propitiatory rites (śānti).
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