Confession of Sins
"Here the Visnudutas say that the Vedic scriptures recommend various means of atonement, by which a person may be delivered from the reactions of his sinful activities. In Christianity there is also a means of atonement. If a Catholic commits a sin, for example, he is instructed to go to a priest and confess: "I have committed such-and-such sin." The priest is supposed to be an authorized representative of God, and so if he excuses the sinner, the sin becomes nullified.
However, such atonement cannot purify the sinful man as much as the purifying process of chanting the holy name of Lord Krsna. The man who confesses to having sinned leaves the church and often commits the same sin again. In other words, there is no question of becoming purified by this process of atonement.
Still, atonement of various kinds is recommended in the Vedas for those who are not ready to take up the process of pure devotional service. These methods of atonement are proportional to the the severity of the sin they are meant to counteract. For example, if we fall sick with a cough or influenza, the cost of medicine prescribed by the doctor may be little, but if we are stricken with tuberculosis, the medicine will be more costly. Likewise, prayascitta, or the ritualistic ceremonies for counteracting sinful activities, is proportionately less or greater according to the gravity of the sin. If we commit a grievous sin, then the penance will be severe. These are the prescriptions given by great sages like Parasara Muni and Manu. The sages have composed twenty kinds of scriptures, constituting the dharma-sastra, and these scriptures are meant for atoning for one's sins and elevating one to the heavenly planets. For example, it is said that if one has committed certain crimes, he must vow to fast for a certain number of days or give charity. Or, a businessman who has earned a million dollars by sinful activities must give in charity accordingly.
There are many such prescribed methods of atonement, but here the Visnudutas say, "Although these prescribed methods of atonement are authorized and true, they cannot purify the heart." We can see that even though the adherents of Hinduism, Mohammedanism, and Christianity perform such rituals of atonement, they cannot refrain from again committing the same sins. One who practices these principles of atonement is like a rascal patient who goes to a physician for treatment. The physician gives him medicine and instructs him how to take it, but the foolish patient takes the medicine according to his own whims, and so his condition worsens. Again he goes to the physician, crying "Doctor, please give me more medicine."
In this regard, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura describes an incident that took place when Samba, one of Lord Krsna's sons, was rescued from the punishment of the Kauravas. Samba fell in love with Laksmana, the daughter of Duryodhana, and since according to ksatriya custom one is not offered a ksatriya's daughter unless he displays his chivalrous valor, Samba abducted her. Consequently Samba was arrested by the Kauravas. Later, when Lord Balarama came to rescue him, there was an argument about Samba's release. Since the argument was not settled, Balarama showed His power in such a way that all of Hastinapura trembled and would have been vanquished as if by a great earthquake. Then the matter was settled, and Samba married Duryodhana's daughter. The purport is that one should take shelter of Krsna and Balarama, whose protective power is so great that it cannot be equaled in the material world. However powerful the reactions of one's sins, they will immediately be vanquished if one chants the name of Hari, Krsna, Balarama, or Narayana.
Therefore such rituals of atonement as fasting and giving charity are not accepted by the Visnudutas. They say, "Such prescribed ritualistic ceremonies cannot purify a man as effectively as chanting the holy name of God." Undoubtedly one becomes free from all contamination of sinful life by executing particular religious principles, but these are ultimately insufficient, because the mind is so disturbed that even after being freed from the contamination of sinful reactions, the mind again becomes attracted to sinful activity.
The purificatory power of devotional service to Krsna, beginning with the chanting of the holy name, is stated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.2.42): bhaktih paresanubhavo viraktir anyatra ca. "Devotional service to the Lord is so powerful that one who performs it is immediately freed from all material desires." All desires within this material world are sinful because material desire means sense gratification, which always involves action that is more or less sinful. But pure devotional service is anyabhilasita-sunya, free from material desires. One who is situated in devotional service no longer has material desires, and thus he is beyond sinful life. Material desires should be completely stopped. Otherwise, although one's austerities, penances, and charity may free one from sin for the time being, one's desires will reappear because his heart is impure. Thus he will act sinfully and suffer. The special advantage of devotional service is that it frees one of all material desires.
One cannot purify one's heart by atonement alone. A patient suffering from syphilis goes to the doctor, who gives him an injection and charges a high fee. Yes, he may be cured, but when he again engages in illicit sex, he once again contracts syphilis. So his heart was not purified of the desire for illicit sex. But if one takes to Krsna consciousness, he forgets illicit sex. That is the test of one's Krsna consciousness. A sincere devotee never commits sin, because his heart has become purified by chanting the holy name and engaging in devotional service.
Of course, there are pseudodevotees who commit sinful activities on the strength of chanting Hare Krsna. They are great offenders against the holy name. We should not use the holy name like a machine, thinking that because the chanting process consumes sinful reactions we can freely commit more sin. This is the greatest offense against the holy name of Krsna. Whatever sins we may have previously committed are immediately eradicated by offenseless chanting of the holy name of the Lord, even just once. But we must not sin again. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu forgave the sinful Jagai and Madhai, who had been drunkards, woman-hunters, meat-eaters, and gamblers. But these two sinners fell down at the lotus feet of Lord Caitanya and Nityananda Prabhu and cried, "Sirs! We are so sinful! Kindly deliver us." Lord Caitanya agreed on the condition that they promise not to commit any more sins. He said, "Whatever you have done I shall excuse, but do not do it again." Thus Jagai and Madhai vowed, "This is the end of our sinful activities. We shall not do them anymore." When a person is initiated by a spiritual master, the reactions of his sins immediately become nullified. But that does not mean he can again commit sins.
Krsna consciousness means following in the footsteps of Lord Caitanya, and so we initiate disciples according to the principle he showed in the case of Jagai and Madhai. We accept many people into our Society as duly initiated disciples, but only if they vow to observe these regulations: no more illicit sex, no more gambling, no more intoxication, and no more animal-killing or meat-eating. These regulations are necessary, because if one takes up spiritual life and at the same time goes on committing sinful activities, he will never be able to make progress. As Krsna clearly says in the Bhagavad-gita (7.28),
yesam tv anta-gatam papam
bhajante mam drdha-vratah
"Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life and whose sinful actions are completely eradicated are freed from the dualities of delusion, and they engage themselves in My service with determination."
If we are actually serious about entering into the kingdom of God, Vaikuntha, then we should be very careful to follow the four regulative principles mentioned above. One must not have any sex except to have children within marriage. One must not indulge in intoxication. One must not gamble. And one must not eat meat, fish, or eggs or anything else beyond the foods established for human beings--grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, and sugar. Such foodstuffs are sattvika, or pure and good, and they are allotted for human consumption. One should not imitate the cats and dogs, reasoning that because the animals are eating meat, human beings can do likewise. If everything eatable is food, why not eat stool? Stool is also food--hogs eat stool. But human beings should not eat like hogs, who will eat all kinds of unclean foods. We have to discriminate. If we want to enter into spiritual life, we must observe these four principles of restriction. This may mean undergoing some austerity, but this is the purpose of human life. When we have purified our existence through austerity, we will be eligible to enter into the kingdom of God, but without being purified, we can never enter."
Second Chance, Chapter 16
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.