Almost all religions enjoin their followers to resort to some kind of penance in the form of abstinence, fasting and even self inflicted pain as expiation for one’s sins. Some religions have prescribed certain periods like Advent and Lent for Christians, Ramzan for Muslims and Ekadasi for Hindus and Jains. The Hindus have the practice of fasting as a preparation for many festivals. For example, large numbers of Hindus undertake fasting during the nine days of Durga pooja in preparation of Durga festival. Although penance has an objective of enhancing the will power of a person through self control, often the ordinary people understand penance as a means for propitiating God for the sins one has committed. Fear of God’s punishment while living on earth or after one’s death is the main motive for undertaking penance by the ordinary people.
Jesus and John the Baptist started their mission with a clarion call for repentance, but they did not recommend any penance as atonement for one’s sins. John the Baptist spoke vehemently on the need for repentance or change of heart, resulting in transformation in the life of a person. According to Jesus repentance and reconciliation are essential conditions to become his disciple. But he did not recommend any penance as such. On the other hand he taught through the parable of the Prodigal Son that God’s forgiveness is unconditional. It is very unfortunate that some ignorant preachers ask people to do penance not only for their sins but also for the sins committed by their forefathers.
Luke chapter 3 verses 10 to 14 throw light on the true meaning of penance. Disturbed and motivated by the preaching of John the Baptist the people asked him, “What then we should do?” The answer given by John the Baptist highlights three dimensions of transformation expected of the people. They are 1) sharing one’s resources with the needy, 2) avoiding exploitation and 3) stopping oppression through misuse of power.
To the ordinary people John said, “If you have two tunics, give one to the person who has none”. Sharing one’s resources with the needy requires sacrifice or giving up one’s luxury or extra resources. As per the teachings of Jesus, fasting becomes meaningful when it is undertaken to express solidarity with the hungry and share with the poor and the hungry the food or money saved through fasting. According to the report, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018” published by United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), one in every nine persons in the world is hungry. The report shows that the number of hungry people has grown to 821 million in 2017 from 804 million in 2016.
People are hungry in the world not because the world lacks food grains. Many reports indicate that food production exceeded the population growth. Lack of proper distribution and the reluctance of those who have excess food to share it with the needy are the reasons for hunger. As per the study made by a group of professors from University of Agricultural Sciences, Rs. 339 cores worth of food is wasted in the marriages held in the city of Bangalore alone in a year.
In the same way poverty exists in the world not because the world lacks resources, but because of the unwillingness of people to share their resources with others and a luxurious life led by a section of the population. The alarming increase in the income inequality also contributes to poverty in the world. According to the latest report of Oxfam, one percent of Indians were holding 74.8% of wealth in India in the year 2018.
Against the backdrop of hunger and poverty in the world, true penance is sharing one’s resources with the needy by reducing one’s wants and stopping wastage of food and other resources. People of all religions are to be taught that wastage of any resource, especially food, is a sin as well as a crime.
It is to be appreciated that there are a good number rich people in the world who generously share their wealth with the poor and the needy. It was reported in the media that Azim Premji, of Wipro has set apart 34% of the shares of Wipro worth 52,750 core rupees, held by him for philanthropic activities. Till now he has donated a total Rs. 1,50,000 crore rupees to Azim Premji Foundation over several years. Azim Premji foundation works for the education of underprivileged children. The other generous contributors are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet of the Unites States of America.
The Christian community has a devotional practice, the Way of the Cross during the Lenten season, especially on Fridays. In this devotion they remember the journey of Jesus carrying cross to Golgotha and 14 events like Jesus being judged unjustly by Pilot, Jesus falling down with cross three times, meeting Simon and his own mother, Mary, on the way etc. These 14 events are called 14 Stations of the Cross. On Good Friday in many parishes the Way of the Cross is conducted very solemnly and the devotees walk a long distance. Many Christians have an emotional satisfaction of sharing in the suffering of Jesus as a result of participating in the Way of the Cross.
A revolutionary priest, Swami Sadanand CMI, who had adopted many unconventional practices in his life as a radical disciple of Jesus, initiated an innovative programme on the Good Friday in Narsinghpur, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, about 15 years ago. He organized Catholics as well as non-Catholics to donate blood on Good Friday as a symbol of Jesus shedding his own blood for the salvation of mankind. A good number of people came forward to donate blood and the public as well as the government appreciated the new ritual introduced by Swami Sadanand. The blood collected was donated to the blood bank of the government hospital to be given to the poor patients. The government hospital doctors and nurses cooperated with Swami Sadanand in organizing blood donation camp. Thereafter it became an annual event.
If the Catholic Church in India decides to practice this innovative ritual on Good Friday, lakhs of litres of blood could be collected on Good Friday and it could be used for saving the lives of thousands of people. It will be an appropriate Good Friday celebration and the people of India will come to know the significance of Good Friday.
The second aspect of penance is avoiding any kind of exploitation. The tax collectors came to John the Baptist and asked him, “Teacher what shall we do?” John told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized.” The implication of John’s advice to them is that they should not resort to any unethical practice to exploit the people. The tax collectors have a tendency to extract extra money from the people.
Desisting from any exploitative practice is part of penance. Not paying just wages to the workers, forcing the workers to work more than the stipulated time, employing children for labour, sexual abuse of women and children etc. are nothing but exploitation. Sometimes people resort to fasting and penance and go for pilgrimages, even facing a lot physical discomforts and suffering; but they may continue to indulge in exploitative practices. What is the use of this kind of penance?
Child labour and child sex abuse are very serious problems all over the world. According to 2011 census there are 10.1 million child labourers in India. But the Non-Profit Organizations working with children have a different view. Soha Moitra, the Regional Director of CRY (Child Rights and You) says that there are 33 million child labourers in the age group of 5 to 18 in India. There is an estimated 3,00,000 child beggars in India. The statistics of the Ministry of Women and Child Development states that 19,223 women and children were trafficked in 2016 against 15,448 in 2015. Desisting from exploitation is an act penance, but liberating the victims of exploitation is an equally important dimension of penance.
A third aspect of penance is to put an end to misuse of power. The soldiers asked John what they should do. He said, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation and be content with your wages”. Here the soldiers symbolize all those who exercise power. There are various groups of persons in the society who exercise power: political and religious leaders, government officials, police, soldiers etc. Power is given to these persons to fulfil their responsibilities. In fact each person has power. Parents have power over their children, teachers have power over their students and chief functionaries of NGOs have power over his colleagues. All of them are in the service of the people and they have their responsibilities and tasks. A collector has various responsibilities, especially maintaining law and order. In order to fulfil these responsibilities he is given certain powers. He has the power to give order for shooting people in extreme cases of rioting by mob.
Human beings have a tendency to misuse and abuse power and we see it in everyday life. Corruption by government servants, use of violence on innocent people by the police, harassment of workers by the manager of a factory etc. are examples of misuse of power. Persecuting persons who question the misuse of power by the authorities is an increasing phenomenon in the Indian society. Some social activists who have exposed corruption in public life are charged under the law of sedition and put behind the bars. This tendency of harassing and persecuting those who question the misuse of power by the authorities is also found among the religious leaders. The religious leaders who advise their faithful to undertake various kinds of penances have to ask themselves whether they are misusing power given to them.
True meaning of penance can be found in the book of the Prophet Amos. (Amos 5:21-24)
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(email@example.com)(Published on 1st April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 14)