PUNN, a concept in the Indian tradition carrying simultaneously ethical, spiritual and philosophical connotations. As an ethical concept it implies voluntary obedience to the moral rules of conduct which have the sanction of a system of reward and punishment. As spiritual attitude, it is the inclination of the self towards a virtuous and ascetic living. As a metaphysical concept, it implies purity, holiness and goodness. Conceived as a value, punn is the subtle result of righteous actions which influence not only the doer's present life, but also his eschatological state.

         The word punn (Prākrit punna, Pālī punna, Sanskrit puṇya) is derived from the root pu, meaning ‘to purify' or ‘to make clear.' Punn is that action which purifies the self (ātman) or the stream of life. The consequence of a pure action is pleasant and purifying not only for the doer but also for others. Any action which brings about desirable results, such as peace, prosperity, and happiness, that which is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end is indeed punn. In the sacred literature and lexicons of India we find this word used as a synonym of guṇa, śubha, kuśala, sukṛta, dharma, pāvana and śreyas . Translated into English these words mean ‘virtue', ‘auspicious', ‘good', ‘noble deed', 'righteousness', ‘pure' and ‘preferable'. The term punn will perhaps best translate as right-doing — a meritorious action.

         The word puṇya occurs in the, Rgveda, though not in its later religious sense.The Atharvaveda mentions 'pure worlds' (puṇyāṅsca lokān) while the Śatapath a Brāhmaṇa refers to ‘religious works' (puṇya-karma) such as horse-sacrifice performed by the Pārikṣitās. The Chāndogya Upaniṣad attributes birth in higher state as the human to good conduct (ramaṇīyācharaṇāh) and birth as a boar or a caṇḍāla to bad conduct (kapūyācharaṇāh). The Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad states that a person becomes pious (puṇya) by pious deeds (puṇyena karmaṇa).The early Upaniṣads also mention austerity (tapas) as a virtue. Study of the Vedas, sacrifice, almsgiving, and fasting are meritorious, but they are inferior to the knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman).

         It is in the early Buddhist sources that the doctrine of merit is set down for the first time as an essential element in religious culture. Here a clear distinction is made between virtues or good qualities and their merit. Thus it is stated in the Dīghanikāya that "merit (puṇya) grows by the cultivation of good qualities (kuśala-dharma)." The "foundations of meritorious deeds" (punya-kriyā-vastu) are discussed minutely in the Buddhist texts. The three virtuous practices that contribute to merit are liberality (dāna), good conduct (śīla) and meditation (dhyāna). Merit is often represented as the foundation and condition of birth in good states (sugati) and in heaven (svarga). Liberality, self-denial, self-restraint, truthful speech, austerity, continence, study of the doctrine, renunciation, friendliness, loving kindness, impartiality, serene joy, knowledge, right views, pure intention, forbearance and meditational achievements are some of the qualities contributing to merit. The Buddha is honoured as the embodiment of the supreme perfection of all meritorious virtues. Those bereft of merit are compared to the wood in the cremation ground. Absence of greed, of delusion, and of hatred is auspicious (śubha) and leads to good states (sugati) and happiness (sukha). Puṇya is often compared to nectar, the antidote to living in hell and death. Human beings are purified not by birth or wealth, but by good deeds, knowledge, righteousness, and moral conduct. śīla or pure conduct is the basis of the entire religious life. The Emperor Aśoka taught that one can obtain infinite merit (anantam puṇyam) by the gift of righteousness (dhammadānā).

         The Jaina attitude towards merit (puṇya) deserves special notice. Human beings have three dispositions (bhāva): good (śubha), bad (aśubha) and pure (śuddha). The first is the cause of religious merit (puṇya), the second of sinfulness (apuṇya) and the third of liberation (nivṛtti). The sage (yogin), leaving both good and bad, establishes himself in the pure disposition. In the Jaina theory karma, whether meritorious or unmeritorious, results in bondage. For those who desire ultimate release (mokṣa), even puṇya is an obstacle; a shackle, whether of iron or of gold, is a shackle which binds. The argument is that the doer will have to remain in transmigration (saṅsāra) in order to enjoy the fruition of his good works even if he be born in heavenly states. Unlike the religions of West Asian origin, the religions of Indian origin do not consider life in heaven as the highest goal.

         Mokṣa being too high an ideal for the commonality of people, birth in good states of existence (yonī), whether in the divine or the human world (loka), is the generally cherished ideal. Merit (puṇya) is the sure means of getting into these existences. Hence, compassion, renunciation, fasting, penance, sense control and almsgiving are recommended to the laity. Some Jaina texts distinguish between two types of merit; one founded on the ‘right view' (samyagḍṛṣṭi) and the other founded on the ‘false view' (mithyāḍṛṣṭi); the former leads to liberation.

         The Mahābhārata, the Smṛtīs and the Purāṇas describe in detail the means of producing merits and the rewards they lead to. Going on pilgrimage to holy places (tīrthas), bathing in sacred rivers (snāna) and keeping various vows (vratas) and fasts (upavāsas), are not the only ways of earning merit. Great emphasis is laid on the cultivation of moral qualities. According to these texts one obtains the full reward of pilgrimage and holy bath only when one is compassionate towards all beings and is pure and keeps one's senses under control. Truthfulness, austerity, charity, celibacy, contentment, forbearance, sweet speech, and forwardness are the real tīrthas that purify a being and beget merit. The Bhagavadgītā lays down that one should perform one's assigned duty (sva-dharma) in order to obtain excellent rewards. Among other things, death in battle is declared to be meritorious and resulting in birth in the heaven. An enlightened sage, sthitaprajña, however, is described as being untouched by good (śubha) and evil (aśubha) things.

         The belief that merits travel with the self wherever reborn is common to all the religions of Indian origin. Spiritual merit is the only companion of a being in the next world (paraloka). Therefore, one should accumulate spiritual merits.

         It will be incorrect to assume, however, that merits are accumulated only for the enjoyment of rewards in a future life. Some people may earn merits by doing good works with a view to gaining a good reputation and glory in this very life. Some people may perform meritorious deeds for destroying their sins, while a few might be inspired to pursue merits out of love and reverence for piety or with a view to growing in holiness. An important reason behind the accumulation of merits may be the desire to get and possess enormous supernatural powers. This is especially true of numerous figures of India's legendary and mythical past. The name of such, as a king like Hariśchandra, a brāhmaṇa seer like Viśvamitra, or an ascetic sage like Kapilamuni, represent a whole series of beings, either mythical, semi- historical or wholly imaginary, whose supernatural-occupy hundreds of pages of the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas. Like the practice of yoga, merits were stored for secular purposes also—victory in war, immunity from disease or curse, control over the forces of nature, such as rain and storm, and so on.

         Certain faiths have paid little need to this doctrine of merits. Among them may be counted the Bhaktimārga of India and the Sufīsm of Persia. Although faith and love are the dominant notes of the sects of Bhakti tradition of India, it will be wrong to say that they overlooked virtues like ethical excellence, compassion, and liberality. In the teachings of Kabīr and Tulsī Dās, who are among the greatest name in the Bhakti tradition, the value of good works, of altruistic ethics, has never been lost sight of.

         How shall we define punn in Sikhism of which bhakti or devotion constitutes such an important factor? All those deeds of body, mind and speech which conduce to constant mindfulness of the Divine Reality are meritorious from the standpoint of Sikhism. The ideal person, in Sikh vocabulary, gurmukh, is the embodiment of moral and spiritual virtues. He lives, moves and has his being in the Timelss Being. In verse after verse in the Gurū Granth Sāhib he is eulogized for this moral excellence and blameless behaviour towards his fellow-beings.

         The God-inspired person (gurmukh) is not only a devotee or ‘a sharer in Divine Glory' (bhagat). As stated in the Siddha-Goṣṭi (stanzas 35-42), the gurmukh is engaged in meditation, in dispensing charities and purifying himself with the holy bath. He is enlightened and endeavours, like Rāmachandra, in the way of God fighting against evil forces. He has the true discrimination and his transmigration is annulled. In devotion to the holy Lord, his egoism is consumed; by such devotion he is exalted. The Gurū Granth Sāhib refers to meritorious work as punn, sukṛt, guṇ, bhalī-kār and nām-simran ('merit', 'pious action', 'virtue', ‘good deed', and ‘the mindfulness of God) in different contexts. The message of the Teachers of the Sikh tradition is that faith in and love of the one Divine Reality must go along with morally good works of the body, mind and speech. "Without doing good no bhakti can be" (Japu, 21).

         The foremost work of merit (punn) is, of course, constant awareness of God. This is the root of all the other merits; without this other good works are of little avail.

         A person gets little honour through pilgrimage, austerity, mercy and liberal gifts; it is the hearing, accepting and meditating (on the Divine Essence) which is the real bathing in the innermost sanctum.

         Holy bathing, austerities, compassion, charity — are all approved if these bring even a grain of true merit.

         True merit lies in absorbing holy teaching, faith and devotion —

        That will be the holy purifying bath of the Soul.

         And without devotion to God,

         No liberation can be

                                    (GG, 260).


         The fact is that the gurmukh or God inspired person is described as ‘undefiled' (nirmalu), ‘pure' (sūchā), ‘self controlled' (sañjamī), ‘self-investigator' (pārakhū), ‘contented' (santokhī), possessed of the knowledge of sacred texts (śāstar-simiritived), one who has forsaken hatred (vair) and opposition (virodh), one who has eradicated all reckoning of complaint, hostility, and revenge (sagalī gaṇat miṭāvai) against others, and as one who is rejoicing in the fervour of Divine Name (rāmnām raṅgi rātā).

         The doctrine of grace has a place of special significance in Sikh thought. The compassionate attitude or favourable disposition of God (nadar, kirpā, prasād, mihar) is essential even for doing meritorious works, or for avoiding evil :

         Through the Gurū's grace alone may one become pure and clean



         Virtuous conduct and even devotion to God is obtained through His favour :

        Whosoever He elects to his favour becomes exalted. Through the Gurū's grace God's Name abides in his heart

                                                                                                                                                    (GG, 159).


         One of the highest virtues, according to Gurū Nānak, is to have complete control over one's mana (mind) — "one who has conquered his mind, has conquered the world" (GG,6). The sum total of such scriptural affirmations is that it is through God's favour or direction that one becomes virtuous, that merit is accumulated through Divine grace. However this does not mean that in Sikhism there is no room for the exercise of free will in the practice of virtuous life.

         It has, rather, been repeatedly emphasized in gurbāṇī that human life is the chance provided to man for acquiring that which is the sole aim of all creatures, that is, communion with the Creator.

         This emphasis on Divine favour (nadar, prasād), however, does not amount to predestinarianism and fatalism. In the Sikh Scripture the emphasis on ethical and moral teachings is very pronounced, making it clear beyond doubt that every individual is responsible for his actions, good or bad; and that he will get the reward accordingly :

         Deeds good and bad will be weighed in the presence of the Law maker; some will be judged to be close, others far apart. According to their actions will they be assigned their ranks (GG, 8).

         Divine grace is not bestowed upon unworthy persons; one has to be virtuous to deserve favour of the Lord, though grace is essential to acquire purity, or to accumulate punn. But it comes to the lot of those alone who seek it and make themselves worthy of it.

         The crucial question is raised in the Scripture : "In the face of both sin and virtue as our witnesses, what prayer can avail us" (GG,351)? Prayer bears fruit only when it is accompanied by good life. "Doing good deeds (sukṛt) and remembering God one will not step out in the direction of hell" (GG,461). It is the meekest and the humblest, those who rejoice in the dust of the feet of the sages (jan-dhūṛi), that obtain the Supreme state (paramgati).

         We read in the Gurū Granth Sāhib : "Salute, with joined palms, that brings great merit; prostrate before them, and you will thereby accumulate much merit" (GG,13).

         The Sikh list of merits includes virtues such as mindfulness of God, spirit of detachment, truthfulness, contentment, doing good deeds, restraint of the senses, righteous conduct, patience, faith, compassion,. humility, fear of sin, chastity, scriptural study, liberality, knowledge, understanding, and desire for ultimate release (mokhu), etc.

         But the greatest virtue is the destruction of haumai (self-centredness or egoity). "A man may do millions of virtuous deeds, but if he feels proud of his meritorious acts, all his efforts go waste. He many practise numerous austerities, but if he falls a prey to conceit, he will continue in the circle of rebirth in a good or bad state" (GG, 278). Haumai (egoity), thus, annihilates all punn or merit, and according to Sikhism, one cannot be virtuous unless one discards one's haumai.


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L. M. Joshi