Is forgiveness practical?

by June 2, 2014

(At the request of several readers and with the inputs from Back to Godhead editors and other senior Vaishnavas, I present this as an expanded and edited version of an earlier brief article with the same title)

The great spiritual wisdom-traditions of the world often exalt forgiveness as a glorious virtue, indispensable for authentic spiritual growth. Here are a few examples:

  • Judaism: “When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel.” (Mishneh TorahTeshuvah 2:10)
  • Christianity: Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Matthew 18:21-22
  • Islam: The Koran explains Muslims to be those who “when angered they forgive.” (Qur’an 42:37)
  • Buddism: “He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.” (Dhammapada 1.3-4)

In the Vedic literature, forgiveness is repeatedly glorified as a praiseworthy virtue:

  • In the Bhagavad-gita (16.3), Lord Krishna declares forgiveness to be a godly quality foundational for liberation and is contrasted with the anger and harshness that characterize the ungodly who stay in bondage.
  • In the Srimad Bhagavatam (9.15.40),the sage Jamadagni glorifies forgiveness: “The duty of a brahmana (a spiritual intellectual) is to culture the quality of forgiveness, which is illuminating like the sun. The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, is pleased with those who are forgiving.”
  • In the Mahabharata (Udyoga Parva Section XXXIII), Vidura talks about the importance of forgiveness to Dhritrashtra, “There is one only defect in forgiving persons, and not another; that defect is that people take a forgiving person to be weak. That defect, however, should not be taken into consideration, for forgiveness is a great power. Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak, and an ornament of the strong. Forgiveness subdues (all) in this world; what is there that forgiveness cannot achieve? What can a wicked person do unto him who carries the sabre of forgiveness in his hand? Fire falling on the grassless ground is extinguished of itself. And unforgiving individual defiles himself with many enormities.”

Even our contemporary culture recognizes the importance of forgiving: according to Gallup poll conducted in 1988, 94% Americans felt forgiving was desirable. At the same time, 85% Americans felt the need for some guidance about how to forgive. This article attempts to offer some insight on the practicality of forgiving based on the Vedic wisdom-tradition.

Forgive, but don’t forget?

The need for guidance while forgiving often arises from a valid question: wouldn’t we be opening ourselves to repeated hurts by forgiving a habitual wrongdoer? That the Vedic tradition are not blind to this ground-reality is evident from the above Mahabharata quote, wherein Vidura acknowledges this possibility when he says that a forgiving person may be seen as weak. To ensure that forgiving doesn’t open us to repeated abuse, it is important to discern the subtle but crucial difference between forgiveness and trust: even when we forgive wrongdoers, we needn’t always trust them. Let’s explore this difference by starting with the semantics of these words.

The Oxford online dictionary explains ‘forgive’ as meaning ‘stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake’ and ‘trust’ as meaning ‘firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.’ While the meanings of these words have many context-specific nuances and connotations, the above generic meanings convey a good sense of their essential thrust: forgiveness is for the past; trust is for the future

Whatever wrongs a person has done in the past can’t be changed; as long as we resent the past, we stay stuck in it. Consequently, our thoughts, words, actions and even lives may become resentment-driven, causing us to either clam up or blow up. When we clam up, we drive our anger deep within, thereby unnecessarily inflicting ugly scars on our psyches that may distort our personality. When we blow up, we drive our anger outward not just to the wrongdoer, but to whoever crosses our way at the time of blowing up, thereby unnecessarily creating a public image of being irritable. Thus both the resentment-driven responses – clamming up or blowing up – are unproductive, if not counter-productive. These negative emotions created by an unforgiving attitude affect our physical health too. Many studies, including those at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin, and many books, including those like “Learning to forgive” by Stanford University researcher Dr Fred Ruskin, have documented that more forgiving people have less health problems, whereas less forgiving people develop more health complications.   Scientific studies like these suggest that, at least for the sake of our own mental and physical health, it is beneficial to forgive and thereby free ourselves from negative emotions by forgiving.

Forgiving becomes a bit easier when our vision is enhanced by Vedic insights about the law of karma, which points out that we are likely to have hurt someone in the past, just as someone has hurt us now. We then see the wrongdoer not as the cause, but as the vehicle, of our suffering, which originated in our own past insensitivity. Underscoring this philosophically informed vision, Srila Prabhupada would recommend that we eschew becoming angry with “the instruments of our karma.” Even if our indignant feelings make the logic of karma difficult to digest, still forgiveness retains its potential to free us from resentment – even when the other person doesn’t ask to be forgiven.

Nonetheless, even when forgiveness is asked for and granted, we shouldn’t assume that the relationship is now restored to the earlier level of trust. If we re-start trusting prematurely, we may unwittingly grant that person the power to continue hurting us. Conveying our forgiveness helps that person avoid the pitfall of self-justification, and holding back our trust avoids the pitfall of that person remaining oblivious to the past wrongdoing. Forgiving a person certainly doesn’t mean that we let the other person continue the hurting behavior; that would be masochism and there’s nothing laudable or spiritual about masochism. At the same time, it needs to be stressed that there’s nothing intrinsically laudable or spiritual about cultivating and actualizing revenge fantasies. So, we need to find that balanced course of action which allows both us and the other person to grow spiritually. If we don’t forgive, we may keep suffering the past due to our heart’s ongoing resentment. If we trust, we may keep suffering the past due to the other person’s continuing misbehavior.  By forgiving-without-trusting, we let the past go so as to give the future a chance to come in.

Vidura: patient yet vigilant

How forgiveness-without-trust brought a better future is illustrated in the Mahabharata in the dealings of Vidura with his elder brother and the reigning monarch, Dhritarashtra. The saintly Vidura, who is also the speaker of the celebrated Vidura-niti (the moral codes of Vidura), repeatedly counseled the blind monarch, Dhritarashtra to choose morality over nepotism. Unfortunately, the king, due to his attachment to his son, Duryodhana, continued tacitly sanctioning the latter’s nefarious schemes to harm the Pandavas, who were the rightful heirs to the throne. At one time after the Pandavas had been dispossessed and exiled in a rigged gambling match, Vidura’s beneficial but unpalatable pronouncements about the vicious nature of Duryodhana and its dire consequences became intolerable to the attached Dhritarashtra, who censured and banished his well-wishing younger brother. However, the king soon came back to his senses and sent his secretary, Sanjaya, to seek forgiveness from Vidura and to call him back. Vidura returned and forgave Dhritarashtra, but didn’t trust him; by withholding his trust, he was able to keep track of further recurrences of nepotism. But by not withholding his forgiveness, he was able to maintain a congenial relationship with Dhritarashtra, thereby eventually helping the king see the futility and folly of his attachment and to finally take up the path to wisdom and enlightenment.

Thus, forgiving-without-trusting enables us hold the door open for the other person to improve without letting ourselves be trampled in the process. This approach ensures that we don’t terminate our relationships when they could be restored. After all, we too are fallible human beings like the offender; we too may err tomorrow and be in need of forgiveness. Would we not want a similar chance to improve ourselves when we happened to do a wrong? If the wrongdoer demonstrates reformed behavior consistently over a period of time, then we can forget along with forgiving and restore the relationship to the earlier trust level.

Of course, the possibility remains that the other person may not always walk through the door of improvement opened by us. The unpalatable yet undeniable reality of the world is that there will be times when we may need to shut the door, but forgiving-without-trusting ensures that we don’t shut it prematurely.

Actions, not kneejerk reactions

A relevant scriptural example is from the tenth canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam in the dealings of king Vasudeva, the father of Lord Krishna, with the demoniac tyrant Kamsa. When due to an unexpected turn of events, the tyrant had an apparent change of heart and sought forgiveness from Vasudeva for the past atrocities. Vasudeva promptly forgave Kamsa, but didn’t naively trust him and divulge Krishna’s whereabouts; in fact, Vasudeva cautiously and tactfully did all that was possible for him to keep Krishna’s whereabouts hidden from Kamsa. It soon became evident that Kamsa’s change of heart had been only momentary; he relapsed into his past malevolence by re-imprisoning Vasudeva and by repeatedly sending deadly demons to kill Krishna. Thereupon Lord Krishna, taking cognizance of the demonstrated incorrigibility of Kamsa and the need to protect the innocent from his viciousness, chose the necessary punitive measure of killing Kamsa. This capital punishment freed the real Kamsa – the soul – from the vengeful mentality inherent in his material body, thereby enabling the thus-purified soul to progress on the onward spiritual journey. In this incident, we see that when Kamsa did not use the forgiveness graciously offered to him to mend his ways and re-earn the lost trust, then eventually he was administered the required purificatory punishment commensurate to his misdeeds.

Thus, the principle of forgiveness is counterbalanced by the principle of justice, and if abuses escalate to a criminal level, we may have to administer punishment. However, even punishment can be administered without hatred or vengefulness for the other person, but with concern that the person shouldn’t continue hurting others and incurring further bad karma. This is illustrated in the conduct of Lord Rama in the Yuddha-Khanda of the Valmiki Ramayana.

When the demon Ravana abducted Sita, the consort of Lord Rama, the Lord offered to forgive the demon’s grievous misdeed if he just reformed and returned Sita. When Ravana scornfully rejected Rama’s kind offer, Lord Rama did the needful to punish and slay Ravana, but after the demon’s death, Rama personally instructed Vibhishana, Ravana’s younger brother, to carry out an honorable funeral for Ravana. Vibhishana was initially unwilling to perform the last rites for a person who had committed so many lusty atrocities. But Lord Rama revealed his compassionate heart when he instructed Vibhishana, “No disdain should ever be felt for the soul. Once dead, a person’s soul leaves his body and proceeds to its next life. Ravana’s sinful body is now dead, but his pure soul continues to live. The soul is always worthy of respect. You should therefore carry out the rites for the eternal good of your brother’s immortal soul.”

Thus Lord Rama revealed his loving concern for Ravana’s spiritual well being; however, his concern for Ravana was balanced by his concern for the many victims of Ravana’s atrocities. Because Ravana had shown no inclinations to reform his exploitative devilish ways despite Lord Rama’s repeated reminders, the Lord took the necessary disciplinary action against him – but without hatred.

Individualized application

How does all this apply practically in our contemporary scenario? Each of us is different, each of our relationships is different and each situation is different. So we need to be thoughtful, sensitive and mature while applying general principles to our specific circumstances. Often we will need to seek guidance from Krishna through prayerful contemplation and from Krishna’s devotees through heartfelt discussion. Then we will be able to intelligently choose among the three major alternatives that we discussed above:

  1. Forgive and forget
  2. Forgive but not forget by withholding trust
  3. Seek redressal without a hateful attitude.





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