A boy was once flirting with a girl in a bar. At some point in time, the girl became so enraged with the boy that she took out a knife and stabbed him to death. How would you feel if you were the boy's mother? Amazingly, his mother did something extraordinary: she decided to help the girl. She regularly visited this girl in jail and made it her mission to comfort this woman and help her overcome her problems. Here was a woman who was not a great saint, but she had it in her to forgive a girl who murdered her son for no reason.
The scriptures are full of extraordinary stories of forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that seems possible only for exalted devotees. Arjuna was willing to forgive the atrocious offences the Kurus committed against him and his brothers. Little five-year-old Prahlada forgave his father even though his father repeatedly tortured him and tried to kill him. He even prayed for his liberation. Ambarisa Maharaja, who simply tried to serve Durvasa Muni, forgave Durvasa even though he tried to kill Ambarisa for no reason. Lord Jesus Christ forgave those who attempted to kill him. Haridasa Thakura prayed for the well being of those who were trying to beat him to death. Nitvananda Prabhu forgave Jagai and Madhai and begged Lord Caitanya to deliver them. Of course, Krishna forgives all of us no matter what we've done.
It is common to think that such great acts of forgiveness are possible for great souls, but since I am an ordinary person I cannot be expected to forgive those who seriously mistreat or abuse me. Forgiving minor offences is one thing, but forgiving those who have hurt us deeply is a totally different thing. Hearing the above story began to change my way of thinking.
Experimenting with Forgiveness
Looking back in my life, I concluded there were four people who were responsible for causing pain and frustration in my life. Senior devotees and friends advised me that I forgive them. And I was asked to forgive them for my own benefit.
First I focused on the ways these people had hurt me. Then I was asked to look at them in a different light, to consider that they were just doing the best they could in the situation they were in. Next, I was asked if I would be willing to forgive them, not with the hope that they would ever change or that we would have a better relationship, but in order to free myself from the negative effects this resentment was having on me. I realized there was no point in holding onto these bad feelings any longer. The moment I let go of those feelings, I felt cleansed, uplifted and energized.
Forgiving made me realize that the hurt had controlled me. I allowed the behavior of these people to hold me down. I allowed past experiences to determine my future. I had played the victim and had not taken responsibllity for my own situation.
I used my resentment to justify why I was not as Krishna consciousness as I could be. I began to realize this was chlldish. If my spiritual life suffers because of the actions of others, if I fall to act properly because of the way someone treats me, I am still responsible for my actions. I reap the consequences of my actions, no matter how justified my lack of proper behavior is. As Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saravasti Thakura said, "No one can hurt you unless you allow them to."
It's a Choice Try it
Scriptures implore us to forgive. The Srimad-Bhagavatam lists forgiveness as one of the qualities of civllized human beings. Srila Prabhupada asked us to be forgiving so we can cooperate to spread the movement. The scriptures tell us to accept our suffering as a token reaction of our karma. Yet despite the cleansing it can do to our hearts, forgiving is still a challenge for many of us. We often feel, "I was so deeply hurt that I just don't know how I can forgive."
When we say, "I can't forgive," ultimately it means "I am choosing to not forgive." That might sound insensitive or unrealistic, but as seen above, even "ordinary" people have the abllity to forgiven horrendous offences if they make the choice to do it.
Often all we need is the right motivation to bring about forgiveness. Sometimes the only thing that will motivate us to forgive is a self-centered attitude to do it to relieve our own suffering. The technique is not transcendental, but the results are. So even if you don't really want to forgive others, you just have to want to let go of the resentment, the hurt, the pain from your heart. Forget about them and do it for your own sake. Think of it as one lady expresses it, "After practicing forgiveness I realized that unforgiveness was like going into labor and refusing to let the baby out."
If you are willing to let your resentment go even for your own sake Krishna will help you move to forgiveness. The point is that you must want to do it; you must be committed to forgive. If not, even Krishna can't help you.
But watch out for your false ego it is fighting this battle. It is saying that you should stay offended and hurt and you should continue to fight. The ego wants to be right. But the reality is that we are only hurting ourselves. Remaining offended is a weed in the heart and it keeps us bitter.
It can help to write a letter of forgiveness. (The letter need not be sent. If the offender doesn't feel they offended us and most don't sending the letter will make things worse). Don't forgive expecting the person to change or to have a better relationship with you. This may never be possible. The letter is simply written to cleanse your own heart.
Understanding the situation a person was in when they made the offense or committed the abuse, as well understanding what that person has gone through in life that may have contributed to their actions, is an essential element in coming to complete forgiveness. "Hate the sin, not the sinner." Or if you want to take it up a notch, "Hate the sin and love the sinner."
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura had a wonderful method to release resentment. Whenever a disciple would come to him to complain about another devotee, he would say, "Does that devotee have any good qualities?" When the disciple would point out their good qualities, he would say, "So focus on those qualities." This is an amazingly powerful tool because resentment will not reside in a heart full of appreciation. When we focus on the good, the good expands in our minds, and this purifies our heart. When we focus on the resentment, it gets worse. If we can bring ourselves to see the good in those who hurt us and certainly there must be some good in them this acts miraculously to dissipate resentment.
Although hard to appreciate, especially when going through difficulty, Srila Prabhupada said that either benefit or loss is God sent and thus it is God's grace. If we see things this way and try to learn from every experience, we can gain much even from the most painful experiences. A devotee counselor related to me the story of one of her clients. Her client told her, "I was able to forgive my attacker because if it hadn't been for him I would have been on a collision course to hell. He gave me a giant wake up call. This experience really opened my eyes. I could see that this man was truly desperate and sad. I began to have compassion for him; not for what he did to me, but for him, the person. I pray that he can get the help now."
This is amazing. Who would have thought that a person could become more compassionate after being attacked? Somehow she learned so much from this experience. I have spoken to many others who had simllar experiences. Normally, they first only saw the negative side and remained hurt and angry. But when they opened up they were later able to see something good in what happened. Usually they would then acknowledge that although what happened wasn't right, they were dealing with their own karma and although they couldn't change the past, they could change how they were presently dealing with the hurt. And this would change the future.
Forgive and You Will Be Forgiven
How would you be doing now if you were only forgiven for your past sins and mistakes to the exact degree that you have forgiven others?
The problem is that too often we want mercy for ourselves but we want justice for others.
I know that if I make a mistake, offend someone or hurt someone, I certainly want to be forgiven. I want others to know that I sometimes make mistakes due to my conditioning, but my intention is not to do wrong. I want others to know I try my best even though I am not perfect. I wouldn't object if those who I offended prayed for my well being (and they may have done this for all I know). Therefore, certainly I should grant that same consideration and mercy to others.
Start Practicing Now
Sadhana means practice. We practice the activities and behavior of pure Vaishnavas, Practice means we do things which we may not feel like doing, and by doing them we develop an attraction for them. Once Srila Prabhupada said that if we don't feel like dancing we should dance anyway; then we will feel like dancing. Simllarly, we need to practice forgiveness even if we don't feel like it. As we practice forgiveness, it becomes easier to forgive and enables us to forgive on a higher level, eventually coming to the point where we can bless or help our offenders.
If you feel you cannot forgive someone completely, try forgiving them just for one day and see how that helps you. And if the resentment is so deep that you don't even think you can do that, then how about forgiving them totally for an hour, or even for one minute just to get some relief from this pain. That will hopefully inspire you to continue with forgiveness. Remember, no thought lives in your mind rent free.
If you are not willing to let it go now, ask yourself these same questions tomorrow, next week, next month untll you can let it go. You are not the hurt or resentment. These are your feelings and you are different from your feelings. Because you are not your feelings, you can drop them. You can renounce them. You can become detached from them. You can take responsibllity for them.
Bless Your Enemy
Now we may ask, "Must I forgive everyone who has hurt me?" It is important to understand that forgiving and taking legal action against a criminal, or against a person who is potential dangerous to you or others, is compatible. Let's say a person committed a criminal act against you. You can personally forgive the person and at the same time be involved in prosecuting the person. Forgiveness doesn't mean we have to make a wrong a right. It means we release ourselves from the resentment we feel towards the offender. We can even pray to Krishna to forgive and bless a person whlle we take actions against to protect ourselves and others from further harm they may commit.
Total forgiveness involves praying for Krishna' s blessings to rain on the lives of our offenders. In other words, we pray that they will be dealt with as we want God to deal with us. Srila Prabhupada writes that if we don't forgive we are as guilty as the offender, guilty of the sin of unforgiveness.
If we give mercy, we get mercy. Great souls never stop giving mercy. Again, don't think that great acts of forgiveness are only reserved for the great souls. Average souls like you and me can do them as well. Of course, doing this is the way we become great souls.
Mahatma Dasa joined ISKCON in 1969 and has served as temple president, book distributor, Sankirtana leader, college preacher, membership director, and VIHE teacher and co-director. He is well known in ISKCON for his recorded music and his seminars. Visit his website: www.mahatmawisdom.com