Examples from the Vedic tradition portray intelligent forgiveness that helps both the forgiver and the forgiven to grow.
When someone hurts us, should we forgive or retaliate? All of us are likely to have pondered this question, as have thinkers throughout history. The great spiritual-wisdom traditions of the world often exalt forgiveness as a glorious virtue, indispensable for authentic spiritual growth. Even our contemporary culture acknowledges the value of forgiving; a Gallup poll conducted in 1988 found that 94% of Americans felt that forgiving was important. At the same time, 85% of Americans felt the need for guidance about how to forgive. Where can we turn for such guidance? The time-honored Vedic tradition offers principles and examples that can help us.
In an illuminating passage on forgiveness in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata, Vidura informs Dhrtarastra, “An unforgiving person defiles himself with many evils.” Modern science may have discovered some of these defiling evils: the psychological and physiological harms resulting from an unforgiving attitude. Many books, such as Learning to Forgive, by Stanford University researcher Dr. Fred Ruskin, list multiple studies which consistently report that forgiving is good for our health. Conversely, less-forgiving people tend to develop more health complications. When we refuse to forgive a wrongdoing, we continually resent the past and so stay mentally stuck in it. Consequently, our thoughts, words, actions, and even lives may become resentmentdriven, causing us to either clam up or blow up. When we clam up, we drive our anger deep within, 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, creating a public image of ourselves as irritable. Thus both resentment-driven responses – clamming up and blowing up – are unproductive, if not counterproductive. So, at least for our own mental and physical health, to forgive and thereby free ourselves from negative emotions is beneficial.
Enhancing our vision with Vedic insights about the law of karma can make forgiving easier. These insights help us understand that if someone seems to have hurt us for no reason, that hurt is probably a reaction for our having similarly hurt someone in the past. This broadened perspective enables us to see the offender not as the origin of our suffering but as the vehicle; the origin is our own past behavior. Underscoring this philosophically informed vision, Srila Prabhupada recommends that we eschew becoming angry with “the instruments of our karma.” If we remain angry, that internal feeling will, sooner or later, impel us to bad actions that will further defile us.
Even when our indignant feelings make digesting the logic of karma difficult, forgiveness still retains its potential to free us from resentment. That’s why in the Bhagavad-gita (16.3), Lord Krishna declares forgiveness to be a godly quality conducive to liberation and contrasts it with the anger and harshness that characterize the ungodly and keep them in karmic bondage.
What if History Repeats Itself?
Of course, in real-life situations wherein we have to decide if and how to forgive, we are concerned not just with health and karma, but also with our relationship with the offending person. Before proceeding to the topic of forgiveness, a caveat is required. Indiscretions by both parties stimulate most relationship conflicts, and we need to honestly introspect to check what wrong we ourselves might have done and how we can correct it. As my topic is forgiveness, I will focus on dealing with situations wherein we have reasonably ascertained that the fault is primarily with the other person and so can decide whether to forgive or not.
Offenses hurt the most when they come from those with whom we have a close relationship. Because close relationships bring with them high mutual expectations, forgiving someone who has let us down is particularly difficult. A typical knee-jerk reaction to offensive behavior is retaliation, but that will probably worsen the situation and the relationship. Especially when the relationship is important to us, trying to preserve it by forgiving is well worth the effort.
When forgiving a wrongdoer, a valid concern is the recurrence of the wrongdoing: “What if the offending person takes my forgiveness as a license for continuing the offense?” In an earlier part of the above Mahabharata reference, Vidura addresses this concern: “There is only one 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.” To understand why Vidura admits that the forgiver may be seen as weak and then, in almost the same breath, calls forgiveness “a great power,” let’s look at Vidura’s own conduct in the Mahabharata.
Vidura repeatedly counseled his elder brother and king of the Kuru dynasty Dhrtarastra to choose morality over nepotism: to not abandon his duty to protect his nephews the Pandavas from the evil schemes hatched by his son Duryodhana, who wanted to deny them their right to the kingdom. Unfortunately, the king, due to his attachment to Duryodhana, tacitly sanctioned his nefarious schemes to destroy the Pandavas. 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 Dhrtarastra, who censured and rejected his well-wishing younger brother. However, the king soon returned to his senses and sent his secretary, Sanjaya, to seek forgiveness from Vidura and to call him back. Vidura returned and forgave Dhrtarastra, but didn’t forget the king’s nepotistic tendencies and so kept his eyes and ears constantly open. By not naively trusting Dhrtarastra, Vidura was able to keep track of further recurrences of nepotism and help protect the Pandavas from future dangers. At the same time, by not being resentful about the past insult, he was able to maintain a congenial relationship with Dhrtarastra. On the strength of this relationship, Vidura eventually helped the king see the futility and folly of his material attachments and inspired him to take up the path to enlightenment.
Vidura’s conduct shows an aspect of “the great power” latent in forgiveness: the power to improve a person or a relationship in a situation where otherwise improvement would be near impossible. To access and use this power, we need to discern the subtle but crucial difference between forgiving and trusting. Oxforddictionaries. com defines “forgive” as to “stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake,” and defines “trust” as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” Leaving aside the contextspecific nuances of these words, we can get a good sense of their essential thrust from the above generic meanings: forgiveness is for the past; trust is for the future.
Vidura’s conduct shows how we may forgive without trusting. If we don’t forgive, then neither the other person nor the relationship has much chance of improving. If we forgive and trust the other person, we may unintentionally create the perception of being weak and open ourselves to further hurts. 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 taking revenge either. So, we need to find that balanced course of action which allows the past to go so as to give the future a chance to come in.
Forgiving without trusting is such a middle way; it enables us to hold the door open for the other person to improve without letting ourselves be trampled in the process. Conveying our forgiveness helps the person avoid the pitfall of self-justification, and holding back our trust avoids the pitfall of the person’s remaining oblivious of the past wrongdoing. This approach ensures that we don’t end a relationship when it 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. Wouldn’t we want a similar chance to improve ourselves when we happened to do a wrong? If the wrongdoer demonstrates reformed behavior consistently over time, then we can forget along with forgiving and restore the relationship to the earlier level of trust.
Balancing Forgiveness And Punishmnent
Of course, the possibility remains that the other person may not always walk through the door for improvement held open by us. These will be the sad times when we may need to shut the door, but forgiving without trusting initially ensures that we don’t shut the door prematurely.
A relevant scriptural example is from the Tenth Canto of Srimad- Bhagavatam in the dealings of King Vasudeva, the father of Lord Krishna , with the demoniac tyrant Kamsa, who had killed Vasudeva’s first six sons. When an unexpected turn of events caused the tyrant to have an apparent change of heart, he sought forgiveness from Vasudeva for past atrocities. Vasudeva promptly forgave Kamsa, but didn’t naively trust him and divulge Krishna ’s whereabouts; in fact, Vasudeva cautiously and tactfully did everything possible 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 , noting 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 purified soul to progress on the spiritual journey.
Thus, the principle of justice needs to counterbalance the principle of forgiveness; if offenses escalate to a criminal level, initiating disciplinary action may be the only viable and essential option left for us. However, even punishing can be done without the negative emotions of resentment or vengefulness, as 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 magnanimous offer, Lord Rama had to do the needful to punish and slay Ravana. Although Lord Rama killed Ravana, He bore no hatred for Ravana, as became evident in His arranging for the demon’s proper funeral ceremony. After Ravana’s death, his younger brother Vibhisana had been 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 Vibhisana, “No disdain should ever be felt for the soul. Once a person is dead, the soul leaves the body and proceeds to the next life. Ravan a’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 the many victims of Ravana’s atrocities balanced His concern for Ravana. Because Ravana had shown no inclinations to reform his exploitative devilish ways despite repeated warnings and opportunities, the Lord took the necessary disciplinary action against him – but without hatred. Similarly, even when we choose to take disciplinary action, we can do so not with anger or hatred for the offender, but with concern that the offender should be stopped from hurting others and saved from incurring further bad karma.
How does all this apply to us today? Each of us is different, each of our relationships is different, and each situation is different. This article outlines general principles for problem-solving, not specific solutions, which will differ in each situation. Overall, thoughtfulness, maturity, and sensitivity are indispensable while applying general principles to our specific circumstances. Often we will need to seek guidance from Krishna internally through prayerful contemplation and externally through honest discussions with devotee guides and counselors. Krishna assures us in the Gita (10.10) that He gives those who serve Him lovingly the intelligence by which they can return to Him. So, if we turn to Him for guidance, He will help us choose the best course of action for our specific situation.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Pune. He is the author of eleven books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavadgita, “Gita-daily,” visit thespiritual scientist.com.