More than 1000 years ago a boy was born in India, who later became a great philosopher-saint, a great reformer and a great teacher. His name was Sankara. He once invoked God’s forgiveness for any wrong action in word, deed or thought. Here is what he said:
Kara charana kritam vaak Kaayajam Karmajam vaa
”O’ Lord, kindly forgive the wrong actions I have done knowingly or unknowingly, either through my hands, feet, ears, eyes, speech or mind. Glory to Thee, the ocean of compassion!”
“Take away thy opinion and then there is taken away the complaint ‘I have been harmed’
What the great philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius, hints at is the noble act of forgiving. What constitutes forgiveness, one may justifiably ask? Well, the answer is simple. Forgiveness is a mental act aimed at wiping the slate clean so as to evolve a thought process that could lead to restoration of the one who may have caused hurt to your affection, estimation and trust. Quit difficult, but not impossible!
It is a psychological truism that resentment nursed and stored in our minds and hearts may diminish with the passage of time but does not completely disappear. It takes a long, long time to overcome the negative feelings and even longer time to adopt a positive approach. We may give many chances to our fellow beings; yet we cannot escape the tendency to remember how, where and by whom we were hurt.
The ‘Hurt’ File
A British political columnist once said that “the human brain stores a special file marked ‘hurt’, access to which is by a protected, priority route short-cutting all other information.” While all the data in the brain may be misplaced or hit by a virus, but the ‘hurt file’ starts flashing into our present consciousness the moment something occurs involving the person or persons causing hurt. Thornton Wilder is right when he says that ‘hurts, stored and wrapped in layers of forgiveness and understanding, sink into the heart like a stone”.
Those who can wipe slates clean and keep their ‘hurt file’ light are, indeed, lucky. The well-known Tamil scripture, Thirukural, lays stress on the.need for forgiveness as the potent healer of hurts. The great classic emphasizes in ten crisp couplets that forgiving is a choice and not an emotion. It is an act of feeling. Many hurt people would prefer to let their hurt emotions go away but they seldom do. Forget and forgive, we are often told. But if we do not forgive, how can we forget? One couplet says that the ‘best revenge against one who has harmed you is to shame him with a very good deed.’ You must sink in the pain caused by the hurt before doing the good act. A Chinese proverb goes even further and sums up the futility of revenge by saying that “He who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”
Release from Pain
Forgiveness, they say, is nothing but self-kindness for it releases us from the anger, pain, bitterness, fear and even illness. It also releases us from our past. The beauty of forgiveness lies in freeing a person from the need to get even.
In the west, particularly in America, where even school-going children carry guns and shoot whoever they want in their school campuses, researchers have initiated a science of redemption based on age-old religious precepts.
On March 24, 1998, two American boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, played sniper on their middle school campus in Jonesboro, Arkansas, murdering four of their schoolmates with 22 shots, and a teacher, Shannon Wright, 32. Plunged into anger and despair, the slain teacher’s husband, Mitchell Wright, made bold to say that “if you let the hate and anger build in you, that is a very strong sin. I need to be able to totally forgive.” He admitted, however that “hate can come easy. I am having a tough time and I pray. Forgiveness is the hardest course of all.” A few days later, he said: “It is not as bad now as it was. But there were several times when I found myself confronted with mixed emotions. You just pray to God, ‘Lord, help me. I need some help with this anger.’”
Impetus to Forgive
For a student of psychology, there are therapeutic, social and practical reasons besides the religious impetus to forgive. This applies to victims of crimes as well as to those who must deal with the slings and arrows of more common misfortunes-faithlessness, betrayal, ungratefulness and mere insult. Many Americans would not agree with Mitchell Wright, for, to them, forgiveness is often seen as effete and irresponsible inasmuch as it to condone the offense. Of all the acknowledged good acts, forgiveness is the one they are most suspicious of. They ask, of what value is forgiveness that can be so easily manipulated. Centuries ago Jewish sages declared: “He that is merciful to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the innocent.” What it suggests in effect is that to forgive may no longer be just divine. To err is human, and to forgive is supine, says another thinker, S. J. Perelman.
According to a report in the New York Times, scientists and sociologists have begun to extract forgiveness and the act of forgiving from the confines of the confessional, transforming it into the subject of quantifiable research. A number of psychotherapists testify that there is nothing like forgiveness for dissipating anger, mending marriages and banishing depression.
One well-known professor of psychology, Witvliet, has found “robust physiological differences between non-forgiving and forgiving states of mind. After carrying out a study of 70 subjects, half of them men and half women, she said that the subjects’ cardiovascular systems inevitably labor when they remember the person who hurt them. And stress is significantly greater when they consider revenge rather than forgiveness. She, therefore, concludes: “If you are willing to exert the effort it takes to be forgiving, there are benefits both emotionally and physically.”
The Healing Touch of Insight
Swami Jyotirmayananda in his write-up on Forgiveness narrated an interesting parable about a powerful king whose palace had a top story open to the sky. There the king and queen stayed during the summer season, and slept in their royal bed. One day an elderly servant was sent to prepare the bed. As she was enjoying the view of the sky and feeling the coolness of the breeze, she suddenly decided to enjoy the experience of lying on the velvety bed of the king and queen. But soon she fell asleep, and when the king and queen returned, they discovered her in the bed. The queen became exceedingly angry and immediately sentenced the servant to be whipped by fifty lashes.
When the royal attendant started to beat her, she cried out at the first two lashes. At the third and fourth she was calm. At the fifth and sixth, she started laughing. Amazed at her behavior, the king and queen asked her why she was laughing. The servant replied, "I simply wanted to see how joyous it is to be on that bed and now I realize that the price for that pleasure is so painful. If I have gotten fifty lashes for sleeping only half an hour, how many lashes must be in store for you who sleep there every night?" Hearing these words, the king reflected upon her innocence and wisdom and stopped the lashes. He learned a great lesson by observing how a situation that could have caused agitation and bitterness in one’s mind can instead bring the deeper joy of philosophical understanding.
Forgiveness is the Secret of Greatness
The Puranas recount an interesting story about Sage Brighu. In early times, there was a discussion among the gods as to who should be worshipped as the greatest among the three Deities: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, or Shiva the Destroyer. Eager to settle the question, great Sage Brighu said he would take up the experiment of testing the three deities.
Reflecting within himself, he thought, "I will consider him the greatest who is endowed with the greatest degree of forebearance, who has the greatest control over his temper." With this idea in mind, Brighu first proceeded to Brahma Loka, the heavenly region where Lord Brahma dwells.
Once there, Sage Brighu walked past Lord Brahma without touching his feet and offering the traditional adoration.. Brahma could not tolerate the misconduct of the Sage. His eyes grew red with anger and he was about to pronounce a curse on Brighu. Then Goddess Saraswati, Brahma’s divine consort, restrained him, saying, "O Lord, do not be angry with Brighu. He has always been courteous before. There must be some explanation for his behavior." Brahma was thus dissuaded and Brighu slipped quickly away.
Scarcely believing that he had escaped, Sage Brighu hastened his steps to the dwelling place of Lord Shiva. Approaching the great Deity, Brighu again did not offer proper adoration. Rather, he began to insult Shiva, saying, "O Shiva, you wear snakes around your neck and keep your body smeared with ashes. Surely you must be mad!" At this, Lord Shiva grew angry and reached for his trident, ready to hurl it at Brighu. But Goddess Parvati, Shiva’s divine consort, pleaded for mercy for the Sage and Shiva reluctantly agreed at least for the time being.
Fleeing from Lord Shiva, Brighu proceeded to the dwelling place of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu, the indweller of every heart, knew what the Sage was intending to do, and even before Brighu arrived he pretended to be in deep sleep. When Brighu saw Lord Vishnu lying there so peacefully, he kicked the chest of the Deity, saying, "You, the sustainer of the world, how dare you sleep, ignoring the well-being of the world!" In response, Lord Vishnu woke up and immediately clasped the feet of the Sage, saying, "O Sage, your tender lotus foot has been injured by my rock-like chest. What a great sin I have committed. Please forgive me!"
Sage Brighu was amazed at the humility of Lord Vishnu. He said, "O Lord, it is I who must be forgiven by you who is supremely compassionate. How can I ever be free of my sinful act of having kicked your sacred chest with my foot?
There are people who argue that forgiveness, despite its ‘feel-good’ potential, has problematic reverberations. Can a woman’s healing process be strengthened by forgiving a physically abusive ex-husband who continues to torture her verbally among friends? What, if they are still married and he is still beating her? Should the unrepentant be forgiven at all?
Synthia Ozick points out that “forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim. It blurs over suffering and death. It drowns the past. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered.
The definitions of forgiveness are many but most people acknowledge that it involves a “giving up of something, whether it be anger, the right to vengeance or the memory of an event the way it really was.
Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin suggests two questions to help “the injured person view the offender as a vulnerable person”:
1) What was it like for the person as he or she was growing up? Did the offender come from a home in which there was conflict or even abuse?
2) What was happening in the person’s life at the time he or she hurt you?
While doing so, Enright points out, it is important to remember the following four things:
1). Forgiveness is not legal pardon;
2) Forgiveness is not reconciliation. While it takes only one person to forgive, it takes two to reconcile. And in some cases the best course is never to see the offender again;
3) Forgiveness is seldom simple, linear, fast or even necessarily complete. In fact, anger can often remain after forgiveness;
4) You will never truly forgive if you have not honestly acknowledged how justified or unjustified the person was to hurt you.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the one who forgives is a big person with a big heart. One has to FORGIVE TRULY, not say things like “ I will forgive you, but I can never forget what you said/did!” No! That is not forgiving. When you truly forgive from your heart, then you really mean Let’s forgive and forget!
Forgive and Forget1
*A journalist by profession, a scholar by temperament and a writer by choice, Gopinath Raina was inclined to study of religion from very young age. It was Vivekananda’s dynamic exposition of Hindu thought that fired his imagination while he was still at school. By the time he entered college, he had been drawn to the writings of Gandhi, Aurobindo, Narayana Guru, Radhakrishnan and Bertrand Russell.
After retiring from Indian Information Service in 1983 after completing 35 years as an editor and a correspondent in All India Radio, he edited AICC Journal, Varnika, (Jan.'84-Dec.'90), Koshur Samachar (March '91-Oct '95), Sanatana Sandesh,(1997-2005) and KASHEER (2003-2004), He has since been writing on various aspects of Hindu thought, particularly on saints and sages. Presently he lives in Miami spending his time writing personal memoirs.