Forgiveness



 E L E V E N

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a complex concept. We must understand it thoroughly to be able to internalize it.

‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’

—Martin Luther King, Jr


You cannot drive in Mumbai without seeing billboards everywhere. Every few minutes, you see a new purchase that you have to make to survive, socially. They leave nothing to the imagination any more. Let’s look at the ad campaigns around beverages, for example—from ‘ fresh ho jao’ to ‘maximum taste’, they tell their audience exactly what to expect. This is a reflection of our society which is to the point and direct, losing its subtlety.

  ‘How we market our products is just a reflection of how our view of the human condition in general has changed over the years,’ I told Harry. ‘We no longer bother with the subtle intricacies and niceties in our relationships—we think about people in terms of their purpose or utility, and hence, our interactions are driven by that intention. We think about products the same way.’ The look on Harry’s face was now a mixture of intrigue and “what are you on about?”

  ‘We live in a world of quick fixes. We can microwave our food, and it instantly becomes warm. We can stream our movies, and watch them whenever we like. We can book our tickets to anywhere using our phones. Instant travel arrangements! No problem. But sadly, our relationships do not work that way. They follow the same principle as growing a plant: constant care is required so that one day, it blooms. There are no short cuts. It’s all in our small but consistent gestures. The most widely underestimated quality which can help us improve our relationships is forgiveness.’

  ‘If only forgiving someone was as easy as changing television channels,’ Harry said. ‘There is always a part of me that cannot forget the bad things people have done to me. It becomes hard to trust them after a while.’

  ‘Forgiveness is hard to theorize. It is a bit like salt: you know only when it’s missing!’ I laughed. Going by Harry’s reaction I thought the joke was funnier in my head. ‘Forgiveness warms the heart and cools the sting. It is a choice that each of us has to make for ourselves to save our relationships and achieve peace of mind. There are a few things we should remember, in practising forgiveness.’

Look beyond the Situation

The ancient histories of the East are not only exciting to read, but teach us practical moral lessons. In fact, most of the principles I’ve applied to my life are based either on these sacred texts or on the experiences of people who live by them! One such text is the Ramayana. It tells the tale of Prince Rama who was famously exiled to a distant forest for fourteen years because of the selfish political motivations of his stepmother, Kaikeyi. He did not go alone, however. His dear wife, Sita, and loyal brother, Laxman, willingly accompanied him, as he gave up the throne.

  One day, a few years into their journey, Sita saw an unusual yet radiant golden deer frolicking about. Enchanted by its beauty, she pleaded with Rama to capture it for her. Happy to do so, Rama set off to capture it but left Laxman with strict instructions to guard Sita whilst he was away. Who knew what lurked amongst the trees!

  It was then that a voice echoed in the forest, ‘Sita, help me!’ The silence of the forest consumed it. ‘Laxman, please, somebody help me!’ the voice called out a second time. Laxman and Sita both looked perplexed.

 Intuitively, a telepathic understanding was exchanged between them:That sounds like Rama’s voice, but he has never called for help like this before. Little did they know, the golden deer that Rama was chasing was the demon Maricha in disguise. Could the valiant warrior Rama really be in trouble?

  ‘Laxman, go and save him. You must help your brother,’ Sita commanded Laxman but to no avail. He knew Rama would be fine—he had just defeated thousands of demons in the forest without breaking a sweat. What could a deer do to harm him? ‘It is your duty to go!’ Sita panicked. Just the thought of one’s beloved being in some sort of danger can bring an outpouring of emotion within the lover.

  ‘My brother can protect himself,’ Laxman said, gazing into the darkness, as snakes slithered and various winged creatures flew past. ‘But you cannot. My duty is to protect you. Rama would never forgive me if I left you here, vulnerable to whatever lurks in the darkness.’

  Some of us who are familiar with this story know the dangers that lurked in the darkness. Laxman paced up and down, like a palace guard. But this was no palace—it was a straw hut, held together by damp earth. Anyone could have been loitering in such a place.

  ‘We are in the middle of nowhere,’ Sita argued. ‘I order you, I command you, I beg of you to go and save your brother. I have a feeling that he is in real danger.’ They say pulling rank is the last refuge in an argument, but people say anything when they are distressed. A few minutes passed in silence.

  ‘Help me, please! Someone!’ came another shout from the distance.

  ‘That is your brother calling to us for help! How can you do nothing?’ Sita screamed. ‘I see. Now that Rama is out of the picture, you think you can have me for yourself. You want the kingdom all to yourself.’ Sita knew that was not true and that Laxman would have done anything for Rama, but she wanted a reaction. Laxman hung his head in sorrow, fixing his gaze upon the sand by his feet. What an accusation for him to face from someone he had dedicated his whole life in service to; his heart was crushed. ‘Please go and save your brother,’ Sita pleaded again, more gently this time.

  Laxman made sure that his sister-in-law was safe and then ran into the forest in pursuit of Rama.

  This episode is particularly powerful in the context of forgiveness. Sita had pierced and caused injury to Laxman’s heart with the arrows of her harsh words. In our lives, we may find that we are cast as both Sita and Laxman. Sometimes we are the ones stringing the bow, and at other times, we are the ones under fire. But it’s important to note an unbiased perspective.

  What Sita said was factually wrong, and it was insensitive of her to have made such accusations against her brother-in-law. However, if we look past the situation, that is, if we look past what was said, we might be able to understand why it was said. Sita was going through a personal turmoil. Her emotions were flying about as she speculated the kind of pain her beloved husband might have been going through. We have all been in situations where our intellect is clouded by our emotions. At those times, we say anything and everything for our own peace of mind. Although a moment of patience in a moment of anger can save us a thousand moments of regret in the future, usually when we are suffering intensely, we cannot help but let our minds run amok. For our own growth, we should maintain equipoise in testing times. When someone hurts us, we should try to look beyond the situation and think: ‘How are they suffering? What are they feeling, to say such a thing? Is there some deeper chaos that is occurring in their life for them to say these words to me?’ It’s not about supporting the hurtful comments made by others—it is about seeing what they are going through to be making them. This is empathy, an essential component of forgiveness.

Separate the Episode from the Person

It is said, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. This could not be further from the truth. Physical violence is inflicted with weapons, but emotional violence is inflicted with words; words can leave invisible scars that can take years, or even lifetimes, to heal.

  Let me take your mind back to Nepal, to the foothills of the Himalayas and to the story of my closest friend who had spoken harshly to me in front of our community members. The reason I had to go to Ukraine was to help inspire the bhakti society there, but my passport was stuck at the Ukrainian embassy in New Delhi. My friend’s lashing out at me had left me feeling humiliated and I had returned to my room, distraught.

  What happened in my room thereafter is relevant here—I was able to move from anger to forgiveness because I remembered to separate the episode from the person. Of course, I must mention that this principle is not applicable in all situations—especially those of social justice, which I will discuss later—but in our personal interactions, for the most part, it works wonders.

  When I fail at something—whether it’s an exam or a relationship—I may think that I am a failure. But just because I failed one time or even more than once in my life, does that really make the whole of me a failure? Similarly, just because someone may, on a rare occasion, have failed us, should we treat that person like a failure? Should we not see that lapse as an independent event? Everyone is going through challenges concealed from the public eye, and we need the lens of empathy to be able to see that.

  This is not to say that we should tolerate abuse or not do the sensible thing and correct someone when they are wrong, but in order to practise forgiveness, we have to learn to separate the incident from the person. Disconnecting the person from the problem starts with the language we use to describe the incident: Saying ‘it is my problem’ causes us to feel guilty, and over time, one may develop an inferiority complex. We may begin to think that we are not tough enough to deal with situations and thus we may become morose over issues.

  • Saying ‘it is your problem’ causes us to feel angry. How many times have we pointed our index finger at someone and used the words, ‘It’s your problem, not mine.’ I have never seen anyone say those words in a peaceful state of mind. Blaming the other person only leads to a spiral of anger.
  • Saying ‘it is the problem’ separates the problem from the persons involved. Not only does this separation empower us to forgive the person, it also helps us to effectively deal with the problem.
Higher Purpose

After setting the groundwork for forgiveness, I now felt that Harry was ready to hear the story I had promised to tell him. In my opinion, the couple in my story was in a far worse situation than Harry and Lalita. However, it is hard to compare peoples’ sufferings. That’s why I avoid doing so. Like many of my other stories, the incident this one is based on also took place during my travels.

  I travel so often that sometimes I give a morning talk in Chennai, and by the evening, I’m speaking in Kolkata. One day I am in California, and the next, I’m in Cape Town. It’s only natural that I feel connected to so many different communities, meeting a variety of people from around the globe. One community, which I frequently travel to but will not mention here to protect all those involved in the incident, is where this story starts.

  I had just finishing unpacking. I would be staying in this room for a week, which was an age for me. I usually live out of my suitcase because, like a shepherd, I am always searching for new lands to spread my message of positivity. I sat down cross-legged and was just about to start with my evening meditation, when a man burst into my room, letting his tears fall to the wooden floor. Alarmed at his overflowing emotion, I shot up immediately, my knees clicking.

  ‘She’s cheating on me!’ he exclaimed. I shut the door to my room and closed the blinds. My instinct was to pour him some herbal tea. My mother always used to say that when someone is upset, the warmth of herbal tea and a friend’s words can help to heal them. He sat on the floor with me. ‘She’s cheating on me . . .’ he said again, in between sips of his camomile beverage.

  I had been friends with this man for over twenty years. In fact, I had attended an event as part of his wedding ceremony, counselled his family through thick and thin, but I had never expected him to say something like this. He was an engineer, had one seventeen-year-old son who was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, and lived in a three-bedroom apartment—an ordinary gentleman, with an ordinary job, caught in this extraordinary situation.

  ‘What happened?’ I asked as I held his hands. His tear-filled eyes, quivering like the air in a heatwave, looked back into mine.

  ‘Yesterday, I was checking my wife’s phone to get the address for a wedding function we were supposed to attend later in the evening and I saw multiple notifications from a man.’ He mentioned who the man was—he was a senior member of their community, and held an important position of leadership. ‘I thought nothing of it at first; he contacts many people to invite them to work with him. But as I scrolled down and looked through the messages he was sending my wife . . . they were not innocent. I can’t even tell you what I read. And she had replied similarly.’ He let his tears drop into his tea, which was now lukewarm. With his upper lip quivering, he said: ‘At that moment, my wife walked in and saw me on her phone. From the look in my eyes she knew that I knew.’

  ‘“What’s this all about?” I asked her directly without hesitation. I had decided to communicate and clarify what was going on, without jumping to conclusions straight away. My wife paused for a moment and then came towards me. She said, “I have been messaging him for a few weeks now. I’m sorry; I don’t know what came over me. It started out innocently. He needed help with some work, but then it led to more.”’

  One very admirable thing about his wife is that she has always been down-to-earth and honest.

  He continued, ‘I asked her, “Have you met and . . .” but she interrupted me, saying, “No, of course not. We’ve never met.”’

  This meant that they had never had a physical relationship, but even so, I could tell that this incident had left an emotional scar on this man. Sometimes the deepest wounds are inflicted by people who are closest to us. How could he trust her after this? How could he forgive her? Had she done this before? I could see that these were the thoughts that were tormenting his mind.

  I also knew the man his wife had been talking to. After this incident, he was asked to step down from his position because not only does a leader have to pave the path for a community, he has to walk along it too. He did confirm that he had never had a physical relationship with this man’s wife.

  ‘What shall I do about the situation?’ the man asked me. I poured him a second cup of herbal tea. ‘How can I trust her again?’

  That dangerous question again: What shall I do? I thought. I am no one’s guru. Everyone must make their own choices; nobody should tellus what to do, but good advice greatly helps us in our growth. With that in mind I asked, ‘Do you love your wife?’

  ‘Without a doubt,’ he said.

  ‘You should always keep that in mind when making any decisions. But right now, you only have two choices.’ He calmed down a little. ‘Do you want to choose justice or do you want to choose forgiveness? Either is fine, but you have to make the choice—justice may cost you your marriage and this news may go public, ruining many lives. And that’s fine, if justice is what you need. People have their own capacity for what is acceptable to them and what is not.’

  He started to focus on his priorities.

  ‘I can’t leave her. We have a seventeen-year-old-son who will be distraught. Nothing like this has happened in the past in our family. I am really sad because I thought our bond was stronger than this . . .’

  ‘Then you have to forgive. Maybe this is just circumstantial. Are you willing to give her another chance?’

  ‘How can I forgive? I’ll only think about what she did to me every time I look at her,’ he said.

  ‘Forgiveness means to take note of the higher purpose. Weren’t you telling me during my visit last year that she is the best mother to your son and how she has given him so much affection, dedication and love? Focus on the higher purpose that brought you together. It would shatter your son if you decided to divorce now. Besides, if she is willing to make amends, give forgiveness a chance. Although infidelity is the hardest thing to forgive, it is no match for a relationship that is driven by a higher purpose. Do we want to be right or harmonize for a higher purpose?’

  ‘It will take time to make this decision,’ he said.

I poured him a third cup. Third time’s a charm! I thought to myself.

  ‘Take as much time as you need. Time heals, and with the right association and guidance, time brings clarity. Relationships are tested during difficult times. To accept someone when everything is going right is easy. But when things are falling apart around you and you stick together, that’s the test of a relationship. Love is when we have every reason to break up but we do not.’

  We spoke for some time on the issue before I introduced another concept to him—the difference between forgiveness and justice.

Justice

Some spiritual leaders would advise us to always forgive, regardless of the situation. Although that sounds like the most peaceful approach, it can end up doing more harm than good sometimes.

  Sexual violence has long been a serious and widespread problem all over the world, and the perpetrators can sometimes even go unpunished. In December 2012, I remember being horrified as I read reports about a twenty-three-year-old woman who had been brutally raped for several hours and then dumped by six young men in New Delhi, India. In the days following the attack, newspaper reports elaborated on the gruesome nature of the rape. She did not survive. It was an incident that shocked the entire nation, and provoked widespread international condemnation for the treatment of women in India. I was not surprised by the protests that happened all over the country. They wanted justice for the young lady and reform in the courts so that women feel protected.

  The question is: Should we have forgiven the men who raped the twenty-three-year-old physiotherapy student? In the ancient classic the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna about a similar dilemma of forgiveness. War had come to Hastinapur, which is modern-day New Delhi. Arjuna’s cousins had brought tyranny and immorality to the kingdom, and after months of peace negotiations, the only solution left was war. This occurred 5,000 years ago. There were codes of conduct that were followed diligently; war was only fought between armies, not civilians.

  Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna tries to convince Sri Krishna that the best thing to do is not to fight. He is a pacifist. ‘Why partake in bloodshed when you can retreat? Surely it is better to forgive those who perform such transgressions?’ Arjuna argues. But Sri Krishna wholeheartedly disagrees with his cousin and shares the wisdom of social justice.

  On a personal level, we can forgive those who hurt us. That is a personal choice, available to all of us. However, on a societal level, such heinous crimes, if left unpunished, can create havoc. The social repercussions of allowing those who break the law to go free are devastating. Therefore, Sri Krishna encouraged Arjuna to lift his bow, because in this case fighting was the right thing to do.

  Similarly, the men who perform the criminal act of rape should face the full force of justice, as casual actions in the name of forgiveness do nothing to help society progress. If these criminals are not detained and punished, can you imagine the message it will send out? The principle of forgiveness and the principle of social justice go hand-in-hand; it takes wisdom and introspection to know how they are to be used.

  It had been an intense few minutes in the car with Harry. The concept of forgiveness is far from light. It is complicated and hard to understand, but I could see that he was trying to accept it. I explained, ‘The topic of relationships has spiritual roots. If we can understand how to relate to people on a spiritual level, then we can transcend our dividing differences.’

Summary:

  • Forgiveness is a deep and often obscure value to understand.
  • The principles we should know about forgiveness are: 
  1. Look beyond the situation: If we are hurt by someone’s words, try to understand why they spoke them. When people act harshly towards us, most of the time they are suffering too. This is empathy.
  2. Separate the episode from the person: Rather than being affected by the emotion of guilt by saying, ‘I am wrong,’ or anger by saying, ‘You are wrong,’ we should separate the I or the You and deal with the wrong.
  3. Higher purpose: Can we forgive based on a higher principle? For example, in my story, the husband forgave the wife because he loved her, and they had a duty to their community and son. If chosen, this approach takes support and time and is not something that happens overnight.
  4. Justice: On a personal level, we can forgive the person who may have wronged us, but on a societal level, there should be strict justice to create an orderly society. No one should be able to break the law and get away with it in the name of forgiveness.

Note: To help you reflect on forgiving someone in your own life, please complete the exercise in Appendix 1 (Forgiveness Worksheet).




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