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Forgiveness

Śrī Kṛṣṇa counts forgiveness among the divine qualities (Gītā 16.3). The question often arises—should we always exercise forgiveness, or are there situations where we should not forgive?

Let us first understand what forgiveness is. In Sanskrit, the word for forgiveness is kṣamā, derived from the root √kṣam meaning “to endure, tolerate, or be capable of.” The word kṣamā is also used to denote “being capable of doing something”; for example, roga-kṣamā means “to be able to fight with disease (roga),” i.e., immunity. With this meaning in mind, forgiveness means tolerating someone’s wrong behavior, although you could take punitive action legally, verbally, physically, socially, or emotionally. You show compassion to the wrongdoer and do not hold a grudge or resentment toward them. This implies that forgiveness is exercised by one capable of punitive action. If the person wronged is incapable and thus does not take any action but chooses to maintain a grudge or some resentment, then that is not forgiveness. Such a person can still exercise forgiveness mentally by giving up the grudging mood. Otherwise, he remains resentful and continues to suffer silently.

Meaning of Forgiveness

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, forgiveness means to cease to feel resentment toward an offender. Therefore, if a person can forgive, it is a powerful means to maintain a peaceful mind, heal relationships, and mend broken hearts. It is letting go of anger, resentment, and bitterness towards someone who has hurt us and choosing to move forward with an open heart and mind. Forgiveness is not easy, but essential for our emotional and spiritual well-being. It is an essential attribute, especially on the path of bhakti. Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu advised to be tolerant like a tree, taror iva sahiṣṇunā, and continue one’s sādhana.

Forgiveness is an essential virtue that is deeply rooted in the principle of karma, which states that every action has a consequence. One easy way to forgive is to see that the wrongful act of another person toward oneself didn’t start there. Taking the long view can help a sādhaka see that someone’s improper action towards us has to do with our taking a wrong action toward them either in this life or some past life. Therefore, have the attitude that the root cause of a person’s bad behavior toward us lies in our wrong actions in the past. We are unaware of what we did in the past, but we must know that it is our karma. Even if it is not true, it helps us not to get entangled in petty affairs and keep our minds focused on the larger goal of bhakti. This is also a way to stop the cycle of karma. If we forgive, we bring an end to that particular karma. Therefore, Śrī Brahmā advises us to tolerate the adverse situation as the outcome of one’s past deeds, ātma-kṛta-vipākam (SB 10.14.8). If we do not forgive and take punitive action, it may lead to further action from the wrongdoer, and thus the chain of karma continues. Even if we don’t take any action but harbor bad feelings toward the wrongdoer, we reinforce the saṁskāra of hatred towards that person, which only can ensure one thing—that we will have to face them again to try to work through the same karma in a future life. This chain will continue into future lives until that karma is deactivated by us finally forgiving. 

Examples of Forgiveness

Forgiveness, however, is not easy to practice. The natural tendency is to punish the wrongdoer, which brings great pleasure to one’s ego. One feels a sense of superiority over the offender. To forgive, one needs to transcend one’s pride. Therefore, Śrī Kṛṣṇa lists it among the divine attributes. That also implies that not forgiving is an āsuric quality. According to modern psychology, forgiving is a step up in evolution because animals do not forgive. 

Forgiveness should be extended to anyone who has genuinely repented for their actions and is willing to make amends. Forgiveness should also be given without any expectation of receiving something in return. Draupadī is an excellent example of forgiveness. Aśvatthāmā killed her five heroic sons while they slept. Arjuna subsequently captured Aśvatthāmā and presented him to Draupadī. When Draupadī saw Aśvatthāmā bound with ropes like an animal, she immediately dropped her anger toward him and asked Arjuna to release him. She understood that by killing Aśvatthāmā, her sons would not be revived. Just as she wailed for her sons, Kṛpī, the mother of Aśvatthāmā, would then wail for him. Draupadī did not want that. She was, therefore, full of compassion for Aśvatthāmā and his mother. There are other examples of forgiveness in śāstra, such as Bhagavān Rāma forgiving His stepmother Kekaiyī who sent Him into exile for 14 years for no fault of His own, and young Dhruva forgiving his stepmother Suruci who insulted him for sitting on his father’s lap.

The Flaw of Forgiving

However, forgiveness should not be extended to those who are unrepentant and continue to harm others. If forgiving someone guarantees they will return to their improper behavior or will pressure you to engage in wrong behavior, they should not be forgiven. By forgiving such persons, we invite trouble for others and ourselves. Also, if someone disrespects your boundaries, they should not be forgiven. Such forgiveness is not a virtue because it will only result in trouble and destruction. You should not forgive if the offender will take your forgiveness as a weakness and further exploit you. In this regard, Vidura says:

eka kṣamāvatāṁ doṣo dvitīyo nopapadyate
yad enaṁ kṣamayā yuktam aśaktaṁ manyate janaḥ

“Those who forgive have one flaw, not a second one. The flaw is that the forgiving nature is mistaken as a weakness by other people.” (Vidura-nīti 1.53)

Śiṣupāla was very abusive to Kṛṣṇa from his very birth. Śiṣupāla’s mother knew that Kṛṣṇa would kill him because of his abusive behavior. She, therefore, begged Kṛṣṇa to forgive him. Kṛṣṇa, in response, promised to forgive Śiṣupāla one hundred times. As Śiṣupāla grew, he abused Kṛṣṇa whenever they met, but Kṛṣṇa remained silent. Śrī Kṛṣṇa forgave Śiśupāla 100 times. Śiśupāla, however, did not know about Kṛṣṇa’s promise to his mother; he misunderstood Kṛṣṇa’s forgiving nature. When Śiṣupāla’s abuses reached 100, Kṛṣṇa warned Śiśupāla, who paid no heed to Kṛṣṇa’s warning, thinking Him to be a weakling. Finally, as he abused Kṛṣṇa for the 101st time, Kṛṣṇa killed him.

Forgive but don’t Forget

A glaring example of wrong forgiving in Indian history is King Pṛthvirāja Chauhan’s forgiveness of Muhammad Ghori of Ghazni, Afghanistan. In 1191 AD, Ghori attacked Pṛthvirāja, who was ruling over Delhi and the surrounding area. Ghori was soundly defeated and captured alive. Pṛthvirāja should have killed Ghori, but the latter begged to be forgiven. Pṛthvirāja thus forgave him. But in 1192 AD, Ghori again attacked with a better army and defeated Pṛthvirāja. He did not feel any compassion for Pṛthvirāja and mercilessly killed him. This was the beginning of Muslim rule over India, which continued until the nineteenth century when the Britishers took over. A small mistake by a king changed the whole history of India. Therefore, although forgiving is a great virtue, it can be a vice under certain circumstances. Even when we forgive, we should not forget —this is the middle way. In other words, we do not have to maintain resentment toward someone, yet we do not welcome them back into our lives with open arms. We learn from our mistakes and keep a firm boundary with them, but we are not hateful or rude to them. We maintain a safe distance but accept them as part of God’s creation and, more specifically, as part of our karma. We tolerate and accept them as they are, but we know that a tiger cannot change its stripes. If we remain aware within, then we can protect ourselves. Otherwise, we can be harmed, as happened to King Pṛthvīrāja.