When do we forgive ?

Modern Mythmaking 26 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, March 13, 2011

In the final chapter of the epic Mahabharata, we are told that the Kauravas go to heaven. Every time I narrate this story, someone in the audience demands to know, “Why were the villains in heaven?” The question reveals our refusal to forgive. What is forgotten is that the Kauravas have been defeated in battle, every one of them has been killed, their kingdom claimed by the heroes, the Pandavas, and yet we feel that is not punishment enough for them. They must never ever be given a place in heaven.

A minister is accused of inciting and permitting riots. He is also being applauded for ushering in development on an unprecedented scale, creating jobs and opportunities for millions. On one hand, there is blood. On the other, there are jobs and prosperity. Should the crime be forgiven and forgotten? Should we move on? When one teacher suggested it, he was condemned and stripped of his post. Forgiveness was seen as pandering to the enemy.

A young politician with Right-wing leanings recently got married. Neither his aunt nor his cousin brother nor his cousin sister – all senior politicians – attended his wedding. They all claimed to be busy or ill disposed. Cleary old family quarrels and current political rivalry came in the way of forgiveness. Pettiness was celebrated. And from this family will come the future rulers of India!

Forgiveness is the most difficult thing in the world, because it means letting go of the desire for retribution. When violence is done against us, we want to strike back, we want justice. That is why we have set up laws and courts. We do not want criminals to go scot free. To fight for justice, even if the battle takes generations, is seen as perseverance and celebrated in films and narratives. Letting go is seen as weakness and cowardice. One argues, “Even Krishna admonished Arjuna when he considered leaving the battlefield of Kurukshetra.”

In the Bible, Jesus forgives those who crucified him. But this has not stopped his followers from hating and persecuting Jewish people, branding them Christ-killers, resulting in centuries of anti-Semitism. Even today, conversations revolve around, did they or did they not. Rarely does one speak of moving on. When Gandhi spoke of forgiveness and moving on, after the partition, he was shot dead.

But forgiveness can also be seen as being condescending and presumptious, when the recepient feels he has done no wrong. “I forgive you,” can be a statement of power that can be resented by those around. Imagine if Kasab told the Indian people, “I forgive you for harassing me.”

Forgiveness must be seen in the light of justice. We have to ask ourselves, what matters more: justice or forgiveness. In the Ramayana, Ram forgives Ravana only after liberating Sita, when Ravana shows signs of remorse. In the Mahabharata, the quest for justice cost Draupadi her five sons. Justice depends on many external factors such as law and perspective. Forgiveness is private and personal. The point of forgiveness is to let go of a grouse that festers in the soul, however justified it may be. It lightens the burden of the soul.

  • Dr.Yashvant Pole

    An excellent article indeed ! Quite a soul-searching thought of forgiveness and justice and a very difficult one to implement too ! I, at times, prefer to observe ‘Mauna Vrata’ and shield myself from any commitment, because it is such a difficult decision !
    Will anyone ever forgive Hitler ? Will anyone forgive JFK for his excesses and his misdeeds ?
    I wonder !
    It is indeed a test of severe tolerance and perhaps an index of maturity too !
    Bolo Jai Shree Krishna !

  • Xyz

    Article was on Modi or on some philosophical topic forgiveness?? I guess u just added keyword Modi to fetch more number of hits! :))

  • Rajashree

    However, as you yourself point out, Krishna admonished Arjuna for being weak in the battlefield. After every attempt at reconciliation, negotiation and appealing to conscience, Krishna himself resigned to the inevitable battle between good and evil. He did, however, emphasize that dispassion was to be paramount;but, that did not mean passivity and just ‘letting go’.

    The horrific genocide of Jews by Hitler; could the world have forgiven and continued being passive? Would Hitler have had a change of heart? Can Kasab be set free? We then deny a very fundamental tenet of Hinduism; retribution for evil-doers, which enables people to fight for justice, not just forgive and wait for divine intervention; if at all, the world has been guilty of standing by and letting evil spread-by doing nothing. Case in point; China’s oppression of Tibet.

    • Devdutt

      Isn’t it amusing that EVERYONE assumes they are ‘Arjuna’ and the other is ‘evil’? When we are itching for a fight then creating villains who need to be crushed is easy.

      • Mayur

        This is indeed excellent summary of our behavior. I was hoping you will write something on the journey of Kauravas to Swarga. “Forgiveness was seen as pandering to the enemy.” And how many times we see this through our mainstream media THE SELF APPOINTED GOD OF KALIYUGA (inspite being corrupt to the core as we learn from RadiaGate)

    • Naren

      I think the point is not about turning the other cheek all the time. There are times when you turn the other cheek and there are time when you punish, the question really is when do you say enough punishing and moving on.When a person is really remorseful I think he/she will welcome the punishment and if we are big enough,will probably forgive.

      • Devdutt

        Every action has consequences. If we are willing to pay the price, we can do whatever we want. The Kurukshetra cost Draupadi all 5 of her children – but she got to tie her hair!

        • The war at Kurukshetra was not just about Draupadi’s hair or revenge. Every character had his/her own reasons to go to Kurukshetra. This is one epic which has no heroes or villains becoz everyone of them was fighting for his/her cause may be except for Krishna.

  • Umakant

    Dear Devdutt,

    How do you see the current situation in the country esp in the wake of recent anti-corruption protests.
    Do you see this as just a socio-political phenomenon or its really an iportant step in evoultion of India ?

    thank you !

  • Srikanth

    Wonderful article, some times forgiving seems to the other as a timid act of reconciling or taking a back step. But if we see the internal burden would definitely be reduced.

    “Forgiving is human, forgiving and forgetting is divine”

  • In ones personal or professional life, why is that forgiveness beholds good for someone above you in level, may be your parents, seniors, elders etc. and not the other way round. Normally the vice versa is hardly accepted by few above you.

  • Sumedha

    Kya Mitya, Kya Maryada!
    Kya Sach, Kya Sahas!
    Kya Daav, Kya Dabaav!
    Kya Jurm, Kya Junoon!
    Kya Yeh, Kya Woh?

    Each has a story, each has a truth.
    Where do I belong today?
    Where do I stand today?
    Have I taken a stand?
    Or am I just flowing with the universe?
    Do I belong to myself which is childlike and consciously/unconsciously forgiving & forgetting?
    Or have I lost myself to my stand?
    Or my own image of my stand?
    Or do I have the ability to stand by my stand?…
    Hey, Do I still have the childlike ability to remain crazy?
    Or are people driving me to a point of craziness?
    Do I have an innate ability to remain true to my nature?
    Or do I let ‘Izzat’ & ‘Itihas’ rule me?
    Do I know my true nature?

    ‘Forgiveness’ has become a very Misunderstood Word today, almost Irrelevant!

    It’s Sad!

    Yes I admit these are infuriating struggles!

    • Preeti Maurya

      Have I taken a stand?
      Or am I just flowing with the universe?

      Hey, Do I still have the childlike ability to remain crazy?
      Or are people driving me to a point of craziness?

      Ths lines hav rly struck me hard !!!

    • vinay

      great lines …
      truth for everyone …

  • shud we forgive or not?????

  • Forgiveness is the cornerstone of Christianity and plays little part in Hinduism. Yet, even in Christianity, repentance is generally considered a prerequisite for forgiveness, and I like that.

    The Kaurava’s never repented; nor did the minister accused of inciting and permitting riots. Hence, the difficulty in forgiving them.

    Forgiving unrepentant sinners requires the high philosophy displayed by Jesus on the cross “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do”. That leads to a practical problem: the sinners will continue to sin after you have forgiven them!

  • sujay

    So do forgive the politician who are corrupt or punish them because we believed them and gave them power through democracy and what they in turn did is looted public money and kept them in safe heaven in some foreign bank and and brought benami properties? Should we forgive them and move on? Or we gave them our peace of mind so that next time a politician will think twice before doing such mischief?

  • Niranjana nagpal

    An excellent article. Superb

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    You may forgive if someone asks for forgiveness.

    However, there are times when it is better to forget and move on and release the burden of your soul provided the sinner is not continuing with his sinner deeds.

    However, you have to fight if the situation demands it.

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    You may forgive if someone asks for forgiveness.

    However, there are times when it is better to forget and move on and release the burden of your soul provided the sinner is not continuing with his sinner deeds.

    However, you have to fight if the situation demands it.

  • Thats a fantastic article. I particularly liked the kasab part. 1st when i read it, the very 1st thought was ‘who the hell is he to forgive us’ but on after thought i think yes he is his arjuna!

  • Prakhar

    Respected Sir,

    I found the article very interesting,Yes to forgive is not easy,rather the hardest thing,God knows why people think it is for weak,sir,what i think,most people find it difficult to forgive is that they think forgiveness is for other & not realizing that in actual we are not forgiving that person, but forgiving our self by that act, the moment we forgive a person, we feel lighten, our heart & soul is released from the clutches of Hatred & negative thoughts,We enforce our self with positive powers,helping us to grow & move on in life.

  • Gopal Namdeo

    Good article.. forgiving lightens the burden ..carrying a grudge doesnt help /only worsens the situations

  • Neeti

    When it comes to personal relationships, you sometimes forgive people simply because you still want them in your life..

  • ~j~

    Lovely read. But forgiveness is very tough.

    A priest friend of mine helped me forgive someone who left me with a horrific childhood memory. I haven’t forgotten it. But with that forgiveness (that person probably doesn’t even remember the incident), I felt much more at peace with myself. Now that I think of it, forgiveness can be quite a selfish virtue.

  • shirish

    question is – how one can ensure ‘letting go’ will ensure security from the harm doer? I certainly admit, people rataliate in violence for violence. But, people want not to be bothered again and to live with peace.. One can ensure peace by retaliating in violence. Sometimes. it does helps..
    Many times, violence doesn’t helps but it grew more.
    For example, when I was in college, initially i used to be very peaceful, often bullied by many for no reason, problem grew when i didn’t retaliate.. Later, at some point I started rataliating, some instances include hockey sticks too. I was never bothered again by then. that bring peace to me as I cud concentrate more on studies after that. I don’t say I would promote violence. But when its necessary, its necessary. And U cannot deny the need of violence when compulsory.