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.