The Power of Forgiveness
To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you...
To forgive is to set a prisoner free,
and discover that the prisoner was you.
- Lewis B. Smedes
We live in a society where we think about people in terms of their purpose or utility, and so, all our interactions with others are driven by that intention. Today, we live in a world of quick fixes; we can microwave meals, stream movies instantly, book tickets from our phones – everything has become instant. Sadly, our relationships with others don’t work in the same way. Relationships are like growing a plant, where constant care is required, so that one day we see it bloom. An important aspect of maintaining any relationship is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a choice. A choice that we all make as individuals to save (or break) relationships and achieve peace of mind. It is a virtuous quality that we can practice in our daily lives.
Kshamā: Genuine Forgiveness
The Sanskrit word for forgiveness is kshamā (pronounced shuh-maa). Contrary to popular belief, kshamā is not an action we take for others, but for ourselves, and within ourselves, to free us from anger and negativity. Sometimes, we don’t want to forgive, but, we want revenge. We want to return pain to the ones who inflict it on us. If this is the case, how can you fix yourself by breaking someone else in the process? You will only feel more pain, because revenge always backfires. Rising above revenge, we should offer kshamā. Forgiveness brings peace to our minds. It actually conserves energy. Forgiveness has links to health improvements too, including less consumption of medicines, better sleep quality, and fewer somatic symptoms including backpain, headache, nausea, and fatigue. It also eases stress, because we no longer need to recycle angry, negative thoughts that bothered us in the first place.
Science shows that in close relationships, there is less emotional tension between partners when they are able to forgive each other, and that forgiveness promotes physical well-being. In a 2011 study, 68 married couples agreed to have an eight-minute talk about a recent incident where one of them “broke the rules” of their marriage. The couples then separated, not from marriage of course, but for the experiment, and watched replays of the interviews. Researchers measured their blood pressure to find that in couples where the “victim” was able to forgive their partner, both partners’ blood pressure decreased. Forgiveness is good for everyone.
See the Bigger Picture
One of the most important incidents that teach us about forgiveness is of Lakshmana from a Vedic text called the Rāmāyana. It tells the tale of Prince Rāma, who was exiled to a distant forest for fourteen years, for no particular reason other than the selfish, political motivations of his stepmother Kaikeyi. However, he did not go alone. He gave up his rightful throne and was willingly accompanied by his wife, Sitā, and loyal brother, Lakshmana.
One morning, a few years into their journey, Sitā saw an unusual, radiant golden deer prancing in the distance. Mesmerised by its beauty, she requested Rāma to capture it for her. Obliging, Rāma set off to capture the deer, but left Lakshmana with strict guidance to guard and protect Sitā while he was away.
A little while later, a voice echoed in the trees amongst the forest, “Sitā, help me!” The silence of the forest consumed the sound. “Lakshmana! Please, somebody save me!” the voice called out again. Lakshmana and Sitā were both confused. That sounded like Rāma, but he would never call out for help. They were not aware of the fact that the golden deer being chased by Rāma was actually a demon in disguise. Was the powerful warrior Rāma really in some kind of trouble?
“Lakshmana, please go save your brother!” commanded Sitā to Lakshmana, who did not budge. He knew that his brother would be fine, he had defeated thousands of demons in the forest over the past few years, and he could handle anything himself.
“It is your duty to go!” Sitā began to panic. Just the thought of her loved one being in danger, brought an outpour of emotion in Sitā.
“Rāma can protect himself,” Lakshmana replied, “But you cannot. My duty right now is to protect you. Rāma would never forgive me if I left you alone here. Who knows what lurks in this forest?”
If you know the story, you will know what actually lurked in the darkness of the forest. Lakshmana continued to stay guard of Sitā. “We are in the middle of nowhere Lakshmana,” Sitā argued, “I command you, I beg of you to go save Rāma. I sense he is in great danger!”
It is said that as the last refuge in an argument, people pull their ranks, but Sitā was clearly distressed. Moments passed in silence till another shout came from the distance.
“That is your brother calling you out for help! How can you do nothing?” Sitā began to scream. “I get it. Now that Rāma will be out of the picture, you think you will have me for yourself? You want the kingdom to yourself too?” Sitā obviously knew that was not true, and that Lakshmana would have done anything for his brother, but she wanted him to react. Lakshmana hung his head in sorrow, looking down at the sand by his feet. How can someone he had dedicated his whole life in service to, make such an accusation against him? His heart was crushed. After continuous pleads from Sitā, Lakshmana made sure that his sister-in-law was safe, before running off into the forest in search of Rāma.
Now let’s analyse this episode and the powerful context of forgiveness. Sitā had clearly hurt Lakshmana with her harsh words, and it changed his perspective for the events that followed. In our lives, situations will crop up where we will play the role of Sitā at times, and sometimes Lakshmana too. Our perspective too, at times like this, must remain unbiased.
What Sitā said was insensitive and wrong. But, if we look beyond the situation, that is, if you look past what was said, we might be able to understand why she said what she said. Sitā was going through a personal turmoil at the time. Her emotions were all over the place, speculating on what was happening to her beloved husband. We have all been victims of situations where our mind is clouded by our emotions. When this happens, we say anything and everything to try and clear our mind. But just a moment of patience, especially in moments of anger, can actually save us thousands of moments of regret in the future. In testing times, we should remain stable. When someone hurts us, look beyond the situation and think, “Are they suffering? If so, how? What are they feeling that could make them say such a thing? Is there something going on in their life that may cause them to speak like this to me?” I am not saying support and take all hurtful comments made to you by others. But, it is about seeing the bigger picture. A Sanskrit phrase says, ‘para dukha dukhi’, which means ‘to feel pain when others suffer’. This is empathy, an essential component of forgiveness…
This article on forgiveness is an excerpt from my first book The Keshav Way, available anywhere in the world from here.
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Something that I really wants to read for peace of mind. Thanks Vinay, as always today, I got answers of some questions after reading this article.
Beautiful explanation for forgiveness. A practice for oneself not others !