“Mom, if I’ve said or done anything to offend you, then please forgive me.”
“Mona,” my mother replied, “If I’ve caused you offense in any way, either knowingly or unknowingly, then forgive me.”
Every year on Kshamavani (“Forgiveness Day”) millions of Jains call friends, relations and even casual acquaintances to personally ask each one for forgiveness, regardless of their faith.
With approximately 4.5 million followers, Jainism is among India’s most ancient religions. Jains believe that the path to liberation is to practice nonviolence and renunciation. Asking for forgiveness is a way of releasing yourself from mistakes you’ve made in the past and letting go of anger towards others. Kshamavani takes place at the culmination of Jainism’s most important holy days, which usually fall in August or September. During this period many Jains fast, pray, reflect and meditate. Just as the body is cleansed through fasting, your mind and emotions are cleansed by seeking forgiveness from others.
As with other universal human values—love, compassion, and humility—forgiveness resonates across the world’s religions. For example, on Yom Kippur (” Day of Atonement”), Jews are encouraged to make amends and ask forgiveness for sins committed during the past year, for themselves and all Jewish people.
In a world beset with violence, borne out of hatred and misunderstanding, giving and receiving forgiveness is especially significant. Asking for forgiveness shows humility that you recognize your mistakes, and resolve not to repeat them in the future.
On December 4, 2016, 4,000 American veterans converged in Standing Rock to support the Natives at Standing Rock in their environmental protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The next day, many of the veterans participated in the Native’s “Forgiveness Ceremony.”
Kneeling before the elders with his head bowed, former Army Lt. Wesley Clark Jr., simply spoke from the heart:
We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain ... We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness.
When Chief Leonard Crow Dog unexpectedly laid his hand over Clark’s head and forgave him, Clark said, “It felt healing. It felt good, in the truest sense of the word.”
In to Forgive Is Human, psychologists Michael McCullough and Steven Sandage contend, “Seeking forgiveness allows us to be morally honest with others and ourselves. It can be personally draining to deny our transgressions.”
While habitually “over-apologizing” may hurt your credibility, we’re talking here about a sincere apology from the heart. While we can’t hit delete when we’ve said hurtful words in the heat of an argument, an authentic apology goes a long way to repairing fragmented relationships.
Forgiveness Benefits Your Health
Not surprisingly, forgiving others is also good for your health. Forgiveness can lead to lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system and improved heart health.
“But it isn’t easy to forgive!” you protest as memories of betrayal play on repeat in your mind. But is it any easier to walk around feeling angry and bitter? As Carrie Fisher quipped: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Unconditional vs. Conditional Forgiveness
As Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, his final act was to lift his hands in prayer. Less well known is that there were six attempts on his life. When his would-be assassin was brought before him, Gandhi replied, “Forgiveness must always be unconditional.”
Conditional forgiveness is waiting for the other person to apologize before forgiving them. According to researchers, people who practice conditional forgiveness are more likely to die earlier. Since people rarely behave the way you’d want, it seems self-defeating to base your happiness, health and even your life span waiting for an apology.
Forgiveness Arrests Violence
Even when we think we’ve forgiven others, we often see them as a culprit. Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar encourages us to look beyond people’s actions: “When you see the big picture that the culprit is also a victim, a victim of his or her own mind, ignorance or unawareness, compassion arises from within you.”
When negotiating peace between the Columbian government and FARC guerrillas in June 2015, Gurudev realized that forgiveness would be instrumental in finally ending the brutal 52-year war that has left 225,000 dead and another 7 million displaced. In a country where revenge and retribution has resulted in massacres, assassinations, kidnappings and extortions, attempts at peace simply resulted in a stalemate.
After listening to Colombian citizens who had been deeply affected by the conflict, Gurudev advised, “By inflicting suffering on others, suffering will not go. Revenge with an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, will not lead you anywhere. It will only make the whole world blind.”
Forgiveness can help let go of the anger that comes from identifying yourself as a victim. Ervin Staub and Laurie Anne Pearlman, studied forgiveness after the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. They believe, “Healing and reconciliation need to go together, especially when the groups that have engaged in violence against each other continue to live together.”
When you’ve spent years reeling in anger and resentment, it can be hard to forgive. Realizing this, Gurudev guided all parties involved in the Columbian peace process in meditation and breathing techniques. Johann Berlin suggests, “Through meditation, Gurudev seems to increase the social-emotional capacity of conflicting sides to engage in dialogue ― not by talking about it, but by enabling people with mind-body tools that increase their capacity to hold and process complex emotions and see new possibilities.”
Heal the War Zone Within
For most of us, the war zone we live in is within our own mind. When you feel you are a sinner, you can never find peace within yourself as it eats you inside. When you feel you are a victim, your mind reels in anger and blame.
Why blemish your mind by wishing ill upon those that have hurt you? The law of karma keeps better account of everyone’s actions and intentions than you ever could. Taking responsibility for all your experiences—yes, even the unpleasant ones—makes you powerful. It puts a stop to your grudges, self-justifications and plans for counter attacks.
Free yourself from negativity by forgiving people in your morning meditation. Mend fences by calling up someone whom you’ve hurt and asking for forgiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” If the purpose of our life is to express light and love, then forgiveness with compassion is key to achieving peace and freedom.
By Mona Shah Joshi, Meditation Instructor, Motivational Speaker and Writer