In the Jain community, there is a notion of asking for forgiveness once every year during their Paryushan event. Typically the words are
If I have caused you offence in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed, then I seek your forgiveness.
While most people exchange those words with each other as a ritual, I wonder if there is any deep feeling attached to the word forgiveness. Many joke about it as an opportunity to start offending afresh, now that the forgiveness is asked for.
To forgive means to stop being angry or resentful towards another for an offence or a mistake committed.
Forgiveness is considered a significant act in many traditions including Christianity where you ask the Father or God to forgive you for the sins you have committed. To forgive others and to ask for forgiveness is said to have health benefits also.
Let’s take a closer look at the whole scope of forgiving and forgiveness. The notion of forgiveness is tightly coupled with being hurt or with some kind of offence or mistake. If there is no mistake or offence or sin, the need for forgiveness does not arise. After all, where is the need to forgive another if he has not done anything wrong to you or where is the need to ask for forgiveness if you have not done anything wrong to anyone.
So essentially, we need to delve a little deeper into the notion of being hurt or offending another, if we have to understand what is forgiveness.
Let’s say A breaks the windshield of B’s car. So the car is hurt and also, B is hurt psychologically. Now if A asks for forgiveness from B, what happens? At the physical level, it is immaterial. The car is not going back to its state before the windshield was broken. The key question is whether the state of mind of B will go back to the state before the event, if B forgives A.
Another example. A says something offensive to B. B is offended. A asks for forgiveness. B forgives. Can the state of mind of B go back to the same state of mind before the event?
In both cases, the state of mind of B has changed irreversibly. The memory of the event, the broken windshield, the associated psychological hurt and the offending words are permanently etched on the memory. That cannot be undone even if B forgives. We often say – forgive and forget. But we cannot really forget anything.
So what does it mean to forgive? It means for B to not carry the hurt feelings for A, to heal B’s own hurt sentiments, to not actively plan a revenge against A. But once the hurt feelings are created, it is very difficult to get over them even with repeated forgiveness.
Is it possible, not to get hurt at all? As we know, when there is no hurt, there is no need for forgiveness.
We are not hurt psychologically when we are in full awareness and full wisdom about the nature of existence. When we know that a windshield is something that can break, can be broken, when we know that most people act with no awareness of what they say or do, then that knowledge becomes our psychological protection against being hurt or being offended. Nothing can hurt us in that state. Even if someone shoots us, we can be smiling.
Maybe that was the state Jesus was in when he was being crucified. He said – Father, forgive these people as they do not know what they are doing.
You might have noticed that when you are in a certain high state of mind (happiness might not be the right word), you are not hurt by what someone says or does. On the other hand when you are not in a happy state, then you might go around hurting others unintentionally.
So from the perspective of B, the need is to protect oneself from getting hurt which can be done through understanding and awareness of that understanding.
From the perspective of A, merely asking for forgiveness does not cause a transformation in A. It is possible that A will repeat the same mistake again. The transformation in A can happen only when there is a realization of the pain caused to another by one’s actions, which means, A feels the same pain that B felt. Then there is a genuine repentance of the action, which leads to an increase in awareness.
Only an increase in awareness will make A realize the pain of another and will sensitize him in his actions to prevent hurt or offenses towards another. Then there is no need ask for forgiveness.
So the notion of forgiveness is relevant only in the domain of hurt. But there is a domain beyond hurt which is accessible to human beings in which forgiveness has only a limited role while awareness and wisdom have a primary role.