Is Forgiveness Possible Before We Are Pure?
The Golden Avatara in this age of Kali, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, asked us to do kirtana (chant the holy names of God) in a humble state of mind with the tolerance and forgiveness of a tree. This instruction was not meant for the realized souls for they were already humble, tolerant, and forgiving. This instruction was for those who wanted to become realized souls.
If we think forgiveness is not possible unless we are a saint, it’s worth considering whether this might be an excuse to hold onto resentment. We might think, “Since I am not pure I cannot completely forgive so it’s okay to be resentful at least to some degree.” Resentment is often a convenient way to blame someone or something for our personal problems, failures, or unhappiness. If we are not looking for a scapegoat then it’s likely we won’t be holding on to any resentment. Notice, I said “holding on to” resentment. Resentment is not holding onto us; we are holding on to it.
Of course, it is true that with spiritual practice good qualities develop, but it’s important to understand that part of that practice is to act as if we have those good qualities. Practicing forgiveness means to give up speaking ill of the people who have hurt us and to stop talking about what they did to us, how badly we were hurt by them, and how our life has been negatively affected by them. No matter how horrible their actions were towards us, it’s likely they didn’t do it to hurt us. Even if they did try to hurt us, forgiveness offers the opportunity to practice saintly behavior by being kind even to our enemy. In the evolution of our spiritual progress, we are meant to come to the point in which we do not wish ill to fall upon any one, even upon those who have deeply hurt us.
My spiritual master, A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, asked all of his disciples, even those very new to spiritual practice, to cultivate the quality of forgiveness. If it wasn’t possible to practice forgiveness he wouldn’t have asked us to do so. Srila Prabhupada knew that the practice of forgiveness would create more forgiveness.
It also helps to see suffering as a reaction to something we have done, said, or thought in the past and with the suffering comes a lesson we need to learn. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to be resentful of those who deliver the suffering we deserve and need.
Of course, it’s true that in an immature stage of spiritual practice we may feel resentment even when we accept that we deserve it. However, forgiveness also means to take responsibility for how we feel. Just because we feel resentment, we don’t have the right to act, speak, and think in resentful ways. Many of us are still children in adult bodies. With maturity comes the detachment needed to let resentment go and to bring forgiveness in.
Sacred literature is full of stories of forgiveness, compassion, and humility. By hearing these stories we become inspired to develop these qualities. To forgive someone who hurt us there must be a desire to want to forgive, an attraction to want to be a forgiving person. Hearing how the great souls forgave grievous offenses inspires us to be more forgiving. With this inspiration in our heart we attract divine grace, the higher power that enables us to totally forgive.