Forgiveness – various perspectives

“The mistakes made by us inadvertently may not possibly stain our innocence. To err is human, we may deserve forgiveness. But when we knowingly commit blunders that bring misery to many people, what do we call ourselves? Do we still deserve forgiveness?”

I wrote the above on  6 October 2019 and published it on social media. A dear friend, Mr Vijay Shankar – author, philosopher, journalist – while referring to Saul Bellow, an American-Canadian writer (1915-2005), winner of Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and the National Medal of Arts – wisely responded:

“It is impossible to forgive if you don’t believe in God … but he had faith that nature works out revenge. I remember this from Saul Bellow, an old favourite of mine in the eighties, and I think it is true. I mean we say God will punish or karma will punish …

There are two takes on this: One is that we get out of the way and, with a heightened sense of nobility and belief, we say ‘we forgive’. But the second take is that, in reality, we don’t want to forgive, instead we expect God or karma to punish the person. I feel, in truth, there is nothing like real forgiveness, the thing lingers. Only in extreme cases of one’s belief in God, real forgiveness may be possible.

The case of Australian missionary, Graham Staines (1941-1999), comes to mind. He and his two pre-teen sons were sleeping in a van parked outside in the garden, as it was too hot inside the house, without electricity. A gang of religious extremists killed all three of them that night. They chained the doors of the van and set it on fire. Afterwards, his wife, Mrs Gladys Staines, left India. But, before she left, she said she had forgiven the murder accused, Dara Singh, who had led the attackers. I have never understood how she could forgive them, perhaps my failing.”

Bill Koul: “You are very right. True forgiveness is associated with absolute faith in God. My take on Mrs Staines’ forgiveness is:

When people truly forgive, they may really mean what they say about forgiving and forgiveness. Not only do they tend to purge themselves of toxicity from their mind, they also tend to hand over the case of delivering the justice to the higher Being – God, Nature – consciously or otherwise. And, perhaps, they may believe the higher justice is true, as only the higher Being knows the truth.

Dedicated missionaries, like Staines, work out of their good faith to uplift the underprivileged from the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder out of their miserable lives. Such people may have no socio-politico-religious motives, other than to dedicate their lives in the service of God’s people.

You may know the modern educational infrastructure in Kashmir was brought and established by missionaries. I have heard stories about nuns going from door to door in Srinagar and begging people to send their daughters to schools. But for them, one can imagine what would have been the state of the educational infrastructure in Kashmir.

In 1947, nuns at St Joseph school, Baramulla, were amongst the earliest victims of rape and gruesome murder at the hands of tribal invaders from across the border. Srinagar’s oldest schools – Tyndale-Biscoe School (since 1880), Mallinson Girls’ School (since 1912), Presentation Convent Higher Secondary School (since 1936) and Burn Hall School (since 1942) were all founded and run by missionaries.”

Vijay Shankar: “Missionaries started the modern school system not only in Kashmir but also all over India. I respect the missionaries as even I got schooling at St Andrew’s school in Bombay and then at St. Stephens college in Delhi. I understand what you are saying. I wrote on the topic of forgiveness from the point of view of my personal observations and experience. To be truthful, I would not forgive if I was in Mrs Staines’ shoes. I do not believe in God’s justice or an ethical universe where everything happens for the best. I think the creative Principle (which is not a Man in the sky) is an energy and natural intelligence, whom you might call the Being. But once created, man is on his own and does evil or good, and men have to cope with it.

If you say God is fully responsible for everything, then He is also responsible for all the misery and cruelty in the world. I say no to that theory. I believe man is responsible for what he does and must cope with it. As Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, 1905-1980) said: “Man is condemned to be free.”

When we say God will punish an evil-doer, we outsource our revenge to God. That is all, the sense of revenge still remains there. This is an endless question. It is my reading of the Gita that evil must be fought and destroyed. Gandhi read non-violence into the Gita, which I do not agree with. Non-violence is a limited theory; it does not work in many cases. Anyway, I am just shooting the breeze!

Bill Koul: “These are eternal questions. As Sartre said man is condemned to be free, these questions will always remain. I agree with you about the theory of the Being. But I believe the greatest revenge and the sole pathway to self-healing is indeed forgiveness. Yes, we tend to outsource our revenge to God, to free ourselves. I am in full agreement with your God concept. But I still have an element of belief in the theory of karma, but not sure how long!”

Vijay Shankar: “We each have to work it out, I guess. Everything in spiritual matters is a belief. We know nothing.”

Bill Koul: “Yes, we know nothing. And that truth has not changed since the days of Socrates. He always maintained he knew nothing.”

The spirit in us remains constantly restless and ever inquisitive to crack the eternal mysteries of life and nature, in particular, its relationship with the universe and the universal spirit. The child in us keeps asking questions – on this and that – most of which the grown-up in us can’t answer. Sometimes, we bluff ourselves; sometimes, we turn towards other fellow seekers – from the past and the present – and try to exchange and rationalise our thoughts. Where our thoughts converge with our fellow seekers, we feel greatly elated, similar to a child who has just learnt how to crawl. Where our thoughts don’t converge, the wise amongst us agree to disagree and continue seeking, but the fools keep arguing.

… Bill K Koul (08 Oct 2019)

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