“…vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from envy and the passion for honor—these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 16.3)
Forgiveness is an important concept not only in religion, but in our day-to-day interactions with our fellow man. Though we may be led astray by anger and resentment from time to time, we don’t enjoy behaving impiously. Most of us don’t go around thinking of how we can anger our friends and family. Nevertheless, we find ways to raise the ire of others, and in these situations we desperately seek forgiveness and atonement. We seek forgiveness from others, and vice versa. In fact, many of us have a difficult time excusing those who have wronged us. But what does forgiveness really mean? What does it mean to be forgiven and what do we get out of it?
The concepts of forgiveness and atonement can apply to almost any area of life, not just religion. For example, debts can be forgiven. At some time or another we may need to borrow money from someone. The amount can be as little as five dollars, or it can be as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have every intention of paying this money back, but due to unforeseen circumstances, we may not be able to meet our obligations. In these situations, some of us look for forgiveness of our debts. There are actually government programs in place today which will forgive the balance of a student loan debt should a person take up a particular public service position. For example, if newly graduated teaching students decide to teach in select underprivileged neighborhoods, they can have their student loans completely forgiven. Governments have a hard time finding people to fill teaching positions in these troubled areas, so they are willing to offer extra incentives to entice potential employees. Debt forgiveness is certainly a very appealing benefit, for no one wants to be saddled with debts that will take their entire lifetime to pay off.
From this example, we get one idea of what forgiveness is. In the case of loans, forgiveness means removing the burden, or negative consequence, from the initial borrower. A student took the action of borrowing money from a certain lender. This action had both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, the student got to attend college without having to pay for it immediately, but on the negative side, they are forced to pay back the loan, month-by-month until the entire debt is paid off. There are also issues relating to interest, meaning that after all is said and done, it is actually more costly to pay for college through a loan than it is to pay in cash from the outset. When someone seeks forgiveness of a loan, they are asking that the negative consequences to their action of borrowing be eliminated.
This same principle can be applied to all areas of life. If we get into an argument with one of our friends or family members, we can cause them great distress and grief. Arguments are quite common in marriages, for the two parties are very close and share every aspect of their lives together. Husbands can make serious mistakes from time to time, such as forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, yelling at the wife, or in the worst cases, having an affair with another woman. In these instances, the husband desperately seeks forgiveness from the wife, for he knows that he has done something wrong. In seeking forgiveness, the husband wants the negative consequences of his actions to be eliminated. In the case of personal relationships, the negative consequences are anger, resentment, and hatred. Most people don’t enjoy being hated, nor do they prefer to have others angry at them.
We can also study forgiveness from the perspective of the person who is wronged. If someone offends us, calls us names, or even physically harms us, it is natural that we will hold a grudge and have enmity towards that person. When this person comes to us for forgiveness, they want us to forgo our anger and give up all of our feelings of resentment and hatred. Sometimes this is not so easy to do, because if we were to remove the negative consequences to a person’s bad behavior, they would be more likely to continue to behave the same way in the future. Nevertheless, it is considered a virtue to be forgiving. Only the immature and stingiest among us hold grudges forever and never forgive anyone else.
This brings us to the issue of religion. It is in this arena that forgiveness is most often sought. “Forgive me father, for I have sinned”, is how confessionals start in some of the major religions around the world. Confession is certainly a good thing because it means we are admitting to a higher power that we have committed wrongs against others or that we have transgressed the rules of propriety. We go to confession so that we can atone for our bad behavior. This is important because though our dedication to religion may not be all that we want it to be, we inherently understand that there are negative consequences to all of our bad activities. The Vedas tell us that this is due to karma, or fruitive activity. We generally associate fruits with sweet food products that grow on trees and fall off when they become ripe. In a generic sense, fruits can be thought of as the results of action, and they aren’t always positive. Karma refers to fruitive activity, which is any activity that has a positive or negative consequence.
“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.18)
When we ask God for forgiveness, we‘re really asking for the negative consequences of our sinful activities to be removed. And what are these consequences? Depending on the religious belief system, the consequences can be overall bad fortune or descension to hell in the afterlife. Actually the system of positive and negative consequences is completely scientific and not determined by any faith system. For example, if we build a house the wrong way, it is guaranteed that there will be harmful side effects. At some point or another, the house will collapse. If we eat too much, it is guaranteed that we will feel ill side effects later on. We may throw up, develop diseases, and even become fat. These activities are sins in the sense that they go against the proper code of conduct for the particular area of interest.
If we expand this concept to all of our activities, we see that everything has positive or negative consequences. It is not a matter of religious faith, but rather something inherent to nature. So when we say, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned”, we’re essentially saying, “O dear Lord, I know that I commit so many abominable activities which I will surely have to suffer from. Please remove this suffering, for I am afraid of having to deal with the pain it will cause.” This plea will certainly help us in the short term. God is not mean after all, so He will surely hear us and try to eradicate our suffering. Anyone who honestly submits themselves before the Lord and asks for His protection is guaranteed of receiving it.
So let’s say that we commit some heinous act, go to God for atonement, and then receive forgiveness. Does everything stop there? More often than not, we end up sinning again in the future. This time we may or may not go to confession, but it really doesn’t matter. God is not meant to be our order supplier. He doesn’t exist simply to remove the reactions to our sinful activity. As stated before, the ups and downs we go through in life are the result of the laws of nature, governed by karma. In this system, God has no direct interest. He may intervene from time to time depending on the circumstance, but in general, He lets nature take its course. For example, we all must die some day. No matter how much we pray or how much we atone, death will still come. This is because death is controlled by nature. God certainly could make sure that we never die, but He has no desire to mess with nature. More importantly, the Lord doesn’t want to intervene on an issue as trivial as death.
“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bg. 2.11)
This may seem strange at first, for we all fear death. The quitting of the body is considered to be the worst thing that can happen to anybody, so why would God downplay the significance of such an event? The reason is that birth, death, old age, and disease are guaranteed to occur for every single person in this world. If we engage in fruitive activity, or karma, positive and negative consequences are guaranteed to bear fruit. Realizing this fact, a sober person will question what it is they are asking for forgiveness from in the first place. “If I will be forced to suffer in the future anyway, what need is there for atonement?”
A person who comes to this realization has taken the first step towards acquiring real knowledge and intelligence. Asking God to forgive our sinful acts is certainly a nice thing, but we must realize what the negative consequences actually are. Going to hell or receiving bad fortune aren’t really the negative consequences to sinful activity. The Vedas tell us that what really constitutes sin is anything that takes us away from our relationship with the Supreme Lord. As spirit souls, we are not meant to associate with our bodies. Currently our consciousness is on the material platform, so we think in terms of “I” and “Mine”. “My family, my friend, my country, my religion, etc.” These designations are certainly valid in a sense, but they are wholly inadequate when describing our true identity.
“The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal, fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind." (Lord Krishna, Bg. 15.7)
The Vedas tell us that our real identity is that of a spirit soul, part and parcel of God. Aham brahmasmi means that “I am a spirit soul which is part of Brahman, or the all-pervading energy representation of God.” Those with the highest level of understanding realize that any activity which takes them away from God should be considered sinful. To understand this point, let’s study some of the basic sins. “Thou shall not kill” is one of the more famous commandments in the Christian tradition. If we kill someone else, we are taking away their life, meaning that we are forcing the event where the soul exits the body. This is sinful because we are causing harm to another living entity for no justified reason. But on an even higher level, this activity is sinful because it is done in ignorance of the presence of the soul. A self-realized person understands that not only are they a spirit soul, but that every other living entity is also. This means that if we kill someone else, we are doing harm to one of God’s children. Unnecessary killing is thus sinful because it takes us away from the understanding that we are meant to serve God.
Killing is one of the more egregious examples of sin, but we can apply the same principle to all other material activities. The Vedas tell us that of all the sinful activities, four are the most harmful. These are meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex. Meat eating is sinful because it violates the above mentioned edict against unnecessary violence. Gambling is sinful because it keeps the mind agitated all the time, keeping one always thinking of what move to make next. Intoxication is similarly harmful because it takes away our internal cleanliness, deluding our consciousness. Illicit sex is considered the most harmful because it provides so much material enjoyment. Those who want to enjoy materially must always remain in this world, being forced to suffer through repeated births and deaths.
The one thing all these activities have in common is that they keep us away from God. That is actually the reason behind the existence of this material world. It is a place where we can be separated from God, for that was our desire a long long time ago. The Supreme Lord did not want us to come here, but He has no desire to force us to do anything. He allows for complete independence. Thus we see that the original sin was not eating a forbidden fruit or engaging in sexual activity, but rather the desire to leave God’s association in hopes of imitating His activities in a temporary and miserable world.
When we approach God for forgiveness, what we really should be asking for is His association. Above all other negative reactions, the worst consequence to performing sinful activity is that it divorces us from God’s association. There can be no worse consequence than this, because without God’s protection, we are left to fend for ourselves. In the absence of the Lord, we must rely on our fellow man to protect and take care of us. This protection is always flawed because our fellow man is just like us after all, meaning they too are prone to committing sins.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
The only way to achieve everlasting atonement is to avoid performing sinful activities altogether. The onus is on us. We can ask God to forgive us for sinning, but He can’t stop us from performing the same activities again. We must adjust our lifestyle in such a way that we avoid sin altogether. This can be easily accomplished by taking up bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Just as sin brings us further away from God, devotional service keeps us always connected with Him. If we always chant the Lord’s names, read books about Him, offer Him prayers, sing songs about Him, and view pictures of Him, we will always remain in His association. This type of connection is just as good as personal association because the Lord is Absolute; there is no difference between God and His name, form, attributes, and books describing His features and activities.
“Whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
By connecting with God all the time, the root of all negative consequences is eliminated. For the pure devotees of God, there is no need for forgiveness because there is no suffering that awaits them. Those who think of God at all times, all the way up until the time of death, are guaranteed to return to His spiritual abode. One who goes there never has to take birth again, which also means that they’ll never have to die again. These rewards are far superior to any temporary relief we get through ordinary atonement.