Master Unconditional Forgiveness the Mahatma Gandhi Way
To forgive someone is among the most compassionate and liberating acts one can commit. It can also be among the most challenging. Look to none other than one of the most forgiving human beings that ever lived, Mahatma Gandhi, to learn how it’s done.
Uh, oh. I’m about to say it.
That gunpowder-loaded word that so many people like to throw around, but seemingly few actually dare to put into practice on any meaningful level.
Many of us have that person (or persons) in our life that wronged us to no end. Who took our trust and faith in them and flushed it down the toilet. And now, instead of forgiving them, our souls are tainted by bitterness at best… and revenge at worst.
But as the celebrated Indian civil rights activist Mahatma Gandhi once said:
“An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”
Hmmm. Is this merely a clever quote, or are these words the man himself actually lived by? Let’s see…
Gandhi was beaten relentlessly on many occasions.
He was thrown into jailed under false pretenses almost routinely.
He was the victim of countless acts of racism and unnecessary humiliation.
And oh, let’s not forget that he endured at least five assassination attempts on his life.
And how did he react?
With unconditional forgiveness. In fact, he forgave any and every victimizer who ever tried to cause him harm.
So what is the lesson? Should we forgive all people who wronged us or wronged others?
Whether or not you take comfort in the fact that forgiving someone allows them to feel less remorse, heal or go on with their lives in a more comfortable way – which it can often do – the fact is that the scientifically proven benefits to YOU are innumerable. Here are just a few of the positive outcomes of forgiving someone:
Boosts your immune health by reducing the amount of adrenaline and cortisol your body releases
Supports your heart health by releasing the feel-good hormone oxytocin and, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure
Improves brain function, particularly in the frontal lobe where thinking and reasoning occur
Promotes better relationships by fostering a sense of empathy
Enhances sleep quality by helping to eradicate angry and negative thoughts
All benefits aside, make no mistake, forgiveness is not saying what someone did is okay. Rather, it’s a choice to accept what happened, let go and fully step into your present rather than living in the past. And another thing about the power of forgiveness - it’s an indicator of your own inner strength and resolve. As Gandhi once said:
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
So let’s take a look at a few examples of how Gandhi learned and/or implemented the steps to forgiveness and what we can learn from his actions.
Forgiveness: The Ultimate Pacifier
Gandhi got his butt kicked. A lot. This is, not surprisingly, the kind of thing that happens to people who singlehandedly take on oppressive and ruthless forces. In one particular instance in Durban, South Africa, the ruthless force was a mob of white colonists who believed Gandhi had spoken ill of them to the press overseas and was now intent on bringing in boatloads of unwanted Indian settlers to their town.
Upon his arrival at the harbor, Gandhi was welcomed with a beating that included the business end of pipes, sticks and rocks. Were it not for the heroics of the local Chief Constable’s wife, who wielded considerable power in the town and threw herself in harm’s way between Gandhi and the settlers, his fate would have undoubtedly been something far worse than just a beating.
But according to the Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence, by Arun Gandhi (Mahatma’s grandson), when given the chance Gandhi refused to press charges.
“He said he did not want revenge. The police chief seemed even more surprised than the accused. He said to Grandfather, ‘I will have to release them if you do not file a complaint.‘ Grandfather replied, “That is fine. It‘s time we break this cycle of crime and punishment. They acted out of anger and ignorance, and if I do not forgive them, I will be as guilty of perpetuating hatred as they are.’ Grandfather understood that his decision to forgive these men would liberate him from the burden of revenge and compel his opponents to evaluate their actions. He succeeded in planting a seed of doubt in their minds.”
Gandhi understood the psychology of forgiveness. He knew that if you want to put an end to the bad blood between you and someone else, you have to stop throwing gasoline on the fire. He smartly used forgiveness as the ultimate pacifier.
Forgiveness Through Redemption
One of my favorite scenes in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 Mahatma Gandhi biography film, Gandhi, is when Gandhi, deep into his hunger strike intended to stop the violence between Muslims and Hindus, is approached by a distraught Hindu named Nahari.
Nahari: I'm going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.
In modern Western society, as we know, there is no forgiveness for child killers. There’s only public shaming, lifetime prison sentences and death row. But Gandhi, so advanced (I’m sure some would argue naïve, stupid, or worse) in his ability to forgive, found a way to forgive this man who had committed the worst-of-the worst crimes. He offered him a lifeline by giving him a chance at redemption. And he did it in a way in which the man would learn a huge lesson and grow as a human being.
We’ve all been there. We innocently make a seemingly offhanded remark to someone we love, but it turns out to be earthshattering to them. And there’s nothing we can do to take it back.
In her book Kasturba Gandhi, author Apurna Basu details exactly such a learning moment that surprisingly occurred late in Gandhi’s life. He had been spending time with Kasturba, his wife, along with other students, teaching them how to write. As Basu tells it:
“Kasturba's hand writing was like that of a little child. She wrote each letter of the alphabet separately and the spacing between the letters was irregular. Gandhi tried to improve this and advised her to practice writing. Everyone had asked for a notebook and Kasturba also asked for one. Gandhi gave her a loose sheaf of papers and told her that she could have a notebook when her writing improved. She was deeply hurt. Sarojini Naidu sent for a notebook and Sushila took it to Kasturba who refused to take it and quietly went and kept it among Gandhi's books. Everyone, including Gandhi who realized his mistake, tried to persuade her to write in the notebook, but she replied in a dignified manner, "What do I need a notebook for?"
There are numerous accounts that Kasturba never got over the notebook incident. And that Gandhi never quite came to terms with his reckless handling of the situation, the part he played in her diminished self-belief, or her lack of forgiveness. But one thing is for sure, he learned from the experience. He learned the power his words had, and what it feels like when you’re trying to make amends and saying “sorry” isn’t good enough. And this man, who had already shown a monumental outpouring of compassion and forgiveness to the world, relearned how powerful forgiveness really is for both the victim and victimizer.
I myself would sure love to be forgiven for a few things I’ve done. And I can certainly think of a few people who I should call and forgive. Can you?