Ksama Forgiveness In Hindu Thought Theology Religion Essay

Author: Swetha Shankar

Module Title: Dynamics of Reconciliation (EM7451)

Module Co-ordinator: Dr. David Tombs

Essay Due Date: 22nd January 2013

Date Submitted: 21st January 2013








"Religion, however, has been the master passion of the Hindu mind, a lamp unto its feet, the presupposition and basis of its civilization, the driving force of its culture, and the expression – in spite of its tragic failures, inconsistencies, divisions and degradations – of its life in God."

S.Radhakrishnan (1940, p.20)

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

Mahatma Gandhi (2004, p.155)


Hinduism is an immense melting pot of all religious and spiritual thought and practice in the Indian subcontinent over the last 5000 years. The Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata and Ramayana are all important religious texts which set forth treatises on various Hindu philosophies but none is considered predominant. The vastness of Hindu religious thought and practice and the diverse and infinite ways it preaches for the attainment of God and the ultimate unification of one’s aatma (soul) with the paramatma (ultimate soul) makes it impossible to authoritatively state any one way as the Hindu way. Whilst the over 33 million Gods in the Hindu pantheon lead to the view that Hinduism is polytheistic, many scholars argue that in essence Hinduism is as monotheistic as any of the great religions of the world (Sen, 1961). In Hindu philosophy, the Brahman or the Supreme Eternal Godhead who is all pervading is the one Universal Spirit. His representations may be infinite as are the ways to reach Him but the recognition that the ultimate truth comes in many garbs and each one is as valid as the other is an important tenet of Hindu dharma.

Whether one chooses to approach the divine through jnana (knowledge), karma (action) or bhakti (devotion), the search may begin with the form but their ultimate goal is the formless eternal. The Chandogya Upanishad states "Ta Tvam Asi" or "Thou art That", (cited in Sen 1961, p.49) the idea that our aatman or inner self is inextricably linked to the divine. Hinduism preaches the inherent divinity in all living beings and that the path to self-realization is the discovery of God within the self and in others. In the Principal Upanishads, Radhakrishnan (1953, p.140) writes, "The soul of man is the home of God. God is in every one of us ready to help us though we generally ignore Him. Whatever be the form we start with, we grow to the worship of the one Universal Spirit imminent in all."

The richness of Hinduism lies as much if not more in its experiential nature as in its dogma. It can be argued that at its core Hinduism is "more a matter of conduct than of belief" (Sen 1961, p.38). The Vedas are not so much the revealed word of God as they are the testaments of divine experience by the sages. This is not to say that it is accepted without criticism; the spirit of questioning everything to find one’s own path and forging one’s own connection to the divine is tempered by experience (Radhakrishnan 1927, pp.15-21). It is a syncretic, living tradition that finds expression in the culture, intellect and emotion of people through countless traditions, rituals and attitudes and the quest for enlightenment. In its long history, Hinduism has influenced and has been influenced not only by the dominant religious philosophies and movements of the time but also by new faiths such as Buddhism and Jainism which have added fresh lenses and perspectives to existing practices. Its capacity for change and adaptation and "open-source" spirit has allowed for the re-imagination of spiritual discourse and moral inquiry in every age (Siddhartha, 2008).


The concept of forgiveness does not seem to be very well-discussed or elucidated in Hindu theology. Though there are a few references in the holy texts, by and large ksama (forgiveness) is not oft-repeated. Given the vast scope of indigenous religious thought, in a limited sense this paper seeks to analyse the role of forgiveness within the Hindu religion and argue that its spirit permeates through much Hindu teaching and is an essential practice in Hindu life even if it is not categorically stated as such. Even though forgiveness is not often referred to directly, teachings on peace, non-violence, mercy and compassion, sacrifice, righteousness and character allude to its role in daily life.

It is important to note here that English translations of words like dharma, ksama, aatman and Brahman do not convey the many shades of meaning and context that can be attributed to them in the original Sanskrit. Linguistically and semantically, it is hard to convey the richness of meaning in English and the act of translation is also accompanied by the baggage of additional connotation from the culture it is attached to. This in itself is an important factor in this paper for dissuading comparisons between different religious traditions on the subject and allowing for independent examination of the idea of forgiveness rooted in the culture and religion that gives it meaning.

The belief in reincarnation and the cycle of birth and rebirth are predicated on the law of karma (action) and have important implications for the understanding of forgiveness in Hinduism. Every action leads to a result that is inescapable, either in this life or another. ‘As you sow, so you shall reap’ is a deeply held aphorism in Hinduism that holds that every action, good or bad will be subject to a great cosmic equaliser and justice will always be served. In the text on Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Path) by the Theosophical Society in Madras, Karma is explained thus:

"Karma literally means action, but as every action is triple in its nature, belonging partly to the past, partly to the present, partly to the future, it has come to mean the sequence of events, the law of cause and effects, the succession in which each effect follows its own cause. The word Karma, action simply, should however remind us that what is called the consequence of an action is really not a separate thing but is a part of the action, and cannot be divided from it. The consequence is that part of the action (…) belongs to the future, and is as much a part of it as the part done in the present. Thus suffering is not the consequence of a wrong act, but an actual part of it, though it may be only experienced later.

(Cited in Sharma 2000, p.99)

In the book ‘Exploring Forgiveness’, Joseph Enright writes that there is "no formal place for human repentance or divine forgiveness" in the Buddhist-Hindu cosmology because of the centrality of the law of karma in their doctrine and the inevitability of cosmic redressal of all wrongs(1998, p.158). This is an inaccurate and simplistic understanding of Hindu philosophy that does not take into account the inherent complexities and layers of this school of thought. Whether approaching Hinduism with the impersonal eye of knowledge or the deeply personal precepts of action or devotion, the journey is made with countless others. The law of karma does not negate the need for inter-personal and divine engagement or for repentance and forgiveness. Across the Hindu scriptures and devotional literature, one comes across many hymns that speak of the devout seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy as are there divine teachings which stress on the need to treat all living beings around us with love and compassion.

Forgiveness in Hinduism is a conglomeration of ideas that isn’t confined to a process of letting go of one’s resentments and anger about a wrong committed to us. On the other side of the equation, it goes beyond the granting of release from one’s actions by another individual or God himself. The way to work towards righting the wrongs is to engage in the service of the divine to free oneself from bad karma. As every event in our lives is seen as a consequence of our own action in the past, the antecedents of our past behaviour is addressed by working towards living an ideal life in the present and thereby shaping the future.

The perpetrator and victim are roles we are destined to play over and over, as we live out our karmas and work over many lives for eternal salvation or moksha. However this does not condone inaction or preclude free will. The law of karma is not meant to be taken as a fatalistic pre-determination of all that is to come and engender passivity in one’s life. It is not for the victim to believe that vengeance will be extracted by divine will and not engage in forgiveness and it is not for the perpetrator to live without remorse or repentance because punishment is inescapable. In the Bhagavad Gita, The Lord advises Arjuna about the desirability of action over inaction in the quest for karmic release, "Not by abstention from work does a man attain freedom from action; nor by mere renunciation does he attain to his perfection" (Radhakrishnan 1948, p.133). To release one’s soul from its bounds in this world and unite with the Supreme there is a need to renounce material connections rather than the performance of prescribed duties. While the act itself may be preordained, the form the act takes rests on the individual. To redress the balance is to mindfully live in the pursuit of ethical advancement, cultivate inter-personal relationships and accept moral responsibility over one’s conduct.


Of the many sacred texts of Hinduism, The Bhagavad Gita or the Celestial Song is the one most concerned with the duties and characteristics of an ideal man. Its 18 chapters form a small part of the great epic Mahabharata but play a definitive role in any modern discourse on Hindu philosophy. A tale of warring cousins, the Mahabharata sets forth moral questions relevant for all ages. Delivered by Lord Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the Bhagavad Gita addresses Arjuna’s crisis of conscience at having to fight and kill and visit violence on the houses of his kith and kin. In his sermon, the Lord instructs him on the ways of dharma and adharma and the characteristics of an ideal life. As God himself asks him to honour his dharma by picking up his weapons and fighting, ‘dharma’ here not only refers to the path of righteousness but also to one’s duty and purpose on earth. Arjuna, born into the Kshatriya or warrior clan was bound to fight and that was his karma to fulfil.

The essential dichotomy and one of the great contradictions at the heart of the Gita, is of the Supreme God in all his infinite grace urging his bhakta or devotee to make war. In the eleventh chapter of the Gita, the Lord reveals his Universal Form to Arjuna and describes himself as Time, come to destroy the world and rid it of evil as was preordained. In exhorting Arjuna to fight, Lord Krishna urges him to not give in to ‘degrading impotence’ and ‘petty weakness of heart’ (Prabhupada 1986, p.71) Establishing the essence of the ideas of birth and rebirth and the eternal nature of the soul (no ‘jayate’ or birth and no ‘mriyate’ or death) which is central to Hindu ideology, in the second chapter of the Gita, Lord Krishna addresses Arjuna’s despondence by stating, "Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these Kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be." (Prabhupada 1986, p.81) In that light, Arjuna’s grief was for that which cannot perish and therefore a deviation from the path of righteousness rather than genuine compassion.

The believers are said to be on a path of renunciation; of forgoing material desires in order to reach the divine. To renounce is to be able to carry out one’s duties and perform the necessary actions without wanting to partake in their profits, to be immune to both the happiness and suffering that may come one’s way and have the sight fixed inward on the eternal. Arjuna was being asked to fight as a yogi (enlightened one), not with anger or hostility and not with revenge as the motive, but without regard for benefits or profits and with the conviction that it was the right thing to do (Prabhupada 1986, pp. 121-122, 246-276, 623). Simultaneously, he is also instructed on the daivim sampadam (divine qualities) one must possess, which includes forgiveness along with such virtues as purity of heart, fearlessness, non-violence, compassion, gentleness, sacrifice, truth and absence of anger, hatred and pride (Prabhupada 1986, p.656).

In the Mahabharata too, there is significant emphasis on forgiveness and its role in life is played out and discussed through the stories and sub-plots of many of the characters. When Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, urges her husband Yudhishthira to take revenge against his cousins for robbing them of their kingdom and insulting her, he expounds on the importance of forgiveness. He prefers to settle for 5 villages if it means he could avoid war and unnecessary bloodshed (Rajagopalachari, 1966). There are two instances in the Mahabharata where forgiveness is discussed in some detail. The first is when the wise man Vidura advises the old King Dhritarashtara on morality and wisdom and the power of ksama and the second is the well-known hymn of forgiveness whose first few lines are quoted here.

Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak, and an ornament of the strong. Forgiveness subdueth (all) in this world; what is there that forgiveness cannot achieve? What can a wicked person do unto him who carrieth the sabre of forgiveness in his hand? Fire falling on a grassless ground is extinguished of itself. And unforgiving individual defileth himself with many enormities. Righteousness is the one highest good; and forgiveness is the one supreme peace; knowledge is one supreme contentment; and benevolence, one sole happiness (Ganguli 1896, Book 5 Section XXXIII p.61).

Forgiveness is virtue; Forgiveness is sacrifice, Forgiveness is the Vedas, Forgiveness is the Shruti [revealed scripture]. He that knoweth this is capable of forgiving everything. Forgiveness is Brahma [God]; Forgiveness is truth; Forgiveness is stored ascetic merit; Forgiveness protecteth the ascetic merit of the future; Forgiveness is asceticism; Forgiveness is holiness; and by Forgiveness is it that the universe is held together (Cited in Hunter 2007).

The importance of giving up anger, hatred and desire for vengeance in the journey toward self-realization is a recurring theme in both the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. The Vedic ruling, ‘Ma Himsyat Sarva Bhutani: Never commit violence to anyone’ precedes all teaching on ahimsa or non-violence in Hindu philosophy and is discussed further through the life and work of Gandhi in the section to come. The Gita says ‘He who knows himself in everything and everything in himself will not injure himself by himself’ (cited in Radhakrishnan 1940, p.102). In perceiving none as an enemy and in forsaking anger, in viewing all with compassion and love, as a mirror of one’s own self and that of God, the very act of non-retaliation is also an act of forgiveness.


In taking religious and philosophical thought, often considered to be the domain of the intellectuals and applying it to social, cultural and political life, no one has done more than Mahatma Gandhi to live the ideals of Hinduism. For millions of Indians, he was not only the champion of independence but also a moral and spiritual beacon who confronted the degradations of Hindu society and reinterpreted it as a more inclusive and equal religion. The largest contemporary experiment in peaceful, non-violent protest was conducted with Gandhi as its spearhead and the Indian struggle for freedom as its backdrop and was firmly rooted in "a living faith in God" (cited in Dear 2006, p.110). The sacred texts reveal the real name of God to be ‘Satyasa Satyam’ or ‘the Truth of the Truth’ (Radhakrishnan 1953, pp.292-294) and Gandhi’s doctrine of peace was informed by this enduring belief that God is Truth and Truth is God and non-violence is the only way to reach Him. Gandhi was deeply influenced by the Bhagavad Gita and its message of the inherent divinity of all. He held that to reach God one had to commit to the service of humanity and the work of peace.

Gandhi’s worldview was also informed by the other great religions of the world. He read both the Bible and the Quran extensively and came to believe with absolute certainty that the spirit of non-violence was shared by all religions. In describing non-violence as the most "active force" (cited in Dear 2006, p.96) in the world, Gandhi rejects all notions of passivity in living a life of peace. He says "Non-violence is (…) goodwill toward all life. It is pure Love" (cited in Dear 2006, p.101). This universal practice of goodwill is in no way equated with the blind acceptance of injustice or cowardly submission to corrupt authority. On the contrary, Gandhi steadfastly opposed the unjust policies of the British while harbouring no personal ill will toward them. Central to the practice of non-violence is the non-recognition of an ‘enemy’ as "Satyagrahis love the so-called enemy as their friend" (cited in Dear 2006, p.91) and strive to "not harbour an uncharitable thought even in connection to those who may consider themselves to be your enemy" (cited in Dear 2006, p.97) (emphasis added).

The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence is founded on the adoption of restraint over retaliation in both thought and deed. Gandhi observes that, "Restraint is the law of our being. For highest perfection is unattainable without highest restraint" (cited in Dear 2006, p.101). In choosing to curb the instinct toward violence and revenge, one is also choosing the path of forgiveness. In his writings, it can be discerned that non-violence is not seen as separate from love, truth and forgiveness but are inextricably linked with one another. In an article in Navajivan in 1925, Gandhi writes, "He alone practices the ahimsa dharma who voluntarily and with love refrains from inflicting violence on anyone. Non-violence implies love, compassion, forgiveness" (CWMG Vol.32 1999, p.273). Gandhi held Ahimsa as the greatest weapon at the disposal of mankind for individual and social transformation as it involved a soul power far greater than the weapons of war; the ability to intentionally and bravely endure suffering at the hands of the perpetrator rather than resorting to violence. Again and again, he stressed on the importance of courage and fearlessness in the practice of ahimsa which he described as "the extreme limit of forgiveness" (CWMG Vol.36 1999, p.429).


The everyday practice of Hinduism is a rich and colourful tapestry of symbols, rituals, traditions and practices. Whilst the ancient, sacred texts are often inaccessible to people and are considered abstruse, the living faith in community and kinship in Hindu society are vigorous embodiments of the very beliefs they set forth. Hinduism has a prolific and creative oral tradition that has sustained the transmission of religious and moral philosophies across generations in the form of stories, poems, music and dance.

Over two thousand years ago, the Tamil poet Kaniyan Poongundranar sang ‘Yadhum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir’, declaring ‘All the countries of the world are my countries and all the people of the world are my people’. Despite the many challenges and trials facing Hinduism today, in the everyday traditions and practices of Hindu society, there are still strong undercurrents of this universalizing value. The Hindu greeting of ‘Namaskaram’ which doubles for ‘hello’ is in actuality an acknowledgement of the divinity in the other. Clasping both hands together and bowing one’s head is a mark of love and respect for the soul within and the recognition of our oneness. The entryway to Hindu homes is decorated with geometric patterns referred to as ‘Kolams’. These are traditional decorations drawn with rice flour by Hindu women every morning so that ants, birds and other small insects get their daily meal, a tribute to harmonious living. These are but two of the countless traditions that are in practice today that are active examples of living in the spirit of the Bhagavad Gita.

In defining forgiveness as an inevitable part of truth and non-violence and an abdication of the base self in pursuit of the superior; as the journey toward shedding all anger and ill will even against those who have wronged us; in accepting one’s powerlessness in the face of God and the inexorable laws of karma and simultaneously the profound, empowering spirit of effecting positive change by living a good life, there is an acknowledgement of the deep respect and exquisite grace of Hindu society. The law of karma holds that it is impossible to break the cycle of hurt and get rid of the violence in our society until we get rid of the violence in our souls. The way Hinduism shows is the way of deep, abiding compassion for all living beings, finding the ‘I in You and the You in I’ and ahimsa as the greatest truth, as God.