Forgiveness & Repentance:
A Common Theme Across All Religions
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July 7 is celebrated annually as Global Forgiveness Day, a beautiful secular occasion for recognizing the importance of forgiveness, which is a powerful tool for good in the world.
The paradoxical thing about forgiveness is that it is less about the one being forgiven and more about liberating the self. The great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi had said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Forgiveness is one of the basic preconditions for peaceful living.
Being wronged by another puts us in a position of power — it gives us the choice of whether to punish or forgive. Choosing to punish gives in to our baser instincts and emotions, but forgiveness requires restraint and reflection from a more conscious perspective of the world and the nature of relationships. It accommodates the other. It helps you understand that everyone has a back story that makes them behave in ways that may not be ideal. You forgive when you feel secure in yourself and empathy toward the other person.
Many religious scriptures urge us to forgive even our enemies who have wronged us. Forgiveness is an expression of true love as it entails replacing ill will with good will toward the other person.
Just as forgiveness is necessary for healing relationships with others, repentance is necessary for healing the relationship we have with our inner selves. Repentance requires self-forgiveness. Life is complicated and everyone makes mistakes, has regrets. The past cannot be changed, but the future can, with the right balance of repentance and forgiveness. In fact, with healthy repentance comes self-compassion and it also helps us to forgive others. Repentance also requires the destruction of the ego — an act of surrender which is prescribed by most faiths to get closer to the divine.
The Jain prophet Mahavira, in fact, said that we must forgive ourselves first. Separate from the secular Global Forgiveness Day in July, Jains celebrate their own World Forgiveness Day early in September this year. The most important annual holy festival for Jains, called Paryushana (“abiding” or “coming together”), ends with the celebration of Samvatsari or Kshamavani. On this day, Jains seek forgiveness from all life forms of the world whom they may have harmed knowingly or unknowingly and greet their friends and relatives with Michchhāmi Dukkaḍaṃ, which means “If I have offended you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or action, then I seek your forgiveness.”
Hindus have a similar custom. During the Holi festivals, people who have not talked to each other for the whole year are expected to embrace and forgive each other. This happened to me and my friend once. I got angry with and, even though I wanted to forgive him, my ego prevented me from patching things up at the time. But the day of Holi provided me with the perfect opportunity to finally do so, and we became even closer friends as a result.
Repentance (teshuvah) in Judaism involves a concentrated effort to reflect upon one’s deeds and make amends by sincerely apologizing to those whom one has wronged. Repentance is the primary focus of one of the holiest Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, in which followers remember and atone for all sins committed in the past year.
In Christianity, forgiveness is a virtue and repentance is achieved through confessions to priests who are deemed to be Jesus Christ’s representatives. Jesus also commanded that people be quick to forgive each other for wrongdoings, as did most other prophets and saints. He remained committed to this principle, with his last words on the cross being, “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
In the Baha’i faith, only God has the power to forgive sins. This is similar to Buddhism, in which mistakes and bad deeds are the result of one’s own ignorance. With Buddhism, as with Taoism and Confucianism, the true measure of sincere repentance is the self-reforms that would prevent such mistakes in the future. In Hinduism, repentance (Prayaschita) can be achieved through a number of means including prayer, fasting, and charity.
And in Ancient Roman times, the Stoic philosopher Seneca extended forgiveness to the entire human race: “To avoid being angry with individuals, you must pardon the Whole mass, you must grant forgiveness to the entire human race,” he said.
But it was the English poet Alexander Pope who perhaps best summed up the supreme importance of forgiveness when he wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
— The New Testament (1 Colossians 3:13), Christian text
“Those who have been graced with bounty and plenty should not swear that they will [no longer] give to kinsmen, the poor, those who emigrated in God’s way: let them pardon and forgive. Do you not wish that God should forgive you? God is most forgiving and merciful.”
— The Qur’an (224:22), Islamic text
“Every night, before I go to sleep, I forgive whoever has wronged me. I remove any bad feelings towards anyone from my heart.”
— Ibn al-Mubarak, early Muslim ascetic
“Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world…When an individual repents, s/he is forgiven, and the entire world with him.”
— The Talmud, collection of Jewish writings
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
— The Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:34), Jewish scripture
“Verily, the breezes of forgiveness have been wafted from the direction of your Lord, the God of Mercy; whoso turneth thereunto shall be cleansed of his sins, and of all pain and sickness. Happy the man that hath turned towards them, and woe betide him that hath turned aside.”
— Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i prophet
“Repentance is the return from disobedience to obedience. Man, after remoteness and deprivation from God, repents and undergoes purification: and this is a symbol signifying ‘O God! make my heart good and pure, freed and sanctified from all save Thy love.’”
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“Righteousness is the one highest good, forgiveness is the one supreme peace, knowledge is one supreme contentment, and benevolence, one sole happiness.”
— Mahabharata, Hindu text
“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.”
— Mahabharata, Hindu text
“By practicing prāyaṣcitta (repentance), a soul gets rid of sins, and commits no transgressions; he who correctly practices prāyaṣcitta gains the road and the reward of the road, he wins the reward of good conduct. By begging forgiveness he obtains happiness of mind; thereby he acquires a kind disposition towards all kinds of living beings; by this kind disposition he obtains purity of character and freedom from fear.”
— Māhavīra, Jain prophet
“If one sets strict standards for oneself and makes allowances for others when making demands on them, one will stay clear of ill will.”
— The Analects (15:15), Confucian text
“Can you make your breath as soft as a baby’s
Can you wipe your dark mirror free of dust?”
— Tao Te Ching, Taoist text
“All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness … the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.”
— The Dalai Lama
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.”
— The Dalai Lama
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