Parva means period, time span. DIWALI Parva is the jewel in the crown of Sanatan Dharma’s festivals. During this festive period Hindus worldwide kindle diva (Hindi diya) at home, at work, in mandirs and at the base of sacred trees such as peepal, banyan and tulsi. The underlying sentiment is for inner enlightenment and removal of darkness in the forms of ignorance and evil. One of the requisites for this is that we cleanse our hearts. One way is by forgiving people whom we have worked or lived with, during the past year. We forgive them for any minor disagreements, petty quarrels, ‘allergy’, hate, or grudges. We should also forgive and forget any events that may have occurred in the society, country or world, which may still be nagging us deep within. Diwali is a special chance given by the seers for us to re-arrange ourselves internally to attain shanti at heart and also in health.
It is worth examining the effects of not forgiving and their reasons. The reasons can be one of several: ego of one’s right, of power and wealth and, perhaps, beauty. The common denominator of all these is excessive body-consciousness. With this we have today become less and less intolerant. We are unable to bear a minor sleight or insulting act, which we take to heart. We make a mountain out of a molehill and jump on the bandwagon of legal suites. “Sue him/her” is a phrase spoken more frequently today than it was a few decades ago. The next harsher step is to entertain revenge.
After the 9/11 attack, an NGO set up shop in Manhattan named ‘The 9/12 Community’. Its aim was to bring order to the lives of those deeply affected. Towards this end, they held a conference in Boston in December 2003. Participants revealed some of their own stories of inner healing due to forgiving. The spokesperson acknowledged, “For us 9/11 was an inciting event, an initiation. What we discovered is that kindness, given and received, was the only thing that restored balance in our hearts.”
In the past decade many researchers have reported the beneficial effects of forgiving. Everett Worthington, executive director of “A Campaign for Forgiveness Research” claims that there are several reasons for the increasing interest in such research: increase in health consciousness, the need to reconcile events such as 9/11, apartheid and fall of communism.
At a conference in Atlanta, Dr. Pietro Pietrini of the University of Pisa Institute of Medical Chemistry and Biochemistry averred, “Forgiveness occurs so that individuals can overcome huge weights.” Another study of addicts at the University of Michigan Addiction Center, reported that forgiving others resulted in more days of abstinence. At the same conference, Loren Toussaint, assistant professor of psychology at Idaho State University presented evidence that forgiveness led to lower resting blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Added to the discussions by researchers, the conference also included the spiritual and healing benefits of forgiveness, featuring spokespersons representing Islam, Judaism, Catholics, Buddhists and Christian scientists. Sadly, nobody spoke on behalf of Hinduism.
However, Worthington ostensibly remarked that while all religions emphasized forgiveness, “there is no established formula to achieve it”. He then presented his ‘Five Steps to Forgiveness’.
Worthington’s remark has its shortcomings. In the next article we shall present stories, statements and principles from Sanatan Dharma and by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the Gunatit parampara of the eternally truthful means to achieve forgiveness and peace at heart. But first we will discuss the research on forgiving.
Forgiveness and Medical Research
Today’s researchers have noted that prior to the 20th century, famous psychologists, such as, Freud or thinkers, such as, William James, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl and others did not make a single comment on forgiveness. This was a surprising finding. One probable reason proffered by today’s researchers is that forgiveness was considered to be the realm of religion and social scientists.
Research since then can be divided into two stages: (1) from 1932 to 1980 and (2) from 1980 till today. After 1980, more and more researchers took an interest in forgiveness. Many research articles were published in journals and their use in medical treatment. The post-1980 research findings proved more useful in treating mental illness since the authors were themselves physicians.
Initially, a question arose about the exact definition of forgiveness. Researchers could not reach a consensus. One simple definition is that, “when people forgive, their responses toward people who have offended or injured them become more positive and less negative (McCullogh, et al. 2000:9). Another point McCullogh offers in his book Forgiveness – Theory, Research and Practice is a universally true principle, “When someone forgives a person who has committed a transgression against him or her, it is the forgiver (specifically in his or her thoughts, feelings, motivations, or behaviours) who changes.”
Now we shall consider some results of surveys on various aspects of forgiveness. One British neuroscientist, Tom Farrow, discovered that just thinking about reconciliation triggered activity in the brain’s left frontal lobe. He therefore opined that forgiveness could be a distinct cognitive act that everyone could perform.
Researchers also discovered another surprising phenomenon. Of the 400 Americans who were asked how willing they were to forgive the terrorists of 9/11, those who were the least forgiving were also the least healthy. Moreover, they were more likely to suffer from insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or some kind of health problem.
Another psychologist, Fred Luskin, in his book, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health & Happiness (2001), believes that harbouring anger about an old hurt can also ruin marriages or wreck other relationships. Such bottled-up anger is also known as a grudge. And chronic hostility due to a grudge also harms the human body, especially the cardiovascular system. In a 2000 study at the University of North Carolina, researchers reported that non-hypertensive people who are most prone to flaring up are nearly three times more likely to suffer a heart attack than people who are the least hotheaded. According to one theory, stress hormones, such as, cortisol may cause clots to form in the arteries of the heart. So what is the solution? Cool anger by forgiving. This reduces the risk of heart disease. In other words, our anger can literally pain and damage our hearts.
A study at the Michigan State University revealed that older people tended to forgive more easily. It was construed from this that forgiveness wisdom can be learnt in stages, as we age. Then young and middle-aged people, especially men may probably ask, What are we to do? Be treated like a doormat? Psychologist Charlotte Van Oyen Witvliet at Hope College in Holland, Michigan opines that you can let go of anger toward someone who has wronged you, but then choose not to associate with him anymore. You don’t have to forgive and forget. This may be an option in exceptionally rare cases. However, it is not a universal and true principle. Here, modern medical conclusions begin to falter and depict its limits. At best medical research concerning forgiveness only offers solutions at the body and mind levels. The true benefits of forgiveness lie at the spiritual level. We shall consider these in the next article.
Here we now consider the physiological mechanisms that transpire when we do not forgive.
The Dangers of Not Forgiving
In the past two decades, researchers have discovered the traits of Type A people – those who flare up easily, who shout especially when some task is not finished on schedule, etc. They termed them as ‘hot reactors’. These stressed personalities suffered more from heart attacks, depression, migraine, colitis, asthma and even cancer. Anger and pent-up rage causes a ‘flight or fight response’ in the body. It releases potent stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These increase heart rate, direct blood flow to the limbs and increase sugar and blood clotting factor in the blood. This is in preparation for (1) a fight with an enemy or (2) flight from a mugger or a dangerous animal such as a tiger or snake. But today the fear from wild animals hardly exists. Instead we get stressed by a near-accident on the road. More common is ‘road rage’. Such continual stressors are known as ‘accidents that don’t end’, at least not in the body. Describing cortisol’s effect, Professor Stafford Lightman of Bristol University, says that it wears down the brain. This eventually leads to cell atrophy and memory loss. As cited earlier, it also raises blood pressure and blood sugar, hardens arteries and leads to heart disease. A classic example of this in medical literature was of a British physician named John Hunter (1729-93). He suffered from angina and chronic hostility. He often said, “My life is in the hands of any rascal who chooses to annoy me.” Dr. Hunter died after a heated exchange in a board meeting at St. George’s Hospital in London. Such a hot reactor tends to blow his fuse easily, cracks jokes at others but is unable to bear one himself, goes wild if somebody honks their horn at him but is fond of honking at others and is unable to laugh at himself. Neuroscientists Ornstein and Sobel acknowledge in their book, The Healing Brain, that “hostility tears the social fabric”. Hostility is a form of anger that is expressed continually or too often. The person becomes more self-centred and intolerant. The individual is fond of criticism and making negative judgements. Such individuals are more prone to coronary artery disease and even stroke. The remedy for all of the above problems is forgiveness.
In a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, veterans who received forgiveness training show-ed greater blood flow to the heart compared to those who didn’t. Many people are unable to even consider forgiveness as a form of treatment. Psychologist Ann Macaskill, in her book, Heal the Hurt: How to Forgive and Move On, observes that “refusing to forgive allows the perpetrator to go on hurting us, for months, even years.” In effect one gives that person power over you, while he is busy enjoying himself.
Researchers have even resorted to what is known as regression therapy. The patient is hypnotised and then made to recollect past events in order to pinpoint the event which may be the root cause of his troubles. In one reported case, a patient with chronic back pain recalled during his hypnotic state that a thousand births ago, as a soldier, he was lanced from the back, against the rules of war. The therapist then informed him to tell himself that “he did not need the pain anymore”. After returning to normal consciousness his back pain disappeared!
Not being able to forgive can even lead to cancer. The famous cancer surgeon and author, Bernie Siegel, cites a case in his book Peace, Love & Healing. In 1985 a Jewish man named Peter was diagnosed with a malignant tumour on his heart. For the next 20 months he made frantic efforts for a cure. What perplexed his physicians was the site of the tumour. When they questioned him deeply they discovered the probable underlying cause. Poor Peter was unable to forget the Holocaust. According to Siegel Peter was unable or unwilling to forget the past as urged by his therapists. He emphatically opposed the suggestion to “forgive the world for allowing the Holocaust to happen” (1990:54).
Harbouring a hurt can be toxic while forgiveness is healthy for the body and mind.
It leads to happiness and peace. Additionally it reduces the aggressiveness of the offender and also often curiously earns the empathy and warmth of people not involved in the affair but who witnessed it. And contrary to the views of psychologist Charlotte Witvliet, if a hurt or grudge is not truly forgotten, it is not truly forgiven. Like Peter it may linger on to cause disease forty years later or like the soldier with back pain, nag for a thousand births and even remain an unwarranted cause for rebirth!
So this Diwali let us pray to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj to forgive our faults, any laxities in obeying niyams and grant us strength to be able to forgive those who may have hurt us, just as they have forgiven their dissenters.