Time – past, present and future
Hinduism teaches that the past is infinite, as is the future. Though there was a creation of the universe and there will be an ultimate destruction, these mark one of many cycles. Many Hindus also believe that there are other parallel physical universes, though Hindu texts are largely agnostic on this. The duration of each cycle is measured in billions of years. The late Carl Sagan, an agnostic astronomer and astrophysicist commented:
But the main reason that we oriented this episode of COSMOS towards India is because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe — a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.
As far as I know, it is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to show that it is not unnatural. In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.
This cycle of the physical universe itself repeats as part of a larger cycle, which in turn is in a further cycle. Different lineages may differ in the details of these cycles, but the gist is the same. Every 994 cycles of the universe a greater distruction occurs where the subtle plane (also known as the astral plane) is also destroyed, and after 36,000 of these cycles all three worlds (physical, astral, and causal plane or God’s abode) and all of space, and time are withdrawn into Shiva.
How does a human life fit in to this? At first thought it might seem that on this scale the soul of an individual is insignificant. This is not the case, however, as the Mundaka Upanishad reveals the significance of the soul:
This is the truth:
as from a blazing fire
thousands of flaming sparks come forth,
so from the imperishable, my friend,
various beings come forth and return there also.
The atman is a divine spark of God. As Yogaswami of Jafna said “The one act God cannot do is to separate Himself from us even for a moment”. I believe that followers of Kabbalistic Judaism have a similar view of God. God by his very nature must be intimately concerned with us.
Kripa, divine mercy, and why forgiveness is not divine
Since God is within us all, he cannot help but show us mercy. When we are devoted to God we are rewarded by kripa (IAST: kṛpā), which can be translated as grace, or kindness. This amounts to removing karma that we have accrued, so that we do not have to face the consequences.
The interplay between karma and kripa can be looked at as a river. The flow of the river is caused by our adharma (wrong action). This flow takes us further from the source, God. When we worship God, his kripa will bring us back to the source, but if we are still living adharmically we will be quickly washed away again. How many times have we felt the presence of God during worship or at the temple, but an hour later we feel distant again!
Karma, the world (maya) and anava (our ignorance) are also gifts from God; the environment where we can grow spiritually. This may seem strange at first, as many of our experiences don’t feel like gifts at the time, but ultimately they are. In Saiva Siddhanta we use the analogy of Pati-pashu-pasha, which is Tamil for master, cow, and tether, representing God, the soul, and the world. God guides the soul, using the world (karma, maya, and anava) to do so.
Is this divine grace and guidance a form of divine forgiveness for our transgressions? I have been contemplating this and I believe the answer is no, there is no divine forgiveness in Hinduism.
Forgiveness implies taking offence or being angry. God in Hinduism is all knowing and perfect. Since he never takes offence there is never a need to forgive, unless you look at it as everything being immediately forgiven. This may seem strange, as at times Hindus certainly ask for forgiveness, but I believe that it is really asking for help to move on from where we are and to learn. I see God as a parent, allowing a child to learn by their mistakes – having been told that if they don’t eat their tea they will go hungry. Their parents may let them go hungry for an evening, but they don’t do this through anger or hatred but as part of guiding the child and helping them grow.
Several fellow Hindus have pointed out that this ‘asking for forgiveness’ is part of forgiving ourselves. It is also a way to show remorse for wrong deeds, which is an essential part of hri, one of the essential rules of Hindu dharma. Knowing that God never holds a grudge, judges and is always with us is a great comfort to devotees. One convert to Hinduism writes:
This is the thing that keeps me affixed to this path. I had dealt with a lot of guilt and shame before finding sanatana dharma, and now I think I have a much healthier way to look at and deal with the “mistakes” I make in my life. It’s a wonderfully freeing feeling, to leave a tradition that tells me I’m inherently bad, and go to one that tells me that I’m inherently good, and that missteps are just the ways in which we learn.
In short, God is above forgiveness, and is constantly with us and supporting us. Not just by our side but at the centre of our souls, he bestows gifts on us all. Being loved by God means never having to say you’re sorry, but loving God means that you want to anyway.
Forgiveness is Human
The picture to the right is from a news story about a dog, Lola, who chewed a rare vintage Batman toy which was worth £1,000. Lola’s owner is a collectable toy dealer, who was valuing the toy for a client.
The story starts with the words “She is out of the doghouse and already forgiven“. Nobody would be surprised if the Lola’s owner was initially cross, but quickly forgave her. The anger would be a typical emotional response, but forgiveness would come easily, because everyone knows that the dog did not understand what she was doing. She was left on her own with something chewable and interesting, and followed her nature. Even if she knew that she was not supposed to chew the toys, she would have had no idea of the value of them, or that she had picked the most valuable toy in the collection.
It’s possible that if her owner is someone in control of his emotions and of a generous disposition that he never got angry, and that understanding the situation would see that there was nothing to forgive. However, forgiveness is not always that easy. People may have done something deliberate to take advantage of us, or hurt us. Some people even delight in causing pain to others. Because Hindus believe that we are all divine at heart, we believe that every transgression is ultimately caused by our ignorance of our true nature. The Tirumurai says:
Without virtue and penitence, devoid of love and learning, as a leather puppet I went around and fell. He showed me the love and the path and the way to reach the world wherefrom there is no return.
The ignorant will not see that harming others is in a very real way harming ourselves, for we are all divine. They don’t know that karma will be accrued, veiling them in more ignorance and bringing them further from God. This means that a Hindu should ideally not be angry or hold a grudge, but should forgive if he or she does. Forgiving is necessary for us to move on spiritually. Because of this, forgiveness is embodied in the scriptures and constraints of Hinduism. One of the Hindu yamas (constraints for dharmic living) is daya or compassion. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami wrote:
Compassion tempers all decisions, gives clemency, absolution, forgiveness as a boon even for the most heinous misdeeds. This is a quality built on steadfastness. Daya comes from deep sadhana, prolonged santosha, contentment, scriptural study and listening to the wise. It is the outgrowth of the unfolded soul, the maturing of higher consciousness. A compassionate person transcends even forgiveness by caring for the suffering of the person he has forgiven.
Similarly, the Tirukural, the Saiva book of ethics states:
Just as the Earth bears those who dig into her,
it is best to bear with those who despise us.
It is always good to endure injuries done to you,
but to forget them is even better.
It is impoverished poverty to be inhospitable to guests.
It is stalwart strength to be patient with fools.
Desiring that greatness should never cease,
let one’s conduct foster forbearance.
Forgiveness is a universal virtue and part of dharmic living for all Hindus. The above quote was from a Saiva text, but the Vishnava’s holy book, the Bhagavad Gita also extols the virtues of forgiveness:
The Blessed Lord said: Fearlessness, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, charity, self-control, performance of sacrifice, study of the Vedas, austerity and simplicity; nonviolence, truthfulness, freedom from anger; renunciation, tranquility, aversion to faultfinding, compassion and freedom from covetousness; gentleness, modesty and steady determination; 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.
It is interesting that both passages extol forbearance as the first call. If we can avoid losing our temper and forgetting compassion, all the better. If we cannot then the remedy is forgiveness.
So, ideally we should remain full of compassion, and not lose our temper or hold a grudge, acting in accordance with the divine within. Since all but the most perfect of us do become angry or resentful, Hinduism teaches us that to uphold dharma we should forgive. Forgiveness is human, a way of keeping on the path to the divine.
Image “Shiva the creator” made by combining the Wikimedia image “lord Nataraja” with the NASA image “Spiral Galaxy M81“. Both of these are available for non-commercial use with attribution. The combined image is available for non-commercial use under the Western Hindu blog’s license terms, as is the rest of this article.
Image “Lord Shiva bestows blessings on a devotee” is in the public domain, available from many sites but downloaded from shirdisaibaba100.blogspot.com.
Picture of “Lola eating batmobile” is a low-resolution screenshot from a BBC news video, which is considered fair use.
© 2012 Tāndava Nadesan, Western Hindu