Sorry – a word we long to hear when we have been wronged. A word that suggests certain words should not have been spoken by the other. A word that suggests remorse, repentance by the other.
And yet, it is a word that we hesitate to say when we have wronged the other.
We hide behind ‘But, you misunderstood me. What is there to be so hurt about it? You are so touchy.’ etc
It is likely that we missed a step, stumbled on our way as we were walking along with the person. And so, we can take corrective action.
One thing that Karma Yoga teaches us is kaushalam, a competence in performing karma that is aligned with Dharma. Naturally this implies taking responsibility for our karma.
We are not good at apologizing because we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. The ahankara, the self concept that thrives on being right, squirms in discomfort and will find ways to deflect attention away from oneself.
Ego, self righteousness, fear of consequences, make us not want to say I am sorry. Time to get over it and grow.
In millions of Hindu homes every day during puja devotees utter a sankalpa which is a prayerful request and a resolve. It sounds something like this Mamopatta samasta durita kshaya dvara shri parameshvara priti artham pujam karishye.
I perform this puja for your love and in the recognition that durita, impurities have been gathered by me through my different actions.
Every day we acknowledge that despite my best intentions it is entirely possible that I made a mistake. I reacted, called the other person names, took the other person for granted or behaved in a hurtful, insensitive way. I make amends.
Prayaschitta is an important part of Sanatana Dharma. Prayaschitta means voluntarily accepting one’s errors, repenting for what one has done and doing karma to make amends and reduce the karmic consequences. P.V.Kane an authority on Dharma shastra states that the word Prāyaścitta originates from Prāya and citta, which mean “austerity” and “a resolve” Or “observances after knowing a certain thing has happened.
Acknowledgment of an unjust act is considered a step towards inner change. Rather than a framework of wrong action and fear of external punishment the emphasis is on self – regulation and taking responsibility for karma. I have been given the freedom of choice. Actions have consequences for me and the other. If I have wronged the other, I will be wronged either by the same person or by another. What goes around comes around, either in this lifetime or the next. I have the freedom to make things better and build a bridge
The Mahabharata asserts that one is not touched by adharma if one inhabits the space “where the Vedas, yajna, fire ritual offerings, prāyaścittas, acts of atonement, truth, satya, , restraint(damah), ahimsa and dharma are joined together”.
The Dharmasastras list many types of Prāyaścitta. These include:
Abhiśasta (public confession): a person visits homes as a beggar, seeks forgiveness, confesses his mistake and asks for food.
Anutāpa (repentance): a person is repentful, reminds and repeats to himself “I shall not do that again” and also says it in so many words. reflection, as well as study to gain jnana(knowledge) and resolve to walk the path of dharma. The term Anutapa (literally, “following heat”) is related to Paścatāpa (literally, sorrow, regret).
Japa: the person recites a mantra
Tapas a person denies oneself comfort for a certain period of time. One of the ways it was done in earlier times was to abstain from sensual pleasure, wearing wet clothes till they dry on his body while chanting, sleeping on the bare ground or fasting.
Homa: a fire ritual offering.
Dana: giving away gifts to the needy.
Upavasa or Vrata: restricting one’s diet, such as by eating bland foods or eating small quantities as a reminder of the discomfort that was caused.
Pranayama (regulating your breath): Yes. Effort in regaining balance and composure to avoid errors
Tirthayatra (pilgrimages): travelling by foot to sacred places or having a dip in sacred rivers.
The most common forms of prayaschitta or actions of repentance are upavasa (restrictions in food or fasting) and Vrata (taking a vow).
Please don’t be daunted by the list I have just shared above. It only highlights the responsibility one takes for one’s thoughts, words and actions and the help one seeks from Bhagavan in the cycle of karma.
Any apology starts with acknowledging that we have done something wrong, first to ourselves and then to the other. And hence the next series of questions are –
How am I going to make it okay? What does the other person need from us? What is this apology for? Some of the forms an apology can take are:
Acknowledgment – This is what most important people require and yet it is not too common. ‘I am sorry’ just smoothens the friction. When someone accidentally stubs our toe, we don’t want to punish the other nor do we seek compensation. We just want to be acknowledged. Like a 45 year old professional shared – My mother would constantly compare me to my older brother. I do love my brother but she did not realise how less I felt about myself. Later on she realised how it had impacted me. If only she had said that she was sorry.
Sitaram Goel, an Indian nationalist and writer shares how remorseful he felt by just meditating on the word ‘ahimsa’ and all the people he had wronged. In his meditation he asked even Stalin the communist for forgiveness because of all the things he had said against Communism.
Much healing would occur in the world if we were to acknowledge that we are genuinely sorry. Saying ‘I am sorry’ at someone’s funeral does not mean that I killed the person but it says that I see you and I feel bad that you are going through this. I am there for you. How can I help?
Sometimes it is possible that the other is blissfully unaware of how their words or actions have impacted you and so it is your right to share the same. No, you are not making a mountain out of a molehill. Your intentions are clean.
You want greater closeness with the person but certain behaviour has not fulfil your needs and it is perfectly fine to express what you wish for, from the other person.
Compensation – is based on the convention of seeking to make a victim whole. We see this in court cases where financial compensation is offered or when companies ask the employers to leave if they are downsizing. It is an attempt to right a wrong. Just yesterday there was an outage for a few hours in the Jio fibre network that I use. Although it did not impact my online classes I was pleasantly surprised to receive a text message which said – Unfortunately this morning you and a few other customers faced service disruption. Although our teams were able to resolve the network issue in a matter of hours, we understand that it was n’t a pleasant service experience for you and we truly apologise for that. As a goodwill gesture we are extending a 2 day complimentary unlimited plan. Jio is a huge company. They need not have done it but some attempt at compensation was made. We need to see more such actions by people on social media and by companies and it all begins with us. How do we attempt to compensate the other?
Punishment – Different from compensation, this is an attempt to punish the other equivalent in some way to the pain that the victim experienced. Although it doesn’t directly help the person who was injured, the principle is of the perpetrator paying the price such that justice is upheld. Sometimes the framework of crime and punishment can lead to more damage and less change.
Stopping the damage is the affirmative act of making sure it doesn’t happen again. This is fixing the railing so the next visitor to the clinic won’t trip and fall.
Prayaschitta – one or some of the karma mentioned earlier
An apology builds a bridge across the distance that was created with the other by your words and actions. It helps us move forward.
You apologise not because the person should go away but you are willing to engage with the person who was hurt to see what would help both of you move forward and to not hold a grudge for life.
You know what pain feels like. You don’t want to cause it and you are open to a connection.
An apology calls for a lot of sensitivity and empathy.
An apology can open the door while silence sometimes just shuts the door.
Kaushalam in karma yoga recognises that we are human.
We make mistakes and wisdom lies in making amends rather than sit on the mantle of self righteousness and distance ourselves from the other.
Elements of an apology
Say that you are sorry.Not, “I’m sorry, but . . .”, The use of the word ‘but’ nullifies your sorry.
Take responsibility for the mistake.
Describe what happened if it helps.The wronged person needs to know that you understand what happened and why it was hurtful to them. Focus on your role rather than deflecting the blame.
Have a plan.Let the person know how you intend to fix the situation.
Ask for forgiveness.It shows that hat you mean what you say.