Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Dharmakeerti (Dr Usha Sundaram), Bangalore

Kshama was sitting on the edge of her chair, her hair tightly tied behind, and beads of sweat on her furrowed brow. She looked like a tired old woman, as if all the fight had gone out of her. Her body and mind performed actions long since out of her control. Her sons, one a doctor and the other a chartered accountant, sat by her glancing at their watches from time to time. They could not be late for their work, and this 'additional burden' of looking after a tiresome mother had upset their routine.

Kshama was a god-fearing woman in her forties, brought up in an orthodox religious family. She had been performing her pooja and holding the household together very assiduously till three months ago. The house was always spic and span - so clean that it was more of a museum than a home, and her children had grown to respect that sense of order and tidiness.

Six months ago she came to me. She had found a letter in her daughter's notebook written by a boy, her college mate. While she had spoken privately to the girl, who promised to have nothing more to do with her friend, Kshama had not mentioned this to her sons fearing their wrath against their younger sister. Three months later another letter was discovered, and this time by a brother. While beating her, the brothers asked their mother if she knew about the liaison. In an attempt to protect her daughter, the mother took a vow in her pooja room that she was innocent of the whole thing.

The damage is done

Since then she was found to be restless, washing her hands 30 to 35 times a day. The quality of her work deteriorated. She did not feel hungry any more. She lay awake at night tossing and turning. Every time she touched an object in the house she would go and wash. She bathed several times every day. As the washing increased she kept on saying, 'I have sinned, I have sinned.'

The children who had grown to take it for granted that food would be served on time and the house kept neat and tidy, now found it a burden to look after themselves, let alone their mother. Meanwhile Kshama, knowing that her actions were beyond her control, turned from confusion to despair. She did not want to wash herself so often but felt compelled to do so to stop a mounting anxiety that came on if she did not.

'We have told her that she was wrong in shielding our sister. What is the use of being upset? The damage is already done,' said both the sons independently. How pompous they sounded in their self-righteousness! Here she was- anxious, suffering, helpless. She who had taken them in her lap when they, in their childhood ignorance, had made mistakes; who had held their hands as they learned to walk stumbling at every step; often, had she not laughed as they fumbled with their food, learning to eat on their own, supporting and encouraging them!

Today they had stood apart, weighed her love and condemned her. Kshama stood alone in her anguish; she had already judged and condemned herself, long before her sons had. She had 'sinned before God' and needed to be punished. The hand that had taken the vow was defiled and no amount of washing could wash the dirt off it. The dirt was in her heart. All of us project on to the 'Ishta Devata' (chosen deity) our own personality. Her God was one who was clean, meticulous, could not tolerate dirt and would punish the wicked. She had passed this attitude on to her children and they reacted the way they had learned to - with punition.

Mending the split

She was what we call an obsessive compulsive neurotic and this is one of the toughest among psychiatric cases to be treated by conventional methods. She had internalised a stern God and was punishing herself continuously. When she asked me whether I did not agree with her that she needed punishment, I said 'To me God is compassionate. He does not hate, he loves. And love is not just forgiving, love accepts.'

She agreed because it was the only opening she had. She clutched at it desperately but it did not reach her heart. Intellect and emotion were at war with each oilier and her mind was split by these equally strong forces. What chance did she have in this battle ground? I knew then that my words would never reach her emotional depths. In her own way she needed to expiate before she could forgive herself.

A tablet might calm her, even cut down on some guilt but the seed of her conflict would only be subdued temporarily. Unless rooted out, it could come up with redoubled force later. It would be a chaining of the tiger, not a taming.

She needed to work out her conflict, not by suppressing or fighting it, but by allowing it expression in a guilt free atmosphere. This could not happen if she sat at home and brooded. Thinking about it would only reinforce her behaviour and self-punishment. She needed to fill in her time with work - such work that in itself would not generate anxiety. Karma yoga, work without expectation of results, often helps burn up conflicts just by giving the mind something else to occupy itself with, rather than its own inner turmoils.

I enquired of her what she could do outside of her house for a few days. As she had been brought up in a religious household and her conflict was associated with sinning before God, she suggested that she do some religious ritual. It so happened that in her neighbourhood was a small temple. I asked her if she would like to wash the temple floor every day. She was willing and with the permission of the priest she washed the floors. Every day as she washed, she kept gazing at the deity. Before long, the very same washing tendency had changed from guilt to devotion and in her own way she had expiated. The energy which had previously turned her mind into a battlefield had now converted it into a temple.

Change of attitude

Her punitive God in his compassion had forgiven her and flooded her with the fullness of his existence within her of which she had not been aware. Where did this compassion come from and where the punishment? Both had been within her. She had activated both of these - her own inner despair had turned to love without her realising it. While washing the temple Hour, she had washed out the torture in her soul, leaving room for love to enter. She had learned, perhaps for the first time in her life, that a mistake was not always a punitive affair, but could be used as a step out of a rigid obsessive mind that ran in grooves - a mind that lilted all its concepts into well systematised pigeonholes so that there was no place for a fresh experience to occur. Even an experience of 'sinning' is well worthwhile if it can shake us out of a pompous judgmental attitude into a more accepting one.

There is no situation in life that the mind cannot pervert or divinize- this applies to working in offices, bringing up children, doing pooja, giving charity. What we choose to do with a situation is in our hands. We can use the most unfortunate happening as a learning situation or an excuse for wallowing in self-pity. We can turn a noble sentiment or attitude into a meaningless platitude by using it for our own personal ends only.

Does the flower sin when it breaks the bounds of winter and blooms alone? Does a flood sin or a cyclone, or a dog when it barks? How often do we cut down our own expansion by punishing ourselves the minute we step out of our own self-imposed 'moral' code, instead of using it as a learning situation?

When Kshama returned home she was a bigger person. She did not blame her sons. In accepting her own frailties she had accepted their frailties also. Such is the mind, that, with each limitation we break, it overflows a little more into a higher way of living, into a wider sea of compassion that washes and purifies not only our self, but all who come into contact with us.