With all our imperfections, the Lord’s forgiving nature and His mercy are our only hope.
By Gauranga Darshana Dasa
What matters more than a formal apology is an honest repentance and an attempt to avoid repetition.
The Vedic scriptures say that every human being is subject to four defects: we have imperfect senses, we make mistakes, we get illusioned, and we have the propensity to cheat. Even very intelligent and cultured people commit mistakes, and sometimes our mistakes hurt others in some way. Here I’ll discuss hurtful mistakes, beginning with the examples of two ancient kings.
King Parikshit was the glorious descendant of the Pandavas. He was a noble king who was protected by Lord Krishna even within the womb of his mother. During his reign, Parikshit was so powerful that he even chastised Kali, the personification of our current age of spiritual decline. Once, Parikshit went to the forest to hunt, which was the practice of kings as part of their training for war. Afflicted by thirst, he approached the hermitage of the sage Samika and asked for water, but the sage was absorbed in deep meditation and didn’t respond. Offended, Parikshit placed a dead snake around Samika Rishi’s neck and then left the place and returned to his palace.
King Chitraketu was a great devotee of Lord Sankarshana, an expansion of Lord Krishna. Chitraketu attained the audience of Lord Sankarshana in only seven days by chanting a mantra given to him by Narada Muni. The Lord awarded Chitraketu an airplane that could travel throughout the universe. Once, he arrived at a place where Lord Shiva was embracing Parvati, his wife, who was sitting on his lap. Lord Shiva was addressing an assembly of great sages and other exalted persons. Chitraketu laughed and said that even ordinary men embrace their wives only in private, so how could Lord Shiva do that in public in front of sages?
Intentional Versus Accidental Mistakes
Although committing mistakes that offend others is common for us, we should at least make sure we don’t commit them purposefully. Incidentally or accidentally, we may err sometimes, but premeditated, deliberate offenses can have serious repercussions. Honest people may accidently offend someone, but they do not justify their mistakes, and they sincerely apologize for them. Dishonest people offend knowingly, and instead of admitting their offenses, they try to cover them up or justify them.
Srila Prabhupada writes, “The Lord is always prepared to excuse His devotee, but if a devotee takes advantage of the Lord’s leniency and purposefully commits mistakes again and again, the Lord will certainly punish him by letting him fall down into the clutches of the illusory energy. One must strongly adhere to the lotus feet of the Lord in devotional service. Then one’s position is secure.” (Bhagavatam 5.18.4, Purport)
What Parikshit Maharaja did was certainly a mistake, but it was due to his fatigue, thirst, and hunger and thus circumstantial. One proof of this is that he had never insulted any sages or brahmanas before this incident, and he never did again. Another proof was his honest repentance for what he did.
Chitraketu’s criticizing Lord Shiva was also a mistake, but he did it with good intent. He knew that exalted Shiva would not be affected by the uncommon behavior he was displaying. But Chitraketu was concerned that ordinary people might misunderstand Shiva’s behavior and criticize or disrespect him, and thus become victims of offending the great demigod. Chitraketu wanted to protect Lord Shiva’s honor and protect common people from offending him.
Regret, But Don’t Forget
A mistake is truly a mistake if one fails to learn from it. An honorable person is not one who never commits mistakes, but one who regrets them, apologizes for them, atones for them, and genuinely tries to rectify them and not repeat them. He also takes responsibility for the consequences without shifting blame.
Parikshit Maharaja, after returning to his palace, reflected on his act of garlanding Samika Rishi with a dead snake. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The pious King [Parikshit] regretted his accidental improper treatment of the powerful brahmana, who was faultless. Such repentance is natural for a good man like the King, and such repentance delivers a devotee from all kinds of sins accidentally committed. The devotees are naturally faultless. Accidental sins committed by a devotee are sincerely regretted, and by the grace of the Lord all sins unwillingly committed by a devotee are burnt in the fire of repentance.” (Bhagavatam 1.19.1, Purport)
Genuine regret or remorse in a positive spirit brings auspiciousness, just as Parikshit’s regret made him turn with humility towards God and God’s representatives. But insincere and egoistic regret can lead to depression or destructive tendencies.
We can benefit by remembering our mistakes. When we do good things, we may become proud of our accomplishments and think highly of ourselves. But if we are aware that we have shortcomings and honestly remember our mistakes, we really can’t be proud. This is in no way to discourage feeling good about our success in behaving well, but it helps us avoid becoming proud and looking down on others; it helps us keep our feet on the ground. By acknowledging our mistakes we can become humble, and by remembering them we can remain humble.
Expecting and Accepting the Reaction
Honest people are prepared to suffer the consequences of their misdeeds without trying to escape them. It’s natural to expect a punishment for one’s misdeed, but Parikshit not only expected a punishment, but, being a man of integrity, he desired a punishment. He considered that if he were not punished, he would be encouraged to offend again, or his family members might be punished for his wrong deed. Devotees don’t want others to suffer for their mistakes.
“While the King was thus repenting, he received news of his imminent death, which would be due to the bite of a snake-bird, occasioned by the curse spoken by the sage’s son. The King accepted this as good news, for it would be the cause of his indifference toward worldly things.” (Bhagavatam 1.19.4)
A student of Samika Rishi’s named Gauramukha informed Parikshit that Samika Rishi’s son Sringi had cursed him to die in seven days (Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura’s commentary on Bhagavatam 1.18.4). Parikshit happily accepted the curse, seeing it as the Supreme Lord’s arrangement. He retired as emperor, and for his last seven days heard Srimad-Bhagavatam from Shukadeva Goswami.
When King Chitraketu criticized Lord Shiva, Parvati became upset with what she perceived as his arrogant behavior and chastised him just as a mother chastises a mischievous son. Chitraketu should have noticed Lord Shiva’s elevated position, she reasoned, and restrained himself from criticizing him in public. So, she became angry and cursed Chitraketu to become a demon. He didn’t protest but accepted the curse gracefully and left. In his next life he became the great Vritrasura – a “demon” who was actually a devotee.
Why and Why Not Apologize
Apologizing and begging forgiveness are natural responses for an honorable person who realizes he has acted improperly. A true apology is not an apology done just as a formality. It is born out of sincere regret for one’s misdeed and out of empathy towards others’ feelings.
Parikshit regretted his mistake but didn’t go to Samika Rishi and apologize, because the rishi felt great remorse that his son had unnecessarily cursed a great monarch and devotee like Parikshit. Parikshit’s mistake was minor, but Sringi’s punishment of him was severe, highly disproportionate to the offense. When news of the curse was communicated to Parikshit, he understood that Samika Rishi would feel regret over his son’s act. Therefore, to avoid increasing the sage’s suffering, Parikshit didn’t apologize.
King Chitraketu, when cursed by Parvati, got down from his airplane, bowed before her, and apologized, addressing her as “mother.” A chaste wife becomes angry and upset when her husband is disrespected. Thus Parvati felt offended by Chitraketu’s criticism of Shiva. Acknowledging her feelings, Chitraketu told her that he hadn’t meant to disrespect Shiva but that because she was displeased by his behavior, he begged forgiveness from her.
“O mother, you are now unnecessarily angry, but since all my happiness and distress are destined by my past activities, I do not plead to be excused or relieved from your curse. Although what I have said is not wrong, please let whatever you think is wrong be pardoned.” (Bhagavatam 6.17.24)
Samika Rishi was not offended by Parikshit Maharaja’s action, but was regretful of Sringi’s behavior. Parvati, however, was offended by Chitraketu’s action and was angry. So, in not apologizing and in apologizing, Parikshit and Chitraketu honored the feelings of Samika and Parvati respectively. Being exalted devotees, Parikshit and Chitraketu didn’t think that they had been cursed severely for their small mistakes. This showed their detachment, maturity, and dependence on the Supreme Lord.
Mistakes of Great Souls
In fact, the unprecedented behavior of the virtuous Parikshit and devoted Chitraketu were part of the Supreme Lord’s divine plan. By the Lord’s will, Parikshit was put in an awkward situation so that the holy scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam could appear. To purify a slight tinge of pride in King Chitraketu and quickly bring him to the spiritual world within one short lifetime, the Lord inspired Parvati to curse him. By these arrangements in the lives of His pure devotees, the Lord also taught us beautiful life lessons.
The Attitude Behind the Apology
Expressing an apology is important, but the emotion behind the expression is more important. The internal attitude behind one’s external apology shows how sincere the apology is. To apologize isn’t a ritual, but it’s a heartfelt expression of one’s honest emotion.
Some admit their mistakes and apologize for them, but later repeat the same mistakes. Of course, no one can become perfect overnight. It takes some time to come out of a bad habit, and thus one may repeatedly commit mistakes, but a sincere intent to overcome them will eventually bring the right consciousness and behavior. But if we have no intention to rectify our mistakes, but just formally or ritualistically say “Sorry” and continue making them, we are considered professional sinners. This kind of insincerity is compared to the bath of an elephant, which puts dirt on its body after bathing in a river.
We may clarify the circumstances under which we happened to commit an accidental mistake, and we may clarify our intentions behind an apparently hurtful deed. But denying our faults and justifying our misdeeds by philosophizing is not the nature of sober people. Chitraketu clarified his intentions to Mother Parvati, but didn’t justify his actions; he readily accepted her curse as his destiny and respectfully departed.
Sometimes mistakes or offenses are not innocent and circumstantial, but are committed out of prolonged and deep-rooted envy and anger towards others. One such example is Prajapati Daksha, who envied Lord Shiva, who was more exalted than him. Daksha once publicly criticized Shiva and cursed him. Daksha’s offensive mentality later made him even neglect and disrespect his own daughter Sati, Shiva’s wife, who then committed suicide. Angry Shiva created the powerful giant Virabhadra, who beheaded Daksha. Thereafter, upon Lord Brahma’s request, Lord Shiva kindly revived Daksha, who repented for his offense and begged forgiveness from Lord Shiva. Yet, due to the traces of Daksha’s offensive attitude and behavior towards Shiva, in his next life he committed a similar offense towards the great sage Narada Muni by criticizing and cursing him (Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura’s commentary on Bhagavatam 6.4.52, 54).
If our apology isn’t sincere, we may commit similar mistakes again. Once Indra, the king of the heaven, became overly proud of his position. To humble him, Lord Krishna stopped the residents of Vrindavan from worshiping him and encouraged them to worship Govardhana Hill instead. Indra became angry and sent devastating rains to destroy Vrindavan. But Krishna lifted Govardhana and saved His people. Indra realized his offense towards the Supreme Lord Krishna and apologized to Him. Krishna cautioned him and forgave him.
Commenting on this episode, Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura explains that, after his failed attack on Vrindavan, Indra approached Krishna because he feared punishment. He became submissive and apologetic in front of Krishna to save himself. His apology wasn’t very sincere. As a result, he committed a similar mistake later. When Krishna went to heaven and wanted to take a special tree called parijata to satisfy His beloved queen Satyabhama, Indra protested and got into a fight with Krishna.
A Sincere Apology Attracts Forgiveness
Samika Rishi regretted his son’s overreacting and cursing Parikshit. And Parvati felt ashamed for having cursed Chitraketu for his small mistake. Without maintaining grudges, noble people wholeheartedly forgive those who humble themselves and sincerely apologize.
When we accidentally offend someone, we hope for that person’s forgiveness. Similarly, when others offend us, we should be willing to forgive them. If the Supreme Lord Krishna were to take all our mistakes seriously and not forgive us, who in the entire universe could give us shelter? Our worship of Krishna is often filled with many shortcomings and mistakes. Thus it is recommended that we always beg forgiveness from Him after worshiping Him. There are various prayers in this regard. For example,
“I commit thousands of offenses day and night. But, thinking of me as Your servant, kindly forgive those, O Madhusudana [Krishna].”
The Lord’s forgiving nature and His mercy are our only hope. Otherwise, with all our imperfections, we cannot be confident that our worship is flawless and worthy of winning His favor.
“O Govinda, Your promise is that Your devotee will never perish. By remembering this over and over again, I am able to stay alive.”
Making mistakes is common. But honest people realize them, remember them, regret them, rectify them, and don’t repeat them. They honestly apologize for their mistakes, not as a ritual, but as a heartfelt gesture.