Of all the noble characteristics that a devotee must possess, none is more vital than forbearance. When you have forbearance you shine with a peaceful forgiving quality that remains undisturbed under all circumstances. When you have forbearance, then no matter how others treat you, whether they are caring and friendly or whether they are hostile or indifferent towards you, you will feel only love towards them.
Forbearance is the heart of all spiritual practice. It is the one quality which all spiritual aspirants must achieve in their lifetime. For the truly wise, for the great sages and great souls, forbearance is their very splendor, their penance, their sacrifice, their righteousness. It is their wisdom, their immeasurable love. Forbearance is the essence of their nonviolence, their compassion, their depth of happiness. Forbearance is the very mark of all great beings. Truly, forbearance is everything. Without forbearance it is not possible to realize the truth of the atma, to manifest the everlasting and ever-luminous divine presence, that shines undiminishably within you.
As long as you think that your body is real and your divinity is not real, you will not understand the principle of atma. And as long as you identify yourself with your body and not with your essential truth, your real self, you will not be able to gain the direct experience of your indwelling divinity. The atma has been spoken of in many ways, but you can comprehend it only through your direct experience.
Someone may describe the exquisite sweetness of mango nectar to you in elaborate detail and with great enthusiasm; but unless you have tasted the nectar and experienced it directly, you will not be able to appreciate its unique sweetness. When the nectar is on your tongue and you delight in its taste, then you understand what is meant by its sweetness. Similarly, unless you seek the direct experience of the Lord, unless you engage in spiritual practices and develop the noble qualities that are dear to the Lord, you will never be able to savor the divine sweetness arising from the atma.
What is the way to immortality? It is the removal of immorality. Swami has often spoken of this. Only when you remove the immorality within you, will you be able to gain immortality. When you remove the weaknesses, such as jealousy, hatred, anger, pride and all the other evils which have obscured your truth, then you will be able to enjoy the strength of the unchanging presence of divinity inside you. It is when you embody at least one or two of the 26 virtues which have been mentioned in the Gita, when you understand their deeper meaning, practice them and make them part of your daily life, then it will become possible for you to realize the immortal nature of the atma. Of the many virtuous qualities that a devotee can develop, forbearance is at the heart of all of them.
Forbearance cannot be learned by studying books. It cannot even be acquired by the teachings of a guru. It is not something which can be purchased in the bazaar. It is only by faithfully sticking to your spiritual practice, when you are under trying circumstances, that you will be able to acquire forbearance. It is when you are under test, in situations which are full of problems and difficulties, that the cultivation of forbearance takes place. Under those trying circumstances, weaknesses which are hidden within you will show their ugly heads. They will manifest in you as anger, fear, arrogance, hatred and many other evils that cover your essential truth. It is at such times that you must recognize these weaknesses and rise above them. Whatever action you must undertake that is appropriate to the situation, your inner state must be unaffected and rooted in unwavering peace and love. This is the practice of forbearance.
If you have not developed forbearance then you will suffer a lot of unhappiness and lack of peace in your life. Without forbearance you may take to harmful and evil ways. Therefore, it is essential that you recognize the importance of forbearance. All the education, strength and renown that you may have acquired will be of no use to you if you do not have forbearance. There have been a number of accomplished people who have acquired great powers by means of penance, but they were unable to enjoy the fruits of their penance because they lacked forbearance. Dearth of forbearance has made great scholars lose their prestige. Lack of forbearance is the most frequent reason for the loss of kingdoms by ruling kings. Forbearance is the shining jewel that decorates a human being. If this important quality is lost, you will suffer innumerable problems and sorrows. Therefore, develop forbearance. It is essential for your spiritual progress. Without this quality you will come to ruin.
Cultivate forbearance by the arduous practice of putting yourself to the test in very difficult circumstances. Forbearance is your vital protection. When you are equipped with forbearance you will not be troubled by grief or difficulties, by problems or unexpected situations. There is nothing extraordinary about returning good for good, but doing good in return for bad is an extraordinary quality. What is meant by doing good at all times, no matter whether it is right or wrong action that is directed towards you? When you are established in your essential truth, when you are in touch with your reality, you cannot but give the proper response under all circumstances, and it will come from the infinite reservoir of goodness and love, which is your unchanging nature. The practice of such a virtue requires a great deal of skill and courage, and a deep commitment to the essential truth of the one divinity, present in all hearts.
However much other people may criticize you, however much they may undermine and condemn you, you should never lose forbearance; you should remain unperturbed and continue to enjoy inner peace. When others admonish you, what will you lose - you, who in your essence are immortal? How can they possibly harm you? When you have forbearance and you are established in your divine nature, how can anyone diminish you? How can anyone affect your essential truth, which is unwavering, no matter the circumstances? But if, because of weakness, you lose forbearance and forget your truth, then you are subject to endless suffering, and you lose everything.
There are three important aspects of nature which are very useful to man. These are the tree, the river and the cow. Without trees, rivers and cows, humanity would not be able to function very well. Whatever violence is done to a tree, however much trouble is given to it by cutting its branches and taking some of its wood, the tree continues to give protection from rain and sun to any person who takes shelter under it, and it will try to continue to give that person joy. Trees have been doing good for people by giving fruit, flowers and fuel, even though in return, people may have been doing harm to them.
In the case of rivers, however much the rivers are polluted by people, in whatever way people may use and abuse them without showing any gratitude towards them, they will still continue to serve humanity by bringing the fresh waters from the clear mountain sides. And even as the rivers serve all, their concentration is on reaching the ocean which is their home and goal. The waters of rivers give life to humanity. Whether you put their pristine waters to good use or bad, the rivers do not mind. They will continue to serve as they return home to their ultimate source.
Then there are the cows who deny milk to their own calves in order to provide milk for humanity. They freely give such a fine and nourishing food to mankind. Whatever troubles you might give a cow, it will always give you sweet milk, not bitter milk. So cows also have been doing only good for humanity, whereas humanity may be giving all kinds of troubles to cows. Men may beat or encage them, they may starve them or abuse them, but cows retain their peaceful inner disposition and continue to serve, under all circumstances. These three, the tree, the river and the cow are good examples of this sterling quality of forbearance.
But, sometimes, the outward signs of forbearance must be tempered, to provide the appropriate response to a particular situation. Although at all times, you should have forbearance deeply ingrained in your heart, you should not go on displaying it under all circumstances that come up in the world. When practicing forbearance you must carefully examine the conditions that apply and employ discrimination. It is well known in Indian history that a vicious invader threatened the northern kingdom, and gave a lot of trouble to its good king. This merciless assailant invaded the country 17 times. Whenever he came, he caused widespread destruction in the country and took away a great deal of wealth. He put the entire populace through innumerable difficulties and losses. In spite of this, when the kingdom's ruler caught his enemy, he excused him and allowed him to return to his own country.
Because of his generous heart, the good king, lacking in proper discrimination, forgave his ruthless foe. Whenever the king vanquished his foe and the defeated villain asked for pardon and protection, the good king excused him and sent him back home, without inflicting any punishment. But the heartless invader did not show any gratitude at all. He was an absolutely unrepentant, wicked fellow and he continued with his hatred towards the king and his greed to conquer the kingdom. The moment the invader was freed and back in his own country, he invaded again and again. Finally, through deceit, he succeeded in catching hold of the good king. Mercilessly he put out the king's eyes. To people who are ungrateful like that, who are vengeful like snakes, you should not display forbearance. You need to use discrimination and respond appropriately.
In the great epic, the Mahabharata, which chronicles the war of righteousness between the Pandava brothers and their wicked cousins, there is an incident depicted in which Arjuna dragged the murderer of all her children, before Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers. The Pandavas had just won the war when the horrendous deed was committed. Even though Draupadi was overcome with sorrow, she pointed out to Arjuna the circumstances under which a wicked person should be excused. Draupadi told Arjuna that it was not proper to execute a person who was overwhelmed with fear, or a person who was humble and penitent and pleading for mercy, or a person who had lost his sanity and become deranged, or a person who had acted out of inconsolable grief, or women and children, in general, even if they deserve such punishment. For such, it is proper to show forbearance and treat them mercifully.
But, for people who are repeatedly ungrateful and malicious, who are unrepentant and untrustworthy, it is not appropriate to display forbearance. You need to deal with them firmly, according to the circumstances. But remember that all such actions relate only to your outer worldly life. In your heart, you must never lose your peaceful inner state of forbearance. For your spiritual life, forbearance is an essential quality necessary to reach the divine state, and you must practice it assiduously.
In the case of Jesus you can also see his highly-developed quality of forbearance. There were 12 disciples living and traveling about with him. Jesus extended all love and compassion, all protection and shelter to them. But one of them, Judas, was tempted by money and became a traitor to his master. Despite Judas' infidelity, Jesus remained unperturbed and continued to extend Judas his love. There is no need for you to pray to God to see that such people are punished. As was the case with Judas, their own acts will bring them to ruin. Whatever wicked actions a person commits, the fruits of those actions will have to be borne by him alone. No one can escape the fruits of his own actions. You may not be able to predict when and under what circumstances he will suffer the consequences, but the suffering is certain to come some time.
In both great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there are a number of instances depicted which show how people suffered in the end, when they did not practice forbearance. Consider the great suffering the five Pandava brothers underwent, having to go to the forest and live on roots and leaves, because of the hasty action of the eldest brother, Dharmaraja, in accepting a challenge to play a game of dice. Dharmaraja, as the king, felt it his righteous duty to respond to the challenge, and although he knew the game was rigged against him, he was in such a hurry to defend his honor, that he ignored the instructions given by Krishna and the advice given by his brothers. With a determination to be true to his principles, he hastened into the gambling game and had to suffer the consequences. As a result, he and his brothers lost their kingdom and were banished to the forest for fourteen years, undergoing untold deprivations and difficulties. It is only because of Dharmaraja's haste and lack of forbearance that all these consequences occurred.
You even find that a great soul like Rama, at times, did not have sufficient patience. At the end of the Ramayana, there is the incident in which Rama, after hearing the criticism and comments of one worthless washerman, immediately decided to banish Sita from the kingdom. Afterwards he suffered great pangs of separation. But, Rama was the avatar of his age, the embodiment of all the divine principles. In the case of the divinity, there will always be some deeper meaning and significance to the avatar's actions. Still, when you try to understand Rama's actions in a worldly sense, you can see that because of losing patience, Rama banished Sita and then had to suffer afterwards. Of course, when people who do only good and live only for the welfare of others, experience various troubles they will suffer their problems graciously. In this way they act as an example and teach the value of patience and forbearance when undergoing hardships in the world.
The qualities of patience and forbearance must be used with great discrimination, depending on the circumstances and conditions. There are circumstances when you are justified in acting quickly. You must always think ahead and be aware of the consequences of what you do. Under certain conditions, exercising unrestrained forbearance may lead to great troubles later on. Under most circumstances, haste creates problems. But if you are unduly slow, it may also lead to problems. It is said that undue delay can turn nectar into poison.
Slowness and haste are two extremes. On the one hand if you are too hasty your actions may be fatal, but if you delay too long they may also be poisonous. So, you must use your discriminating power and exercise patience to the degree appropriate to the circumstances. If first-aid must be given immediately, or if you are attending to a person who is very sick and is likely to lose his life in a few minutes if medicine is not given, then you must act quickly. In such situations there must be no delay. Delay would be poisonous and you must act fast and do the proper thing.
There are also circumstances when you are faced with people who are wicked and who are pursuing harmful ways. Then it may be necessary for you to warn them and correct them or otherwise deal with the situation. In such a case, appearing to lose patience may be your best recourse. Frequently, all that is necessary is just to change the sound of your voice a little. It doesn't mean that you have lost your inner quality of forbearance. Even if you elevate your voice and appear to be angry, you can still maintain the sacredness of your heart and not lose your peace, inside.
By following the path of truth, you will be naturally practicing forbearance. In all circumstances, always stick to the path of truth. But sometimes you may have to change the tone of your voice and the volume of your speech in a way that will deal appropriately with a difficult situation. There is a well-known story in the Mahabharata. Ashvattama, the son of the teacher of both the Pandavas and their wicked cousins, and one of the three remaining warriors on the opposite side, had taken a solemn and powerful oath on the last night of the war, that he would use all his strength and accumulated power of penance to destroy the Pandava brothers before the sun rose the following morning.
Krishna, of course, knew of Ashvattama's murderous resolve and also knew of Ashvattama's considerable wealth of spiritual prowess to carry it out. Therefore, Krishna, out of his deep love for the Pandavas, took steps to protect them. It was getting close to midnight and Ashvattama had been unable to find the Pandavas. Krishna knew that Ashvattama would go to the all-knowing sage Durvasa and ask him where the Pandavas were. Now, a great sage like Durvasa would never tell a lie. He was well known for his anger, but his anger was used only to protect righteousness and to quench the fires of wickedness and evil. Even in his anger he would stick to the truth, but often times he would change the volume and sound of his voice, as he was declaring that truth.
On this particular evening, Krishna went to see Durvasa. Durvasa was supremely happy to receive Krishna. Durvasa told Krishna how greatly blessed he felt to be honored by the Lord's visit. He asked Krishna, "Swami, please tell me what is the purpose of your visit?" Krishna replied, "Durvasa, I need your help."
In his heart of hearts Durvasa was overjoyed that Krishna, who was the protector and master of all the worlds, had approached him for help. But even for this there is a limit. Durvasa, who was extremely intelligent and who knew all things, said to Krishna, "Swami, I am prepared to give you any help you ask for, but I'm not prepared to tell a lie." Krishna told Durvasa, "I am the indweller in the heart of all beings. I am born again and again to protect dharma, to safeguard righteousness. How could I ever ask you to utter a lie? Dharma means right conduct its very basis is truth. Certainly, I would never ask you to tell a lie." Durvasa replied, "In that case, I am ready to do whatever you say. What is your plan, Swami? I will implement it."
Krishna asked that a deep pit be dug which could hold five people. Krishna then told the Pandavas to get into that pit. Wooden planks were put over the pit to cover it completely. A rug was put over those planks and then Durvasa's chair was put on top of the rug. Krishna asked Durvasa to sit on the chair. He told Durvasa, "Ashvattama will come and ask you where the Pandavas are. You must tell the truth. But in telling the truth, you might just change the sound of your voice a little." As was predicted by Krishna, Ashvattama came. Offering his salutations to the sage, he asked Durvasa, "Swami, you know all things in all the three worlds. Please tell me where I can find the Pandavas?" Durvasa did as he was instructed by Krishna. He told the truth. He said to Ashvattama, "Pandavas is it? Pandavas, is it? Yes, they are here! They are certainly here! THEY ARE RIGHT HERE UNDER MY FEET!"
When Durvasa, pretending to be very angry, told Ashvattama that the Pandavas were directly under him, Ashvattama got very frightened. Durvasa's anger was well known and much feared. Ashvattama thought that instead of killing the Pandavas, he himself might be killed by Durvasa's yogic power, right then and there. Suddenly overwhelmed with fear, he ran away. Durvasa had uttered the truth. In keeping with his own integrity and stature as a great sage, he followed the commands of the Lord to give protection to good people by sticking to truth. But, he did change the impact a little, by raising the tone of his voice.
You must have patience and forbearance, but at the same time, you should know under what circumstances and in what manner to use them. As we have shown, there are situations in which you must temper your outward expression of forbearance. You need to use your discrimination to know how and when to express the quality of forbearance, which should be ever firmly established in your heart.
Forbearance and patience are indicators of your inward state. They are instruments which you use to counter the negative qualities that are within you, the unwholesome character traits which come in the way of realizing your divine truth. Consider the ability to exercise forbearance in difficult circumstances as a test. It is in these times that the negative qualities buried within you will rear their heads and will tend to manifest themselves in wrongful or harmful actions. Welcome such difficult situations as challenges and opportunities to expose and destroy these negative qualities. You do this through your forbearance, patience and restraint, when otherwise your impulse would have been to use words or actions to harm. It is only after you achieve patience and forbearance and establish them firmly within you, that you will develop the inner peace and equanimity that is needed in order to understand the true principles of spirituality and divinity.
There are many negative qualities which must be completely shunned by devotees. In particular, you should not have any attachment, any hatred or any jealousy within you. If you have attachment, hatred and jealousy, even in the smallest measure, you will not be able to progress spiritually. Attachment, hatred and jealousy, and their hand-maiden anger, are the great enemies of devotees. They are the opposites of patience and forbearance. We will take up these negative qualities next and learn how to completely uproot them.
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