The Wisdom of Atonement lesson for week 2: Atonement the Gandhi Way

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The Wisdom of Atonement


Atonement the Gandhi Way

Arun Gandhi, Stephanie Van Hook

In preparation for this lesson, please read chapters 8 and 13 in

Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement

Healing the Past, Making Amends and Restoring Balance in Our Lives and World by Phil Cousineau (ISBN 978-0-470-90773-3)

If you were asked to isolate a single incident from your youth that helped shape your character, what would it be? Would you choose a heroic episode, or perhaps a spiritually transformative moment? Or would you have the humility and boldness to portray your human side and reveal a mistake that you learned from? If asked to write your life story, which significant experiences on your life journey would you choose to tell others what made you who you are today?

In Beyond Forgiveness, Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, describes several extraordinary incidents from the autobiography of his grandfather, The Story of My Experiment with Truth. The transformative moments occur in a chapter entitled simply “Atonement,” in which he describes an episode from his youth that indeed helped shape the contours of his life. (Refer to page 103-106 in Beyond Forgiveness.)

The incident was simple, but reflective of the behavior of youth all over the world. To prove himself to a friend who was mocking him for being a vegetarian, and something less than a man, the thirteen-year-old Mohandas Gandhi felt he had to do something he immediately regretted. Chastened, he confessed to his father. What courage that must have taken for a teenage boy! What a profound statement about the moral and ethical system that had already been infused in him by his parents!

Can you guess what happened?

His great-grandfather’s response was so compassionate that his grandfather learned a lifelong lesson about the importance of atonement and “the charity of unconditional forgiving.”

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Arun Gandhi writes that the tears of his grandfather and great-grandfather “mingled together to wash away the sins,” which is a marvelously vivid way to describe the catharsis that comes when forgiveness and atonement act together.

The question, then and now was: How do will we deal with remorse, a deceptively powerful word that derives from an old Latin phrase that meant “biting back,” as in someone’s conscience eating away at them? How do we respond to our own bad deeds, or someone else’s misdeed who is trying to seek forgiveness from us? Do we wish to retaliate or do we believe in redemption, atonement, and a restoration of our relationships?

PERSONAL REFLECTION: What would have been the repercussions of such a confession in your life if you had done something wrong and written a similar letter of remorse as a child?

As if forgiving yourself and others weren’t hard enough, Gandhi’s grandson, Dr. Arun Gandhi, ups the spiritual ante, so to speak in his essay in Beyond Forgiveness. He adds, “Forgiveness without atonement is worthless just as atonement without forgiving means very little. But equally, atonement has a double meaning—changing one’s self, and changing the issues created by others that create the conflict.” With penetrating insight, Arun Gandhi reveals how his grandfather had a life-long fascination with what we call today “self-improvement,” but complemented it with an interest in raising the consciousness in society about the ways in which “each of us contributes to conflict.” (Read page 106 of Beyond Forgiveness) As many of our great spiritual leaders throughout history have taught, the only way to break destructive habits is through a life of self-awareness.

In this sense the often maligned description of “self-improvement” doesn’t suggest that the old Puritan ethic of constant progress of the ego, but in improving our awareness of where the self belongs in the world, and its relationship to the community.

For that sense of self to improve, a different kind of honesty and a different practice is required, one based on compassionate living, which is rooted in understanding that everyone is human, everyone makes mistakes, everyone longs for forgiveness and atonement.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Ponder for a moment how you have contributed to conflict either physically, emotionally, or psychologically.


As one of the great sages of our time, the historian of religion, Dr. Huston Smith, has asked, “Does your compassion have any limits? If so, why limit yourself?” This is an indispensable question to pose to ourselves on a regular basis.

Arguably the most stunning revelation in Beyond Forgiveness, as well as the anecdote that poses a great challenge for all of us, is a story that Arun Gandhi reveals here, in print, for the first time. It centers on a detail about his grandfather’s assassination that has the power to make us all sit up and pay attention to what Albert Einstein once called “widening the circle of our compassion.”

The whole world knows that Gandhi was assassinated in the spring of 1948. But few know that there were several attempts—by the same man—beginning in the mid-1930s. After one attempt, the assassin-to-be was caught by some volunteers and brought before Gandhi. What he said then, very few of us would ever be able to say, “Forgiveness must always be unconditional.” (Read page 106 of Beyond Forgiveness.)

The Mahatma’s words and deeds seem almost superhuman in the way they reveal the far reaches of his compassion. They seem scarcely believable, until you consider the role that forgiveness and atonement played in Gandhi’s non-negotiable, deeply felt commitment to non-violence.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How do you feel about Gandhi’s extraordinary act—was it pure compassion or pure foolhardiness? Do you agree that forgiveness should always be unconditional?


We’ve been discussing the role of forgiveness on the personal level, but what about the collective or the social level? Once again, Arun Gandhi’s life and work provide inspiration. For almost thirty years he and his wife, Sunanda, worked with destitute children in India, where he was able to implement his grandfather’s philosophy of Sarvodaya, the Welfare of All Citizens. Most recently, he has worked with the new Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute to promote community building in eco-depressed areas of the world, joining Gandhian philosophy and vocational education. Arun Gandhi has also worked with prisoners, which has provoked him to think deeply about the role of punishment in our justice systems around the world. Many of the prisoners with whom he has worked have asked him, “We are willing to atone for our sins, but is society willing to forgive us?” (Please read pages 106-108 in Beyond Forgiveness on the culture of violence and the culture of materialism and how they overlap/influence each other.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How do you feel about allowing prisoners and wrongdoers a chance to redeem themselves?

Now we have a clearer vision of the light that Beyond Forgiveness is trying to shed on the complex problem of social justice. Whereas, Michael Bernard Beckwith devotes most of his attention to the power of forgiveness, while allowing for atonement to strengthen the entire attempt at reconciliation, Arun Gandhi reveals here that for him and for his grandfather the equation is more like 50/50 between unconditional love and forgiveness. He emphasizes not only the importance of confessing or acknowledging our guilt, but also atonement, the offer of redemption. ”Atonement and forgiving not only played an important role in Grandfather’s personal life; they became the pillars of his philosophy of nonviolence.”

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Why do you think Mohandas Gandhi believed both forgiveness and atonement were required?

Arun Gandhi recounts and illuminating incident in his Grandfather’s life that influenced both of their lives (Refer to pages 108-109 in Beyond Forgiveness), as they pertain to his grandfather’s belief that an incident with his wife, Kastur, became the “first and most profound lesson in nonviolent conflict resolution that he learned.”

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Can you recall any incidents in your own life in which you used anger creatively, sympathetically, or as he writes “intelligently and positively” to forgive an oppressor?

Arun Gandhi concludes his compelling essay in Beyond Forgiveness with a succinct but beautiful description of the power of atonement. He describes his grandfather’s enormous influence on him when he was only thirteen-years-old, including his advice about dealing with his deep-seated anger or resentment—what Arun Gandhi calls his desire for “eye-for-an-eye justice.” Mohandas Gandhi inspired Arun’s own lifelong mission to help “society see the futility of hate and prejudice.”

PERSONAL REFLECTION: What do you think Arun Gandhi means by citing his grandfather’s powerful image of the double-sided coin of atonement and forgiveness? Can you think of other images that evoke these forces?


Stephanie Van Hook

In her essay in Beyond Forgiveness (Read chapter 14), Stephanie Van Hook, codirector of The Metta Center for Nonviolence Education, describes her admiration for the Gandhian way of peace and reconciliation, but also reveals her own belief in the need to go that extra step and take action. She writes about her motivation for joining the Peace Corps in early twenties, a decision that was rooted in her need to personally respond to what she perceived as the ill-advised political policies of the United States. She writes that she wanted to “atone for the harmful and violent foreign policy choices and ‘war on terror’ by means of a personal commitment to nonviolence and community-building.”

This move to take personal action, make amends for a wrong that we have personally committed or believe has been made by our family, our tribe, or our nation, is at the heart of atonement. Another feature of her perspective on atonement is that she places a great deal of emphasis on the power of love as a motivating force in making our world safer and more compassionate.

This is a grand challenge. Do you think we are up to it? Stephanie Van Hook is convinced that we are, if choose the right road, the right leaders.

“We are learning from Gandhi’s legacy,” she writes, “that violence is subject to a universal law. When it is used as a means to peace, violence only begets more violence. It remains for us to recognize that this law can help us to understand atonement as well as nonviolence, which both beget peace.”

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Do you ever feel moved to take personal action (such as join the Peace Corps, become active in peace or social justice movements) to demonstrate your deepest beliefs? Are love and compassion motivating forces for you?


Let’s review our course work. Every week we review the Seven Practices of Atonement, which are based on the life work of the fifteen contributors to the book, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement. Applying these practices in your life can lead to a genuine change of heart, and a more compassionate life: 

Seven Practices of Atonement
1) Acknowledge the hurt, the harm, the wrong
2) Offer apologies, ask for forgiveness
3) Try to make amends commensurate with the harm done
4) Help to clear the conscience of the offender
5) Relieve the anger and shame of the victim
6) Practice compassion for victim and perpetrator alike
7) Establish a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation


No one practice, no single belief system, will produce lasting change or unleash the kind of transformation that is called for in our often-troubled lives. Practiced together, these practices of atonement reveal the journey-like quality of the work that links forgiveness with atonement and healing.

Do you agree that it can help to have a spiritual practice? Do we all need a practice, or just those who are in trouble? If so, why? Does a practice help deepen our spiritual life?

Let’s keep exploring the mysterious process (see Phil Cousineau’s Atonement Journey Wheel) of moving through and then beyond forgiveness, to the next stage, the next level of compassion-centered reconciliation.


Two of the central tenets of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolence resistance movement are satyagraha and prayaschitta. The first is an ancient Sanskrit term that we might translate as “soul force” or “truth force.” Gandhi placed this at the center of the independence movement in India, a practice that later influenced Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. The latter refers to the numerous levels of atonement in traditional Hindu thought.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Do these foundational ideas to Gandhi’s life’s work connect with your life today? Does it help to see how universal the idea—and practice—of atonement is around the world and throughout history?

  1. Can you recall an incident in your youth where you committed a transgression that made you feel guilty? Can you recall how you handled it? Would you consider it a “life-lesson”?

  2. Have you ever been forgiven by someone you love: a parent, lover, spouse, friend? Has someone you love ever forgiven you?

  3. Have you ever followed up an acceptance of an offer for amends or made amends yourself? Have you ever “proved” your remorse with a real act?

  4. What can happen when we think we’ve forgiven someone, but really haven’t? 

  5. Has there ever been an incident in your life that appeared at first to be “unforgivable,” and then surprised you by resulting in a compassionate response? (For example, when Gandhi forgiving his assassin in advance of what was going to happen.)

  6. What could be “spiritually liberating” about “deliberating” over each of your actions, as Gandhi professed to, and if a mistake was involved, vow to confess it and then take action toward atonement?

  7. Do you agree with Gandhi that there is an “intelligent” way to use our anger, and that it is actually crucial as a kind of life energy, without which atonement and forgiveness are impossible?

  8. What do you think of the famous advice Gandhi gave the young Arun Gandhi, when he lived with him as a boy: “Nonviolence is much more than a strategy for resolving conflicts peacefully. Nonviolence is not a weapon; it is a lifestyle.”

  9. How do you feel about the Mahatma’s insight that we must all widen our concept of violence to include “our language, relationships, behavior, attitude,” until we understand that everything about us is potentially violent?

  10. Does the “Gandhian Way of Atonement”—making amends through social justice work—resonate with you? Does that work in your own life? Do you agree that we need to try to transform hate into love wherever we see it?


One of the constants in well-examined life is the belief that there is no time to wait, no time to put off the deeper questions of the soul. Mohandas Gandhi advised his grandson Arun to “build a genealogical tree of violence,” which included two branches, physical and passive.” (Refer to page 110 in Beyond Forgiveness.) Every day, he advised, we should analyze all the events of the day and put them into their appropriate places on the tree. The standard was that if any of our actions “Caused someone anguish or emotional injury, or made someone unhappy, than that would be passive violence.” Consider creating your own nightly list of acts of passive violence – and then create a parallel list of actions that might make amends for them.

With these simple but provocative and potentially cleansing questions in mind it is now helpful both for a good night’s sleep and a clean conscience. Eventually, with practice, forgiveness can become a way of life, and not allow anger and resentment to fester and become a kind of soul rust.

As Mother Teresa once said of someone’s particularly nasty enemy, “Forgive them anyway.”


Select those that resonate

  • I am the change I wish to see in the world.

  • I am alert to my acts of passive violence that might lead to acts of physical violence.

  • I affirm the need to douse the fire of violence in me.

  • I let go fear because it spawns negative feelings, such as greed, hate, prejudice, and lack of respect for others.

  • I look at my talents and gifts “in the Gandhian way,” which means that I am only a “trustee” of those talents, and so I must share them with others.

  • I practice atonement “the Gandhian way” by first getting rid of hate within myself and then by helping society see the futility of hate and prejudice.


“Life is an adventure in forgiveness.”

Norman Cousins

  • I resolve to transform hate into love wherever I see it.

  • I vow to understand that everyone is undergoing a great struggle and they deserve my empathy.

  • I resolve to become a bridge-builder not a bridge-destroyer.

  • I vow to do my best to transform the negative feelings others might have against me into positive feelings by displaying my unconditional love for them.

  • I vow to sow the seeds of atonement now.


  • In this short video clip, Dr. Arun Gandhi explains his grandfather Mohandas Gandhi’s original use of the word, Satyagraha:

  • We recommend that you screen Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi. Pay special attention for the scene where Gandhi he offers a form of atonement to the Indian man who slaughtered a Muslim family. View a trailer.

  • You are welcome to share your own stories, reflections and wisdom on forgiveness and atonement at

  • Learn more about Arun Gandhi’s work:

NOTE: These study course materials were prepared by Phil Cousineau, and were created to be used hand-in-hand with the book, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, with permission of the book’s publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, Copyright © 2011 by Phil Cousineau and Richard J. Meyer.

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