Guilty, as charged!!

The Human Condition and Guilt are intricately enmeshed. Not a day goes by without regrets, a feeling that I should not have done what I did, & then agonizing over past deeds and their outcomes. While doing something makes one feel bad, sometimes we feel guilty without any act or commission. Thoughts, plans, emotions also take us on a guilt trip…how can I think like this? why am I planning to do this? how can I feel so negatively about that person? all of these are rabbit holes dragging us down in a negative spiral…and the omni-present guilt!!

Sounds familiar? Each one of us understands the truth of Gorky’s words as life goes on and we learn to introspect. Having lost our innocence, we soon experience Al-Rahbani’s wisdom as we continue to careen on the incessant treadmill we call life!! This goes back to Voltaire’s aphorism: Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains!! and do we feel happy? No we bristle against the chains & feel guilty in the process. दिल वो है कि फ़रियाद से लबरेज़ है हर वक़्त, हम वो हैं कि कुछ मुँह से निकलने नहीं देते|What could have been, always over-shadows what is in front of us; we perpetually chase a chimera, wallowing in guilt, & feeling miserable in the process.

अपने ही लाश का खुद मज़ार आदमी

And yet, feelings of guilt have their place: when you are contemplating a course of action that would hurt or harm. Going to War, Firing an employee, Insulting someone, Bullying & Bull-dozing ones’ POV, Cheating or misleading….all of these are classic examples of the acts that make us think about consequences & how history would judge us.

Guilt awakens and ripens in a social context. I am always concerned how others would see me, whether I would be “found out”. Guilt comes when you are not sure whether you did the right thing? whether you will be saddled with outcomes you had not bargained for?? Zig Ziglar puts it so well, ” With integrity, you have nothing to fear, since you have nothing to hide. With integrity, you will do the right thing, so you will have no guilt”. But breathes there a man who will always be on the side of Integrity & Correctness? We know that even Saints have a past. And it is when you pass the path of “brimstone and fire” you will rise anew: but for that, we must go through the deep valley of Guilt and atonement.

Possibly the dilemma & consequences of guilt & a wrong act are best captured in the anguish of Lady Macbeth. Having killed her King, she loses her sleep, dreams of her dastardly act, & keeps washing her hands to rid them of blood. Her guilt keeps the blood on her hands fresh & visible, leading to the famous words, ” Yet here’s a spot…Out, damned spot; out, I say… What, will these hands ne’er be clean? … Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (Act V Scene 1). While Lady Macbeth feels guilty, think about Kansa who killed 6 children of Devaki immediately after they were born. Did he feel any guilt? Rather he felt righteous. Genghis Khan first tasted war when he was 9 years of age when his father was poisoned & he was held captive. His notoriety ever increased till he died 65 years of age. Nowhere is there any mention in history of remorse or regret for the barbarism that his armies unleashed & Genghis Khan himself led.

Guilt as an emotion has been around since the definition of good & bad, correct & wrong. The Biblical reference of Adam’s Fall from the Garden of Eden, the practice of Confession and Absolution all have an underlying logic of guilt. If you do not go to Church regularly, if you do not confess, you would burn in Hell: an euphemism for the pangs of Guilt which would rack & wreck you. But then, why go so far, to understand the all-pervading nature of guilt ?

Our mothers & wives keep us well aware of the power of guilt. ” Eat all that is on your plate, there are people who do not get 2 square meals a day!!” “Alcohol/Drinking is bad. If you continue like this you will bring ruin on to the entire family” “you have so many advantages that people do not have. When will you learn to value them?” Anyone who has been on a diet to reduce weight has felt the weight of guilt on his conscience. Why did I eat that sweet? Can I take a “cheat day” today instead of next week? Guilt keeps us guessing as we careen down the diet plan. Sometimes I feel Wives and Mothers are there just to tell us what we are doing wrong & what we need to atone for! If not at home, there is the boss at the office telling you, in full stereophonic sound, what you need to change & how. When he stops, our colleagues & peers take over driving the Guilt Train, explaining in great detail what we did wrong & how it has hurt them.

जाये तो जाये कहाँ समझे गI कौन यहाँ दर्द भरे दिल की जुबान

Is all this blame game totally objective? Am I really guilty as charged? Is there a lot of subjectivity at stake here and what if all my accusers were wrong? Is Justice ever Absolute? Are Guilty verdicts turned in by the Courts & Jury a true reflection of causality & consequent Guilt? If they are, why do we have Courts of Appeal? How often does the Higher Court over rule the judgement delivered by the lower court? If that is possible, what about a Higher, Higher Court to stand in judgment over the Lower Court’s decision of Guilt? Where does all this stop? I have very often wondered about the mindset of the condemned living out their last days on the “Death Row”. Do they feel guilty?

Do they repent what they did?? Did Ram feel bad about subjecting Sita to an “agni pariksha”? Did Sita regret crossing the “Laxman Resha”? Did Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, van Ribbentrop, Joseph Mengele ever feel guilty about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust? The social context of Guilt gets exacerbated when we talk of the Holocaust, as even today Neo Nazi groups are ready to defend Hitler & the Nazis & even walk the path shown then!!

So who is Guilty? Who is not Guilty? Like most emotions and feelings…it is all in your mind! A Mussolini justifies inequalities. A Martin Luther King stands against it. A Gandhi gets freedom for a nation through non-violent Satyagraha. But does that make a Subhash Chandra Bose any less relevant? The sacrifices of Chaphekar Bandhu or Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev & Rajguru did not go in vain per Indians. But for the British? The revolutionaries felt no guilt on the noose. But, did Saunders regret his actions? Did the British rulers rue the Jallianwala Bagh? General Dyer was the toast of the British society when he was shot down by Sardar Udham Singh. Who bears the guilt? Britain became Great on the loot and plunder of Africa and Asia. But History has never shamed or blamed the British. It is said the Hunter will always be the hero, till the Lions learn to write their own stories. So indeed, Guilt is a construct, a concept, up for interpretation.

I go back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to conclude:
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death… Life’s but a walking shadow… It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

So do not get waylaid dear friends by Guilt as you traverse this tortuous path. Learn to Let Go. Move forward and be ready to face the new sun with a smile on your face. Shrug off the negativity and guilt. It is just sound & fury, signifying nothing. Feel and Heal!!!

I will end by reminding you: Let It Go! Never let the past weigh you down. The lighter you travel, the faster will be your journey: vikas

30 Replies to “Guilty, as charged!!”

  1. Sir, Very nice article. The question is can guilt be avoided? Answer would be a big no till we understand our own conditioning and transcend it. But can we understand our self and transcend our conditioning? That will be a big ask for most of us as that would mean getting enlightened. Goswami Tulsidas suggests a short cut in Ramcharitamanas. होई विवेक मोह भ्रम भागा, जब रघुनाथ चरण अनुरागा। only when one goes deep in love with the God that he can get rid of confusion and attachments and get an intellect that can discriminate between reality and illusion. Can such person suffer from guilt?🙏


    1. HCP
      होई विवेक मोह भ्रम भागा, जब रघुनाथ चरण अनुरागा।
      what a fantastic piece of wisdom you are reminding us of
      I am sure when you truly reach that level and operate from that mindset the human emotions like guilt will fall away
      till then indeed we are trapped in our conditioning
      and like the proverbial rats in the maze, keep going round and round

      I must remember this gyan
      होई विवेक मोह भ्रम भागा, जब रघुनाथ चरण अनुरागा।
      I am sure it will make me stretch to become a better person

      thanks for your comment


  2. From the time of our birth till death I feel that Guilt is alway s s part of us . Like all the other emotions that we have guilt too has become a strong part of us in our day to day life. Is feeling weak Guilt , Is feeling strong Guilt, Is feeling happy when there are millions around you unhappy Guilt, so on and on and on …… We either feel or are Guilty or make someone feel Guilty….. Don’t we do that in our everyday life, home , work , social gatherings, friends, associates, etc etc etc ….. Is Guilt good or bad …. Would really love to find out one day all the above and everything that Vikas Uncle has 🖊 so well…. Till then living in Guilt that I can’t find a answer to it……


    1. Nikhil read something recently which I wanted to share with you:

      We all flee fled from our nightmares.
      In search of meaning. “Where will you go, my son?” asked his mother. “Where my soul finds peace,” he said. “What is peace?” she wondered. “The absence of conflicts,” he said. “You are a fool,” her eyes penetrated into his. “A coward.” “Was the Buddha a coward?” “Wasn’t he?”

      May you find what you are looking for


  3. Hi Vikas

    Guilt is a judgement of a persons behaviour by external entities based on the their value system.

    Feeling guilty consequently results from the need for conformity to these value systems.

    In todays world where non conformity is the norm those proven guilty do not care.

    They do not feel the guilt even when they are “guilty”

    Take the case of the recent invasion of Ukraine.

    The world court decrees that the agressor is guilty .. but aggressor does not care.

    The other aspect of guilt is that it is a feeling imposed on the relatively weak by the strong.

    Even after annihilating two cities, 8 months after a country had offered to surrender , those who decided to drop the nuclear war heads did not feel guilt.

    Instead a narrative was created to glorify their actions.

    Those who suffered the terrible consequences hung their heads in shame.

    At that time.

    In todays world the response may be different.

    Regret on the other hand is triggered by ones conscience and is perhaps the more truthful of the two emotions.

    When one considers the ramifications of such western lexicon , one realises the importance of karma – a concept which puts one in a state of mind which is quite profound.

    Vikas, thanks for yet another brilliant thought provoking article .



    1. Nikhil bhai
      you raise some very relevant points illustrated by appropriate examples
      Guilt and Regret is indeed very different
      But I also feel Guilt is an internal process esp when it is purposely triggered to control and manipulate
      That could be a mother using guilt to get you to finish your food or another country or association like NATO or UNO which takes a holier than thou attitude to press other countries into compliance
      When we recollect the nuclear blasts in WW II we also need to question how and why The Holocaust no remorse of guilt among its perpetrators

      The eastern Philosophy of Karma indeed gives another model to explain the goings on
      Karma must be seen alongwith the concept of Karta
      finally one must accept responsibility for one’s actions and be responsible for the consequences

      No simple solutions here but something worth thinking about


    2. Nikhil bhai
      read something recently which I wanted to share with you:

      We all flee fled from our nightmares.
      In search of meaning. “Where will you go, my son?” asked his mother. “Where my soul finds peace,” he said. “What is peace?” she wondered. “The absence of conflicts,” he said. “You are a fool,” her eyes penetrated into his. “A coward.” “Was the Buddha a coward?” “Wasn’t he?”


  4. Dear Vikas, Excellent blog. Various facets of guilt are well explained with appropriate examples. It was a great read. Thanks for sharing Regards Nilesh Sathe


  5. VS:

    Coincidentally, I was on a ‘guilt trip’ just before I started reading your blog. Despite being conscious of my weight gain during Covid, I ate a large piece of laddu and the next moment thought : “it was too sweet..i should have avoided it…will have walk for 30 minutes more!!!”

    Well, Guilt is connected with Desire. Indeed, they are 2 sides of the same coin. My Desire for Gulab Jamun often results in Guilt..
    there is a guilt if I eat ,and also guilt if I don’t it (ये भी क्या ज़िन्दगी है !!)

    The issue is:

    Guilt is in Mind , Desire is for Body. The fundamental truth we need to understand is that the two are separate!! Mind is the controller of the body. It is supposed to control the activities of the sense organs as per its own belief system. ..what to eat..what not to eat ..what to see ..what not to see ..what to do ..what not to do to spend time , how not to waste time etc etc . When the mind is unable to exercise control, its frustration results in guilt.

    The other related aspect is the ability and the power of the Mind to put a FULL STOP to the past. We say : “बीति को बिंदी लगा दो”.. the bullet has left the gun…nothing can be done..

    All this ,obviously ,is easier said than done.
    For both these aspects , a strong Mind is a pre requisite. This is where I see the role of religions or the teachings of Sadguru, Art of Living, BKs, Swaminarayan etc. ensure that the Mind acquires good control.

    We are all humans and as such the guilt cannot be fully eliminated…but the occasions of guilt can certainly be reduced.

    Thanks VS for sharing this another great piece..and thereby giving an opportunity to reflect on a very important aspect of our daily life!


    1. JLS
      many thanks for your thoughtful comments
      you always bring out a different dimension which adds to the subject and helps bring greater clarity for the reader
      here the link you have drawn between body and mind…desire and guilt is very fundamental
      if we were to control the mind we would indeed be a race of superhumans
      Philosophy, Spirituality, Babas & Gurus do help us along this path
      Only issue there is they tend to create dependence and group think
      Multiple are the Ways to the Allah is forgotten and
      the agarbattis of Shri Shri Ravi Shankar compete with those of Ramdev!!!
      the average man….already in that following because of a “weak” mind tends to get manipulated and cannot find his own path
      Ideally all organized religions and philosophers should point the road and let the traveler find his own pace
      but we see much dependence and ritualism which tends to distance the majority because you are confused which “brand” to follow in the spiritual marketplace
      the earlier you understand this and learn co-existence and mutual acceptance, we would all reduce the overall “Guilt” and be more driven by by the heart

      वो सुबह कभी तो आएगी
      till then we are guilty, as charged!!


  6. हमारे कत्ल का हमी पे इल्ज़ाम है
    ये गुनाह मुझसे हुआ है ये मेरा ही काम है


  7. I am with you MR Shirodkar. At the end what gives peace must be pushed. No point in living on the past deeds but correct if possible and move on. This is the only way to lead a quality life


  8. To feel guilty after a self-perceived sense of wrong-doing is very human. But what people do immediately afterwards is what history teaches us about leadership and character.

    King Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha). Overcome by the death, destruction, feeling of regret and guilt, he made amends and converted to Buddhism. The rest is history.

    In Mahabharata, Karna and Banumathi, the wife of Duryodhana, were playing a game of dice which Bhanumati was about to lose. Just then, Duryodhana enters the room from behind Karna. Bhanumati felt embarrassed that she was playing a game with Karna alone in Duryodhana’s palace, so gets up to leave the room. Karna thought that she was leaving because Bhanumati is about to lose, so pulls her hip and asks her to complete the game. In the process, her hip chain, strung with pearls, gets broken and all the pearls scatter on the ground. Just then Karna notices Duryodhana in the room and starts feeling guilty and uncomfortable for what he did. Karna is Duryodhana’s best friend and Duryodhana completely trusts his wife Bhanumathi. Without a moment of hesitation, Duryodhana asks, “சிந்திய முத்துக்களை எடுக்கவோ? கோற்கவோ” (“Sindhiya Muthukalai Edukavo? Korkavo”?) — “Shall I pick up the pearls and restring them”? In other words, Duryodhana encourages Bhanumathi to continue on the game with Karna and complete it, while Duryodhana apologises to Karna and Bhanumathi for the interruption he caused. This is the best example of trust, spontaneous leadership and character of Duryodhana.

    It’s natural for humans to feel guilty. It’s unnatural for humans to understand the situation and take next steps.

    We don’t know if Putin will become a Buddhist or offer to rebuild Ukraine!


    1. MSP
      2 fabulous examples: Ashoka and Bhanumati/Duryodhana

      I agree it is natural to feel remorse and consequent guilt. But I beg to disagree that to make amends and come out of the rut is unnatural. If you mean by natural, the port of first call, I agree
      But no one should continue to be consumed by guilt as then no movement fw is possible
      we must come to terms with the situation and plan the action ahead
      some may do it quickly
      some a little leisurely
      but move we must
      Let Go is easy to say and hard to do
      but what choice do we have?

      As regards Putin, he is no Ashoka
      from a man like Putin less we expect the better


    2. Dear Prabhakar Sir,
      This is such a powerful story.
      I have a sense that you have a treasure of many such gems.
      Would like to receive and benefit from them.


      1. Nitin,
        Stories are packages of ideas and thoughts. Storytelling is packaging technology. Stories and storytelling are the final frontiers of communication during this age of complex management theories and inscrutable philosophies. Always open the package, discard the packaging and look only for the product!


  9. VS, very interesting perspectives on the art of dealing with guilt. I would like to add that we all are without exception, man, woman, child, both perpetrators and victims of guilt. I have been witness to people wallow in self deprecation due to guilt, often without being directly responsible for causing grief to someone. A classic one was when I had an accident in Saudi Arabia (not my fault), as my car was hit from behind at a red signal while waiting for it to green. The cops came and looked at our ID and for reasons I cannot state here, I was told, “if you were not in this country, this accident would not have happened”. Really? If I were not born, if I wasn’t here, if I had not done this or that, are a constant conversation people have in their heads.
    And this if consistent, will lead to mental health issues.

    So while the word unscrupulous sounds negative, it is probably a panacea to deal with guilt.


    1. KKS
      thanks for your comments. Indeed we are perpetrators and victims of guilt in perpetuity
      The story you shared of Saudi is classic
      reminded me of the Aesop Fable where the wolf charged a lamb of dirtying his drinking water
      when the lamb pointed out that it was downstream while the wolf was up stream, so how could she sully the water
      The answer was it was your father if not you, and so I am going to make you pay….
      so often we see misplaced guilt, it is not funny
      it ruins lives and relationships


  10. Another piece of brilliantly written matter. You have well covered the emotion of guilt in detail ,with diverse example and answer….
    However there is class of one breed who is all above such guilt and shame …this is by political leaders who are deeply involved in corruption and misdeeds and cheating to general public…still never feel remorse for their deeds
    Possibly that kind of people are not touched by emotions of guilt..
    Would love you to pen on this subject some day


    1. Harish
      you hit the nail on the head
      Politicians are a rule unto themselves
      while the subject is indeed interesting, what causes hesitation is what difference will it make
      No one in that category will think or introspect or change
      so it will indeed be all sound and fury signifying nothing??


  11. Dear Vikas: Absolutely brilliant. Extremely insightful and we have lived with guilt all our lives. It is also a very powerful way of holding “power” over others. Make them feel guilty. And that is how we are manipulated and manipulate others. I wish to add one more dimension of guilt and that is “shame”. I have recently listened to a writer called Brene Brown and she mahes the following distinction between guilt and shame and I thought that I would share it here as that was very meaningful for me. Quote: Guilt is just as powerful ( as shame) but its influence is positive while shame’s is destructive.Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement” Unquote. The difference between guilt and shame: ” The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between I AM BAD and I DID SOMETHING BAD. I think recognizing this distinction will free us up.


    1. VJ
      you are more than kind in your praise.
      Fully agree that Guilt and Power are linked and often EBM/Guilt/etc are used to control others.
      Politicians are possibly best at manipulating these feelings en masse and get people to do things they would never do left to them selves.
      Loved Brene Brown’s distinction. Agree that Shame erodes while Guilt can propel positive movement. But then that is not true always. Sometimes Guilt drives people to a lot of negativity in relations and also aimed against them selves
      at least that is the way I look at it.
      But nevertheless a good line to pursue and think through
      thanks for your perspective which has opened out new thoughts for me

      Liked by 1 person

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