The Meaning and Significance of Heart in Hinduism

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by Jayaram V

The purpose of this essay is to introduce to you to
the significance of the heart in Hinduism in different planes or
dimensions of existence, not just as a physical organ in the body
but as a spiritual entity and representative of God and Soul in
the micro and macrocosms of creation.


For many people the heart is simply an organ that pumps blood
to various parts in the body and keeps it alive. For some it is
a symbol of love. They would say, “I have given my heart,” or “Your
heart is mine, etc.” The physical love you experience is usually
tinged with desire and its source is usually the lower chakras.
Your love elevates to the extent you elevate your thoughts and to
the extent you purify your mind and body. When it emerges from the
heart chakra it becomes pure, selfless, giving, forgiving, unconditional,
expansive, soulful, and liberating, but before you reach that stage
you have to build your inner strength and sattvic resolve.

The five dimensions of the heart

In Hinduism the heart has a great significance both as a place
where the soul rests and as a representative location of the abode
of Brahman. It is the hub and the center of life. As the center
or hub of all movements and actions, it has the following five dimensions.

1. In the physical body the heart is the deity that houses the
soul. It has five openings through which it nourishes the organs
with prana and keeps them alive. It also has several veins (hits)
which extend not only to the other parts in the body but also beyond.
The heart is also plays an important role in procreation since a
part of its energy said to go into the formation of retas (male
seed).

2. In the breath body, it is the cave into which the soul descends
at the time death along with the breaths. It has hundreds or thousands
of arteries called hita (means) through which energy (prana) flows.
Through one of them the soul travels to the top of the head and
from there escapes into the mid-space (antariksham), or the space
between the heaven and the earth.

3. In the mental body it is the mind itself which is responsible
for all your thoughts and emotions, and different states of consciousness.
Since the soul rests in the heart during sleep, it is also the source
of your dreams and deep sleep state. The Yoga Sutras (3.34) says
that by concentrating and meditating (samyama) on the heart the
knowledge of consciousness (citta-samvit) ensues.

4. In the intelligence body it is the connecting link that opens
your eyes to the truths of your existence and helps you discern
truth from the illusions and ignorance to which you are subject.
Since the Self resides in the heart, it partakes its essential nature,
which is intelligence.

5. At the highest level, in the bliss body, as the abode of the
Self, the heart is responsible for your experience of self-absorption
and bliss, beyond all duality and delusion. It happens when you
withdraw your senses into your mind, your mind into your intelligence
and your intelligence into the Self, which is the source of all
these.

Thus, the heart has many dimensions in the macrocosm and microcosm
of God’s creation. In the cosmos, the heart is where Brahman resides
as the center and support of all existence. The only way one can
enter it is through the heart of Brahman, which is possible only
if you connect your heart to his heart through duty, knowledge,
devotion, surrender, service, identification, sacrifice and silence.

The heart as the seat of divine love

According to Hinduism, the heart is the connecting link between
the heaven and the earth. It is where you experience the love of
God, express your love for him, or enter the dream state or deep
sleep state. It is the secret cave in your body where you come face
to face with the very secret of your existence. Your heart is also
your vulnerable spot, and unless you protect it well you can succumb
to negative emotions, and through them, to astral attacks. It is
therefore important that you fill your heart with love and positive
energy.

The Narada Bhakti Sutras declare that God is of the form of love
and eternal bliss, and so is the Self. He who attains it becomes
eternal and blissful. We do not experience the love of the Self
because we are cut off from it by our own illusions and duality.
The love of Isvara, the manifested God and the Lord of the Universe,
which emanates from his heart is without duality and without an
object, like an infinite ocean of love in which nothing else exists.

It is more intense and powerful than any human being can image.
It is not love for any specific thing or being, but love that radiates
in all directions and touches anyone and everyone who comes into
contact with it, just as the light radiates from the sun as its
very essence and touches everything in its path. His love is so
intense and yet so tender and vulnerable that no human being can
sustain it for long. God’s love also makes him vulnerable to the
love of his devotees and come out of his strong shell of detachment
and indifference. However, since it is pure love, no evil can touch
it or stand before it.

Here is an important lesson for everyone to learn. If you want
to stay free from negativity, you must fill your heart and mind
with love and compassion of the purest kind. Unless there is love
in your heart, you cannot experience the love of God or for that
matter, the love of anyone else. At the lowest level the heart manifests
as desire, at the intermediate level as love and compassion, and
at the highest level as devotion, bliss, and unconditional love,
which is not of this world.

Meaning and significance

The Sanskrit word for heart is hrid or hrdayam, which is usually
translated as the mind, the soul, the heart, the chest, the bosom
or breast. It is also used to refer to the emotional state of love,
or affection, or the essence of things. Since it has a spiritual
and philosophical significance, it is also used in conjunction with
other words as epithets of gods or to denote certain physical or
mental states. For example, Shiva has the epithet of Hridayanath,
the lord of the heart, and Parvathi, Hridayeswari, the goddess of
the heart.

Although, I have not found this explanation anywhere, I believe
hidden within the word hrdayam is its generic meaning as the source
of emotions. There are two root words, hr+udayam in hrdayam. Hr
means any impelling emotions such as anger, fear or guilt, and udayam
means dawn. Therefore, it appears that the word hrdayam has an unintentional
or coincidental connotation as the seat or cause of emotions.

Descriptions of heart in the Upanishads **

The heart is mentioned in the Upanishads as an internal organ,
and mostly in a passive sense as the location where the Self is
present or where the Self gathers up the breaths before departing
from the body. Very rarely it is classified as an organ but mostly
as a location and as a symbol of heaven, which is self-supporting.
It is a very important location in the body, just as the light is
to the sun and the world. In the body it is the abode of the Self
and the heaven itself, which connects the beings to the gods, the
Sun and the moon, and does not require any further support (Br.3.9.25).
It is also the safe haven for the Self when the body is asleep or
when it journeys to the higher worlds upon departing from the body.

The following statement by Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad (4.1.7) sums it up all, “The heart, O Emperor, is the
abode of all things, and the heart, O Emperor, is the support of
all beings. On the heart, O Emperor, all beings rest. The heart
truly, O Emperor, is the supreme Brahman. His heart does not desert
him, who, knowing thus, worships it.” In the earlier Upanishads,
we find descriptions of the heart as heaven. In the latter Upanishads
we find references to it as both the divine city of Brahman (Mun.2.2.7)
and the cave in which is hidden the Self. Sometimes it is also described
as the golden sheath that houses the Self.

By all means, the heart in the body is not of this world. Its
source is in the heaven. If the body is the Asvattha tree, the heart
is where its roots are located and its branches in the organs. And
if the body is the wheel, the heart is the center where the arteries
in the body are yoked together like spokes (Mun.2.27). Because the
heart is not of this world, it is through the heart you speak to
the gods and reach out to the Supreme world, with your mind and
speech. These ideas are affirmed and reaffirmed in several other
Upanishads.

According to the Chandogya Upanishad (3.18.2), in the body of
the Universal Being (Vaisvanara, if his chest is (comparable to)
the sacrificial pit, his heart (becomes comparable to) the sacrificial
fire. The essence of that heart is space (akasa) or heaven. “As
far as this (outer) space extends, so far is that space in his heart
(extends). Both the earth and the heaven are inside it, both fire
and air, both the sun and the moon, both the lightning and the stars.
Whatever there is of him, and whatever is not, all that is contained
in it.”

You also come to know why the heart is called hrdayam. It is
because the Self is located in the heart. “Truly, the Self is in
the heart,” so goes a sloka (8.3.3) in the Chandogya Upanishad.
“Of that, this is the etymological explanation. Hrdayam means hridi,
in the heart, and ayam means this is. Hence it is called hrdayam.
He who knows this goes day by day into the heavenly world.”

The Brihadaranyaka (5.4.1) provides a different explanation,
“This is Prajapati, this heart. This is Brahman. This is all. This
has the triple syllables. They are ‘hr’ ‘da’ and ‘yam.’ Hr is one
syllable. To him who knows this, his own people and others make
offerings. Da is one syllable. To him who knows that his own people
give. Ya is one syllable. He who knows this goes to the heavenly
world.”

The same Upanishad (Ch.3.12.4) compares heart to the subtle body.
It is the body of the Purusha in us where the breath rests. “That
which is the body of the Purusha, truly, is that which is the heart
in the Purusha, for it is in the heart the breath rests but not
beyond.”

According to Shankara, the six syllables in the Gayatri meter
symbolize the six organs of Purusha, namely, “Speech, Purusha, the
Earth, Body, Heart and the Breath.” In the same section, we further
hear that the space which is outside the body is Brahman, and it
is the same which is located in the heart. The heart has five openings
(according to Mundaka seven), through which five kinds of breath
travel in the body and keep it alive and nourished (Ch.3.13). Its
eastern opening is Prana, southern opening is Vyana, western opening
is Apana, northern opening is Samana and upper opening is Udana.

The importance of heart in the body extends beyond superficial
symbolism. The heart is vital to life and existence upon earth,
because it is also the physical location for the Self in the body.
This is affirmed by the teachings of Sandilya (3.14.3). “This is
my Self within my heart, smaller than a grain of rice, than a corn
of barely, than a mustard seed, than a grain of millet or the kernel
of a grain of millet.” Since the Self resides in the space in the
heart, it is also the source of intelligence and where perceptions
rest (Br.3.9.20). Even faith (sraddah) rests upon heart only (Br.3.9.21).

The heart is thus a very important location in the body which
houses both the breaths and the Self. Because of its subtle nature,
it also keeps a connection with the dream world and the heaven.
Through that the Self travels into the astral world during sleep
and to the Sun or the Moon upon death. It is facilitated by numerous
arteries called hita (energy channels), which extend from the heart
all the way to the heaven (Ch.8.6.2). Just as a path between two
villages extend from this to that, “They start from that sun and
enter these arteries; and starting from the arteries, they enter
the sun.” The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad(4.2.3) is even more graphic,
“Just as the hair are a thousand fold, so become the arteries called
hita that are established in the heart. Through them flows that
which flows.”

The heart is thus a connecting link between the heaven and the
earth and between the microcosm and the macrocosm. What protects
people from harm when they are asleep and defenseless is also the
heart (Ch.8.6.3). When a person is deeply asleep, he enters the
arteries of the heart and there no evil can touch him. “When one
is thus fully asleep, resting and serene without seeing any dreams,
then he happens to enter these arteries. Then no evil touches him
for he has attained the brilliant light.”

The idea is reaffirmed in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.1.18)
by Ajatasatru who confirms it to Balaki. The heart is the place
where a person rests when asleep. It is also the doorway to the
dream world (Br.2.1.19). “Now, when he falls asleep, when he does
not know anything, by the seventy two thousand arteries called hita,
which extend from the heart to the entire body, he travels and rests
in the body. As a boy, as an emperor, as a great Brahmana may rest,
having attained the supreme bliss, so also he rests in the body.”

The heart is the door to the dreams and the heaven because during
creation it was from the heart that the mind was separated and from
the mind the moon (Ait.1.1.3). So also, during the formation of
the body the moon entered the heart becoming the mind (Ait.1.2.4).
Since the heart is the location of the Self, it is also the source
of intelligence (Ait.3.3). “That which is the heart and the mind,
That is consciousness, perception, discrimination, intelligence,
mental brilliance…”

According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.9.22) the heart
is where life begins and comes into an end, and where gods assemble
to unite in the body during birth and disperse at the time of death.
“Upon what does the male seed rest? Upon the heart, he said. Therefore,
they say of a newly born who resembles his father, who appears as
if he has sprung out of his heart, that he is made out of his heart.
It is in the heart does the male seed become established.” And when
he dies, he goes up by the same arteries to the Sun or to the other
worlds.

Since the heart is the abode of the Self, all the deities descend
into the heart when a person is about to die and join the Self (Br.4.4.1).
“That Self when becomes weak and benumbed, as it were, then the
breaths gather around him. Taking with him these effulgent ones
he descends into the heart. When that person in the eye withdraws
from all sides, then he becomes unconscious of forms.” The Chandogya
(8.6.6) explains what happens later, “Hundred and one are the arteries
of the heart; one of them goes to the top of the head. Passing through
that one attains immortality; the others serve as the means for
going in different directions, yes in different directions.”

The process of liberation also begins from the heart because
it is where the Self, of the size of the thumb, is held in bondage
with the knots of desires (Katha.2.3.15-17). They have to be cut
asunder and the Self should be patiently separated from the body
“as one separates a blade of munja grass from its midrib.” Then
“the mortal becomes immortal even here.”

According to the Mundaka Upanishad (1.2.11) the heart must be
tranquil, as the mind, to achieve liberation. The heart must be
pure to experience the highest bliss (Pain.3.9). For that the mind
should rest in peace, with the senses withdrawn into the mind and
the mind into the heart (Sv.2.8). “Having established the mind and
the senses in his heart, a wise person should cross, by the boat
of Brahman, the streams of fear.” If he persists by the grace of
Siva he will be able to “perceive Him as majestic and become free
from sorrow.”

Since the Self is located in the heart and mind is the doorway
to the heart, it is only through the heart and the mind that we
can know the Self (Sv.4.20). One must focus upon the heart, having
made it pure and without passions (Kai.6-7). “Focusing upon the
center of the lotus of the heart, which is without passion and pure,
and meditating in the center upon that which is pure without sorrow,
unthinkable, unmanifested, infinite in form, auspicious, peaceful,
eternal and the cause of Brahma,” the sages attain Him, the Supreme
Lord.

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