cremation ground of the heart

In the development of some religions, human lives were offered as a sacrifice to the Divine. If we think of the Divine as a compassionate force, why would it need sacrificial victims?

A different way to think about sacrifice is to ask ourselves, what would we be willing to sacrifice personally, what would we be willing to give up as an offering to the Divine? We don't need to have our hearts ripped out, but we do need to rip out from our hearts whatever prevents the Light from emerging and shining.

Some yogis in India still visit cremation grounds to meditate graphically on the impermanence of life. My guru did not send me to the cremation grounds, but asked me to reflect on my mortality. When I walked up the Ganges to where the river became much narrower, all along the banks I saw many skulls – the remnants of those pilgrims who had wanted their bodies buried in Mother Ganga's holy waters. It made me think, "What if this were the only life I had? What has to die in me so I can be free now, in this lifetime?"

Literally sitting on a corpse won't necessarily bring realization. It takes deeper thinking to understand that the corpse I should sit on is the personification of my jealousy, my revenge, my pride, my vanity, my terrible will to win every game, to be competitive. All of these personality aspects must become my corpse. Then, with the help of the Divine, I can start to see with the Light of understanding and allow the Light of knowledge to emerge.

I think of the heart as the cremation ground because that is where, for the love of God, we break our attachments, where we create the willingness to give up our self-will. What you cannot do for the love of God, you cannot achieve by sheer willpower.

The heart is the cremation ground where we have to burn desires and imaginary needs – needs that are not real, but illusions that we already know will not satisfy us. These are all of our preferences, all of our comforts, all of our attachments that we sometimes don't even know exist. If we don't let them go voluntarily, the Divine comes along in the form of Shiva, the destroyer of obstacles, and burns them away. Or as Krishna, the stealer of butter, and steals away what we like best, saying, "No, that is not where you should put your heart."

When you can sacrifice your comfort, you become independent of comfort and you are no longer limited by your need for it. And when you sacrifice your opinions, you may find they were not correct anyway. When you sacrifice what you call your "security" – which if you look at closer may not be real security at all – you can release a powerful energy that leads to liberation.

What would it mean to be truly liberated from the confinement and constriction of selfishness? Is it not selfishness, if left to run freely, that will tyrannize us? Think about all the unhappiness and destroyed relationships that arise when selfishness and self-will go on the rampage. Nothing good comes from it. And yet many people believe their security is in getting what they want. When we sacrifice whatever selfishness we have in our personality make-up, when we burn it in the cremation ground of the heart, we set ourselves free and set in motion a process of becoming truly human.

Those who have read the diary of my time in India(1) may remember an incident when another Western woman said to Swami Sivananda, "You tell us to renounce, and yet you give Radha all of these beautiful things – silken saris, jewelry and many gifts."

Swami Sivananda said, "These are nothing! Little trinkets! She has given me her life." If you can renounce your little trinkets and give your life to the Divine, then you have a security blanket you can really depend on.

So do not hesitate to sacrifice whatever you hold onto tightly in the wrong belief that it is your security. It is not. Instead, cultivate a commitment to giving back to life and a willingness to see how many blessings life has given us. We need to see how the Divine has taken care of us, almost step by step, along the way.

There are examples of yogis whose practice of surrender to the Divine was tremendous, beyond what words can describe. Some even offer their health to the Divine in return for Divine love. That degree of surrender is probably not expected or even possible for everybody. But please go as far as you can, and don't think you have ever reached the end.
A pioneer in bringing yoga to the West, Swami Sivananda Radha is the author of 10 classic books on yoga, including Kundalini Yoga for the West and Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language. Her teachings focus on developing awareness and quality in life.

  read more of swami radha's past columns

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