“ Whoso shall offer Me, in faith and love, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, water poured forth, that offering I accept, lovingly made with pious will.”
Song Celestial, Chapter 9, Verse 26
Throughout the long history of religious thought, stress has been laid on the importance of making offerings to the object of devotion. The gift may be of great intrinsic value or it may be humble. The Lord of Galilee considered the widow’s mite to be the greatest donation because it consisted of her whole savings, and because it was given with deep love and faiths It was given in the proper spirit and to one from whom no return was expected.
Sacrifice is part of man’s psychological anatomy. It is found even in wild animals, who risk life to preserve the young and helpless of their kind. Whenever man loves he feels a desire to express this emotion in material form. The disciple on finding his spiritual Teacher, has an urge to lay his material possessions at his feet. , This was often done in bygone days.
“ The liberal-minded disciple first offered His mind, body and possessions to his Guru,
Then the magnanimous Guru conferred on him The initiation and the mantra.”—KABIR
Commendable though this is, it must not be regarded as an actual sacrifice, for :—
“ I possess nothing :
All that I have is Thy gift.
What greatness is there in surrendering to Thee That which is already Thine ? ”—KABIR
This attitude of ‘ I possess nothing ’ is very helpful to the pilgrim on a mystic path. Shri Vasishtha remarks :
“ The mind certainly regales itself with the various dishes of egoism, and fattens itself upon the thought ‘ This is mine ’, by deriving pleasure from swirling in the fields of ‘ my-ness ’ that it creates.”
If the surrender of all ideas of possession is made at the outset, progress is expedited. How many kings of old approached their Guru and humbly begged for spiritual teaching, offering in return their kingdoms ?
They were told that material objects, wealth, lands, sons, wives, armies, were not theirs. The Lord requires that which it is in man’s power to give—that is, his heart and soul.
“ Take refuge in Him with thy whole being.
By His grace shalt thou obtain supreme peace And the eternal resting-place.”
Gita, Chapter 18, Verse 62
All things material, all possessions, all talents, all energy, all time, should be dedicated to the Lord without question, not as a gift, but as a recognition of the fact that they are His and He must use them according to His will. All can safely be deposited in His keeping, for He promises that whatever is necessary for the life and spiritual work of the devotee, will surely be provided.
It happens, according to Newton’s law ‘action and reaction are equal and opposite ’ that “ the gift is to the giver and comes back most to him ”, not necessarily in kind, but in peace of mind, in joy, in purity of heart. Was not Sir Philip Sidney’s entry into the Great Beyond more peaceful and joyful because his cup of cold water had quenched the thirst of a fellow soldier ?
“ The love and devotion I gave to my Guru Brought me in return, knowledge,
Affectionate association, delight,
Compassion, devotion and faith.”—KABIR
Yet, not to secure any unseen reward must the offering be made. Fenelon has said that love is purest when it is not stimulated by any hope of reward ; that one must not pay God with acts and goods for which a receipt is demanded but rather give and give generously out of sheer joy.
All scriptures agree that the way to Godhead is one of renouncing, shedding, giving, sacrificing, rather than of acquiring or collecting. The explanation is not far to seek.
The inner Atman (Self) of man is Puma (whole or perfect). Its light is veiled by layers of Avidya (mescience) which must be torn asunder to reveal the beauty lying behind them.
So far the word ‘ sacrifice ’ has been considered in its limited sense of making offerings, particularly of objects for which one has a liking or attachment.
Etymologically however, sacrifice is ‘ to make holy ’ or ‘ to consecrate’.
That meaning widens the scope of the term to embrace the consecration of all the acts, thoughts, words and even wishes of the seeker of God-vision.
The path of Nivritti (withdrawal) as opposed to Pravritti (outward going) as described in the Gita, Chapter 16, Verse 7, is the path of self-negation, the abandoning of the whole of the lower nature, the real sacrifice of the beast, demanded by the Lord. Such consecration is the means whereby man overcomes difficulties of earthly existence and reaches the haven of peace and joy. This is no life-negating gospel, but the lifting of life to the state of a divine art.
In the first discourse of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, the candidate for God-vision, is confronted with the agonising problem of a moral crisis : would his participation in his normal vocation as a soldier be a betrayal of his spiritual ideals ?
The answer given in the second and succeeding discourses is a negative one ; the ideal must certainly be constantly held in mind, given first place and pursued with singleness of purpose ; but at the same time, the ordinary duties, shorn of any attachment to their fruits must be carefully performed. The only permissible desire is the achievement of the goal of life, though aids to this ideal may also be desired.
An illustration may help to clarify the point. A man may have a deep longing to visit the city of Florence. He will naturally have subsidiary desires such as that he may encounter convenient trains, calm seas, pleasant customs officials. So a candidate for liberation may entertain legitimate minor longings, such as that he may meet a preceptor, or find opportunities of associating with like-minded friends. Beyond that, he, like Arjuna, must be prepared to sacrifice everything for his ideal.
“ By surrendering my mind to my Guru
I had it polished
And now it is transparent.”—KABIR
The whole process is thus seen to be one of selfabnegation, of the sacrifice of desires, tastes, time and energy to the subject of one’s devotion.
“ When are liberated all the desires that lodge in one’s heart, then a mortal, become immortal, then he reaches Brahman ” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, iv, 4, 7).
Unless man sublimates his instincts of self-preservation, race- preservation, acquisitiveness, he is no better than the beasts of the jungle. He is in fact worse, for the simple instincts which, in animals, provide the order and harmony which nature demands, grow in number and power until they take possession of man’s soul.
In it they are reflected not in simple form as in the beasts, but in complex, distorted and magnified vices such as anger, jealousy, egoity, arrogance, selfishness, greed, theft, murder, lust and pride.
The Vishnu Purana recounts how the venomous reptile Kaliya, with his semi-human wives, swarms up the river Yamuna, blasting herbage and cattle with his scorching breath.
When Shri Krishna jumped upon Kaliya’s hood to chastise and restrain him, the creature wailed :
“ O Lord, I have only acted according to the nature with which Thou hast endowed me.”
In reply Shri Krishna said :
“ True, Kaliya, your proclivities are inherent. Whilst you dwelt at the bottom of the sea you were justified in encouraging them. However, having reached the realm of mankind, you must not indulge in such destructive propensities. Reform your ways or go back to your cave at the bottom of the sea.”
By patient discipline and the sacrifice of personal instincts and ambitions, the aspirant gradually purifies and reduces his desires, and transmutes them into one great yearning for liberation.
“ When a man, completely satisfied in the Self alone, casts off all desires of the mind, then is he said to be Prajna Sthiti ” (one of unwavering knowledge)—Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 55.
Man is in this world to be purified by the sacrifice of his inclinations and self-will. It is the continual death unto self that quickens the life of the Self.
Constraint, humility, self-control, self-effacement, all the disciplinary practices recommended by the Teacher, are sacrifices made voluntarily as a prerequisite to immortality, absolute knowledge, eternal bliss, complete freedom and unbounded power.
The right process is not an inhibition of the functions of the organs of sense and action, but the internal mastery over them by stilling the wandering mind.
The methods given in Adhyatma Yoga are psychologically and spiritually sound ; they can be followed by candidates engaged in normal tasks ; they are swift and sure.
Very different is this conception from that of primitive man who slew beasts on the altars dripping with blood, and blazing with fire, to propitiate the gods and allay their wrath. Let the animal passions within the heart of man and nation, be burnt in the fire of devotion to God, and love of fellow beings.
The purified mind is then a living sacrifice wholly acceptable to the Lord. Sacred work, pure actions, dedicated thoughts are the result.
The Lord, in the act of creation, gave of Himself as it were, to all His creatures. Man in His image, when living according to the highest ideals, gives of himself because of the principle of sacrifice with which he is endowed. Only by selfless benevolence and love, can the present civilisation, shaken to its foundations, be rebuilt and firmly established.
We read that when a boy, Shri Krishna stole the garments of the Gopis (cow-herd maidens) as they were bathing in the River Yamuna. The metaphor is a fine illustration of the process of purifying the heart. As the devotee bathes in the stream of devotion and sacrifice, the Lord snatches away the sins, imperfections, failures and limitations and keeps them forever. Then the soul shines forth in all the purity, glory, beauty and serenity of a liberated saint.
The Bhagavad-Gita leads the aspirant from the sacrifice of worshipping gods to that of pouring the functions of the senses and vital principles into the fire of purification and restraint, thence to the culmination in the sacrifice of knowledge.
Then is obtained the Vision Splendid : “ Thou shalt see all things without exception in the Self, and therefore in me ” (Gita, Chapter 4, Verse 35).
Having been granted this vision, he will swiftly pass to supreme bliss and eternal peace.
Thus by sacrifice is produced a grand reconciliation between the claims of community and individual, of world and spirit, of human and divine. Jacob’s ladder is verily set up on earth.
The mundane course of life becomes itself the shining pathway to Godhead.
By worshipping his Creator with all thought, words and deeds, man attains the goal of perfection.
By losing himself he serves himself. He dies to live.
“ Cling thou to Me, clasp Me with heart and soul,
So shalt thou dwell surely with Me on high.”
Song Celestial, Chapter 12, Verse 8
Edwin Arnold’s old verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita, partly used in this article – ‘The Song Celestial’ is not only beautiful, but easily memorized.
To learn by heart some key passages of a holy text is one form of the yoga practice of memory.