The Meaning and Significance of Heart in Hinduism

Significance of Heart in Hinduism

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 semen.

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 semen 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 semen 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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Abbreviations

Ait. Aitareya Upanishad
Br. - Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Ch. - Chandogya Upanishad
Mun. - Mundaka Upanishad
Sv. - Svetasvatara Upanishad
Kai. - Kaivalya Upanishad
Pain. - Paingala Upanishad
Katha. - Katha Upanishad

**References to the heart from the Upanishads is taken from the rough draft I have prepared for my forthcoming book on the Upanishads. It is probably too much information on a single subject, but for the interested reader it serves as an important reference.