By Francis Gonsalves
July 1, 2011
“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6) said Jesus of the Pharisees, known for their loveless legalism and rigid ritualism.
Likewise, of those who reject Truth, the Holy Quran says: “Their hearts are sealed so that they apprehend not” (9:87). More than merely viewing the heart as an organ that pumps blood, religions see the human heart as a symbol with myriad meanings. Indeed, today, Catholics celebrate a heart-feast: the “sacred heart of Jesus”.
The Bible has innumerable references to the heart as a symbol of personality, intellect, emotions, desires and will. The heart describes what makes us tick as unique individuals. There are believers whose “heart is not proud” (Psalm 131:1) or whose “heart is evil” (1 Samuel 17:28) or “devious” (Jeremiah 17:9). Thus, the prophets speak of “a new heart” (Ezekiel 18:31; 36:26) referring to repentance.
We associate thinking with the brain, but in the Bible intellect and memory are also functions of the heart. Therefore, we have “thoughts of the heart” (Genesis 6:5). The psalmist “ponders in his heart” (Psalm 77:6) and Mary, mother of Jesus, also “ponders in her heart” God’s wondrous ways (Luke 2:19,51).
The heart also houses emotions. Aaron’s heart is “full of joy” on meeting Moses (Exodus 4:14). Fearlessness is felt in one’s heart (Psalm 27:3). Furthermore, hate arises “in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17) and so does anger (Psalm 39:3), sadness (Nehemiah 2:2) and despair (Deuteronomy 28:65). The heart is also the seat of desire and believers are told to turn to God for the “desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
The heart chooses between good and evil. There are references to the “hard heart” of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:22; 8:15). Jesus warns his disciples: “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander” (Matthew 15:19). However, on the positive side, there’s also the generous heart that delights in giving (Exodus 25:2) and King Solomon’s “discerning heart” (1 Kings 3: 9).
The holy Quran likewise refers to the heart: “As for those who believe not in the Hereafter, their hearts refuse to know, for they are proud” (16:22) and “Obey not him whose heart we have made heedless of Our remembrance, who follows his own lust” (18:29). Positively, it asserts: “Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest” (13:28) and “whosoever believes in Allah, He guides his heart” (64:11). Quoting the Holy Prophet, Imam al-Sadiq wrote: “The darkness of the heart is the worst kind of darkness.”
According to the Upanishads, human beings discover the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Absolute (Brahman) in the heart. Indeed, the etymology of the word “heart” (hridayam) is said to be hrdi ayam meaning He is in the heart. “All that exists is rooted in the heart; it is the abode of all creatures” (Chand. Up. 8.3.3; ref. Brhad. Up. 3.9.22).
But the heart is also the door to the blissful experience of the Absolute: “When every desire in the human heart is liberated, then a mortal becomes immortal and attains Brahman in this world. When all the knots of the heart on earth are cut, then a mortal becomes immortal” (Kath. Up. 6.14-15). In the Mahabharata, the Personal God (Isvar) is “present in the heart of all beings” (18:61).
Although one runs the risk of quite literally simplifying “the heart of the matter”, one senses religious traditions alluding to an inner and outer dimension of the heart: although the heart is abode of the Absolute; yet, we’re either unaware of it or reject it by housing evil therein.
Today’s feast of Jesus’ sacred heart is a call to be aware that God is Love. Many bhaktas see Jesus as a Premavatar. Even in bazaar art, pictures of the sacred heart of Jesus depict his heart aflame with love, crowned with thorns, a crucifix implanted thereupon. Indeed, true love engenders happiness, but also entails sacrifice.
Heart “dis-ease” is the number one killer in India, today. Take heart! The Absolute abides in your heart. Aware and active, stretch out your heart to embrace all of creation; for, as Saint Augustine wrote: “Our hearts were made for You, O God! And, ever restless will they be, until they rest in You!”
The author is the principal of the Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi. He is involved in interfaith dialogue and peoples’ initiatives for fostering justice, harmony and peace.
Source: Deccan Chronicle,