Annie Besant – The Law of Sacrifice

The Law of Sacrifice






Annie Besant

We have already seen that a man can only realize himself as a Higher Consciousness in proportion as he tranquillises the senses, in proportion as he restrains the mind. We have then seen that he advances towards the realisation of the Higher Life in proportion as he obeys the Law of Duty, as he definitely and resolutely sets himself to the payment of the obligations that he has incurred.

Tonight we shall try to rise into a higher region, and see how, after he has practised the Law of Duty, the Law of Sacrifice lifts him upwards and enables him to reach union with the Divine. It is the Law of Sacrifice that we are now to study. It has often been said, and truly said, that sacrifice is printed on the universe in which we live. And why should it not be so, since the universe in which we live itself originates in an act of sacrifice, in the limitation of the Logos in order that the world may come forth? All the religions have on this point but a single teaching, that manifestation began by an act of Divine Sacrifice. Each Scripture may in turn be quoted to prove the point, but it is so familiar to all of you that no proof is needed.

The nature of that sacrifice is seen by us as consisting in this assumption of the limitations of matter by the Immaterial, in the veiling of the Unconditioned in conditions, in the binding of the Free within bonds. The first thought that we have, as we watch the evolving of a universe, is that this manifestation of life is only possible by its limitations, that these mark out the conditions of its evolution; and that just as life becomes manifest by the taking of forms, so by the breaking of form after form and the assuming of new ones does life continually evolve. We see the life manifested in matter, drawing around itself matter which it appropriates as form.

As form wastes in the exercising of life-functions, the life is ever engaged in drawing in fresh matter to replace that which has been lost. We see that the form is always decaying and always being renewed, and that the life can only find possibility of manifestation by thus taking fresh matter continually into its decaying form, and thus preserving it as the vehicle of manifestation; only by thus continually grasping after un-appropriated matter, and appropriating it for the building up and renewing of its form, can life evolve.

Thus there comes to be implanted in the very nature of the growing being, the idea that by taking, by grasping, by holding, the life is preserved, the life is increased. This seems to be what the life is learning by its contact with matter, and it does not realise, in the earlier stages, that taking, grasping, holding, keeping, is not really the condition of the life; but the condition of the maintenance of that form in which life is manifested. The form cannot continue to exist, but by virtue of the taking in of fresh matter. As the life goes on increasing, developing, this constant appropriation is the mark of the evolving Jiva. Everywhere is he learning that on the path of Pravritti, the path of forth-going, he must grasp, take, hold, and appropriate. Everywhere he is learning to try to absorb into himself other forms, and by union of other forms with his own to preserve the continuity of his existence in form.

When the great Teachers began to give lessons to the evolving Jivatma, when he had reached the necessary point of materiality, then strange teaching came to him, contrary to all his preceding experience. The Teacher began to say to him: “Life is preserved not simply by taking, but also by sacrificing that which you had already appropriated. It is a mistake to think that you can live and grow, simply by the appropriation of other forms into your own, simply by the absorption of the life around you, that your own may continue to exist. All the world is bound by a law of interdependence. All living things exist by virtue of mutual exchange, by the recognition of the fact of mutual interdependence.

You cannot live alone in a world of forms; you cannot preserve your own form by the appropriating of others, without contracting a debt, which must be paid by the sacrifice of some of the appropriated object, for the maintenance of other lives. All lives are bound together by a golden chain, and that golden chain is the law of sacrifice, and not the law of grasping.” The universe emanated by an act of supreme sacrifice, and can only be preserved by the continual renewal of sacrifice. Hear what Shri Krishna taught: “This world is not for the non-sacrificer, much less the other, O best of the Kurus.”* [ * Bhagavad-Gita, iv. 31.]

Man, then, cannot even live in the world of forms, save as he performs acts of sacrifice. The revolving wheel of life cannot go on, unless each member, unless each living creature, helps to turn it by the performance of acts of sacrifice. Life is preserved by sacrifice, and in sacrifice all evolution is rooted.

In order that this new lesson might be taught in the correct way, we find the great Teachers insisting on acts of sacrifice, and showing that by virtue of these acts does that wheel of life revolve, that brings to us all good things. Thus we see established in the Hindu ritual, the well-known five sacrifices, which include in their wide circle the sacrifices which are necessary for the due maintenance of the lives of all the creatures in the world.

We are taught that our relations with the world invisible, with the Deva world, can only be preserved by the sacrifice to the Devas, in which we recognise this interdependence. We give to them, they give to us, and thus nourishing one another, we reap the highest good.* [ * Bhagavad-Gita, iii. 11.]

Then we learn the sacrifice, which is called the sacrifice to the Rishis, the sacrifice to the wise, the sacrifice to the Teachers. That is the sacrifice of study, by the performance of which is paid one of our debts, by the performance of which an obligation is discharged. For by study we learn in order to teach, and thus we keep up the succession of knowledge, handing it down from generation to generation. Then we learn that we must also pay the debt to the Elders, the sacrifice to the past, the sacrifice to the Ancestors, to the Pitris; recognising in that that as we received from the past, we must pay our debt by giving to the future.

Next we learn to pay our debt to Humanity. We are taught that we must feed at least one man every day. We know that the essence of that act is not in the simply feeding one poor man. In that man who is fed, the Lord of sacrifice is also fed; and when He is fed, all Humanity is fed in Him. Just as when Durvasa came to the Pandavas in their exile, and the feast being over, demanded food where no food then existed, and the Lord of sacrifice Himself came and told the Pandavas to search for food, and one grain of rice was found, which He ate, and His hunger was satisfied, and in the satisfaction of His hunger the great host of ascetics found themselves filled; so in the sacrifice to man. In the feeding of one starving beggar, He is fed who feels Himself in all, in every human life, and thus feeding Him in the shape of one poor man, we feed humanity itself.

Lastly, we learn to sacrifice to animals. In the sacrifice to animals, in the two or three animals that daily we are bound to feed, we are feeding the Lord of animals in His animal creation, and by this sacrifice the animal world is maintained. Such the old lessons given to young humanity, to teach it the form and essence of the sacrificial act. And we learn that the spirit of the law of the five sacrifices is far more valuable than the letter of the law; and we learn to extend to that spirit of sacrifice the recognition of the law of the obligation, of the law of duty. When the Law of Sacrifice is thus interwoven with and united to the Law of Obligation, then the next step is placed before the evolving Jiva.

You have learned to do some acts as acts of obligation. You now have to learn that the world is bound by action, save by such action as is sacrifice.* [ * Bhagavad-Gita, iii. 9.] You must learn that looking for the fruit of actions binds us to the world of actions, and that if we would be free from such binding we must learn to sacrifice everywhere the fruit of action: “With such object, free from attachment, O son of Kunti, perform thou action.” [ * Ibid. ]

That is the next step. It does not mean that some particular actions are to be separated from a man’s scope of activity as sacrifices, but that all actions are to be seen in the light of sacrifice, by the renunciation of the fruit of action. When we sacrifice the fruit of action, we are beginning then to loosen the bonds of action which bind us to the world. For have we not read: “that with attachment dead, harmonious, his thoughts established in wisdom, his works sacrifices, all action melts away”?* [ * Bhagavad-Gita, iv. 23. ]

The world is bound by karma, by action, save that action which is sacrifice. That is the lesson which begins to be breathed into our ears, as we approach the end of the Pravritti Marga, as the time comes for turning homeward, for entering the Path of Return, the Nivritti Marga. When a man begins to renounce the fruit of action, when he has learnt to perform all his actions as duty, without looking for their fruit, then comes the critical time in the history of the evolution of the human soul; then, as he is sacrificing the fruit of action, there sounds out to him a still higher note, a still higher lesson, which is to lead him over into the Nivritti Marga, the Path of Return. “Better than the sacrifice of wealth is the sacrifice of wisdom, O Parantapa,” says Shri Krishna. “All actions in their entirety, O Partha, are contained in wisdom. Learn thou this by discipleship, by questionings, and by worship. The wise, the seers of the essence of things, will instruct thee in wisdom. And having known this, thou shalt not again fall into this confusion, O Pandava, for by this thou wilt see all beings without exception in the Self, and all in Me.”* [ * Bhagavad Gita, iv. 34.]

There strikes out the note that we have learnt to recognise as the note of spirituality. By the “sacrifice of wisdom” we shall learn to see all beings in the Self, and thus in God. That is the note of the Path of Return, of the Nivritti Marga. That is the lesson which has now to be learnt by the evolving man.

The critical point comes now in the history of the evolving Jiva. He is trying to sacrifice the fruit of action, trying to be dead to attachments. And what is the inevitable result? The attachment to the fruit falls away, vairagya seizes him, dispassion overcomes him, he finds himself hanging, as it were, in the void. All motive for action has disappeared. He has lost the stimulus of the Pravritti Marga. He has not yet found the stimulus of the Nivritti Marga. Disgust of all objects is upon him. He seems to have wearied of the Law of Duty; he has not yet seen the heart of the Law of Sacrifice. At this moment of pause, at this moment of suspension in the void, he seems to have lost touch with the world of forms and objects, but he has not yet found touch with the world of life, with “the other side”.

It is as though a man, crossing from precipice to precipice by a narrow bridge, suddenly found the bridge yield beneath his steps; he cannot return, he cannot reach out to the brink beyond. He seems to be hanging in the void, in mid-air, over the chasm; he has lost touch with all.

Fear not, O trembling soul, when that moment of utmost isolation cometh. Fear not to lose touch with the transitory, ere thou findest touch with the Eternal. Listen to those who have felt the same isolation, but have passed beyond, who have found the seeming void to be a veritable fullness: hear them proclaiming the Law of Life, upon which thou hast now to enter: “He that loveth his life shall lose it, but he that loseth his life shall find it unto Life Eternal.”

This is the test of the Inner Life. You cannot touch the higher until you have lost grasp of the lower. You cannot feel the higher, the touch of the lower is becoming that of a corpse. A child climbing up a ladder against a precipice hears the voice of his father calling him from above. He wants to reach the father, but he is clinging close to the ladder with both hands as he sees the yawning gulf below. But the voice tells him: “Loose your grasp from the ladder and stretch your hands out above your head.” But the child fears.

If he looses his grasp of the ladder, will he not fall into the yawning gulf below? He cannot see above his head. The air seems empty, there is nought to grasp. Then comes the supreme act of faith. He looses grasp of his ladder. He stretches up his empty hands into the empty air above him; and lo! his father’s hands clasp his own, and the strength of the father uplifts him to his own side. Such is the law of the Higher Life. In giving up the lower, the higher is secured; and by throwing up the life we know, the Life Eternal gains us as its own.

None but those who have felt it may know the horror of that great emptiness, where the world of form has vanished, but where the life of the Spirit is not yet felt. But there is no other way between the life in form and the life in Spirit. There between them stretches the gulf which must be crossed; and, strange as it may seem, it is in the moment of uttermost isolation, when the man is thrown back into himself, and there is nothing around him but the silent void, it is then that from out that nothingness of being the Eternal Being arises; and he who dared to spring from the foothold of the temporal finds himself on the sure rock of the Eternal.

Such the experience of all those who in the past have reached the spiritual life. Such the record they have left us for our encouragement and cheering when, to us too, this gulf presents itself for crossing. We read in the Shastras and in those outer actions that are full of deepest meaning, that when the disciple approaches his Teacher, he must ever come with sacrificial fuel in his hand. What is the sacrificial fuel? It represents everything that belongs to the life of form, everything that belongs to the personal lower self. All must be thrown into the fire of sacrifice, nought must be kept back. He must burn his lower nature, and his own hands must light the fire. He must sacrifice himself.

None else may do it for him. Give, then, the life, and surrender it utterly. Keep not back alive anything, so far as you know it; cry aloud to the Lord of the burning-ghat that the sacrifice is lying on the altar, and shrink not from the consuming fire. In the blankness of isolation, trust the Law which cannot fail. If the Law of Sacrifice be strong enough to uphold the weight of the universe, will it break beneath the weight to an atom like myself? It is strong enough to be trusted; it is the strongest thing there is. The Law of Sacrifice is that the life of the Spirit consists in giving, and not in taking, in pouring itself out and not in grasping, in self-surrender and not in self-appropriation, in utterly giving all that one has, sure that the fullness of the Life Divine will enter in. And see how natural it is.

The Life inexhaustible is found, that is ever bubbling up out of the illimitable fullness of the Self. Form is limited, life is unlimited. Therefore the form lives by taking, and the life grows by giving. Just in proportion as we empty ourselves of all that we have, is there room for the Divine fullness to flow in, and fill us more than we were ever filled before. Therefore the note of the Nivritti Marga is renunciation. Renunciation is the secret of Life as appropriation is the secret of Form.

This, then, is the Law of Sacrifice that we must learn. To give ungrudgingly, and ever again o give by this and this alone we live. On first entering the Nivritti Marga, where Renunciation offers herself as our guide, her voice may seem cold and stern, her aspect may seem almost menacing. Trust her, none the less, whatever the outer appearance, and try to understand why sacrifice at first sight gives us the idea of pain.

From the standpoint of form, the aspect of sacrifice is the breaking up of forms, the throwing away of things; and the form, which feels the life withdrawing from it, cries out in its anguish, in its terror, towards the withdrawing life that maintains its very existence; and so we come to think of sacrifice as an act of pain, as an act accompanied with anguish and with terror, and this must be as long as we identify ourselves with the form.

But when we begin to live the life of Spirit, the life which recognises the One in the manifold forms, then there begins to dawn upon us the supreme spiritual truth, that sacrifice is not pain but joy, is not sorrow but delight, that that which to the flesh is painful is bliss to the Spirit, which is our true life. Then we see that the aspect of sacrifice that was sorrowful was an utter delusion, that keener than any pleasure that the world can give, more joyous than any joy that comes from wealth or position, more blissful than any bliss that the world can offer, is the bliss of the free Spirit, which, by pouring itself out, finds the union with the Self, and knows that it is living in many forms, flowing along many channels, instead of following the limitation of a single form. Here is the joy of the Saviours of mankind, of Those who have risen to the knowledge of unity, and have become the Guides, the Helpers, the Redeemers of the race.

Step by step, slowly and gradually, They have mounted upwards and upwards, They have crossed the Gulf of Nothingness that I have spoken of, and have found a footing on the other side. They have recovered the sense of the reality of life, and in the Gulf of Nothingness, in which They for a time seemed to have lost Themselves, They suddenly found Themselves above the world of forms. All forms as seen from that higher level are the vessels of one informing Life and Self. They have found with a sense of joy inexpressible, that the living Self can pour itself out into all the innumerable forms, and know no difference between form and form, but all as the channels of one Spirit.

That is why the Saviour of the world can help the race and strengthen His weaker brethren. Having risen to that great height where all selves are known as one, the different forms are all His own. He knows Himself in each. He can be joyous with the joyful, and feel sorrow with the sorrowful. He is weak with the weak and strong with the strong – all are parts of Himself. Alike to Him the righteous and the sinful. He feels no attraction to the one, nor any repulsion from the other. He can see that in every stage the One Self is living that Life which is Himself. He knows Himself in the stone, in the plant, in the brute, in the savage, as in the Saint and the Sage, and He sees one Life everywhere and knows Himself that Life. Where, then, is there room for fear; where, then, is there room for reproach? There is nothing but One Self, and nothing outside It either to fear or to challenge.

That is the true Peace, and that and that alone is Wisdom. To know the Self is alone the spiritual life, and that life is joy and peace. Thus the Law of Sacrifice, which is the Law of Life, is also the Law of Joy, and we know that nothing has a keener pleasure than the pleasure of pouring out and not taking in, and that no limited joy can be equal to the joy of self-surrender.

Were it possible for each of us to catch for a moment a faint glimpse of the Spiritual Life, then the transitory world would assume its true proportions, and we should see the worthlessness of all that man accounts as precious. The Law of Sacrifice, which is the Law of Life and the Law of Joy and the Law of Peace, is summed up in this Mahavakya, this great Word; “I am thou; thou art I”.

And now for a moment let us bring this lofty idea down to the level of our daily lives, and see how the Law of Sacrifice, in its working in ourselves, will manifest in the outer world of men. We have learnt to realise, if but for a moment, the unity of the Self. We have learnt a word, a letter, of the Book of Wisdom. How then shall we behave ourselves to our brother men? We see a man low, degraded, ignorant, and foul. No special tie of kindred nor past karma binds us to him, nor does anything that we regard as obligation join our form to his. But, by the Law of Sacrifice, having realised the unity of the Self, when we see that outcast member of the human family, we see the Self in him, and the form vanishes, and we know that we are that man, and that man is our self. Hence compassion takes the place of what in the man of the world is repulsion.

Love takes the place of hatred, and tenderness replaces indifference, and the Sacrificer is marked in his attitude to those around him by this touch of divine compassion, which cannot see the repulsiveness of the outer form, but can only realise the beauty of the Self enshrined therein.

The Sacrificer comes across a man who is ignorant, while he himself is wise. Does he feel the contempt of the man of knowledge for the man of ignorance, and hold himself above him as his superior and as separate? Nay, he does not feel his wisdom as his own, but as common property belonging to all alike, and he shares his wisdom in the separate form with the ignorance in the other separate form: and he does it without feeling the difference, because of the unity of the Self.

And so with every other difference of the world of forms. The man who lives by the Law of Sacrifice realises the unity of the Self, and recognises only a difference in the containing vessel and not in the indwelling life; hence he only gathers wisdom and knowledge into his separate vessel for the sake of sharing what he gathers with others, and for others; and he loses utterly the sense of separate life, and becomes part of the Life of the World.

As he realises this, and knows that the only value of the body is to be a channel of the higher, to be an instrument of that life, he slowly and gradually rises above all thought, save the thought of unity, and feels himself a part of this great suffering world. Then he feels that the griefs of humanity are his griefs, the sins of humanity are his sins, the weaknesses of his brother are his weaknesses, and thus he realises unity, and sees through all differences the underlying One Self. Only in this way can we live in the Eternal. “Those who see differences pass from death to death”; thus speak the Shruti. The man who sees difference is really continually dying, for he is living in the form, which is decaying every moment and is therefore death, and not in the Spirit, which is life.

Just, then, in proportion as you and I, my brothers, do not recognise the difference between each and each, but feel the unity of life, and know that that life is common to all, and that none has a right to boast of his share of it, nor to be proud that his share is different from the share of another, only thus and in that proportion shall we live the Spiritual Life.

That is the last word, it seems, of the Wisdom that the Sages have taught us. Nothing less than this is spiritual, nothing less than this is wisdom, nothing less than this is real life. Oh! if for one passing moment I could show to you, by any skill of tongue or passion of emotion, one gleam of the faint glimpse – that by the grace of the Masters I have caught – of the glory and the beauty of the Life that knows no difference and recognises no separation, then the charm of that glory would so win your hearts, that all earth’s beauty would seem but ugliness, all earth’s gold but dross, all earth’s treasures but dust on the roadside, beside the inexpressible joy of the life that knows itself as One.

Hard to keep it, even when once seen, amidst the separated lives of men, amidst the glamour of the senses, and the delusions of the mind. But once to have seen it, though but for a moment, changes the whole world, and having beheld the majesty of the Self, no life save that seems worth living.

How shall we make it real, how shall we make it our own, this wonderful recognition of the Life beyond all lives, of the Self beyond all selves? Only by daily acts of renunciation in the little things of life; only by learning in every thought, word, and action to live and love the Unity; and not only to speak it, but to practise it on every occasion, by putting ourselves last and others first, by always seeing the need of others and trying to supply it, by learning to be indifferent to the claim of our own lower nature and refusing to listen to it. I know of no road save this humble, patient, persevering endeavour, hour after hour, day after day, year after year until at last the mountain tops are climbed. We talk of the Great Renunciation. We speak of These, before whose Feet we bow, as Those who have “made the Great Renunciation”.

Do not dream that They made Their Renunciation when, standing on the threshold of Nirvana, They heard the sobbing of the world in anguish, and turned back to help. It was not then that the real, the great, renunciation was made. They made it over and over again in the hundreds of lives that lie behind Them; They made it by the constant practice of the small renunciations of life, by continual pity, by daily sacrifices in common human life. They did not make it at the last hour, when on the threshold of Nirvana, but through the course of lives of sacrifice; until, at last, the Law of Sacrifice became so much the law of Their being, that They could not do anything at the last moment, when the choice was Theirs, save register on the record of the universe the innumerable renunciations of the past.

You and I my brothers, today, if we will, may begin to make the Great Renunciation; and if we do not begin it in the daily life, in our hourly dealings with our fellows, be assured we shall not be able to make it when we stand on the mountain crest. The habit of daily sacrifice, the habit of thinking, the habit of always giving and not taking, only thus shall we learn to make that which the outer world calls the Great Renunciation. We dream of great deeds of heroism, we dream of mighty ordeals, we think that the life of discipleship consists in tremendous trials for which the disciple prepares himself, towards which he marches with open vision, and then by one supreme effort, by one brave struggle, gains his crown of victory.

Brothers, it is not so. The life of the disciple is one long series of petty renunciations, one long series of daily sacrifices, one continual dying in time in order that the higher may eternally live. It is not a single deed that strikes the world with wonder which makes true discipleship, else were the hero or the martyr greater than the disciple. The life of the disciple is lived in the home, is lived in the town, is lived in the office, is lived in the market place, yea, amid the common lives of men. The true life of sacrifice is that which utterly forgets itself, in which renunciation becomes so common that there is no effort, that it becomes a thing of course. If we lead that life of sacrifice, if we lead that life of renunciation, if daily, perseveringly, we pour out ourselves for others, we shall find ourselves one day on the summit of the mountain, and shall discover that we have made the Great Renunciation, without ever dreaming that any other act was possible.