Religion of Love – Part 1

By Devadatta Kali Jaya (David Nelson)

This month’s reading is from a lecture given at the Vedanta temple in Hollywood on September 18, 2005 and in Trabuco on November 20, 2005. This is the first of two installments; the second will appear on this site in April, 2006.

Devadatta has been closely associated with the Vedanta Society since 1966. A regular contributor to Vedanta journals throughout the world, Devadatta Kali is the author of In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning. He also has a forthcoming book, The Veiling Brilliance: Meditations on Shakti, which will also be published by Nicolas-Hays, with a projected release date of autumn, 2006.

How others see us

A few weeks ago when I was asked for a lecture topic, I thought for a while and came up with “Religion of Love.” It seemed like a good title at the time; it had a nice ring to it, but I had no definite idea what I was going to talk about. I chose this title mainly because of the way we Vedantins are sometimes perceived by non-Vedantins. There are people out there who think that Vedanta is more a philosophy than a religion and that we are dry intellectuals and ivory tower elitists, out of touch with the “real world,” whatever that is. We are accused of being stuck in our heads, and maybe there is a grain of truth to this. How often has this happened to you? You are having a conversation with another Vedantin; you start out talking about God and end up discussing quantum physics.

I thought that a lecture entitled “Religion of Love” would address this reputation of ours. And so, this morning, in true Vedantic fashion, we’re going to think about love. But I hope we can think our way out of our heads and into our hearts.

Love in our culture

Notice I used the word heart. The heart is a widely recognized symbol for love. We see it everywhere in our own pop culture, and that is where I’ll begin.

You know that red heart that pops up in the middle of statements like “I heart NY” or “I heart Las Vegas.” We read them as “I love New York” or “I love Las Vegas.” These little red hearts are insidious and inescapable. If you drive a car, you can’t go too many miles before “I heart something” screams out at you from a bumper sticker just ahead. If you walk down the street, just minding your own business, somebody’s tee shirt is bound to tell you what that person loves. And when you go to the office or workplace, there it is again—on somebody’s coffee mug. So for the sake of convenience, let’s call this “coffee mug love.”

The real purpose of these “I heart“ messages is to tell us something about the person making them—an ego’s statement to the world. “I love this” or “I love that.” The common element here is not what is loved, but the “I love.”

This “coffee mug” mentality actually tells us something about what we understand love to be. We use the word love loosely to express many different kinds of feelings and relationships, and here on the bumper stickers and tee-shirts and coffee mugs what we have is a low, selfish form of love, all about “I” and what gives pleasure to that “I.” When I say “I love Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuccino®,” does Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuccino® love me back? Certainly it gives me pleasure and satisfaction, but not consciously so. What this kind of love is all about is attraction and gratification. The object of such love is just that—an object, even when it is another human being. Take, for example, a “trophy wife.” She exists to bolster her husband’s ego and make a statement to the world about his virility, wealth, or power. It’s all about him.

Long before the “I heart” statements were even thought of and exploited commercially, the heart was used as a symbol of romantic love. Very often it was shown pierced by Cupid’s arrow and set between two names. “John loves Emily,” for example. Often we find these messages carved into tree trunks or park benches, as a testimony to the lastingness of that love. We also find them tattooed on living flesh. Now that’s a love that had better last. Until laser removal came along, we can imagine a man going into a tattoo parlor and showing his bicep to the artist. “Do you see this red heart with the arrow through it?” he asks. “Yeah.” “And you see where it says ‘Veronica May?’” “Yeah.” “Well, can you make it look like it says ‘Joan?‘”

There is one important difference between these romantic statements and the ”I heart” ones. Both involve attraction—but with the Cupid’s heart we assume or at least hope that the attraction is mutual and that the couple will live happily ever after.

We are often taught that higher and nobler than romantic love is selfless love. Since we are here in Hollywood, the film capital of the world, it seems only fitting to turn to the movies to learn about selfless love. I have three examples that come from a genre known as the “women’s weepy.” These movies were box-office hits during the 1930s and 1940s, and the three I’ll cite are classic soap-operas about suffering, sacrificing mothers. In Stella Dallas, Barbara Stanwyck plays a vulgar, low-class divorcee who struggles to support her daughter, Laurel, and to give her the finer things of life. When she realizes that this is impossible, she sacrifices her own happiness by relinquishing her beloved daughter to the girl’s father and his respectable new wife. And what is Stella Dallas’s reward for her selfless act? At the movie’s end, she is literally left standing out in the cold, observing her daughter’s society wedding through a window, all alone. In Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford plays a divorcee-turned-waitress who works hard and eventually becomes a successful restauranteur. She does this for the sake of her ambitious, social-climbing daughter Veda, who in the end ruthlessly betrays her. As filmographer Leslie Halliwell put it, this film shows us “a star suffering in luxury on behalf of the most ungrateful daughter of all time.” In Imitation of Life a good-hearted black maid, played by Louise Beavers, shares her pancake recipe with her white employer, played by Claudette Colbert, and together the women build a financial empire founded on pancake mix. Meanwhile the maid’s unappreciative daughter passes for white, becomes a famous singer, and rejects her self-sacrificing mother in order to keep her race a secret. Of course, the mother dies, the daughter has a change of heart and shows up at the funeral, and we are all redeemed by the power of love, Hollywood-style.

Or are we? Even though the nobility of selfless love is often touted by our moral and spiritual leaders, Hollywood makes it a vehicle for our own emotional self-indulgence. There is an additional sticking-point here. In the secular world, selfless love only works when the object of love is worth it. Otherwise, we are left wallowing in misery with our feelings unresolved. That is because there is something important we have failed to discover: that selfless love is not an end in itself, but only the means to an end. We’ll return to this idea later.

So far we’ve looked at three kinds of love: “coffee mug” love, which is all about attraction and gratification; so-called selfless love, which is all about giving, even when no good comes of it; and romantic love, which is all about mutual attraction and reciprocity. Romantic love is the kind we like best. The classic pattern of a love story has always been boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again. What is important here is the underlying significance of the pattern: first there is attraction, then separation and obstacles to be overcome, and finally the joy of reunion. Doesn’t that sound a little like the spiritual quest?

When I began working on this talk, two teachings of Sri Ramakrishna immediately came to mind. The first one is “So many religions, so many paths.” The second is that bhakti— devotion—is the path best suited to this present age. Each statement says something about our topic, religion of love. “So many religions, so many paths” tells us that religion is a path to God, and that there are many such paths. Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching on bhakti tells us that, given the conditions of the present age, devotion is the most effective way. I have to qualify that by saying that we should not take bhakti in the narrow sense of a particular Hindu religious discipline, but in the broadest possible sense of directing all our feelings and emotions toward the spiritual goal.

“So many religions, so many paths” illustrates the universality of religious experience that Sri Ramakrishna realized not intellectually but by practicing the disciplines of several religions—various Hindu sects as well as Christianity and Islam. He had the Bible read to him, he was deeply moved by a picture of the Madonna and child he saw at Jadu Mallick’s house, and soon afterward he had the direct vision of Christ. Later Sri Ramakrishna felt drawn to the devotional attitudes of Sufism and thought that it too must be a path to attain God. Wanting to know how the Divine Mother would show herself through this sadhana, he took initiation from Govinda Roy and after three days had the vision of a grave, bearded, radiant figure; then his consciousness passed into the cosmic saguna Brahman, and then it merged into the Absolute. Sri Ramakrishna found that each path led to the same God-realization. His experience teaches us that we can find truth in every religion, and with that in mind, we are now going to see what some of those religions can teach us about love.

Love sacred and profane

Generally, the first thing we learn is that love is of two kinds. One is called sacred, the other is called profane, or secular. In ancient Greece, religion was organized along very different lines from what we are accustomed to nowadays. There were no scriptures as we know them; and moral, philosophical, and spiritual teachings were given through myths of the gods and goddesses. When properly understood, these myths can convey profound truths. Eros was the god of love, who shot arrows of desire into the hearts of humans and gods alike. I spoke earlier about the symbol of the heart pierced by the arrow. Now you know where it comes from. The name Eros is the source of our word erotic, which has to do with physical desire. Eros’s mother, Aphrodite, was known to the Romans as Venus, and her son was called Cupid, whence the little winged cherub, all pink and plump and armed with bow and arrows, who sweetly adorns our modern Valentine cards. Nevertheless, the Roman Cupid was in large part about carnal passion. His name derives from the Latin verb cupere, which means “to desire.”

The Greeks gave us other words for other kinds of love as well. The word philia denoted what we call brotherly love, and philos, derived from it, meant “loving.” These words still indicate the idea of attraction in our language. Philia can be found in such English words as bibliophilia, the love of books, and philos in philosophy, the love of wisdom. Many in our society tend to think of philosophy as dry, but built into this word is the very idea of attraction, the love of wisdom. Moreover, the word philosophy links love and knowledge, bhakti and jnana. So if I seemed a little harsh with the jnanis earlier on, remember this: Indian teaching holds that in the end true love and true knowledge are one and the same. Mother Meera puts it especially well: “To be a jnani is to know, and the more that you know the Divine, the more you love. To be a bhakta is to choose the path of love, and the more you love the Divine, the more you know.

Besides the concepts of eros and philia, ancient Greece gave us other words for love. The philosopher Plato lent his name to the idea of platonic love—love that is nonamorous, non-erotic, and purely spiritual. And with the rise of Christianity the Greek language produced yet another term: agape. This means God’s love for human beings, divine love, or more broadly a spontaneous, altruistic love. Such a love has not only theological significance but great social value as well. Even today mainstream Christianity defines itself as a religion based on Christ’s gospel of love.

The New Testament was composed in Greek and later translated into Latin, and agape became caritas. In Christian theology caritas means the love of God for humankind, or the love of one human being for other human beings. You’ve probably guessed by now that Latin caritas made its way into English as charity.

The best known statement of Christian love is Paul’s eloquent outpouring in I Corinthians:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am a sounding gong or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand every hidden truth, and though I have faith enough to move mountains, if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away all I possess, or even seek glory by self-sacrifice, but without love, I am none the better.Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish nor quick to take offense. Love keeps no score of wrongs and gloats not over other men’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing that love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance [13:1-7]. … In a word, there are three things that last for ever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love [13:13].

What do the Eastern religions teach us about love? Again we find the distinction between secular and sacred. We find Cupid in Indian tradition, where he is called Kamadeva, the god of love. He is the son of Vishnu and Lakshmi, who shoots arrows from a bowstring made of bees. The bee is a well-established symbol of erotic love in Indian poetry, and don’t we also say that someone has been “stung by love?” In order to awaken passionate desire, Kamadeva shoots five arrows tipped with flowers. These arrows represent the five senses. Think about it. You see someone who strikes you as beautiful or handsome or appealing in some way. Then, when you hear that person’s name, it brings a thrill. You may swoon at the sound of that person’s voice. A particular fragrance, associated with that person, brings your thoughts back to her or him. If the relationship progresses to the kissing stage, there is the taste of the beloved’s lips. And even a casual touch is enough to send a thrill coursing through you.

Besides this physical passion, called kama, which incidentally means “desire,” the East also recognizes various forms and degrees of nonsensual love. The word karuna means “compassion,” and in the Hindu context compassion signifies all actions that diminish the sufferings of others—in other words, love translated into social action.

The Buddhists readily adopted this idea of karuna, cultivating it through meditation and then directing it toward others unreservedly. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism teaches that for the seeker of enlightenment karuna is the necessary complement to prajna, or wisdom; together they are the two wings that enable the aspirant to fly to the island of enlightenment.

Just as in the West we use the word love indiscriminately with many shades of meaning, so too in India we find a careless use of language. Our “coffee-mug” love is raga in Sanskrit, and the pure love for God is prema, but Kamalakar Mishra, in his book on Kashmir Shaivism, complains about people saying they have great prema for rasagulla. He reminds us that raga signifies attraction and attachment; it can exist only where there is a sense of self and other. The other is there for the “I” to enjoy. Raga is a binding attachment for which there is no lasting satisfaction. But it has a cure, called saravtmabhava, the feeling of unity with all, the feeling that all is your very self. Sarvatmabhava is also called vishvaprema, “universal love,” loving others as part of oneself. Sri Krishna describes this high state of awareness in the Bhagavadgita [6.29] when he says, “He who is established in union beholds the vision of sameness everywhere, the Self present in all beings and all beings in the Self.” This goes way beyond merely having feelings of benevolence and doing good to others; it changes completely the way we view the world.

Read Part 2.

The Yoga of Meditation
February 1, 2006
Religion of Love – Part 2
April 1, 2006
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Religion of Love – Part 1