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 second of two installments; the first one appeared on this site in March, 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.
Notice that we have stepped over the threshold of our ordinary ideas of love. We have left behind the shallow understanding of our pop culture and even the religious division of love into sacred and profane varieties. But that is by no means the end of the story, only a new beginning.
Japanese Buddhism recognizes a concept called ai, which means “fundamental desire,” and teaches that ai runs in two directions. One direction is self-satisfying; it pursues one’s own benefit. The other is self-denying—it pursues the good of others. An example of the latter would the love of the Buddha or a bodhisattva for humankind. According to this teaching there is only one force of love. Swami Prabhavananda, taught the same thing. He said that sexual desire and spiritual longing are one and the same force, only moving in opposite directions. It becomes a question of how we direct this energy. Do we seek our happiness in what is physical, in the outermost shell of our being, with all its limitations? Or do we look within, to connect with the larger source of joy itself—the divine something that knows no such limitations?
Everything in the world eventually perishes. Disillusionment can set in with romantic love, followed by desolation and bitterness. If love is based only on physical attraction, we must remember that beauty fades. To return to the Golden Age of Hollywood, there is a song called “Keep Young and Beautiful.” It first showed up in a lavish, Busby Berkeley production number in the 1933 film Roman Scandals, starring Eddie Cantor. The refrain of the song is: “Keep young and beautiful, if you want to be loved.” It offers some pointers: “Don’t fail to do your stuff, with a little powder and a puff,” and, believe me, it only gets worse. The values in this song were questionable in 1933, but we’ve come a long way since then. Today there’s botox. But do you really think that having your face shot full of botulism toxin will make you happy? How can you be happy if you can’t even smile?
Even when worldly love is almost ideal and two people have spent a lifetime together, there comes the day when death will bring the pain of separation. If the couple are very old and have been together for a long time, quite often the surviving partner dies not long afterward, and then we are likely to say, “Oh, he (or she) died of a broken heart.” And so, we are taught in our Vedantic tradition that “no one is your own.” Vedanta also teaches that with the boundlessness of divine love there is no disillusionment or loss. Holy Mother was speaking of such divine love when she said, “No one is a stranger; the whole world is your own.”
Swami Prabhavananda taught that we can overcome the attraction for that which is impermanent and passing, but we can never overcome the attraction of divine love, because with divine love the attraction is for something that is eternal and abiding, and that something dwells in every one of us.
For someone who is spiritually unawakened, the ecstasy of romantic love is the most exalted of life’s experiences. It is little wonder, then, that mystics the world over have used the language of physical passion to express their own intense spiritual states. For the mystic the longing for God grows so intense and the love of God grows so intimate that it takes the power of erotic imagery to express this. This is very true of some of the great Christian mystics of medieval times, who experienced this divine love and described its successive stages of unfoldment. It is also true of the great Sufi poets, among them Rumi.
Before them, there was the Pagan mystic Plotinus, born in Egypt in the third century and later influential in Rome. Plotinus developed a philosophy known as Neoplatonism, based on Greek thought but drawing also on Zoroastrian and possibly Hindu teachings. He was well aware of the Christian distinction between worldly and divine love—between eros and agape—and he chose the word eros to describe the aspiration of the individual soul toward the divine oneness, which he called “the flight of the alone to the Alone.”
Plotinus could have said agape, but he said eros, and that gives us a hint of the intensity of the spiritual experience. He was not the first to express his feelings in this way. We do not know who was first, of course, but six or seven hundred years earlier there was the Hebrew poet who composed Shir Hashirim—known in English as the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon.
Although this work is sometimes attributed to King Solomon, it was actually composed some five hundred years after his time, around 400 BCE, by an unknown author. In ancient times, before there were copyright laws, it was common practice for someone to write something and put someone else’s name on it—preferably somebody well known and long dead. That way there would be no one to question the authorship, and the work would be endowed with respectable age and authority.
Nowadays we can’t get away with that so easily. If we could, my next book might have the name J. K. Rowling on the cover, and it would sell millions of copies. Harry Potter graduates from the Sri Durga Academy and slays the buffalo demon, Mahishasura. Of course, by today’s standards that would be fraud, but in ancient times it was not seen that way. For one thing, there was no publishing as we know it, and there was no profit motive. Passing your work off as someone else’s was merely an effective way of getting your ideas out there.
On the surface, the Song of Songs is a collection of Hebrew love poems with a highly sensual character. When the books that form the Tanakh—what Christians call the Old Testament—were decided upon, many rabbis felt that the Song of Songs did not belong there. Even today there are literal-minded, puritanical scholars who feel that this book has no place in the Bible. Back in the second century, when the debate over the Jewish canon was in full swing, the great Rabbi Akiva displayed his broadness of vision in defending Shir Hashirim. He said, “He who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs in the banquet halls and makes it a secular song has no share in the world to come.” He also said, “All the [scriptural] writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of the Holies.”
The Song of Songs made it into the Bible, and in the Jewish tradition it became interpreted as expressing the love of God for his people, Israel. Because it also forms a part of the Christian scriptures, it was reinterpreted by Jerome in the fourth century as an allegory of the love of God for the Christian soul. But we need not limit this great spiritual classic to any one domain. In the universal light of mysticism, we can read it as extolling the mutual love of the Supreme Being and any soul.
The whole text runs to eight chapters and is too long to read here, so I have chosen some passages that touch on some major points. The Song of Songs is a dialogue between the bride, or soul, and the bridegroom, or God. Here and there a group of the bride’s female companions serve as a chorus. As I read, think about your own experience of romantic love, and think also about the deeper spiritual message in these words.
First the bride addresses the bridegroom: Your love is more fragrant than wine, fragrant is the scent of your perfume, and your name is like perfume poured out; for this the maidens love you. Take me with you, and we will run together; bring me into your chamber, O king [1:2-4].
Notice what she said about his name. When we fall in love with someone, that person’s name becomes special, and we take joy in thinking of it, repeating it to ourselves mentally, because it draws our mind to the beloved. In spiritual life, what is japa? The repetition of the beloved’s name.
Next, there is mutual attraction. The bride-groom replies: Behold, you are fair, my love. How beautiful you are; your eyes are like doves [1:15]!
And she responds: How beautiful you are, O my love, and how pleasant [1:16].
Later she describes her beloved: Like an apricot tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among boys. To sit in its shadow was my delight, and its fruit so sweet to my taste. He took me into the wine-garden and gave me loving glances. He refreshed me with raisins, he revived me with apricots; for I was faint with love. His left arm was under my head, his right arm was round me [2:3-6]. When we are in love with God, God becomes our support.
Next she describes how the vision of the sacred opens up: My beloved spoke, he said to me: Rise up, my love; my fair one, and come away. For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the bird-song has come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land; the green figs will ripen on the fig trees, and the vines give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away [2:10-13].
Next, as the lovers are apart, she laments in the pain of separation: Night after night on my bed I have sought my true love; I have sought him but found him not. I will rise and go about the city, through the streets and the broad squares, seeking him whom my soul loves. I sought him but I found him not. The watchmen that go about the city met me, and I asked, “Have you seen my true love?” Scarcely had I left them behind when I saw him whom my soul loves. I seized him and would not let him go until I had brought him to my mother’s house, to the room of her who conceived me [3:1-4].
Later he extols her: How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! The curves of your thighs are like jewels, the work of a skilled craftsman. [7:1]. May I find your breasts like clusters of grapes on the vine, the scent of your breath like apricots, and your whispers like spiced wine flowing smoothly to welcome my caresses, gliding down through lips and teeth [7:8-9].
And she surrenders completely: I am my be-loved’s, his longing is all for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field to lie among the henna-bushes; let us go early to the vinyards and see if the vine has budded or its blossom opened, and if the pomegranates are in flower. There I will give you my love [7:10-12].
He says: Under the apricot trees I roused you, there where your mother gave birth to you …. Wear me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion cruel as the grave; it blazes up like blazing fire, fiercer than any flame. Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away; if a man were to offer for love the whole wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned [8:5-7]. 7
I asked you to think about the spiritual meanings behind this dazzling imagery, and we could probably spend hours talking about what we see in just these few lines of poetry. But for now I would like to give one possible interpretation of the last paragraph, a Vedantic interpretation, no doubt. “Under the apricot trees where I roused you, there where your mother gave birth to you.” I think what God is saying is that you have been born into this world, and now I have begun your spiritual awakening. “Wear me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” In other words, turn all your feelings toward me, in devotion, and whatever action you perform, do that in worship of me. “Love is strong as death.” Although death may seize us from this world, know that the power of love endures. “Passion [is] as cruel as the grave; it blazes up like a blazing fire, fiercer than any flame.” Worldly desire can never bring lasting fulfillment; it drives us on like a blazing fire, but even the grandest of worldly achievements do not endure and are consumed in the end. But beyond this worldly passion there is something greater, and God says, “Many waters cannot quench love, no flood can sweep it away.” No amount of worldly satisfaction can satisfy the longing for God, who is infinite; and that longing for the indestructible Infinite is also indestructible. “If a man were to offer for love the whole wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.” There is nothing comparable to divine love; in comparison, all the wealth in the world is a mere trifle.
The Song of Songs offers us a supreme expression of divine love from the Judeo-Christian standpoint. The Indian tradition has a close counterpart in its own literary masterpiece, the Gita Govinda. In both cultures, these poetic outpourings have inspired the other arts: music, painting, and dance. Many of the most beautiful Israeli folk songs are settings of verses from Shir Hashirim, and the Gita Govinda is often sung and performed as a musical dance drama.
It consists of twenty-four songs, composed in the twelfth century by the Bengali poet Jayadeva. Bearing the mark of Sri Chaitanya’s influence, it extols the love of Radha, the soul, for Krishna, the beloved God. Jayadeva had a long tradition of Sanskrit erotic poetry to draw on, rich in imagery and expressiveness, and he used it to the fullest. The Gita Govinda is enough to make the author of the Song of Songs blush.
In structure it closely resembles the Song of Songs. There are the two lovers, Krishna and Radha, and a chorus of Radha’s female companions, the gopis. Like the Hebrew poem, and even moreso, the Gita Govinda takes us through the various stages of love and illustrates how the two partners act, react, and interact.
The opening scene sets us down in the middle of the gopilila, Krishna’s playful dalliance with the milkmaids of Vrindavan. Krishna’s love is spontaneous and free, meaning that divine love cannot be contained by man-made conventions. Its very nature is freedom.
The third song conveys the springtime atmosphere: In spring, when the tender southern breeze fondles the quivering shoots of clove, the woodland bower resounds with the buzzing of bees and the calling of cuckoos. Here Hari dances in eager play with the lovely maidens, here in this pleasant spring that brings agony to those parted in love [1.28].
Amid this magic, in the magic of Krishna’s presence, Radha is smitten with love. But soon she resents his attention to the other maidens, described in the fourth song: His dark body, smeared with sandal paste, is draped in yellow silk and garlanded with wildflowers. His jeweled earrings dangle in love-play on his smiling cheeks. Look, how Hari sports with a cluster of charming, wanton maidens! A milkmaid sings with Krishna in unison and embraces him with the passionate weight of her swelling breasts. Another meditates intently on his lotus face, her passion aroused by the sidelong glances of his roving, playful eyes. Yet another milkmaid, with shapely hips, pretends to whisper in his ear but stealthily imprints a kiss on his cheek, making him tremble pleasurably at her lips’ caress [1.40-43].
At the sight of this and much more, Radha feels the flames of jealousy and anger ignite within her, and she goes off to sulk. She recalls Hari’s former attentions to her. The memory of how he drank the honey of her lips [2.14] now brings only the agony of separation. Radha and Krishna are estranged, and she languishes and pines over his heartless neglect.
Krishna has his own feelings of remorse. In the seventh song he recalls: Radha saw me ringed round by milkmaids and went away. I, fearing guilt and embarrassment, did not stop her. Alas, she is gone in anger, feeling neglected. What will she do, what will she say to me after this long separation? What need have I of wealth or kin or home or life itself without her [3.3-4]? Imagining her he muses: Forgive me now, never again will I offend you, O beautiful Radha. Come to me, for I burn with the passion of love [3.9]. We learn here that indeed, divine love is reciprocal. We love God and God loves us.
A great deal more takes place before this sublime poem finds the lovers reconciled, and finally we celebrate, explicitly, the rapture of their union. In the final song, exhausted from love-making, Radha says to Krishna: O gracious one, my beautiful loins, luscious and firm are a deep cavern of love. Cover them with bejeweled girdles, clothes, and adornments [12.23].8
In other words, with the utter surrender of our soul, even to its most private depths, whence springs all our love and passion, we ask God to clothe and adorn us with the beauty of divine love. And then we shine accordingly for all the world to see.
Lest you think that the Gita Govinda, dating from the twelfth century, represents some belated development of ecstatic Hindu devotionalism, I can tell you that it is only restating in technicolor what was known from the very beginning. Some 2500 years earlier, the Brihadaranyakopanishad said this: “In the embrace of his beloved a man forgets the whole world—everything within and without. In the same way, he who is embraced by the supreme Self knows neither within nor without. In this state, all desires are fulfilled, the Self is the only desire, itself free from desire and sorrow [4.3.21].”
The Upanishads are revered as shruti—divine revelation upon which the whole of Hindu tradition rests. What authority can we ascribe to the Gita Govinda? There is a beautiful legend associated with this great poem. To make the lovers’ reconciliation all the more powerful, Jayadeva envisioned a scene wherein Krishna, begging for Radha’s forgiveness, would place his head at her feet. But he hesitated to write this verse because the idea of God humbling himself before a mortal was socially unacceptable; he feared the wrath this might call down upon him. Leaving off at this verse, Jayadeva went to bathe in the river. Meanwhile Krishna appeared in the guise of the poet and wrote the verse himself. When Jayadeva returned and saw the completed poem, he knew that he had received the Lord’s grace and approval.
This morning we have looked at love through the lens of our popular culture and found that it can be either selfish, selfless, or romantic. We have seen that our religions distinguish between two kinds of love—the profane, or selfish, and the sacred, or selfless. In the understanding of our secular culture, selfless love does not always work. It is not a way to happiness. But in spiritual terms, selfless love is the way to happiness. It is not an end in itself, but only the means to an end—the destruction of selfishness. Through selfless thoughts and feelings and actions and service to others we tear down the ego, the wall of separation that demarcates “I” and other.
We have also seen that romantic love is the supreme model, even in the religious context. The old tried-and-true formula—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again—has profound spiritual implications. It is about attraction, separation, an obstacle, the effort to remove the obstacle, and finally the joy of reunion. Concerning attraction, Sri Ramakrishna likened God to a magnet. Concerning separation, he likened the soul to a needle, apart from the magnet. There is an obstacle: as long as the needle is covered with dirt, it is not drawn to the magnet. The “dirt” is our primal ignorance, the sense of ego, and the process of removing it is our sadhana, our spiritual practice. So, when we spiritualize our boy-meets-girl scenario, we finally overcome the obstacle and reach the goal. In savikalpa samadhi the lover comes face to face with the beloved, the soul beholds God. But even that is not the end. As Swami Sarvadevananda says, then the soul becomes irresistibly drawn in by the divine attraction. This is nirvikalpa samadhi— complete, blissful union, Oneness beyond all duality, lover and beloved made one at last.
It is said that “love makes the world go ’round.” As long as there is a world, people will be talking and singing and thinking and writing about love. I will close with what a voice from our own time has to say. This passage comes from The Fire Next Time, the spiritual autobiography of the African-American writer James Baldwin. I came across it quite by accident, lifted out of its context, but it stands on its own and challenges us: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Baldwin’s statement can be read with the same mystical implications as the Song of Songs and the Gita Govinda—as the liberating love between soul and God—but also as a more graspable love that we can practice in our daily lives.
He tells us that love removes fear. Our lives and our stories are filled with examples of this truth.
He tells us that love is more than a matter of one’s individual feelings, but a state of grace. There is a saying, “When you are in love, the whole world is beautiful.” If the love for another human being can transform your world and make you want to be a better person, think of what the love for God can do. Baldwin tells us that in its essence, love is divine.
Love is not about gratification or satisfaction. It is not about sitting back and enjoying our comfort or security. Love is not complacent. It is not about the individual. It is transpersonal, universal. It embraces us all and links us all, and when it does, life becomes a quest beyond the safe and familiar that demands daring and gives us growth. Is there any reason, then, why we should not love to love?