What is Love?

what is love

What is Love?

Our relationships in this world can leave us wondering whether true love really exists. I remember sitting with my boyfriend in his fraternity house, studying for a history exam, struggling to stay focused on pages of notes. “You know,” Tim nonchalantly said, “I really don’t know what love is.” Rather than applaud his astute query, I felt panic. Here my boyfriend of the past two years—who would tell me how much he loved me two or three times a day—was now questioning the whole foundation of our relationship. I responded in an attack mode. “What do you mean you don’t know what love is? Have you been lying to me for the past two years?” Before he had a chance to say anything, I packed up my books and stormed out of the room. I left the fraternity house and walked to a quiet place in a nearby park. I sat down and thought about his question and, more important, my abrupt and childish reaction. I realized I’d reacted that way because I also didn’t understand or know what love was but was pretending, so as to keep the illusion of something so elusive alive. To love someone risked getting hurt, being rejected, or hurting and rejecting him. Love seemed so fragile and unpredictable. All these thoughts swirled in my confused mind.

I thought about the popular movie Love Story we had recently gone to see. An attractive, sassy, and smart college girl falls in love with a handsome, intelligent college boy. They develop what seems to be the ideal relationship, and then she is diagnosed with leukemia and dies. With inevitable death factored in, I wondered if relationships were worth pursuing. I thought back to the early stages of our relationship. We were both floating in a bubble of euphoric feelings. In my eyes he was perfect, and in his eyes I was perfect. Making sacrifices in the relationship felt effortless. At some point, the bubble popped and we fell to the ground, jolted out of rapture and awakened to the harsh realities of imperfection in one another. This inevitable transition from rapture to reality is often the demise of relationships, as individuals interpret it to mean they have now “fallen out of love.” But we persevered, hoping to be re-enveloped by that blissful bubble.

The Spectrum of Love

Despite being bewildered by love, I had always been fascinated by the dynamics of relationships. At that point in my life I knew only about material relationships. I was interested in the spectrum of love. On the lowest end of the love continuum we find the selfish, narcissistic love that is all about gratifying one’s own needs. People with this low-grade love generally become angry at and abusive to their partners. Recently a young doctor where I work was murdered by her ex-boyfriend shortly after she’d ended their relationship. This is the epitome of an exploitative relationship. In essence: “If I can’t enjoy you, then nobody can.” Most relationships in this world are tinged by some degree of this mentality.

When I left college to move into a Hare Krsna ashram, my college boyfriend said that it would have been easier for him if I’d died—at least he would have gotten sympathy from others. I remember thinking that if he actually loved me, he would want me to be happy, but as long as he wasn’t in the equation, he didn’t care about me. I’d heard people talk about “selfish love,” and I felt the term to be an oxymoron. If you truly loved someone, you would want the best for him or her regardless of your own needs. But in my experience there were so few examples of unselfish love. There were people like Mother Theresa who sacrificed bodily comforts and took untold risks for helping others. This was on the highest end of the spectrum of love that I had encountered, and I found it very noble and admirable.

Vedic Psychology of Love

My encounter with Vedic books such as the Bhagavada-gita helped me understand much more about the psychology of attachment of one person for another. In the Bhagavada-gita Krsna tells Arjuna that when we become absorbed in thinking about how someone or something can please our senses, then naturally we develop an attachment and want to exploit that person or thing for our pleasure. If we can’t enjoy the object in the way we want, we become angry. This attachment is really lust. But because it resembles love, a person who is the object of another person’s lust may be fooled into thinking he or she is being loved. Lust is all about getting and taking from others. It is never satisfied and is compared to fire. Trying to satisfy lust through material pursuits is like pouring gasoline on a fire to extinguish it. While the hungry flames may seem momentarily subdued, they consume the gasoline and burst into an inferno. Many narratives in the Vedic literature illustrate this point.

One I found particularly instructive is a story found in the Srimad-Bhagavatam about a great king, Yayati, who saves a young maiden who had been thrown into a well after her clothes were stolen. The maiden, Devayani, was the daughter of a powerful brahmana, Sukracarya. He blessed the fated union between Yayati and his daughter with the stipulation that Yayati must refuse to have sex with any woman other than Devayani. During the time of this event, men from the ruling/warrior class would often have many wives. The king agreed to the condition, and the marriage took place. But the king later transgressed the agreement and impregnated one of Devayanis maidservants. As a result, Sukracarya cursed the king to lose his sexual prowess and become an old man. King Yayati begged Sukracarya to remove the curse, and Sukracarya conceded that the king could trade his old age for someone’s youth. When Yayati asked his sons to make the trade, his youngest son agreed after the elder sons had all refused. King Yayati was again invigorated to enjoy the pleasures of sex with Devayani and did so with abandon. After many years of enjoying with his wife, the king came to the stark realization that such enjoyment only increased his desires to enjoy and that there was never any sense of satisfaction. He therefore returned his youth to his son and accepted old age. When the king gave up exploiting his wife for happiness, his real fortune began. Free of lust for material enjoyment, which had disabled him from experiencing love, he discovered spiritual love for Krsna.

The Art and Science of Love

My own experience of being frustrated and unfulfilled in material relationships attracted me to these ancient histories and the philosophy embedded within them. They so clearly mapped out the pitfalls of a life dedicated to finding pleasure through our senses. The Vedic literature also described an alternative: bhakti-yoga, the art and science of reawakening our love for God. That love lies dormant within us, just as love for a man or a woman lies dormant within a child, only to be awakened during puberty. Our love for Krsna will automatically awaken when He is convinced that we want it more than anything else. Furthermore, by loving God we come to love everyone, because everyone is part of Him. In the beginning, this kind of love requires practice, but it will eventually be spontaneous. How is this love different from the love I struggled to understand before becoming a devotee? I found the answer to this question in verses left by Lord Caitanya.

Krsna has many incarnations, each with a specific and magnificent purpose, but most glorious is the incarnation of Lord Caitanya. He appears in this most degraded age to teach us how to love the most lovable object, Sri Krsna. In this incarnation, the Lord appears as a devotee of Himself, with the loving sentiments of His most special devotee, Sri Radha. This esoteric form of the Lord can be difficult for outsiders to comprehend, and those of us who have been introduced to this divine form should consider ourselves very fortunate. Lord Caitanya’s disciples wrote many books to describe the goal of life, which is to rekindle our love for Krsna. But Lord Caitanya wrote only eight verses to leave as His divine legacy. Known as Siksastaka, these eight verses contain the essence of the voluminous teachings of the Vedas. In the final verse, Lord Caitanya, speaking to Krsna in the mood of Radha, says, “Even if You leave Me brokenhearted by not being present before Me, You are my worshipable Lord birth after birth.” This is pure, unconditional love: one gives without expecting anything in return. In His relationship with every living being, Krsna Himself exemplifies this type of love. No matter how disdainful we are toward Him, no matter how much we reject Him, He continues to accompany us in all species of life, encouraging and coaxing us to turn back to our spiritual roots. He doesn’t discard or discount even souls who have assumed the role of demonic adversaries. He always sees our greatest potential as His loving servant. When we resume our eternal identity as His servant, we too will possess the love Lord Caitanya describes in His final verse of Siksastaka.

In the spiritual world, only pure love exists. On that plane of reality, the merchant’s mentality of love doesn’t exist. Ironically, by giving without expectation, we receive the greatest gift of being enveloped in a blissful love affair whose bubble never bursts. The happiness just keeps increasing. Loving Krsna is not just for the spiritual world. Putting love and service of Krsna in the center of all our dealings here is the success formula for healthy marriages and families. Taking the focus off of ourselves and directing it toward the Lord helps us remember our position as servant rather than as exploiter. Practicing loving relationships with devotees on this plane of existence can help satisfy our psychological need for society, friendship, and love and allow us to simultaneously pursue the ultimate goal of pure love for Krsna.

Reproduced from Back to Godhead Magazine volume 37, Number 05, 2003 © BBT International; all rights reserved

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Archana-Siddhi Devi Dasi
Archana-Siddhi Devi Dasi
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Prabhupada disciple, Licensed Clinical Social Worker