By Maria Wirth
What is true love? How does the indian concept of love differ from that of the west? is eternal love possible?
I was new in India, having come from Germany only about a year ago. Yet my world view had already been shaken and had developed serious cracks. There is probably no other country where basic questions crop up as quickly as in India.
One of those basic questions was about love. I wanted to get clear about what love was and withdrew into the Himalayas – to Nepal, because my visa for India had just expired. A little outside of Pokhara, on the slope of a hill, I rented an isolated mud hut of the simplest category. It looked like a barn – there was only one room with a place to cook on an open fire, and a wooden bedstead. The door didn’t close and certainly could not be locked. The walls had big holes which were filled with loose stones. At night, rats roamed freely outside the mosquito net. On my way to the spring, I would meet only cows and buffaloes. I wanted to be alone, and I was alone there. I needed some quiet time, because I felt I had to change my attitude, if I wanted to be true to my conviction: I had to give less importance to falling in love, which so far I used to regard as highly attractive. And I had to find out more about what the Indian sages mean by ‘true’ and ‘genuine’ love.
What is ‘true’ love?
“True love is not possible between individuals,” claimed Anandamayi Ma, “Genuine, true and permanent fulfilment is only through the love for God.” God here means Brahman, the One that is our Self. I had been confronted with this view right from the beginning of my stay in India. Our ‘human loves’ don’t quite merit the word love, the sages say. They suggest expressions like attraction, dearness, fondness, infatuation, friendship, even delusion for our love-feelings, because there are always egoistic intentions involved. True love, however, has no hidden agenda, and one’s ego does not come into the picture. In true love all boundaries disappear. It is limitless and reveals the oneness of all.
The following analogy is often used for illustration:
The wave (individual) is one with the ocean (the whole, God). If the wave fixes its gaze only at other waves, and chooses to give its love to some only, and to receive their love, then this love is limited, narrow, small-minded and definitely not as eternal as the wave may dream it is. Eternal is only its oneness with the ocean. The ocean is also much more attractive as a lover, because it is huge and mighty. It encompasses all the waves, and the wave is anyway for ever one with it. The ocean is its great love, even if the wave doesn’t know it. If it incomprehensibly and even foolishly considers itself to be simply a wave, unconnected with the ocean, and doesn’t even see the ocean because of all those other waves, it suffers from the illusion that it is lacking in love, and that it has to look for it among the other waves.
Love beyond all appearances
“Don’t get caught up in the illusion” the sages advise in one voice. The senses are deceiving you. There is only the One behind all names and forms, whether they are beautiful or ugly. “Think of the projection of a film,” says Ramana Maharshi, the sage from Tiruvannamalai. “The different persons and their actions are fascinating, but they don’t have any substance in themselves. Only the screen on which they appear has substance. This screen stands for the one consciousness.”
During a bus ride from Konarak to Puri, I once got an idea of that screen. It was early afternoon, and I casually watched the life outside in the villages which moved slowly because of the heat. Suddenly, all houses, buffaloes, cows, human beings, trees seemed transparent, without any solidity, through which I looked. The appearances were not the essential thing. It lasted some moments and then I saw again in the usual way. But the memory of it remained, and it helps to make this transparency of appearances, which Ramana talks about, less strange.
I knew not only intellectually that there is a whole behind the multiplicity – a fact which nowadays nobody can seriously question thanks to the findings of modern science. Therefore I also knew that the Indians are right when they claim that only love for God can really and permanently fulfil, because He alone is.
However, it was one thing to understand this, and another to live accordingly. I sat on the little mud porch in front of my house, to my right the impressive Annapurna mountain, down in the valley the glittering lake, and in my head thoughts which almost hurt.
On one hand, I couldn’t justify any more that I liked a small bit of the screen better, that my eyes searched only for this particular small bit; yet on the other hand the whole screen just did not, in spite of my understanding, appear equally beautiful and lovely. I felt like somebody who knows that the earth moves around the sun, but nevertheless only sees the sun moving around the earth…
Love for God
There was another difficulty. When I honestly looked into myself, I had to admit that my love for God was not very great. I certainly wouldn’t have called it ‘true love’. Moreover, I could not imagine how I could deeply love the One that is encompassing everything and that is not accessible to the senses. I felt there needed to be at least eyes into which I could look. “Let me learn to love you,” I prayed. The second prayer which logically had to follow was more difficult: “Let me not fall in love again, but let me love all equally.”
I tried to resign myself to the fact that I would have to manage now with a kind of ‘medium’ love for everyone for the rest of my life, without the occasional highlights which so far had made life worthwhile. I didn’t quite believe that the whole screen could become my ‘great love’, compensating me for my renunciation. The One was so incomprehensible, without any substance, like air. But there was no way out, if I wanted to live with integrity. I had to develop love for it, put it in the first place – even though I had that painful feeling that I had to give away some cherished toy while knowing that it had to be – maybe not immediately, but some time for sure.
By thinking such thoughts I had moved far from normal Western thinking. However in regard to India, I was moving towards normal thinking, because here it is considered normal and important, to develop love for God. After all, life is meant to realise the truth, and there are essentially two methods:
• Jnana, which means knowledge or wisdom. In jnana the main point is to be aware of the one limitless being, to be aware of the oneness, to identify with it, and to deny the reality of the manifold appearances radically and continually. This path is more difficult, says Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
• Bhakti, which means devotion. The main point here is to develop love for God, for one’s true self, and to dissolve in it. In both cases the goal is the disappearance of the ego. The bhakti path is easier, says Sri Krishna. And as he knows the human being needs something tangible to love, he suggests to Arjuna: “Love me”. Or love Rama, Shiva, the divine Mother; or love Jesus, Buddha, and so on. One has the choice of many personalities with the noblest qualities – as a helpful means.
People hear from childhood on: only bhakti, the love for God, fulfils. And everybody knows stories of saints who burnt with this love, who were mad with love. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a professor of logic, who lived some 500 years ago, is an example. He finally left all logic aside, and danced through the streets singing, the name of Krishna always on his lips. “A-chinta” he supposedly said when he left the university. He is the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. Another example is Swami Ramdas, who founded the Anand Ashram in Kerala, who overflowed with love so much that he embraced the trees in front of his cave on the Arunachala mountain.
Love in relationships
Of course, not all Indians strive so dedicatedly for bhakti, because the attractions of the world are strong also in India. But in contrast to their contemporaries in the West, Indians usually don’t expect heaven on earth from the romantic love between a man and a woman. Therefore, they don’t give so much importance to falling in love, and don’t have to fulfil each desire. If they feel attracted to a man or woman, they don’t necessarily try to get close.
Another difference – they don’t usually give a relationship a trial period. When the daughter or son comes of age, the search for a partner begins. The parents search, and the ancient scriptures list criteria which should be considered – a similar family background, for example, and physical and mental health for the benefit of the offspring. Upper castes often compare horoscopes as well. However, no consideration is given whether the two young people are in love with each other. Well, how could they be when they meet for the first time at the wedding ceremony?
I was sure that such customs had been abandoned long ago, and was at first a little shocked when I realised that even today, in most cases the parents make the choice. Yet it is not as drastic as in the earlier days: the couples meet before the wedding in a family setting or at least see photos of each other and can refuse.
I was surprised that among the young people themselves our Western way of marrying a person one has fallen in love with is not held in high esteem. They seem not to mind that their parents make the choice.
“The parents have more experience, they know their children, and are in a better position to judge who matches them,” Sunita, a 23-year-old programmer from Bangalore tried to make me see her point. “I feel it is very risky to bind oneself lifelong to another person just because of bodily attraction. But then, you in the West don’t bind yourself lifelong. You get a divorce right at the first quarrel, isn’t it? I don’t like this. I could never feel secure,” she added.
“Here in India, love develops after the marriage; and in the West, it ends with the marriage,” a young man summed up, half in jest. And a young woman who grew up in Punjab and now lives in America, explained: “When we grow up, there is hardly any contact with the other sex. So if you finally get close with somebody, in all likelihood, you will fall in love with him or her. Of course, how long the love lasts has a question mark even in India. And even in India a divorce is not anymore the great exception it was.”
“In contrast to their contemporaries in the West, Indians usually don’t expect heaven on earth from the romantic love between a man and a woman.”
Sunita saw one more disadvantage of the Western model of love marriage: “I would be constantly stressed that someone should fall in love with me. I would always have to show my best side. What terrible stress!”
A friend from South India suffered from this stress. She was pretty, and always neatly dressed. Her family was Christian, where the Western way of life is more likely to be copied, and her father had told her: “Find yourself a husband.” My friend was disappointed, and not at all happy about his ‘modern’ attitude. She felt her father was shirking his responsibility, and wanted to save the dowry money. She was already 26 and had an MA degree. She had had a boyfriend once. When she brought up the question of marriage, he said that he had left it to his parents to search for a bride.
Then a German came along. He fell in love with her, and asked her to come to Germany and marry him. He went ahead, and she was to follow him. I met her on the evening before she took the flight. She was excited, and proudly showed me a photo of him. When she reached Germany, she was drastically and painfully introduced to the Western lifestyle: the young man whom she considered to be her future husband had just fallen in love with another woman. Marriage was out of question.
Was it really love that he had felt for her in India? Probably he would have given it on oath when he wanted to marry her. I am not so sure whether she would have called what she felt for him love. She wanted a husband and children, and she liked him. She was ready to build a family with him.
Realisation of love
I asked myself in my little mud house in Nepal, whether our Western attitude towards love is really the pinnacle of wisdom – an attitude, where the love between man and woman is considered the highest of all possible feelings. ‘Love for the neighbour’ is delegated to charity organisations, and love for God doesn’t even count as love. I did not doubt that we sincerely search for love and also sincerely want to give love. But I felt that we are lacking in wisdom. In India, people have not yet completely thrown out their ancient tradition and the wisdom contained in it, even though many are eagerly doing it. Yet many Indians are still well rooted in life. They still know where they have to look for happiness and love – in themselves…
Here it was again – the central theme of Indian wisdom: only in myself can I find what I really long for. I have all the love of the world inside me, but – I don’t feel it as long as I look for it ‘outside’. Unfortunately, this eager ‘outside search’ is the natural tendency of the mind, which keeps one trapped in the illusion that one is a separate, independent wave, blocking the realisation of one’s union with the ocean.
The sages advise us to be aware of this tendency – to be aware in general of what happens inside and outside of oneself. They call it witnessing consciousness. This witnessing consciousness creates a certain distance to the wave, and breaks identification with it. It broadens and deepens it, as it were, into the ocean. In this way, the truth becomes more familiar, more intimate – and with it comes true love.
For those who find witnessing difficult, or consider it too abstract, the sages advice them to direct feelings and thoughts to God – a personal God, a ‘you’. The sages advise you to imagine that God is with you, around you, in you, that he is your best friend. We get caught in the illusion that the multiplicity of the world is real through thinking, and through thinking, we can disentangle ourselves to a certain extent – through a thinking which is closer to the truth.
Because in reality, somebody who sees the one God everywhere and in everything, also in himself, is far more realistic than someone who sees trees, animals, human beings, and God as separate from himself – even if the eyes and the common sense judge differently.
During my studies at Hamburg University I had written in my diary, “The love I want I get only from God.” When I read this passage much later, I was surprised, because at the time of my studies, ‘God’ had hardly figured in my vocabulary.
Here in India I learnt that the dream of eternal love is not foolish or unrealistic. In fact, love is so close, so real, that it is quite amazing that I don’t feel it. It is not outside, but deep inside, intimately connected with my own being. I just need to be quiet, at least sometimes. Instead of putting all my stakes into thinking, I need to give being a chance. Difficult though it is to free myself of the addictive thinking habit, the more I let go of it, the more strongly will I feel love.
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