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It’s All About Love
Dave: I notice that Vedanta doesn’t mention much, if anything, about the importance of love. For many, God is equated with love, i.e. “God is love.” This implies a subject-object relationship, but not necessarily. It also raises the question of the importance of relationships as a means to enlightenment.
Rory: Oh, but it’s not true that Vedanta doesn’t mention love. A good third of the Gita is focused on bhakti, or devotion, which is the very essence of love. Vedanta is actually all about love. I recommend The Yoga of Love by James Swartz, which is an excellent commentary on Narada’s Bhakti Sutras.
Admittedly, we maybe don’t use the term “love” extensively, but that’s largely because the question is, what does one even mean by “love”? I remember even as far back as when I was eighteen years old and in my first brief relationship that “love” somehow didn’t really mean love. In romantic relationships, when someone says, “I love you,” what they really mean is, “I love you as long as you keep behaving in a way that pleases me.” The object of our love must always conform to our likes and dislikes or the love dries up very quickly. There’s just no getting around that in worldly life. We love not for the sake of the object itself, otherwise our love would remain constant and unchanging as long as the object is there, which is simply not the case.
We love love because we love ourselves – and because the Self IS love. We experience that ananda, that bliss, when the mind is sufficitently stilled, such as when we attain the object of our devotion. Until we get what or indeed who we want, the mind is a battleground of desire, attachment, fear and aversion. When that subsides, the relative tranquility of the mind, and the immense relief of attaining the object of our desire, enables us to taste the love inherent to our own nature. It’s inherent to our nature because we experience it within ourselves, as inseparable from ourselves. Love isn’t somehow transmitted from outside of us by the object of our love, but arises within us as the light of the Self reflected in a tranquil, sattvic mind. And what bliss!
This recognition, that it’s really the light of our own Self that we’re seeking, and that this can only be found within and experienced by a reasonably tranquil, desire-free mind, is the key to true and lasting love. We realise we don’t have to scrounge scraps of love from the objects of the world, whether that be from material objects, money or relationships, but that there’s an everlasting and eternal fountain of love within us. It’s only when we realise this that we are able to extend this love to others without condition and reservation.
Vedanta breaks down the whole division between subject and object, and we come to see that it’s all one subject: the Self, appearing as endless different forms. Because we all love ourselves (even people who think they hate themselves actually love themselves; they simply hate certain thoughts they think about themselves), and everything is our Self, there’s no shortage of love for the enlightened.
Dave: As a student of Vedanta, might there be a tendency to shy away from dualistic relationships as unhelpful to the seeker of Self-realisation?
Rory: Generally, the seeker of enlightenment should have the temperament of a sannyasi, a renunciant. This is simply because it takes a heck of a lot of time, focus and contemplation on the teaching in order to fully assimilate and integrate the knowledge. A mind that’s still hooked up to worldly objects, concerns and relationships will find it almost impossible to commit to the process and to remain suitably qualified.
To be clear, the problem is not with relationships themselves. In maya, our lives are characterised by a succession of different relationships. The problem is emotional attachment: the mind’s tendency to seek wholeness, happiness and salvation in those relationships. Because all things in maya lie outwith our control, not least other people and relationships, this leaves us wide open to all kinds of anxieties, fears, heartache and so on. As I’ll clarify below, this doesn’t mean we necessarily have to become ascetic cave-dwellers, and if we’re in relationships already it doesn’t mean abandoning them. Not in the slightest actually, because dharma must come before everything else, and if one is already living as a householder, they must fulfil their duties and obligations to their family.
If the seeker is continuously jumping from one relationship to another (as I admittedly did in the past), it can be a problem, however. Romantic relationships and their various ecstasies and agonies consume an inordinate amount of mental and emotional energy, which is then not available Self-inquiry.
Dave: I note that James Swartz, for example, refers to his own marriage as a non-dual relationship!! For instance, in A Course in Miracles, relationships are not seen as an obstacle to liberation but provide the very means of salvation when properly understood. If love is so fundamental to life in this world, might it equally be fundamental in the next?
Rory: A non-dual relationship is that rarest of relationships in which both parties are Self-realised and therefore aware that it’s basically one Self in a relationship, albeit with two different body-mind-sense complexes along for the ride. I’ve never been in a relationship with anyone remotely Self-realised, so I cannot comment myself ☺.
Vedanta does, however, give ample guidance for how to conduct relationships. A relationship need not be an obstacle to enlightenment if it is conducted with the karma yoga mindset. Indeed, it’s the only sane way to conduct a relationship! This means we follow dharma with regard to how we conduct ourselves and treat the other person, and we gracefully accept the other person and all outcomes as prasad (a divine gift or blessing).
We can also use relationships as a form of bhakti, in which we see the other person as God and worship them as the divine being they are. Of course this doesn’t mean becoming a doormat and letting them get away with murder, but it’s a lovely way to engage in relationships – to see them as an opportunity to celebrate and serve the Lord in the form of our loved one.
Conducting relationships as karma yoga helps neutralise the mind’s binding desires and aversions, and also our egoic attachment to a great extent, until we’re often able to transcend the limits of the subject-object duality and taste and enjoy the sense of oneness between us and them. That is, as the Gita says, the highest devotion; in other words, the highest form of love – realising our non-separation from the object of our love.