Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #34 – Is There Love in the Material World?

August 21st, 2017

While attending a lecture, I was skeptical of the apparent conclusion of the class that the only true love is bhakti, love for God, and consequently there is unequivocally no love in the material world. I respectfully raised a question and a discussion ensued.
For argument’s sake, even if we accept that bhakti is only for Krishna, isn’t there a danger in the application of that principle? There are studies done that show that people who adhere to movements promoting such transcendence are in general less empathetic than those that do not. Although, granted, according to the same studies twenty percent who deeply understand the tenets of such teachings are much more empathetic. Whether this study is accurate or not, doesn’t such preaching pose a danger of being misunderstood and making us more hard-hearted?
An intense discussion followed the morning class by Jaya Jagannāth and the discussion continued throughout the second day of our Bhakti Immersion retreat. His class was excellent and his points reasonably well argued, as was the push back to his ideas. The exchange is worth reproducing here in the form of a summary of Jaya Jagannāth’s basic view, the push back or opposing view, and what I think is the correct view, which is a kind of synthesis.
A summary of Jaya’s view:
Jaya’s class was based on a verse from the Tenth Canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam where Krishna explains that it is only in relation with the self that anything becomes dear and thus there can be nothing dearer than the self. [1] He gave many good examples to support this principle, like how things are treasured or loved only because we perceive they belong to us, not in and of themselves, and how even love of family and sacrifice for country is only extending our concept of the self beyond ourselves to others. In other words, as long as love is based on the body, there is at least some element of ego involved antithetical to pure love and thus love in this world is suspect.
I cannot do justice to his presentation in such a short summary, but even those who disagreed with his conclusion, or wanted to modify it, appreciated the insight, logic, and śāstric reference that he offered in support of his view. Continuing his argument, he then referenced a verse from the same chapter where Krishna stated that those who understand their real self-interest render unalloyed devotion to Him because He is ātma-priya, most dear to the soul.[2] In other words, as we love or hold things dear because they belong us, and thus our self or soul is dearer than our body and its possessions, similarly Krishna, who is the soul of the soul, is the most dear object of devotion. Śrīla Prabhupāda emphatically concurs in his purport: “Lord Krishna is ātma-priya, the real object of love for everyone.”
Jaya Jagannāth’s main objective, which he clarified later, was that the term “bhakti” has basically been bastardized in the new age and yoga communities to include every sentiment of affection as bhakti, and that unless we understand that the true of object of bhakti is God, we will be mired in a falsely exclusive sense of love. We will then never experience real bhakti until we finally transcend or become frustrated with the mundane. His talk was thus entitled, “Love, Lust, Loss, and Beatitude”—“beatitude” meaning the state of the utmost bliss.
Opposing view
There seems to be some problems with the view that bhakti is only for God and no one else in this world, for this view inevitably limits our conception and vision of Krishna. Krishna is described in the Bhāgavatam as advayam jñāna—consciousness that is inclusive of everything. If we thus separate things from Krishna in this way, don’t we risk developing a vision that things are separate from God, the basic illusion at the foundation of material enjoyment? In the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu Krishna is generally defined as just His personality and expansions, but in his commentary Nectar of Devotion Śrīla Prabhupāda explains that Krishna also means His parts and parcels and His different energies. So why can’t a devotee in the proper consciousness love everyone as part of Krishna? [3]
And isn’t genuine affection for people a part of bhakti when affection is actually our duty or service to Krishna? Would a mother be a better devotee if she only loved Krishna and just dutifully served her children without affection because she wants to transcend it? That seems absurd. Her natural affection is part of her service. Can’t that affection then be called love, especially if she sees her child as belonging to God and her service to love or care for the child? Is it illusion to have genuine friendships in Krishna consciousness, even though we are not yet liberated, and if not what do we call such affection? Is it not a type of love? [4] Certainly love for Krishna can’t mean only directing our devotion at the deity and withdrawing our affection from everyone else.
This argument can even be taken further by stating that a theistic conception is not even an absolute requisite for love. If our dharma, or intrinsic quality, is to serve, then does sincere affection in some way reflect the soul regardless of one’s belief, and if so then how can we possibly argue that that there is no love in the material world?
The next day during class Jaya Jagannāth clarified his point. He said the distinction he wanted to make was distinguishing bhakti as love with a capital “L” and love in this world as love with a lower-case “l”. I think the synthesis rests there. I think confusion initially with the presentation was that this distinction wasn’t made more clearly. That yes, bhakti is for Krishna, but that doesn’t mean that love does not exist even if it is not bhakti. A good definition of love will help further clarify this point: “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another”.[5] In this sense, certainly people do have love and even sacrifice their lives for others, even at times for strangers who have no bodily connection to them. I thus think it is a mistake to equate that all exchanges of love in this world are purely based on ego or abject self-interest, for if we do, we also lose the ability to distinguish even benevolence from cruelty even in the face of great examples of altruism or sincere benevolent relationships.
In other words, the distinction that bhakti is the topmost love, as described by the great teachers such as Nārada and others, does not negate that there is love in the material world. Rather it proves it, for by deeming bhakti as the pinnacle of love, it also acknowledges a spectrum of love before that. Furthermore, if we deny the existence of such love in the world, we fall at a loss to explain on what basis the Bhāgavatam expects us to have at least a preliminarily frame of reference to understand and appreciate the descriptions of affection between Krishna and His devotees.
Of course, it is not that all affectionate relationships in this world are love. Perhaps even most of what we see today, especially in romance, are just selfish relationships that people enter in the name of love only. That doesn’t discount, however, that we do have the capacity, even while still impure and bound in this world, to have sincere love or concern for others. I just heard a story about Śrīla Prabhupāda that synthesizes the point quite neatly:
“Śrīla Prabhupāda was sitting outside on the grass speaking to a group of devotees at New Vrindavan. In front of him were some baby kittens playing and wrestling in front of him and he was just watching them. Suddenly he commented, “You see? There is love in this material world.” He paused and then added that although there is concern and benevolence in this world it will never be enough to full satisfy the soul just as someone in the desert cannot be satisfied with a few drops of water.”[6]
In conclusion, love is a general loyalty and affection in relationships and it exists in this world, but only when that affection is extended to the Supreme Lord is it bhakti and fully universal, but bhakti can also be extended to others when we see them and serve them as connected to the Divine. Therefore it is important for all devotees to understand and meditate on how they can connect their relationships to Krishna.

[1] Bhāg. 10.23.27

[2] Bhāg. 10.23.26

[3] When we speak of “Krishna” we refer to the Supreme Personality of Godhead along with His many expansions. He is expanded by His plenary parts and parcels, His differentiated parts and parcels, and His different energies. “Krishna,” in other words, means everything and includes everything. Generally, however, we should understand “Krishna” to mean Krishna and His personal expansions.

[4] In the Śrī Upadeśāmṛta by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, an important book in our tradition that Śrīla Prabhupāda translated as the Nectar of Instruction, he summarizes the essence of our teachings in just twelve verses, wherein one whole verse is devoted to the description of loving exchanges between devotees. The exact word used is “prīti” or love.

[5] Definition of Love (4.a) Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[6] In our discussion period during Jaya Jagannāth’s class my god-sister Rukmiṇī Devī recounted this story of Śrīla Prabhupāda as her contribution to the discussion.

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