Learning to love

What is the first education in life? Is it adding numbers or learning the alphabet?

It is religion. For without it, one would not know how to use everything else. The great scientist and sage Albert Einstein said, Science without religion is lame. Religion provides the background purpose for all further education without which we would be fickle and fall prey to our impulses. Science clarifies one’s vision and abolishes superstition. Religion without science is blind. 

What is the first education in religion? Is it reading the scripture or learning some ritual? Is it the cultivation of obedience to authority or the disciplining of the mind?

The first education is religion is love. Incidentally, it is also the last lesson. One revisits the lesson of love until one lives in its joy.

The biggest problem of our times is knowledge without religion. By religion, I do not intend to imply the agenda of dogmatism and blind faith. Religion is the art of spirituality. Spirituality is a notion, an intent; religion makes it happen and gives it life. The purpose of spirituality is to know oneself. Hence, religion is the art of self discovery.

The failure of today’s religion is due to misplaced priorities. Love is used as a catch-phrase to attract crowds. What is taught hence is something entirely different. Religion, in several of its manifestations, fails to teach love as its core. Love has to be taught not just as a message, a concept or a theory, but as actual practice. We need to be taught how to love.

The great Indian sage of the last century, Rabindranath Tagore wrote poems of mysticism directed to God, poems that were full of love. But, before those poems, he wrote poems that were just love poems, which explored the dimensions of love.

Here is one beautiful poem from The Gardener where he brings out the nature of love:

Love is simple as a song

Hands cling to hands and eyes linger on eyes: thus begins the record of our hearts.
It is the moonlit night of March; the sweet smell of henna is in the air; my flute lies on the earth neglected and your garland of flowers in unfinished.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

Your veil of the saffron colour makes my eyes drunk.
The jasmine wreath that you wove me thrills to my heart like praise.
It is a game of giving and withholding, revealing and screening again; some smiles and some little shyness, and some sweet useless struggles.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

No mystery beyond the present; no striving for the impossible; no shadow behind the charm; no groping in the depth of the dark.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

We do not stray out of all words into the ever silent; we do not raise our hands to the void for things beyond hope.
It is enough what we give and we get.
We have not crushed the joy to the utmost to wring from it the wine of pain.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

Love is simple as a song. Loving simply is the highest spiritual practice.

Let the senses come alive: In the first stanza, Tagore shows how love brings alive the senses. The touching of hands and the meeting of eyes perform the communication between hearts. The business of playing the flute to the delight of his beloved and stringing of flowers to garland her love lie unfinished. What is the use for these accessories that fuel love when the greatest of life is already there? They are thrown aside unfinished for love no longer requires anything more than the meeting of eyes, the touching of hands, the smell of fragrance. The senses have come alive.

Give up on strategy: The second stanza speaks of the absence of strategy in love. One’s senses are awakened to the maximum. The translucent veil of saffron she wears makes her lover drunk. The unfinished jasmine wreath that lies by the side excites the heart for it is the work of love. Without strategy and without plan, a connection is made between the hearts of two individuals. Love dances in the rhythms up and down, giving oneself for a moment and withholding for another, revealing one’s heart and stealing it away. Drawing forward and teasing, it proceeds with spontaneity. There is mirth and there is blushing, mirth and blushing that hold each others hands when the beloved struggles to escape her lover knowing to fail, but there is sweetness. O! Why do we even try to explain poetry! How do we explain with sophisticated language the dynamics of love which dances to the tune of innocence.

Live in the present: In the third stanza, Tagore makes very explicit the nature of love. Love belongs to the present. There is no scheming, no planning, no thinking. There are no mysteries to be solved analytically for the mystery of presence defeats the mind and arrests it. There are no impossible dreams to be attained by self-conscious effort. There is nothing put on artificially, some hidden selfish desire behind the charm waiting to make appearance at some stage. There is no searching of one another to find something, where to anchor love. Love exists in the thoughtless presence.

Love without grasping:  Love is free of grasping. The grasping self does not make its appearance and stand confounded losing its words, overwhelmed with feeling. The expressions of love make their appearance forever because there is no indulgence for the sweetness of experience, only the spontaneous interplay of love. There is no hope, no seeking into the nothingness out of want. There is immeasurable satisfaction in giving and taking, whatever it is. Love is the fountain of joy when it is such.  It is such when it is not crushed by efforts of trying to squeeze pleasure out of each other only to discover pain. Tender is the art of love, its flower is hurt by the softest of grasps. The free flower is a monument of joy that withers away when grasped. Such is the nature of love. It lives only as sheer simplicity.

All this is not wistful thinking, a fantasy or a dream. It is life itself when lived fully. The magic of love works not because of this or that. We fool ourselves by finding reasons for love, by grasping. When those reasons fall apart, there is pain. The initial stages of love are the most blissful because there is innocence. Once the innocence is lost, love dies and is replaced by a contract for selfish pleasure.

In the system of Vedānta, marriage is not a contract between two individuals finalized in front of society. Marriage is not the art of seeking that it has become today in India where either side measures each other’s wealth and appearance. Marriage is a form of religion designed for an intensely spiritual experience. It is a spiritual safe-space outside of all the complexities of the world where our defenses are always up and there is always anxiety. It is a space for two individuals to come innocent before each other, dropping all defenses and constructs of mind. It is the space in which one finds oneself and one’s own inner beauty. It is the space for redemption.

This is possible not because in these moments of love, we find something to like and grasp in each other. It is not even because we accept in our minds each other completely. It is because in the highest moments of love, there is no separate one and there is no separate other. The dividing walls are pulled down in love and there is the vision of the Self, the Supreme Self, the All, the Brahman.

The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣat has this to say in the voice of Sage Yājñavalkya,

Verily, a husband is not dear, that you may love the husband; but that you may love the Self, therefore a husband is dear.

Verily, a wife is not dear, that you may love the wife; but that you may love the Self, therefore a wife is dear.

It is the beauty of the Self which is revealed in love. Once one is trained in the chamber of marriage, one learns to love the Self. Love fails and goes sour when one commits the folly of abandoning the Self and selfishly grasping the other. The partner is dear, but only because he or she shows us the Self.

Tagore writes with immense insight,

It very often happens that our love for our children, our friends, or other loved ones, debars us from the further realisation of our soul. It enlarges our scope of consciousness, no doubt, yet it sets a limit to its freest expansion. Nevertheless, it is the first step, and all the wonder lies in this first step itself. It shows to us the true nature of our soul. From it we know, for certain, that our highest joy is in the losing of our egoistic self and in the uniting with others. This love gives us a new power and insight and beauty of mind to the extent of the limits we set around it, but ceases to do so if those limits lose their elasticity, and militate against the spirit of love altogether; then our friendships become exclusive, our families selfish and inhospitable, our nations insular and aggressively inimical to other races. It is like putting a burning light within a sealed enclosure, which shines brightly till the poisonous gases accumulate and smother the flame. Nevertheless it has proved its truth before it dies, and made known the joy of freedom from the grip of darkness, blind and empty and cold.


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