Introduction and Overview
What is love? Is it one thing or many? Is there anything in common between brotherly love and motherly one? Why is love so elusive to understand, even though many of us may have felt it? Why is love often equated to sacrifice, service, and dedication?
This article deconstructs the idea of love into three components—attraction, vulnerability, and strength. These are, respectively, progressive stages of love. That is, you begin with attraction, then you share your most intimate self to the person you love, and finally, you demonstrate the commitment to stick to the person in good or bad times.
The Principle of Attraction
It is easy to define attraction. It is a manifestation of your desire for someone or something. Why do we desire? It’s because we are missing something. So, your feeling inadequate in some way is a necessary precondition to becoming attracted to something else. If you were completely self-contented, or you found yourself self-sufficient, you would not be attracted to anyone. We are attracted because we feel incomplete, insufficient, and inadequate. That sense of incompleteness exists in everyone, except the liberated soul, and then, beyond liberation, there is another sense of incompleteness (in relation to God) that makes us feel incomplete and insufficient (without the presence of God).
This sense of incompleteness is called māyā or that which is not. When the soul is influenced by māyā he or she feels incomplete. I am not beautiful, I’m not rich, I’m not powerful, I’m not knowledgeable, I’m not famous, or I’m not renounced. In short, in some way or another, I’m not worthy of love.
Once we feel inadequate, we develop the need for something or someone else. Some people go in the pursuit of knowledge, power, beauty, fame, power, or renunciation, hoping that if they acquired these qualities, they would become complete and self-sufficient. They are not seeking love. They are seeking to make themselves more perfect in some way or another so that they don’t have to seek love.
The problem is that you can never complete this pursuit. Even if you are moderately or significantly successful in this pursuit, you are still under the influence of māyā, which will make you feel incomplete. You may be relatively much more complete than most other people in this world, but you feel inadequate. You cannot rationalize this feeling; others can tell you—hey, you have so much wealth, knowledge, power, and fame! Why do you feel incomplete? Look at other people; they have so much less than what you have. What can be the reasons for your sense of unhappiness?
The problem is that they are looking at self-sufficiency as the source of happiness. They don’t understand that no matter how much you are factually self-sufficient, you may not feel that way. Your incessant drive toward perfection may be never-ending, and possibly a substitute for something that you need but you are not getting. To feel complete, you don’t just need to be self-sufficient; you must be told that you are beautiful, knowledgeable, powerful, famous, wealthy, or renounced. We constantly need a reaffirmation of who we are, and that affirmation cannot come from within. It must come from someone else, who is attracted to you, and that attraction affirms you of your worthiness.
That affirmation is possible if someone is attracted to you. This is the main reason why rich and powerful people keep flaunting their power and wealth; they are looking for affirmation. It is the reason why beautiful people keep displaying photos of their beauty or dressing up gorgeously in public places to obtain affirmation of their beauty. It is why knowledgeable people must distribute their knowledge to get affirmation of their knowledge. It is why a renounced person must show that he or she is renounced. They are all trying to be attractive to someone else so that they can begin a process of love.
The nature of māyā is that it creates a sense of inadequacy within you. It is not about the objective facts; it is about whether you feel complete or incomplete. Māyā covers the natural state of being innately happy. It makes you unhappy, weak, insufficient, inadequate; it drives you to seek something other than yourself. You may be driven toward making yourself more complete. Or, you may be driven toward seeking someone who can affirm your completeness and overcome the innate insecurity. In short, you are either trying to make yourself more attractive or seeking someone who will find you attractive.
Those who haven’t found someone who is attracted to them will drown themselves in “work”—i.e. the pursuit of making themselves more attractive. They know that they haven’t found someone who will affirm and confirm their attractiveness. It may be that they are not yet attractive enough, and perhaps that’s the reason they haven’t found someone attracted to them. On the other hand, one who has found someone who is attracted to them loses the passion to be more attractive. Their need to be loved is being satisfied and their innate sense of incompleteness is overcome. So, they don’t feel the inner pressure to prove anything to anyone; they are not seeking reaffirmation because they have found someone who affirms them. They have found the individual who indulges and pampers them.
The Principle of Vulnerability
Everyone is weak, insecure, incomplete. But they hide it from others because they want to look attractive to others, and insecurity doesn’t seem attractive. But once they find someone is attracted, and they become close to them, they would be willing to become more vulnerable. Since everyone is tied to pretenses, the person who opens about their vulnerability invites others to be vulnerable. You feel more secure when you are not threatened by someone else’s superiority. Attraction means you have accepted someone’s superiority—at least in one way or another. If that attraction exists and is mutual, then both sides are willing to be vulnerable and share their intimate secrets with each other.
Vulnerability is a sign of humility and compassion. To become vulnerable—and share your intimate secrets with others—you must be humble. An arrogant person can never share their vulnerability because they feel threatened by someone’s superiority; they also cannot genuinely be attracted to anyone else, because that attraction would entail their own inferiority. On the other hand, you will also not become vulnerable—even if you are humble—if you don’t find the other person compassionate. To reveal yourself intimately, you might find a compassionate companion who will not judge you for your weakness, and that judgment will not undermine the attraction that brought you together.
To cross these hurdles of humility (which is in the person who is seeking to be vulnerable) and compassion (which is in the person to whom you are seeking to be vulnerable) is very hard. This is one reason that love doesn’t prosper beyond the stage of attraction. You may be attracted to someone, but you do not express your feelings because that expression makes you vulnerable. Or you may express them in a limited fashion but not open completely to invite reciprocal vulnerability. Without this reciprocity there is mutual distrust and an inner conflict—I’m attracted, but can I trust this person? It becomes a chicken-and-egg problem of who is bolder in the relationship and decides to open first. The bolder person takes the initiative, expresses their feelings and vulnerabilities. That invites the other person—if they are compassionate and attracted—to share their intimate secrets as well.
Mutual vulnerability leads to intimacy. I don’t mean this in the sense of physical intimacy, or sexual encounters, but an emotional attachment. Those who are insecure will never become vulnerable. Similarly, those who are uncompassionate and judgmental will never allow the other person to be vulnerable. Finally, if they are not attracted, the questions of compassion and vulnerability don’t arise. It would be like expressing your intimate self to a person who doesn’t really care. Therefore, attraction is a necessary precondition, but not enough, for love to be established. The additional requirement is that you are prepared to be vulnerable with a person who is sufficiently compassionate.
The Principle of Strength
Once vulnerability is established, love begins to blossom, but it may not last if either party is not strong enough to carry through the tribulations of life. While getting married, for example, people talk about a commitment to the relationship “through sickness and health”. Clearly, you will be happy to continue if the person remains healthy, powerful, famous, intelligent, wealthy, etc. But what happens if the person becomes poor, sick, weak, or dishonored? Does one have the strength to stand through the difficult times? Or, is the lover only a fair-weather friend, unprepared to suffer tribulations?
Most times, despite attraction and emotional intimacy, love fails due to lacking the strength of character. Since the original attraction was based on beauty, fame, wealth, power, knowledge, or renunciation, as these qualities dwindle—temporarily or permanently—the attraction fades away. Once the attraction dies, the compassion for the other person, and the desire to understand their problems dwindle. Once the compassion dies, so does the emotional intimacy. The lovers then become emotionally distant, no longer attracted to each other, and uncaring about their problems.
It is said that a friend in need is a friend indeed. This hardship is the ultimate test for the long-lasting nature of love. Even if a person is not very attractive, and hasn’t established emotional intimacy in the past, the very demonstration of commitment “through sickness and health” is a sign of strength. On the other hand, if a person is only interested in receiving happiness through attraction and emotional intimacy, but is unavailable during the time of the other person’s need, the love is fictional. It is a subtle form of emotional exploitation and using a person for one’s own happiness, rather than giving them back the affection and affirmation when they are down and in desperate need for support.
The Conflict of Principles
The three principles noted above are constantly in conflict. For example, the person who is strong is generally never going to become vulnerable. They will not share their intimate feelings with others because it appears to be a sign of weakness. As a result, it can be hard to develop emotional intimacy with a person of strong character. Likewise, the strong person doesn’t easily become attracted to anyone else, because they remain self-contented or absorbed in their own advancement and may not be influenced easily by the feeling of incompleteness to seek another person’s company.
On the other hand, those who become easily vulnerable, like to share their feelings and develop emotional intimacy but they don’t have the character and courage to stand by their lover in difficult times. They are emotionally weak and cannot be harassed by difficulties. They abandon the person in need to protect themselves emotionally and destroy the source of affection upon which they depended. Their lack of character and ability to handle difficulties makes them simply fair-weather friends.
Finally, those who are easily attracted to others have a pronounced sense of incompleteness, but that very sense of incompleteness makes them easily enticed by the superficial demonstration of power, wealth, fame, knowledge, beauty, or renunciation. They fail to judge sufficiently before they start committing themselves, and before long they realize that they made a mistake—the attraction was superficial. They may rapidly shift their attractions and fall for multiple people at the same time, unable to decide what they truly want. They may also enter many short-term and futile relationships. Attraction makes us forget the need for true emotional intimacy; it remains focused on the existence of one or more factors of attraction—e.g. power, wealth, fame, beauty, knowledge, or renunciation—without developing a deeper connection with the person. Without that connection, mutual vulnerability and compassion are missing, and hence the relationship fails to deepen beyond material benefits. A person may have all these material goods, but without that deeper connection remains emotionally unsatiated.
The problem is that if you are vulnerable, then you are not strong, and vice versa. If you are attracted, you lack judgment—due to which we say that “love is blind”—and thereby fail to develop a deeper emotional connection beyond the superficial reasons for being attracted to a person. But if you are strong and emotionally committed, you are being relied upon, but taken for granted; you don’t receive the reciprocation of attraction from the partner, and you feel incomplete and unfulfilled.
By deconstructing love into attraction, vulnerability, and strength, and then understanding how they are in conflict, we derive the conclusion that one of these three principles dominates at any given time. If the domination persists for long, then the other principles are compromised, and love dies.
For example, if attraction is strong, but there is no vulnerability and compassion, then love dies due to a lack of emotional connection. Similarly, if the emotional connection is strong, but the partner is not strong to survive the ups and downs of life, the love dies due to a person’s weakness. Finally, if a person is strong, but doesn’t feel the attraction to another person, love dies because the partner doesn’t feel desired, pampered, and reaffirmed about themselves through their relationship.
Therefore, the blossoming of love needs all three principles, but because they are in conflict, one needs to balance them. One also needs to find appropriate opportunities and times to apply these principles correctly. For instance, showing vulnerability when the need is strength would be useless. Or, demonstrating physical attraction when a person is trying to deepen the emotional bond would make the relationship superficial. Or just being strong and supportive, when the need is to reaffirm, desire, or pamper a partner would make the person feel unloved even though well provided for.
Simply the wrong application of these principles—or what we can call ‘bad timing’—is enough to hurt love. In that sense, the theoretical understanding of the principles, their mutual conflict, and the need to balance them is not enough. One must also be adept at the art of applying them contextually.
The Divine Philosophy of Love
In Gaudīya Vaishnavism, or the branch of Vaishnavism identified with the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra, three bīja-mantras or “seeds of the mahā-mantra” are identified as Kṛṣṇa, Hara, and Rama. We can understand the significance of these bīja-mantras through the three principles of love identified above. Kṛṣṇa is the principle of attraction, Hara is the principle of vulnerability, and Rama is the principle of strength. They represent the three aspects of love. Together they are necessary and sufficient, but vulnerability follows attraction, and strength follows vulnerability.
By the chanting of this mahā-mantra one can perfect the love of God because one obtains the understanding of the three ingredients of love, their balance, and their contextual application. In the material world, these principles are either partially or fully absent, or they are imbalanced, or they are not applied correctly in the contextually relevant manner. In other words, love fails because we don’t understand the philosophy of love, as well as the art and science of its correct application.
The divine philosophy of love is a deconstruction of the nature of love into its comprising principles, the differences between these principles, and the need to balance and apply them correctly. The principles, their conflict, and the need to balance them can be understood through everyday examples; in other words, the philosophy of divine love is accessible through an understanding of ordinary love. Its perfection can also be understood through the imperfections of ordinary love. The mastery of these principles, the art and science of balancing and applying them contextually is spirituality.