What is love? Where is it? And how can we get it?

Love, we are told, is all we need. It is the subject of numberless books, songs, films, plays, sonnets, articles, conversations, and advertisements; it is meditated on, longed for, and bemoaned; it is a source of anguish, ecstasy, and everything in between. Yet despite our ability today to acquire many things, love—or loving relationships with our friends, spouses, children, parents—often eludes us.

Why? Let us explore the nature of true love—the warm, deep, personal, and profoundly tender feeling of affection one person has for another. Why, even though we crave it, does it bewitchingly escape us?

True Love’s Characteristics

True love is not casual but is an act of will that requires the lover’s concentration on and commitment to the beloved (in Sanskrit called asakta-manah — “mind attached”). In other words, love is about my beloved’s—and not my own—thoughts, feelings, and desires. True love is selfless. One who would love is concerned with and alert to the beloved in every sphere of life. In fact, one who would love sees everything in relation to the beloved and sees the beloved everywhere. This does not mean losing oneself in the infatuation of love, but finding oneself. Those who truly love understand their own identity (vijnana — “realized knowledge”), and they act in accord with that understanding.

True love can be practiced only in freedom—that is, when the one who would love is not driven by selfish desire and thus controlled by lust, greed, envy, anger, or any kind of personal ambition.

“Action in freedom has got some meaning,” Srila Prabhupada says, “but when we are not free—when we are in the clutches of maya [illusion]—our so-called freedom has no value.”

Those who would love are self-disciplined in all aspects of life because a lack of self-discipline means slavery to sensual demands. In Krishna’s words: “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.62–63) Without self-discipline, without sense control, there is no freedom, and without freedom we are driven by passion, not by love. On the other hand, love keeps self-discipline from becoming dry and burdensome. So, self-discipline allows love to develop, and that love keeps self-discipline fresh rather than hackneyed or touched by either pride or resentment.

Next, true love is unmotivated (ahaituki — “causeless”). One who would love gives pleasure to the beloved without conditions, without expectation of return, without calculating “Am I getting as much as I’m giving?”

True love is also patient, determined, enthusiastic and unceasing (apratihata — “unbroken”); it desires the good of the beloved from whatever source that good may come. And it is an act of faith: One who would love trusts the beloved. Whoever is of little faith will also be of little love.

More, one who would love hears from the beloved (shrinu — “try to hear”), takes the beloved’s words to heart, and remembers them with great pleasure. True love inspires a vibrant memory that ever renews the lover’s bond with the beloved and ever reminds the lover of the beloved’s uniqueness and supreme place in the lover’s heart.

Our Loveless World

These pristine qualities of true love appeal deeply to us because we want to love and be loved to this standard. But in the name of love our modern age propounds self-gratification—the antithesis of love. If you please my senses, my self-image, and my self-esteem, I may “love” you. But if you fail in this, we’ll never have a deep and lasting connection. This is selfish desire, and a person in its grip is at its mercy. Selfish desire destroys our objectivity and chains us to society’s massive, pervasive, and degrading suggestion-apparatus.

How can we rid ourselves of these unseen chains that are more binding than outer chains? Each one of us is called upon to become free, to make a fundamental shift from selfishness to selflessness, from me-centered to thee-centered (or, especially, Thee-centered) life. Then we will no longer wonder if we are capable of true love or if such love even exists.

Srila Prabhupada writes:

In the material world there is no such thing as a lover’s wanting to please the senses of his beloved. Actually, in the material world, everyone wants mainly to gratify his own personal senses.
The Nectar of Devotion, Chapter 15

Today in the material world I may be relishing my love for my son, but tomorrow my son may be my greatest enemy. There is no eternity in this kind of love. Or, if my son does not become my enemy, he may die. Today I may love some man or woman, but tomorrow we may break up. All of this is due to the defects of the material world.
Teaching of Lord Kapila, Chapter 13

So-called love here means that “you gratify my senses, I’ll gratify your senses,” and as soon as that gratification stops, immediately there is divorce, separation, quarrel, and hatred. So many things are going on under this false conception of love.
The Science of Self-Realization, Chapter 7

With some introspection, we discover that the word love is a gargantuan misnomer for what is commonly called love, for it is not love at all.

When a living entity comes in contact with the material creation, his eternal love for Krishna is transformed into lust, in association with the mode of passion. Or, in other words, the sense of love of God becomes transformed into lust.…”
Bhagavad-gita 3.37, Purport

Lust and love have different characteristics, just as iron and gold have different natures. The desire to gratify one’s own senses is kama [lust], but the desire to please the senses of Lord Krishna is prema [love].… Therefore lust and love are quite different. Lust is like dense darkness, but love is like the bright sun.
Chaitanya-charitamrita 1.4.164, 165, 171

Each of us is a spirit soul, part of Krishna and qualitatively one with Him. In our present state, we want to relish pleasure through our senses: We want to be happy by enjoying what we see, taste, hear, touch, smell, or think of. Originally our pleasurable exchanges were between us and the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna—between the spirit soul with spiritual senses and the spiritual whole. In associating and exchanging with Him, in giving Him pleasure, we relish fullness and are actually happy. Now, however, we are in material existence, covered with a material body, mind, and senses. We try to experience pleasure through these coverings, and when that pleasure is intense, we call it love. This “love,” however, has none of the qualities of true love: It is selfish, undisciplined, motivated, temporary, calculating, driven by one’s needs—”Did I receive as much as I gave?”

In short it is lust, a perverted reflection of love. Only love, not lust, can satisfy us, because love is the genuine emotion of the soul while lust is that emotion misdirected; love is reality, lust illusion. Trying to be satisfied by lust is like trying to slake one’s thirst in a mirage.

Lust has various guises: “My Lord, due to Your illusory energy, all living beings in this material world have forgotten their real constitutional position, and out of ignorance they are always desirous of material happiness in the form of society, friendship, and love.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.20.31) Sooner or later our attachment for anything material will disappoint, dissatisfy, and frustrate us because everything material deteriorates. Therefore the goal of human life is to turn lust into love. True love is already present in our heart, where it has always been, and our noble task is to free it of the distortion of lust. To do this we approach the supreme lovable object, who is worthy to accept and reciprocate our love.

A World Full of Love

In the material world we have an inkling of love due to the continuous and unconditional love within each of us—our original love of God, Krishna. The process of Krishna consciousness turns our love toward Krishna and away from anything not fit to love. As a child is fully satisfied in its mother’s lap, we will be fully satisfied, joyful, and alive when we come in touch with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We do this under the guidance of His representative: “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.34)

Like our love for Krishna, our love for the bona fide spiritual master is meant to be selfless, as is our love for the spiritual master’s genuine followers. Without expectation of return, those who follow the spiritual master share their understandings and enthusiasm in heartfelt exchanges. Krishna says, “The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me.” (Bhagavad-gita 10.9). In such exchanges all are rewarded with transcendental pleasure.

And that pleasure expands. Love of Krishna broadens to include all His parts—every living entity—including ourselves: “Missing Krishna means missing one’s self also. Real self-realization and realization of Krishna go together simultaneously. For example, seeing oneself in the morning means seeing the sunrise also; without seeing the sunshine no one can see himself. Similarly, unless one has realized Krishna there is no question of self-realization.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Preface)

Realization is Krishna’s gift to us, offered through the knowledge the spiritual master imparts: “Having obtained real knowledge from a self-realized soul, you will never fall again into illusion, for by this knowledge you will see that all living beings are but part of the Supreme, or, in other words, that they are Mine.” (Bhagavad-gita 4.35)

Going from Here to There

How to come to this coveted platform? It requires a cultivation that begins with hearing about Krishna, for by such hearing we are transported beyond all externals—whether social, economic, political, religious, or anything else. By hearing about Krishna, we awaken our true self and reunite with Krishna, the Supreme Self. “Simply by giving aural reception to this Vedic literature, the feeling for loving devotional service to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, sprouts up at once to extinguish the fire of lamentation, illusion, and fearfulness.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.7.7)

Srila Prabhupada explains:

Loving devotional service to the Lord begins with hearing about the Lord. There is no difference between the Lord and the subject matter heard about Him. The Lord is absolute in all respects, and thus there is no difference between Him and the subject matter heard about Him. Therefore, hearing about Him means immediate contact with Him by the process of vibration of the transcendental sound. And the transcendental sound is so effective that it acts at once by removing all material affections mentioned above… The conclusion is that simply by hearing the Vedic literature Srimad-Bhagavatam, one can have direct connection with the Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna, and thereby one can attain the highest perfection of life by transcending worldly miseries, illusion and fearfulness.
Srimad-Bhagavatam, 1.7.7 Purport

If we make our friendship with Krishna, it will never break. If we make our master Krishna, we will never be cheated. If we love Krishna as our son, He will never die. If we love Krishna as our lover, He will be the best of all, and there will be no separation. Because Krishna is the Supreme Lord, He is unlimited and has an unlimited number of devotees. Some are trying to love Him as lover or husband, and therefore Krishna accepts this role. In whatever way we approach Krishna, He will accept us.…
Raja Vidya, Chapter 8

Spiritual Synergism

Real love then, along with the happiness that accompanies it, is not of the mundane sphere. In the final analysis it belongs to the spirit soul and the Supreme Person. Our life is meant for culturing and cultivating real love. It is meant for extricating ourselves from the muck and mire of “me first” and returning to the glory of “You first.” It is meant for tasting the happiness that comes from pleasing Krishna and His devotees. Cultivating Krishna consciousness exhumes the love inherent within us. And as that love blossoms, Krishna reveals Himself: “To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (Bhagavad-gita 10.10)

Devotees want to satisfy the Lord in all respects, and the Lord wants to satisfy His devotees even more than they want to satisfy Him. Although the devotees expect and desire nothing, they receive more from their devotional service than they give. Such are the mysterious exchanges of love. The Lord says, “The pure devotee is always within the core of My heart, and I am always in the heart of the pure devotee. My devotees do not know anything else but Me, and I do not know anyone else but them.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.4.68) And: “A devotee observes Me in all beings and also sees every being in Me. Indeed, the self-realized person sees Me, the same Supreme Lord, everywhere. For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.” (Bhagavad-gita 6.29–30) The devotee is always thinking of Krishna, and Krishna is always thinking of His devotee. “Those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form—to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.” (Bhagavad-gita 9.22)

Unflinching love for Krishna, awakened by divine mercy, is the highest perfection. It is a transcendental achievement so valuable that no material happiness can compare to the happiness it brings. One who develops pure love is completely satisfied.

In the devotees’ loving relationships with Krishna, they ask for no payment. But rewards come, and they are much greater than anything earned in the material world, for Krishna’s rewards, like His love, are without limit.