As a young seeker in the 1960s, I was, like most of my peers, looking for love. Material love, yes, but also spiritual love. I was exploring the world’s various religions with this in mind. Did religion have much to teach me about love? Was I, as the saying goes, “looking for love in all the wrong places”? Absolutely not. Indeed, all of the world’s theistic traditions have much to say about love in all its permutations. But none of them satisfied my quest like the Vaishnava tradition of India, known in the West as the Hare Krishna movement.
Here I found love expressed as a science. That might sound strange, but bear with me. You see, the expression of love in the context of Krishna consciousness is epitomized in the person of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He appeared in India about five hundred years ago, and many leading spiritual authorities of the day accepted Him as Lord Krishna Himself in the guise of His own devotee. They cited scriptural evidence to support their view. Among Chaitanya’s immediate followers was a group known as the Six Goswamis, who explained bhakti, or spiritual love, as a yogic science. They brought out, based on Sri Chaitanya’s example and teachings, the inner meaning of loving exchanges with God, not just for Chaitanya’s tradition but in general, as a universal method for attaining a love supreme.
Sri Chaitanya showed how this plays out experientially. His life and example were soaked in God consciousness. Indeed, He was called “a golden volcano of divine love,” the lava, or ecstatic symptoms, uncontainable in His body. And the Goswamis documented it so all of us could benefit from His exuberant, spontaneous love.
Love is natural and easy, but to do it right is a science. When we love someone, a series of free-flowing feelings engulfs us, but if we want to develop a deep and committed relationship with our beloved, we must take certain steps, follow a certain procedure. The procedure may vary from person to person, but overall, certain things work, and certain things do not. For love to blossom we have to know how to properly show our love for a given person; we have to nurture that person and do other things that help him or her feel loved. Right? We all know this is true, don’t we? There’s a way to do this, to show one’s love.
We may love our husband or wife, for example, but what do we do to help our partner feel loved? This is the question. Though love is natural and from the heart, there’s an art and a science to how one develops and shows one’s love in the most effective ways. Psychologists have long studied the art and heart of relationships. Just as there are signs of a healthy and harmonious relationship, and things we do that support the relationship, there are things we do that will harm a relationship. We have to know how all that works. That’s the science of love. And because few bother to learn it, the divorce rate is through the roof.
What I’m trying to say, in context, is this: Sri Chaitanya was the exemplar of love. When He would chant Krishna’s names and dance, people would see He was in deep, deep ecstasy, with tears of love, and they’d say, “I want that ? I want to be like Him.” And so the Six Goswamis documented the different stages of ecstasy, with special note of His behavior and bodily symptoms. They wrote down the science of how to chant properly, and how to thus experience the love He was feeling. They documented what works and what doesn’t work in building a relationship with God through kirtana and through the various processes of bhakti-yoga.
Someone may argue that love and science are diametrically opposed, and there is certainly some truth to this. But, as I have already shown, love obeys certain laws of function, even in the material world. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, for example, has proposed three stages of love ? lust, attraction, and attachment. Each stage, she says, is associated with different hormones and chemicals. The initial stages of lust activate one’s stress response, increasing blood levels of adrenalin and cortisol. This has the effect of making a person sweat, with a racing heart and a dry mouth. We’ve all been there, right? [Laughter.] Scientists say that three main neurotransmitters cause attraction: adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. Sounds rather clinical, no? [Laughter.] And then comes attachment, the bond that keeps couples together long enough to have and raise children. The two major hormones here are oxytocin and vasopressin. [Loud laughter.]
You laugh, but our entire enterprise of loving exchange in the material world can be reduced to chemicals ? that, of course, and conditioning. Deep-rooted tastes based on experience and the inexplicable rumblings of the heart are factors, without doubt. But the point I’m making should be clear, too. Love, even material love, can be analyzed scientifically, and we can’t deny that there’s some legitimacy to this.
But what is it we’re really doing when we express love for someone? The wisdom tradition of India, including the Bhagavad-gita, tells us that lust, attraction, and attachment, in the end, are manifestations of some inner spiritual hunger, an existential thirst, a desire to know and love God. The attempt to satisfy spiritual hunger through sense pleasure is merely a sign of ignorance, of insufficient understanding. Our search for pure, expansive love will be satisfied only in the realm of the spirit, and deep down we know this, because that’s who we really are: we’re spiritual beings, thirsting after spiritual relationships. This is what Sri Chaitanya and the Goswamis came to give ? this knowledge, this truth.
Until we are educated in the principles of true spiritual love, we must associate with the handmaidens of its material counterpart, including envy, jealousy, pride, hatred, malice, fear, and so on. Only when we go beyond material love ? love centered on our bodily identity ? can we associate with Krishna’s most intimate handmaidens, the gopikas, the famous cowherd girls of Vrindavan, the spiritual world, who love Him purely. They are waiting to guide us in our love for Him, if only we mature beyond the mediocre love of the material world.
Ultimately, material love leads us to frustration and madness, and if it’s not replaced by spiritual love, it leads to the abyss of emptiness, a spiritual void that makes life unlivable.
Bhakti-yoga: The Path to Love
It is often said that religion or spirituality rests on blind faith and sentiment while science rests on observation and experiment. But bhakti is also a science. As already stated, the Goswamis left a massive literary tradition showing not only how one can develop love of God but how one can gauge that love scientifically, methodically. The method begins with chanting the holy name of Krishna and following certain purifying principles, including sexual restrictions and abstention from meat-eating, intoxication, and gambling. By following these principles, the bhakti-yogi seeks to achieve a purified state unfettered by the contaminating forces of Kali-yuga, the current spiritually debilitated age. This allows the scientific experiment to proceed.
In any scientific experiment, the object of study must be observed in its pure form, isolated from outside influences. Nature, as we know, does not always present things in a pure and unmixed form, and so adjustments to an experiment must sometimes be made. Once this is done, the results are carefully watched, and in this way the laws governing nature’s behavior are discovered. These laws are documented, and this is how science progresses.
Bhakti adheres to this same principle, but in relation to the soul and God. The living being in the material world also does not exist in pure form. We are all informed or colored by our particular body and the conditioning we have accrued over many lifetimes. Therefore the first step in the science of bhakti is purification of the self.
That’s why the purifying principles already mentioned are required. Some people might find it helpful to live in a monastery or an ashram, where, isolated from external influences, the science of bhakti can thrive. But ashram life is not always required. It depends on the individual. One’s own conscience and the guidance of more experienced bhakti-yogis are critical here. They will determine what the individual needs in this very personal experiment.
Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, gave his book The Nectar of Devotion the subtitle “The Complete Science of Bhakti-Yoga,” and in his many writings he sought to show how bhakti is indeed a science. Here’s one example.
The process of bhakti-yoga is not a concoction or speculation. It is a science. As stated in the present verse, bhagavat-tattva-vijnanam, “one gains scientific knowledge of the Personality of Godhead.” Vijnana means “science.” In mathematics, “Two plus two equals four” is always true. You cannot make it equal five according to your whims. No. Because mathematics is a science, whether you are in America or India or England, you will find that everyone accepts that two plus two equals four. Similarly, you cannot imagine God according to your whims. Nowadays many people say, “You can imagine your God, and I can imagine my God.” No, there is no question of imagining anything about God. As stated here, the scientific truth of God can be understood by a person who is mukta-sanga, freed from material association. Such a person, being transcendental to the lower modes of nature, is jubilant and enlightened (prasanna-manasa?). As long as you are under the jurisdiction of the modes of ignorance and passion, there is no question of jubilation or enlightenment. Therefore you have to come to the platform of pure goodness.
The Science of Love
So that’s basically how one develops divine love ? by following the principles of bhakti-yoga. We can gradually feel our heart becoming purified and our anarthas, or habits that hinder our spiritual progress, fading away. When the experiment is conducted in the association of other bhakti-yogis, we can easily gauge our progress. Our fever for material pleasure subsides, and our taste for the accouterments of the spirit increases. We develop a taste for Krishna and other spiritual subjects and lose interest in things that take us away from our spiritual pursuits. It’s a science.
But I began by saying that my search for a science of spiritual love was satisfied in the Vaishnava tradition. I’d like to briefly flesh this out, so you can see that a complete taxonomy and theology of love exists in my adopted tradition. For example, one of the great teachers of our lineage, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, writes in his book Gitamala:
The development of ecstatic love of Godhead gradually thickens and intensifies as it manifests in seven stages of ecstasy known as (1) prema, general ecstatic love for the Personality of Godhead; (2) sneha, personal affection borne of a softened and melted heart; (3) mana, pouting counter-love due to confidential familiarity; (4) pranaya, mutually intimate love devoid of shyness or hesitation; (5) raga, highly involved attachment that disregards any offense; (6) anuraga, the constant presence of supplementary attachments that ripple and twinkle in waves of mutual charms; (7) bhava, the stage of wildly relishable exhilaration in a transparently pure yet supremely inflamed love-passion. All these stages of the sthayi-bhava [the continuous state of spiritual ecstasy in love of Godhead] are spotlessly free from any material impurities. . . . The above-mentioned symptoms are all together known as prema (love of Godhead).
Each of these stages of love of God is delineated in the writings of the Goswamis, and Prabhupada’s books present them in modern language.
The Chaitanya-charitamrita, a near-contemporaneous biography of Sri Chaitanya, helps bhakti-yoga practitioners understand these levels of love by comparing them to various kinds of sugar:
Love of Godhead increases and is manifested as affection, counterlove, love, attachment, subattachment, ecstasy, and sublime ecstasy. This development is compared to sugarcane seeds, sugarcane plants, sugarcane juice, molasses, crude sugar, refined sugar, sugar candy, and rock candy. One should understand that just as the taste of sugar increases as it is gradually purified, so when love of Godhead increases from rati, which is compared to the beginning seed, its taste increases. According to the candidate possessing these transcendental qualities [sneha, mana, and so on], there are five transcendental mellows ? neutrality, servitorship, friendship, parental love, and conjugal love.
Srila Prabhupada’s guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami, elaborates:
This form of bhakti is fit to be cultured. Being duly cultured it gives rise to rati [the natural tendency of the soul towards Krishna, or the basic principal of love]. Condensed rati is prema. By the process of gradual augmentation prema becomes sneha, mana, pranaya, anuraga, bhava, and mahabhava. A good analogy is furnished by the series of processes in the refining of the raw juice of sugarcane. First there is juice, then molasses, raw sugar, residual sugar, refined sugar, white sugar, and icing sugar. These are varieties of the basic principle [sthayi-bhava] in the operations of the mellow liquid (rasa) of the service of Krishna. If the basic principle is conjoined with higher principles known as vibhava, anubhava, sattvika, and vyabhicari, then the operations of the liquid mellow of the service of Krishna exhibits the most exquisite nectarean taste, just as the treatment of curd with sugar, ghee, pepper, and camphor produces a most tasty composition.
Love and Christianity
A friend from the Christian tradition once pointed out to me that for Christians love of God is intimately connected to love of man. That’s how they express their love of God ? through loving their brothers and sisters under God’s fatherhood. He wanted to know how the Vaishnava conception of love ties in with love for humankind.
This is an urgent question and needs to be addressed. But we shouldn’t begin with the misconception that Christianity conflates love of God and love of man. While both types of love are important, Christians, like Vaishnavas, know a clear distinction between the two. If we study closely, we will find that the Christian tradition makes clear that love of God and love of man are two different things. When Jesus was asked which commandment is the greatest, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And then he augmented it: “This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40) So they are actually two different things. The second commandment is like the first one, but it is not the same as the first one. The difference is implicit: Love of man and love of God are distinct.
And then you have the great Christian mystics throughout history who have underscored this point. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and others elaborated on love of God and how to pursue that love on a very high spiritual platform. I feel, though, that Vaishnavism goes further, explicating the science of love in ways the Christian mystics would deeply appreciate.
For example, Vaishnavas practice vegetarianism as a religious imperative. There is no question of loving God’s creatures if you eat them. And how do Vaishnavas show love of their fellow man? By educating them spiritually, by feeding them with krishna-prasada, consecrated food. In short, by helping them in the most important ways: by giving them a spiritual dimension. This is love on a very, very deep level.
This all begins by rendering some simple service to God in the association of His devotees. By regularly rendering devotional service, one gradually becomes attached to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When that attachment is intensified, it becomes love of Godhead. This is the science of bhakti-yoga.
It plays out like this. According to the Chaitanya-charitamrita, if by good fortune we begin to associate with spiritually advanced Vaishnavas, we will naturally feel encouraged in devotional service, become free from all material contamination, and develop expertise in devotional principles. Free of material contamination, we advance with firm faith. Then a taste for devotional topics awakens, followed by a deep attachment to Krishna, from which the seed of ecstatic love for Him sprouts in the heart. When that ecstatic emotional state intensifies, it is called love of Godhead.
Such love is life’s ultimate goal and the reservoir of all pleasure. If we actually have transcendental love in our heart, the symptoms will be visible in our daily activities. That, says the Chaitanya-charitamrita, is the verdict of all revealed scriptures.