The Path of Prema

Krishna and Radha playing Holi.

Now I will introduce to you the path of prema, or love, for that is the purpose (or prayojana) of life.

It is also the purpose of this website, for after 40 years of investigating the path of prema, I think it is time I shared my findings in a clear and orderly manner.

Love is what we need

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's concise Bengali formula, prem prayojan, can be translated in two ways: one is "Love is the goal of life," the other is "Love is the necessity of life, love is what we need."

Discussions of spiritual life in the Vaishnava tradition are usually divided into three sections: metaphysics or theology ("Who am I? What is my true nature? What is the world? What is God? What is spirit, what is matter?"); ethics or practices ("Now what should I do?"); and the ultimate goal of life ("What is the purpose of life? What is the liberated state? Where am I going? Where do I end up?").

This last category is also known as prayojana.

But the word prayojana also means "need." In fact, if you look at it carefully, you will see that "purpose" and "need" are basically the same idea approached from two different directions. One's purpose is born of an inner need, sometimes properly understood, sometimes not. Love is our goal precisely because that is what we need, just like food is the goal when we are hungry, or water the goal when we are thirsty.

Without a clear statement of goals it is impossible to delineate an effective course of action. Without clearly understanding our needs, how can we establish our goals?

It is known that a spiritual life that is based only on externals, with only a vague sense of the goals we are seeking to achieve, cannot take us very far. Rupa Goswami states in Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu: "Without the proper mental attitude, one can engage in rituals forever and never attain prema, and so it is said to be very rare" (sādhanaughair anāsaṅgair alabhyā sucirād api, BRS 1.1.17)

This is because, in the final analysis, love can only be produced out of love. Just like Vaishnavas take it as an axiomatic truth that life can only come from life, so also we say that love comes from love. Love comes first as a gift of divine grace; it is nurtured by the association of those who are masters in the art of love, and we become masters ourselves through the culture and practice of love.

Any delineation of spiritual life that does not clearly state this goal and implement it will be skewed in one way or another. Love is the goal and love is the means. Even theology must be understood in this light, and any theology that misses this point is not Vaishnavism, or at least, not the Vaishnavism of Vrindavan, which is what we profess.

If you have understood the above, then you will understand the following easily: Love is experienced and practiced on three levels: the singular, dual and plural.

Love Thyself

Though we often see it translated as "soul," the Sanskrit word ātmā actually means "self". When the Upanishads say, "You do not love your husband or child for their sakes, but for the sake of the ātmā," it appears to be making a statement about human selfishness. In fact, it is telling us much more, for the passage concludes by saying, "So learn what the self is, study the self, contemplate the self. Know the self."

To know the self begins with learning that we are spiritual, beyond body, mind, intelligence and ego. But without knowing what the self's situation is in relation to body, mind, intelligence and ego, that knowledge of the true self is doomed. Body, mind and so on are the means of attaining higher ends and so we must embrace them. Love of the self begins here.

But "self" is also sometimes capitalized as "Self." This is another great and important mystery. The Self is God. God is not separate from ourselves. God is the "Self of the self," the innermost Self. So our first job is to love the self, to love the Self, to love the relationship of self to Self, and to grow in understanding of that relationship.

God is the highest self, the ideal self. We measure our growth towards self against our internalized concept of God, Self. God is the indwelling imperative that keeps pushing us towards a higher love that goes beyond the vague sense of "need," in other words, towards Himself.

This is the first stage, the lowest level of love. But without it, we cannot continue. It is the first level of sādhana, called the pravartaka or beginning stage. It is the stage of external forms and individual practices, self-discipline and education.

For most people in religion, unfortunately, this is as far as they get. And moreover, because it is "self"-oriented, there are many dangers involved on this stage of the culture of love. We cannot do without it, but if we do not progress beyond it, we will soon see that most of the flaws associated with religion and spirituality nestle here.

The stage of partnership in sādhanā

The second stage is called the sādhaka stage. It is the stage of the "dual." Sanskrit is one of the few languages in the world that still has a "dual" form. It helps make us conscious of the special nature of twos, dualities, pairs and opposites like Father-Mother, Sky-Earth, Husband-Wife, God-Goddess, good-bad, hot-cold. Radha-Krishna.

But when we talk about the sādhaka stage, we are talking about a special state of grace that allows us to cultivate love within a relationship with another human being.

Already, for orthodox religious people who are committed to the consciousness of the pravartaka stage, there is a problem. Especially for those who are confused by the idea of spirituality and who have a deep suspicion of bodily pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, who are dominated by fear of attachment or possessed by aversion.

So many scriptures talk about sexual love, attachment to another person, as a stumbling block, an obstacle to attaining love of God. This is actually very wrong and very damaging. In the pages of this blog we have discussed questions of this sort, and we will try to be even clearer about it as we go along.

Vaishnavas have an "I-Thou" philosophy. To cultivate love of God, we have to learn to see God everywhere. This is the purpose of the pravartaka stage. Actually, the books of Rupa Goswami, most especially Ujjvala-nīlamaṇi, are meant to help us develop an awareness of the reality of the phenomena of love. The world is not false, but it is the least false when we come into contact with love; the purer, more intense, the better.

The intensity of sexual desire is a clue to its importance. That is why I emphasize the translation "need" for prayojana. The intensity of sexual desire and its association in popular culture and in our minds with love are clues to its necessity in spiritual practice. When Krishna says in the Gita:

kleśo’dhikataras teṣām avyaktāsakta-cetasām |
avyaktā hi gatir duḥkhaṁ dehavadbhir avāpyate ||
The difficulties faced by those who are attached to the unmanifest are greater, because the path of the unmanifest is full of difficulties for embodied beings (12.5),
he should be understood as saying roughly the same thing that Jesus meant when he said, "If you cannot love the neighbor you can see, how can you love the God you cannot see?"

A serious warning must be made here: The mundane myths of romantic love often make us think that the first signs of reciprocation, or the first requital of desire, the first kiss, or the trip to the altar, represent the fulfilment of love. Certainly all these are great epiphanies, but this stage is called the stage of "practice" (sādhanā) for a reason.

Those who are serious about cultivating love must enter into a partnership of sādhanā: they must be sādhaka and sādhikā. They must be committed to yoga, as stated in the Gita: yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam "Yoga is expertise in action." It is a recognition that the act of love is itself a locus of the sacred that must be given primacy of place in spiritual life.

The culture of love is a spiritual culture when the lovers recognize each other as manifestations of God as the Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna. Expertise means learning to treat each other as such manifestations in the spirit of loving service. Believe me when I say that there is really no other way.

Need it be said that such a relationship is one of absolute, singular commitment? When one becomes expert in the art of love, the beloved is both the doorway to the Absolute and the Absolute itself. For traditional Vaishnavas trying to understand, this is analogous to guru-tattva. The beloved spiritual partner and soul-mate is a manifestation of guru-tattva.

For those who fear that this violates the principle of theistic dualism, it does not any more than the traditional concept of the guru's divinity and identity with God does.

Sexual love is only detrimental to spiritual life when sex desire (kāma or "lust") has not been mastered. Sex desire is not mastered through renunciation but through engagement, through mastering the art of giving pleasure. That is prema, not kāma. In prema, there is no longer any distinction between the giving and receiving of pleasure. Love is not ascetic, egotistical self-abnegation.

Become experts in the art of love.

As with the first stage, there is a danger on the sādhaka stage as well. Just as it is possible to remain self-absorbed in the pravartaka stage and not progress, it is possible to remain self-absorbed as a couple. This is especially true for those who become comfortable in a mundane householder life, even where that life is religious and God-centered. One must consolidate the gains of the sādhaka stage and move on.

Universal Love

The third level of prema is the same universal concept of love that all scriptures describe: seeing God present in all living beings, in all manifestations of the universe. This is called the siddha-daśā.

This is the mature stage of love in which worldly action truly becomes possible. It is not a stage of ecstatic indifference, but one of loving engagement. This is because through the practice of the sādhana in the dual stage, one becomes an ecstatic dynamo of love. In fact, there the expression "making love" is brought to fruition.

The idea of universal love is not one of preaching a sectarian dogma. Naturally, one cannot be free of a symbolic vocabulary to express the ideas and doctrines of love, nor can we be without a theology. But the framework of the theology must always be oriented to and shaped by the concept and practice of love. Therefore, the external forms of religion DO have utility, but they must be seen as a means and not as an end. The end is love, without which no process is of any value.

But because a Vaishnava has a utilitarian attitude towards dogmas, his field of action is unlimited. Like Arjuna at the end of the Gita, his path is clear because it is guided by love. Love can thus inform his attitude to politics, social service, or any other apparently worldly action.

But the most important action for any servant of Love is to transmit the art to others; for those who have learned the art by this method, that is the method that they must teach.

A last word. These three stages are progressive, but to some extent they must be practiced simultaneously. Why? Because there is no such thing as life in a vacuum. Singular, dual and plural exist concurrently as well as in sequence. The progressive development is outward from the self to the universe, but even in the pravartaka stage, awareness of the entire system has to be cultivated. And without the meditational techniques, self-discipline and psychic reordering of the pravartaka stage, the sādhaka and siddha stages will be doomed to disaster.

Shaped through and through by Gaura's love,
that is a Gaudiya Vaishnava.

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