Divine Love in Hinduism


In Hindu tradition, One Divine Reality underlies all that exists, and all that exists is a manifestation of that Reality. From the point of view of the bhakti, or devotional, strand of Hinduism, this Reality is a personal Lord who loves the beings who are the Divine’s manifestations. Love is the driving force behind this manifestation, for love requires multiplicity— both as lover and beloved. Human beings come into being so that they may enter into a relationship of Divine Love—loving and loved by God. This Supreme Reality or Spirit is described in the Kena Upanishad as the “the end of love’s longing” (Mascaro 1965, 53).

According to the Bhagavad Gita, the Supreme Spirit or God loves human beings impartially, with a universal benevolence directed toward all. That Divine Love is active, responding to the needs of embodied individuals, even to the point that God takes on an incarnate form to aid those who suffer danger or deprivation. According to later bhakti literature, this Divine Love is not disinterested or without expectation, but rather is characterized by ardor and a great desire to be loved in return. It is not easy for humans to love the disembodied or unmanifest, and so the One Reality takes myriad forms to facilitate humans’ ability to respond in love. As Shiva, the Devi, or one of Vishnu’s incarnations, the Supreme Spirit reaches out in a deeply personal and specific way to woo each human soul.

The narratives that surround Vishnu’s incarnation as Krishna reveal the nature of this Divine Love. God longs to be loved by the human as much as humans long for God’s love. This love partakes of the power, intensity, and intimacy of erotic love, and is marked by a desire for that union, which is the closest possible encounter of two beings. Kama or human erotic love is celebrated in Hinduism, particularly in the marital context, as an appropriate and beautiful part of embodied existence.

Divine Love is prema, a pure form of love that is freely given, standing outside of the dharmic realm of obligation, social expectation and reproduction. Prema is more akin to illicit romantic love, ready to risk all to be in the presence of the beloved. It is love for love’s sake alone—a love that can take over the human lover, sweep away all distinction in the ecstasy of union, and also fill the soul with intense longing during separation.

Each soul experiences God as his/her own beloved, an experience depicted in the rasa dance of Krishna with the gopis (cowherding women) of his village. At the sound of his flute playing in the forest, the gopis drop everything and form a circle around him. There each one simultaneously experiences the youthful Lord as if he were dancing with her alone—and so it is with the human soul. Divine Love is experienced as highly particular, although not exclusive, because it is directed in this same way toward all souls. The purpose of human life is to participate in this lila (divine drama) of Divine Love, a love that comes fully into being only when human lover and divine Beloved are finally conjoined in love.

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