The Religion of Love In The New Century: By Ken Knight
God is Love; Love is God.
This is a simple statement which most of us choose to ignore. Yet prema, the unconditioned love that is Brahman is at the core of our being. There are many who would argue that such statements are nonsense in the face of the daily reports of wars, disasters, corruption and greed that fill the media. Theologians come up with theories of ‘original sin’ and ‘samsara’ and ‘the problem of evil’, among many others, to explain the apparent lack of love in the world. Will the new decade produce the seeds of a brighter scene in the emerging century? Will this in turn awaken us to a century in which a spiritual Reality is the common vision?
I am not a prophet but this article will concentrate upon the understanding that the only true Reality is Love and I will use the words of the great teachers to show us the way. It is not my intention that those who promote the way of knowledge should now cease reading for jnana marga and bhakti marga, the ways of knowledge and love, are essential companions. Knowledge without love becomes dry, while love without knowledge stagnates:
“Love and knowledge are the same thing but the function of love is to join together and that of knowledge to tell, to illuminate. In love, knowledge is helpful. For strengthening knowledge, love is essential. In the absence of love, knowledge would not be powerful enough to influence people. Knowledge only helps us to decide what is right and wrong, but it cannot alter things; love can alter them. Without love knowledge is incomplete and without knowledge love is incomplete because, in the absence of knowledge, love would go away. If there is knowledge, then love would be maintained. As love increases, knowledge goes on increasing. Without knowledge, love is not expansive; and without love, knowledge is not allowed to play its full part.”
– “Good Company” by Shantanand Saraswati
It is necessary to hear both their songs as they entertain us on our journey. Although many writers will be used in this article, the voices of the advaitic Vedantin and the Sufi will be mostly represented for they, sometimes erroneously, are often seen as emphasising, respectively, the two ways of intellect and heart. However, from the above quotation by a modern advaitin, it is clear that it is an error to separate the ‘mind’ and the ‘heart’ into two separate arenas of our lives. The legacy of empirical science is to lock us into the ‘head bound’ world of theory. As useful as this may be to gain some understanding of the physical and mental worlds, it is of no help in understanding the true emotional and spiritual realms. ‘Mind’ spreads far beyond the limits of the ‘head’ and in harmonious union with the ‘heart’ it will introduce us to a consciousness beyond measurement.
Religious and Spiritual Experience
In the testimonies of thousands of ordinary people, testimonies that are held in the archives of the Alister Hardy, Religious Experience Research Centre, we read of the experience that comes unannounced, as it were, and which unites knowledge and love. The following brief extracts are taken from those archives and are part of my research of these experiences in relation to the advaitin teachings of Shankara.
“I was then aware of a curious light which seemed to grow up within me, and became stronger and more defined as the minutes passed, the ecstasy lasted over roughly three weeks. The main sensation was of being loved, a flood of sweetness of great strength, without any element of sentimentality or anything but itself. The description is quite inadequate. I also felt a unification of myself with the external world; I did not lose my own identity, yet all things and I somehow entered into each other; all things seemed to ‘speak’ to me.
The real point is that this is not a matter of adopting a set of intellectual pursuits, but of becoming simply a different person in essential nature, of being born again as if a deep well had opened up within the depths of the self, and within these depths and in the external world there is ‘something’ encountered with which a relationship is established, and this is not based on thought, although the intellect is satisfied, but upon emotion or love, as a child reacts to a parent.”
In this testimony there are elements of the teachings of all religions. All the extracts given here are from people who had no firm allegiance to any particular religion at the time of the experience. They may have taken up a religious life afterwards but this is by no means an inevitable outcome even though the quality of their lives becomes significantly more positive. Notice how in the above the writer says how the description of the experience is ‘inadequate’. This is because this kind of knowledge is beyond the level of words in the lower intellect; this is an experience of the higher intellect which is conjoined with love. This higher intellect is ever satisfied with such an experience for certainty arises from it, whereas the lower intellect is always searching for proof and definition.
This higher knowledge comes in a flash, as it were, because it transcends the level of language.
“Something happened suddenly and quite out of the blue, which I did not understand and still don’t understand, but the sheer wonder and ecstasy of it has never left me over the years…the feeling was as if I suddenly, that very moment, became aware of the answer to the mystery of life, and the knowledge of it made me want to shout with joy, it seemed at that moment, so simple that I wondered why everyone did not see it, and feel it and be bursting with joy. It was as if I had been dead until that moment and suddenly I was alive. Of course the experience did not last long, I could not have borne to live at such intensity for too long, but the memory has never faded.”
Time, as we know it in its linear form, is somehow transcended in these ‘flashes’. In the following extract we note how the experience seems to have taken much longer than the ‘earth-time’:
“My watch said 7:20am. I then looked up at the snows, but immediately lost all normal consciousness and became engulfed, as it were, in a great cloud of light and an ecstasy of Knowing and Understanding all the secrets of the universe, and a sense of the utmost bliss in the absolute Certainty of goodness and being in whom it seemed all were finally enclosed and yet in that enclosure, utterly liberated… Gradually this sense of ecstasy faded and slowly I came to my ordinary senses and perceived that I was sitting as usual and the mountains were as usual in daily beauty. I glanced at my watch and found that the minute hand had barely moved. My experience had taken seconds in earthly time but I seemed to have moved in eternity.”
This feeling of a ‘flash’ or of ‘direct experience’ of unity, knowledge and bliss, is commonly reported by the mystics of all traditions and brings the ‘certainty’ described above, it signals the change from the ‘tuition’ of the lower intellect to the ‘intuition’ of the higher; we may also describe this as going from ‘sight’ to ‘insight’. In the Bhagavad Gita this is described as going from jnana to vijnana. There are many other words used such as pratibha which has been described as follows:
“Pratibha otherwise known as para sam-vit or citi sakti in the agama, is the power of self-revelation or self illumination of the Supreme Spirit, with which it is essentially and eternally identical..”
-Dr. Gopinath Kaviraj
Notice that here it is claimed that the ‘flash’ not only reveals the Supreme Spirit but is identical with it. It is self-revelatory as indeed it must be, for in this day and age some person would soon take out a patent if it could be discovered how to create a process that would lead unerringly to the experience. What action can we take that, at least, may prepare the way for such an awakening? That which we can do is described by Arjuna who, in his moment of confusion about the right course of action, offers himself to Krishna and becomes silent, waiting for direction from the universal guru. Up until that point Krishna has been rather forceful with him, telling him to go and fight, but at Arjuna’s prostration and silence, Krishna suspends the activity of the battlefield and ‘smiles’. In that smile is the abundance of grace that then flows through the medium of the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita; the teaching of knowledge, action and devotion. With this in mind we can turn to the next experience:
“I sat down among the waving grasses on the turf and suddenly I was received into the embrace of some powerful force. This force seemed to welcome and enfold me and give me strength. It also seemed to smile invisibly.”
This person experienced this ‘subtle smile’ again later and the flavour of it seems to recall, in my own interpretation of the experience, the smile of Krishna. The smile would have about it the touch of sweetness and this is a key word for us to understand in the combination of knowledge and love. In Sanskrit it is ‘madhur’. Herbert, the mystic English poet writes of it in his poem ‘The Flower’, which describes his own spiritual experience aroused by the natural world:
“How fresh O Lord how sweet and clean are Thy returns!
“E’en as the flower in Spring.”
It would be interesting then to see if the word ‘sweetness’ appears in any of the testimonies. If you look back to the first experience you will read:
“The main sensation was of being loved, a flood of sweetness of great strength, without any element of sentimentality or anything but itself.”
It seems that the combination of knowledge and love of the unity behind all apparent differences, of its essential Reality, produces a feeling of sweetness, almost a smile of beloved understanding. The following comes from a conversation with Papa Ramdas who founded Anandashram in Kerala. He is talking about the continual repetition of the Name of God:
“Sugar is sweet. By nature it is sweet. It can never be bitter. So the Name is by nature sweet. It can never be bitter. But when this sweet sugar is put in the mouth of a man who is having some kind of fever, he finds it not sweet but bitter. He throws it away. That shows the man is diseased. Sugar is sweet. So when we are diseased with low desires, the Name does not taste sweet to us. We must go to the doctor who can cure us of that disease. That doctor is guru, who by his presence removes our disease of desires and gives us this nectarine Name and you find in that instant that it is sweet and sweetness comes to you as long as you are repeating the Name, until at last you become sweetness itself, not merely the taster of sweetness but sweetness itself. So you drink and drink and drink the Name until the drinker and the drink become one.”
– Papa Ramdas
Insight or Madness?
The above testimonies were in response to a question posed in the national press by Sir Alister Hardy who was a professor of Biology at Oxford, among many other academic appointments. His question was; ‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’ It is not surprising that many of those who responded ended their letters: ‘I have not spoken of this before.’ They feared, quite naturally so in the increasingly secular world of the second half of the last century, that they would be called mad. Indeed, maybe this would also be the case at many other times in history:
“The madness of love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings.”
– Plato (Phaedrus 245b)
In his allegory of the ‘cave’ Plato has his prisoner, who has been freed from a cave in which the only reality is the shadows of objects cast by firelight on to the cave wall, returning to the darkness of the cave out of compassion for his companions who are still chained there. They dismiss him and his madness when he tells them of the world of colour and light outside of the dark cave.
When Shibli, a famous Sufi of Baghdad, entered a bazaar the people said, “This is a madman.” He replied, “You think I am mad and I think you are sensible; may God increase my madness and your sense.”
Similarly Al-Yafi’I relates: ‘Ali ibn ‘Abdan knew a madman who wandered about in the daytime and passed the night in prayer. “How long,” he asked him, “hast thou been mad?” The reply was, “Ever since I knew.” ‘
The love in God inspires a wisdom not of the physical world and the impulse is to share that wisdom and love with others, however the fear of rejection can be overpowering. All spiritual teachers know of this. Boehme wrote:
“It is true the world will be apt enough to censure thee for a madman in walking contrary to it: And thou art not to be surprised if the children thereof laugh at thee, calling thee silly fool. For the way to the love of God is folly to the world, but is wisdom, to the children of God. Whenever the world perceiveth this holy fire in God’s children, it concludeth immediately that they are turned to fools, and are beside themselves. But to the children of God, that which is despised of the world is the greatest treasure.”
Teachings from the Past
The three qualities of Nature, gunas in the the ancient traditions of Vedanta, are sattva, rajas and tamas. These qualities may be observed in the flow of the day: tamas dominates the night, rajas the day and the finer quality of sattva arises at the twilight times. You can hear the song of the birds soften their note as dusk appears; maybe they feel the rise of sattva. In the context of this brief article no further comment on their origins will be made except to say that they are part of a highly refined observation of the subtle and gross universe around and within us. In the present era the mind of mankind is closed and hardened against words of Truth. There is a grasping and holding onto ideas and things and so we become bound in the holding, binding quality of tamas. The darkness of tamas veils the light and so the discriminating power of the faculty of buddhi is unable to function correctly. The result is that the ceaseless activity of rajas powers the roving mind, manas, which is kept in ceaseless activity.
Fortunately, there is still the sattvic light available to the buddhi which will reflect the True Light that ‘Lighteth every Man that cometh into the world’ as St John describes it. Sattva brings a feeling of stillness, light and consciousness, and in the finest state of the human being this light dominates in the heart. The heart is then open and a flow of love towards that which is in view will be experienced. The buddhi is now full and able to hold the individual in the feeling of unity. This easy state of co-ordination of intellect and heart is best described by a ten-year old pupil in my class many years ago. We were discussing law and he said, “I understand, Truth is like a feather.” Asked what he meant he continued, “When I am lying the words are heavy to speak but when I am speaking the truth they are like a feather.” He had discovered a great secret of life. This is the natural state and it would appear that the above testimonies are confirmation of this natural state.
How this moment of religious or spiritual experience of love is to be interpreted will depend upon the individual. Although the feeling may be the same in essence in each of us as a human being, the daily reality of each one’s experience will result in different expressions. Even the wise may fail to acknowledge the aptness of a particular individual’s expression of the love they feel for the Supreme, for Rumi tells the following story:
“Moses saw a shepherd on the way saying, “O Lord who choosest as Thou wilt. Where art Thou that I may serve Thee and sew Thy shoes, comb Thy hair? That I may wash Thy clothes and kill Thy lice and bring milk to Thee O worshipful One; that I may kiss Thy little hand and rub Thy little feet and sweep Thy little room at bed-time.”
On hearing these foolish words, Moses said,” Man, to whom are you speaking? What a babble! What blasphemy and raving! Stuff some cotton in your mouth! Truly the friendship of a fool is enmity: the High God is not in want of suchlike service.”
The shepherd rent his garment, heaved a sigh, and took his way into the wilderness. Then came to Moses a revelation: “You have parted My servant from Me. Were you sent as a prophet to unite or were you sent to sever? I have given everyone a particular mode of worship. I have given everyone a particular form of expression. The idiom of Hindustan is excellent for Hindus, the idiom of Sind is excellent for the people of Sind. I look not at tongue and speech, I look at spirit and the inward feeling. I look into the heart to see if it be lowly, though the words uttered be not lowly. Enough of phrases and conceits and metaphors! I want burning, burning: become familiar with that burning! Light up the fire of love in thy soul, burn all thought and expression away! The religion of love is apart from all religions. The lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”
-Mathnavi Vol.II 1720-1738
As the new decade introduces us to the new century it is imperative that the people of religion look to the true light of Love in their hearts so that the walls of separation, ignorance and bigotry are burned to ashes. This does not mean that each has to relinquish his or her chosen form of religious practice for if we are to understand Rumi correctly, this mode of practice is God-given and being such is the experience of God Itself. By pursuing the religion of the heart, the source of light will fulfil the Will of God which surely must be unity in all, for all.
In advaita this means that we ‘come out of that which we are not’ by the use of correct discrimination. This will require the dissolution, or the burning in the terminology of the Sufi, of the ego. To renounce all the superimpositions that we place upon the Self, the ‘I am’ as it is sometimes called. (The ‘I am’, aham in Sanskrit, may be understood as an unqualified ‘feeling of existence.’) Because we become attached, through ignorance of our true nature, to the ebb and flow of the creation through thinking or speaking such sentences as : ‘I am this’, ‘I like this,’ or ‘I do not like that’, then we create an untrue picture of ourselves, an ego. This ego is much better described by the Sanskrit word ahammkara, which can be translated as ‘I am the person performing an action’ or ‘I am identified with the creation.’ So the Self which is ever free and unattached appears limited by the function being performed. For example one may say, ‘I am designing a house, I am an architect, I am a good architect or I am a bad architect.’ The ‘I am’ is unchanged by the qualified function. When this ‘death’ of the ego has taken place, then the duality that this ignorance produces will pass and certainty in unity is revealed. This is called fana by the Sufis and is described by Rumi as follows:
“What is to be done, O Moslems?
For I do not recognise myself.
I am neither Christian nor Jew,
Nor Jabr nor Moslem.
I am not of the East, nor of the West,
Nor of the land nor of the sea.
My place is placeless,
My trace is traceless;
‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong
To the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away,
I have seen the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see,
One I call.
He is the first, He is the last,
He is the outward, He is the inward;
. I am intoxicated with Love’s cup.”
For the Vedantin this state is well described by the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
“As a man, fully embraced by his beloved wife, does not know anything at all, either external or internal, so does the infinite being, (the self), fully embraced by the Supreme Self, not know anything at all, either internal or external. That is his form in which all objects of desire have attained and are but the Self which is free from desire and devoid of grief.”
– B.U. 4.iii.21
In the new century then, we must wake up to the signs around us and listen to the wisdom of all, past and present. If, through grace, we are given a moment of insight then we are to share that with all who will listen. Those who do not listen now will come to the light in due course for that is the ultimate will of God. If we feel harassed by the difficulties encountered upon our journey we must remember that these difficulties themselves are a wake-up call. Knowledge and Love combine to form the condition of para-bhakti as described by the words of Rumi and the Upanishad above. Papa Ramdas gives us a concise summary:
“Bhakti is the mother. In the womb of Bhakti, jnana is born. They must go together. They say, Bhakti is the root, vairagya (renunciation) is the tree, jnana is the flower and para-bhakti is the fruit. The juice of para-bhakti is Brahmananda. That joy is the highest. In every movement there is joy, joy, joy. The foundation is jnana, the superstructure is karma and the dome is para-bhakti. These three comprise the one temple of God.”
There are abundant societies and groups in our communities that have arisen to serve the needs of all the various approaches to the one true reality; far more so than forty years ago. Will this availability increase in the emerging century? If those present now who have ears to hear are obedient to what is heard, then yes, we will be able to echo Mary and say, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The only outcome of Love is service and by our own obedience to any call that we may have, we will be serving the children of this new century. May the final words be from the past but yet which enlighten us in our times:
“Many are the means described for the attainment of the highest good, such as love, performance of duty, self-control, truthfulness, sacrifices, gifts, austerity, charity, vows, observances of moral precepts. I could name more. But of all I could name, verily love is the highest; love and devotion that make one forgetful of everything else, love that unites the lover with me. What ineffable joy does one find through love of me, the blissful Self! Once that joy is realised, all earthly pleasures fade into nothingness.”
– Srimad Bhagavatam XI. viii.
The future begins now.
Ken Knight is the Chairman of the London Group of the Alister Hardy Society that holds five meetings a year. At these meetings a wide variety of speakers present their work and insights in the field of science and religion.
If anyone is interested in learning more of these meetings then please contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The image is taken by Berit Ellingsen in Pasadena, California, 2000.