A Hindu guide to love

Spencer Platt GETTY IMAGES   A “love lock” is viewed on the Brooklyn Bridge, one of thousands that have been … Continued

Spencer Platt



A “love lock” is viewed on the Brooklyn Bridge, one of thousands that have been placed along the bridge recently on February 13, 2013 in New York City. The phenomenon has gained followers in recent years as couples seek to publicly mark weddings, engagements, and anniversaries in a permanent way. Besides New York, “love locks” can be found on public monuments and bridges in Venice, St. Petersburg and Paris amongst other cities.


Florists, confectioners, jewelers, and restaurateurs are gearing up for their annual economic stimulus.  And who can begrudge an economic stimulus program–this year estimated at $18.6 billion— that does not originate inside the Washington beltway?  Still, I imagine that amorous professions on Valentine’s Day hardly honor its eponymous saint, and while Hindus may sympathize with fellow pluralistic pagans whose celebration of Lupercalia in mid-February was supplanted a millennia ago, what do we make of this cultural export that will compel folks in India to spend nearly millions on flowers and chocolates on this day alone.

Does the land that gave the world the Kama Sutras really need the lessons of V-Day?  Sure, Hindus allow themselves kama, or creative desires and pleasure, as an acceptable goal of life, though a lower one than that of moksha, or ultimate liberation.  Hindus even have powerful stories of Kamadeva, or the Lord of Love, enlivening their traditions, so where’s the need for Cupid?

Lest one stop reading the bitter words of a Valentine grinch here, allow me to offer that I bought my wife a car today.  Sure it was a needed vehicle–the timing even coincidental–but what a happy coincidence!  Declarations of love have their own manifestations, and four wheels with heated seats and a moonroof never hurt.

But it seems we are forever consigned to fighting against the tide of rampant commercialization to remember the “meaning” of our most raucous festivals: the Christmas spirit, Valentine’s Day, Lent, and in my home, Diwali, Holi, and Navaratri.  And so, this day given to love is just the right time to contemplate the “meaning” of love and remember a monk whose life personifies that spirit–another apostle of love.

Call him the patron saint of three million Hindu Americans, Swami Vivekananda’s words are ubiquitous these days as our inboxes fill up with invitations to celebrate his 150 year birth anniversary in our community temples, interfaith events and homes.  It was his stirring address at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 that catapulted the Hindu tradition–long suppressed after 1,500 years of Islamic conquests and British rule–into the pantheon of the major religions once again.  His articulation of the Hindu schools of yoga, and the very essence of pluralism, and mutual respect–not tolerance alone–among religions paved a path for Hindu philosophy traveled later by Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and many others.

“Life itself is love,” said the Swami. “All expansion is life, all contraction is death.  All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction and love is therefore the only law of life.”

It was during his time in the prosperous West that Vivekananda truly felt the contrast of his own nation mired in poverty, enslaved to foreign masters and seemingly blind to its own wondrous spiritual legacy.  Love imbued Vivekananda’s collected works authored during his American sojourn as he implored 300 million Indians back home to cultivate a new consciousness: seva, or selfless service to others, is the highest profession of love.

This concept of service, always at the core of Hindu teaching, is dormant in contemporary life, though it was rejuvenated by cadres of Indians as they began to take responsibility for their depressing circumstances and shake off the chains of caste and gender discrimination impeding their rise.

“It is love and love alone that I preach, and I base my teaching on the great vedantic truth of the sameness and omnipresence of the soul of the universe,” he wrote, explaining that witnessing pure consciousness, or truth, in every being, is the essence of the Vedas, the most voluminous and significant of the Hindu scriptures.  Look beyond differences in gender, caste, and religion, he would demand, to behold the same divinity shining forth in every being.  As one of his American disciples said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself, because your neighbor is your self.”

It was this call to action, “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached,” that inspired his contemporaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, whose civil disobedience was just bearing fruit in South Africa, and many other leaders of the Indian independence movement.  Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet, one of the intellectual founts of the movement famously said, “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda.”

So mark Valentine’s Day we will, for who can turn their back on chocolate and flowers or a new car?  But even as we celebrate kama, we cannot forget our karma yoga–selfless service without attachment to results; in our love for our spouses, families, and friends, let’s not forget to love our neighbor.  I’m sure the monks–both St. Valentine and Swami Vivekananda–would agree.

Dr. Shukla is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation and an Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.  Views expressed here are his own.


Read More On Faith and Valentine’s Day:


Kathryn Skaggs: A Mormon guide to love

Arsalan Iftikhar: A Muslim guide to love

Deepak Chopra: A seeker’s guide to love

Libby Anne: An atheist guide to love

Aseem Shukla: A Hindu guide to love

Mark Driscoll: A Christian guide to love

Danielle Bean: A Catholic guide to love

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  • tejmalkijai

    Love is God; God is Love. Worldly love expects return, while Divine love is selfless.

    Selfishness is Lovelessness, Loveliness is Selflessness. Indian scriptures long taught, “Dharma, Artha, Kaama, Moksha”. The Kaama in Hinduism have a diverse meaning apart from the carnal pleasure. It also sees a desire for other worldly longings to make your life happy, including a ceiling on their desires, i.e. practice moderation, that is why, Dharma (righteousness) is the first of the four main pillears of the goal of worldly life in our Divine human journey. Unfortunately the Western theologists have yet the grasp and evolve the deeper spiritual concept of life, which leads to the difficulty of assimilation of the wider Hindu concept of “Life”.

  • tejmalkijai

    Come back to enlighten on the “Four Pillars” of the goal of life in Hinduism, i.e, “Dharma (Righteousness), Artha (Wealth), Kaama (Desires of worldly material things including a duty for procreation, wherein the carnal exercise is inclusive), Moksha (Liberation or Self-Consciousness)”.

    Please permit me a little further elaboration on “Moksha”, which in our esteemed Western parlace is yet to develop. It is this last concept of “Spiritual Transformation” that starkly differs philosophically between the Dharmic Religions and Abrahamic Religions”. This also makes it difficult to understand for them and I noted in the most elite and Christian pedantic circles brushing aside Hinduism as “too complicated” instead of attempting to understand it. It is important, not that Hinduism needs proselytisation, but because it is the most important or one of the most important causes of world unrest. All the Abrahamic religionist elites are busy fiercely in the mayhem on the ground of the unfortunate hate generated by this mindless incessant hate in between them and the rest…

    Hence understanding these “Four Pillars of Life” in Hinduism is very important for bringing peace, love, brotherhood and unity.

  • tejmalkijai

    Erratum in second comment: “All the Abrahamic religionist elites are busy fiercely in the mayhem on the ground of the unfortunate hate generated by this mindless incessant hate in between them and the rest…”

    Please read: “All the Abrahamic religionist elites are busy fiercely in the mayhem on the ground of the unfortunate hate generated by this mindless incessant comptitive predatory proselytisation in between them and the rest…” The amount of resources wasted in this mindless exercise is mind boggling, while if one compare the need for tha same invaluable resources to feed, cloth and medical management, it certainly shame our Human Rights and Civilisational concepts of modern sociology.

  • stamma

    A pointless article! Just let down your hair and have fun. Is it a misplaced, unnecessary, inferiority complex (and self-doubt) that lies at the bottom of such convoluted expressions of what is obviously some grudge.

  • vkurien

    pretty stupid comment. if you look at wapo’s website, you will see that it was one of the several articles providing various viewpoints and this clearly means he was asked to write the piece. clearly you have no idea how the media functions or assigned articles get written.