December 20, 2012

The Nature of Love, Part 5: Hindu, Vedic, and Tantric Concepts of Love

Last time in Part 4 of this series, I talked about Buddhist and Daoist concepts about love. This time we will look at Indian traditions, and discuss the views of love in Hinduism, Vedic religions, and Tantra.

Whenever people look into the beliefs about love from various traditions, the culture of India inevitably comes up, especially its infamous text, the Kama Sutra (कामसूत्र). India has several native traditions that all have quite a bit to say about the idea of love - Hinduism, the Vedic religion, and Tantra. The Kama Sutra is part of both the Vedic and Hindu traditions, and is about much more than just love and sex, as it is incorrectly assumed in the West. Not only does this text include many aspects of love beyond the sexual, but the study of love in Indian culture goes much further and deeper than merely what is presented in this text.

As an aside, it's worth noting the differences between Hinduism and the Vedic religion. Hinduism is a more modern religion, relatively speaking, that grew out of the more ancient Vedic religion. The Vedic religion's origins are lost to time, as it has been practiced in India since recorded history. The Vedic religion was strictly based on the Vedas and was essentially monotheistic, though it contained many Devas, which were like spirits or forces of nature. Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and godesses, and supplements the Vedas with many other scriptures. But in modern times, the two have virtually merged into one religion, though there are still those that practice the Vedic religion in a more pure form.


In Hinduism, love is categorized into two main types, prem (प्रेम) and kāma (काम). Prem is an unconditional, almost divine form of love. It expects one to give up all selfishness and not expect a single thing back from the object of one's love. The love between many of the Hindu gods and goddesses falls into the category, but it can also be present between humans, or humans and deities. By contrast, kāma is sexual, romantic love. It is symbolized by the god Kāmadeva. Unlike in Abrahamic religions, the Hindu religion does not stigmatize sexuality. In fact, kāma is considered to be one of the four goals in life (the other three being responsibility, reputations, and salvation). Kāma is considered to be more than just a feeling or emotion, but rather a physical aura around the body composed of desire, which is discussed almost as if it is a tangible, energetic substance.


In Vedic traditions, love is categorized as a set of rasa (रस), which literally means "juice" or "essence", but carries the connotation of a "relationship" or "flavor". So in effect, rasa are the different flavors of a relationship, the essence of what makes them different from one another. There are five different rasa, though they are not strictly "categories", since each one includes the previous ones.

Santa-rati (reverance, neutral) - Reverence does not require any interaction with the person of your affection, or even their knowledge. It is a passive form of admiration, much like how one might look up to a mentor, a teacher, or even a celebrity.

Prita-rati (service) - Service refers to service that one is compelled to do out of love or admiration. It does not include service done for money or out of fear. The service rasa includes the previous one, reverence.

Preyo-rati (friendship) - A friendship is the next step in the evolution of a relationship, and therefore it contains both the service and reverence rasa.

Vatsalya-rati (parental) - Parental rasa is most easily understood as a parent's affection for their children, but it is not limited to that. People can feel the same way for non-biological children, or even the children of other people. But to take the concept even further, a couple can feel parental rasa for each other as well, as it is not limited purely to the adult-child paradigm. It has more to do with the type of love one feels, not the outward appearance of the relationship itself. Like all the rasa, this one includes the rasa of reverence, service, and friendship. Note that in most Western cultures, it is popular idea that a parental relationship should be mutually exclusive with a friendship relationship, because a friend cannot make an effective parent, and vice versa. But in Eastern traditions, not only is this encouraged, it is considered to be a necessity of a healthy relationship.

Madhurya-rati (conjugal, sexual) - A conjugal rasa is a sexual relationship, but specifically one that also includes and is built upon the reverence, service, friendship, and parental rasa. This rasa implies an exclusive relationship in terms of intimacy. Again, popular Western thought treats the combination of parental and conjugal rasa as ranging from merely undesired to outright disturbing. But keep in mind that this is referring to the type of love one feels for the other, not an actual biological relationship. It is, by no means, encouraging or insinuating a conjugal relationship between a parent and a child. What it is saying, is that in order to have a healthy conjugal relationship with someone, you must care for them at a deep level, like a parent would to a child, and they must feel the same for you. For some people, this can be a difficult concept to accept within the bounds of Western social taboos.

In addition to these five primary rasa, there are seven secondary rasa. They are laughter, astonishment, heroism, pity, anger, fear, and ghastliness. The secondary rasa can serve multiple purposes. They can show up and complement the five primary rasa in order to enhance them, such as laughter enhancing a sexual encounter to create a stronger bond between partners. Or they can overtake one or more of the primary rasa and create an undesired situation, either due to being overtaken by a fear or by one of the five primary rasa being disrupted or out of balance. A classic example of this can be found in Romeo and Juliet, where conjugal rasa is disrupted, which results in a secondary rasa, ghastliness, manifesting.

The rasa theory goes much deeper than what is presented here, and includes all sorts of emotions beyond just love. A deeper analysis and discussion of the theory, however, is beyond the scope of this article.


The Tantric religion was an outgrowth of the Vedic religion, and therefore shares the same theory of the five rasas. However, they do differ in their goals of what they want to do with those concepts. Though they are strongly related, the two traditions are by no means identical. In fact, some orthodox Vedic groups had great animosity for Tantra. Some forms of Tantra were created not in the spirit of rejecting Vedic though, but rather in an attempt to simplify them and make them more accessible to the every day lives of the general population. However, as a result of these changes, many Vedic practitioners rejected the authority of the Tantric texts.

One place where the traditions differ, is that Vedic ideas of love are centered around people, and how to create better and higher quality relationships between them. The Tantric tradition takes this idea one step further, and adds a type of love that we haven't come across before (except for a brief hint of it while discussing Christian Mysticism) - the idea of divine erotic love. This concept treads on ground that is considered taboo in most popular Western religions, that of mixing the sacred (God) and the erotic (sexual). But Tantra is ultimately about using prana (प्राण) to achieve all sorts of goals, be they material or spiritual. Sexuality is no different in this regard. Tantra teaches that sexuality can be a doorway and a path to communing with the divine, and to achieving higher levels of spiritual existence. A more detailed description of how this is done will be discussed in a later article in this series.

In Part 6, we will look at modern Western theories on love and the potentially unifying theory of the Triangle of Love.


Post a Comment