Note: I do not write this as a neutral academic or armchair philosopher, but as one who – formerly having seemed to come to the limits of intellect and science - plunged into the mysterious aspects of existence and spirituality deeply with heart and soul. What I experienced - not least with an Indian swami and later Sathya Sai Baba and caused me eventually to emerge with an improved understanding of what spirituality is - and what it is not - a liberating life-enhancing overall result for me, involving a rejection of the validity of the way most of the key ideas of these Indian doctrines and how their swamis use them.
THE NATURE OF LOVE – UNCONDITIONAL OR LIMITED
Can there be such a thing as ‘eternal’ love? If so, can it be ‘unconditional’ and ‘totally selfless’? Eternal love is said to be unchanging, without boundaries and constantly undiminished. The idea is widely found in literature and the arts and is not limited to religion, of course… but it has played a major role in some religions and is a major part of the attraction of many religious sects and cults. What is called true love, pure love, unbounded love,and unselfish love in many cultural connections becomes eternal love in some religions. This eternal love soon comes to have little or nothing to do with a relationship between persons, but means the love that any genuine devotee must have for God and the supposed love God has for mankind.
Love as 'worldly' or 'spiritual'
This allegedly 'eternal' love is contrasted with ‘worldly' love which includes love for one’s nearest and dearest, love of all manner of worldly entities – one’s country, one’s homeland, one’s society and culture, one’s possessions and the love of living things or nature. 'Worldly' love is the attraction to - or deep respect for - anything in one’s earthly life to which one is personally attached. It is therefore said to be ‘conditional love’ which means not absolute, undying love but love dependent on the fulfillment of at least some conditions. Worldly love’ is regarded as inferior to ‘spiritual love’, being seen as self-centered, whether as ‘mere’ carnal love, temporal, impure or tainted by desires for selfish satisfaction. Self love is often looked down upon as of the lowest kind, overlooking the fact that in real life some forms of 'love' of oneself are unavoidable and a necessary prerequisite for a healthy outlook, self-respect and positive self expression.
The essence of the experience of love probably cannot be adequately put into words or measured in any sensible way. In its ecstatic qualities and overwhelming expressions it may seem somehow to transcend time and space. This idea of transcendent love – which is apparently found in all cultures - is called on to try to express the joy and wonder experienced. In short, the idea of eternal love depends entirely on the existence of some transcendent (unperceived) ‘spiritual’ realm or being - such as heaven, God in Divine Unity, or perhaps in an afterlife/resurrection of some kind somewhere. Otherwise the love experience must end naturally with the end of life. Love is essential to any life worth living (i.e. or ‘real’ life in this world); it is a vital energy which cannot be made to order or enforced in any way. Those who believe that the only real life is an afterlife apparently cannot give any understandable account of the expression that such eternal love takes there or how it prevails there and so on. Instead, they fall back on such words as it being ‘inexpressibly beyond our comprehension’ or it is ‘God’s inscrutable and incomprehensible nature’.
Anyone with some degree of historical and cultural knowledge must know that the idea of love has been used to defend the most indefensible immorality… some few better known examples are ‘love of the Arian race’, ‘love of Uncle Joe Stalin’, and ‘love of God’ as in the brutal Crusades, the ghastly Catholic Inquisition and nowadays in supposedly ‘Islamic’ terrorist suicide bombings of innocents. In short, the idea of love is annexed by all manner of social, political, and religious orders to their various worldly purposes whereby they try to exercise control over the individual and the social order.
In any culture, the idea of ‘love’ is intertwined with many other ideas and the words used to describe it are also many and varied in the different languages. These words and ideas have a huge attraction to people everywhere and play a major role in their entire view of the world and the cosmos. Because of this, all manner of other interests are concerned to bend the variety of ideas of love and related values to their own agendas. These words and ideas set common ideals or measures for what ‘love’ is, but such measures are unreliable, incomplete, and are further tainted by desires to obtain social control and exercise power over people. Yet more tricky, general ideas and words have a way of bewitching the mind into missing the particular... wrongly categorizing unique circumstances under catch-all and thus vague terms. This makes the use of general terms in the 'language of love' prey to all manner of confusion and hence possible manipulation by those with interests in power and control of other to advance or defend.
When people come to believe in pure eternal love, then their own actual love for whoever or whatever – even when it is of a high degree of selflessness and genuine caring sacrifice - necessarily feels inferior. This is because love invariably meets hurdles and setbacks, people sooner or later are beset by disappointments, shortcomings and even impossible challenges in love. For example, love as total forgiveness is hard to conceive as fully possible where some of the most horrendous crimes are involved, especially where the perpetrators refuse to atone in any way and even crow about their crimes. Though some people claim to achieve it, one wonders if this is really true or if they feel obliged to try to forgive totally, or even simply want to enhance their self-images.
Love for the intangible God as solace - and the price
People who experience great deprivations and sufferings of one kind and another turn to religion for solace. Feeling the world turned against them, having lost the experience of being loved (which they once knew in some form, such as in their mother’s love) they seek some kind of replacement. Thus they engender a belief in unconditional love of an abstract, otherworldly and intangible kind and try to convince themselves that they are at least loved by God and that they can love God back. There is an inconsistency in this, however, for the same God must have ordained their sufferings… so they rationalize this by the idea that God made them suffer so they should turn to him, from whom the greatest rewards will come, but not until after death. However one would wish that their hopes would be fulfilled, there is something very unrealistic and pathetic about living like this. The relative paradise of parental love in childhood is recreated in the mind, but for all intents and purposes paradise is lost and doubtless never regained in living experience by such an effort of belief. Or in cases where forgiveness is necessary for one’s own healing, as for victims of torture, is that a totally selfless forgiveness or necessary for the regeneration of healthy self respect?
Thus, by setting up an impossible standard of TOTAL selflessness without any return, purity of love in every thought, word and deed and so on, religions - and their various warring sects and cults – make human shortcomings into sins in addition to any natural guilt a person may feel. One then atones for sin by some ritual, while setting right whatever one can repair in actual living is the only sensible way. All this abstract moralism destroys the integrity and healthy self-perception and wholeness of a person… thus becoming a powerful expression of the very opposite of loving care. It creates many ills from emotional insecurity, self-denigration, and self punishment, even to martyrdom.
Love is regarded as either selfish or selfless and respectively unconditional or conditional, pure or tainted, superior or inferior and essentially good or bad. Religions which promote ‘eternal’ love try to make love into something which it is not. Religions almost always distort the nature of human love – which is temporal and to at least some degree necessarily limited and conditional at the very best. By calling it worldly and measuring it against their imagined unconditional, unending, and supposedly ‘divine’ love in some fabricated realm, they create an inner split between a person's immediate self-insight and the abstract conscience. This is a form of self alienation which can and does often lead on into extremes of self-punishment, self-denial of life necessities, monkish and renunciate behaviour and other extremes of up to and including martyrdom. That is a severe price exacted by abstractions on the troubled human being.
Famously, some religions like Roman Catholicism invented unconditional, unending, total, and supposedly ‘demonic’ hate which leads to ‘eternal hell’… probably because they will not believe anything else can explain the causal nature of events which they call evil. Having made God the ultimate expression of ‘Good’, they have to explain away the bad as ‘Evil’, embodied in Satan. These ideas also provide a lever to authoritarian priesthoods and gurus who set themselves up as God’s representative on earth with unlimited power to spread 'love' (prema in Hinduism) and to absolve sins. They may give the promise of paradise or even threaten eternal hell (stick to the carrot), which may be done in the subtle guise of teaching the way to experience union with the divine self or to attain freedom from eternal rounds on the wheel of rebirth and suffering.