Moving From Conditional Love to Selfless Love

written by Anjula September 16, 2013

In Buddhism, kama is sensuous love. The vast majority believe it to be an obstacle on the path to enlightenment, perceiving it as selfish. Karuna is compassion and mercy, which reduces the suffering of others. It is complementary to wisdom, and is necessary for enlightenment. Advesa and metta are benevolent love. This love is unconditional and requires considerable self-acceptance. This is very different from our common conceptions of love, which are often confused with attachment and sexual desire, and usually connected to self-interests.

Instead, in Buddhism it refers to detachment and unselfish interest in others’ welfare.  The Bodhisattva ideal in Tibetan Buddhism involves the complete renunciation of oneself, in order to take on the burden of a suffering world. The strongest motivation one has in order to take the path of the Bodhisattva is the idea of salvation within unselfish love for others.

In Hinduism kama is pleasurable, sexual love, personified by the god Kama. For many Hindu schools it is the third end in life.  In contrast to kama, prema or prem refers to elevated love. Love in Hinduism is sacrament. It preaches that one gives up selfishness in love, not expecting anything in return.  Bhakti, when translated literally from Sanskrit to English, means “share” or “participate.” However, the word is more widely understood to mean devotion. Bhakti is the emphasis on a personal, emotional relationship with a deity.

Historically, ideas of bhakti stretch back to the reformation period of Hinduism, circa 500 – 200 BCE. Before that, Hinduism was marked by Vedic rituals, which focused on worldly things such as sons, gold, and rain. During the reformation period, these kinds of rituals were criticized. Hindus began to seek answers via internalized rituals such as yoga and asceticism. Through yoga and asceticism, one is able to turn oneself into the ritual by using the body as a tool.


The following period, from circa 200 BCE – 1100 CE, is known as Classical Hinduism. This is the period in which the idea of bhakti became crystallized. One of the most important and widely known sources for this concept is the Bhagavad Gita, a portion of the Mahabharata text which originated during the period of Classical Hinduism. The Gita, expounds upon the ideas through the story of the relationship between the warrior, Arjuna, and the god, Krishna. The Gita unequivocally shifts the emphasis away from Vedic ritual, and names bhakti as the correct way to honor the gods. It is the core message of the Gita.

In the Gita, bhakti is a universal way to understand Krishna, and to participate in the path to liberation. It is universal because, whereas not everyone can be karmically or mentally perfect, everybody can love.  

So how does one love a god? The idea of bhakti carries with it a certain contradiction, in the sense that it questions whether gods are imminent or eminent. How is it possible for a human to have a personal relationship with the divine? How can human emotion bring the transcendental closer? These questions bring up an important concept regarding the theory and practice of bhakti. This is the concept of kama vs. prema.

Both kama and prema are ideas of love, but they are very distinct. Kama is worldly love, metaphorically associated with marriage, procreation, and social order. Thus it implies attachment to the beloved, and a sense of ownership. Kama aims at self-satisfaction, is contractual and stable, but can be lost if expectations are not met. Kama is socially useful love, typically understood as the love shared by a man and his wife.

Prema, on the other hand, is divine, self-less love. Kama is metaphorically associated with illicit love affairs, and has no other goal than pleasure. Prema only seeks to serve the beloved, and will forego self-satisfaction to do so. Prema is sacrificial, uncertain, unrestrained, and has no expectations. Prema is the love shared between deity and devotee through bhakti, the most well-known example of which is the affair between the god Krishna and his human lover, Rhada. Although bhakti is most commonly associated with devotion to Krishna, other gods can be the objects of devotion as well.

Bhakti yoga is based on the principle that Love is God and God is Love.  In Bhakti yoga, everything is a manifestation of the divine, and all else is meaningless, including the Ego.  Bhakti Yoga, also know as ‘devotional yoga’, ‘the yoga of universal love’, and even ‘the yoga of surrender to God’ all comes back to LOVE.

This is the Yoga of Universal Love, of self-offering to the Supreme… it is often referred to as the ‘yoga of devotion’. The Bhakti, through overflowing and indiscriminate, self-less love, breaks the bonds of the ego and experiences the unity of all things.


Bhakti yoga is the yoga of Saints and wondrous souls! It is exemplified by the ‘bhakti-drenched’ saints of both Southern and Northern India (of whom the Bengali Saint, Ananda Mayi Ma, was one of the most famous), whose minds were ceaselessly attached to thoughts of love for, and devotion to the Divine.


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