Love – Through the Lens of Religious Genius

Question for consideration

Each cluster of texts is comprised of contributions from authors of different religious tradition. Each text has a brief commentary by a scholar and one or two questions to assist you in focusing on its particular approach to the theme under discussion.

It is recommended for those not so familiar with text study that each of the texts is read guided by the accompanying question or questions. However, advanced readers may not need the guidance and may prefer to encounter the texts without the mediation of the questions.

After reading the individual texts, consider the following general questions in relation to the theme.

For each cluster of texts on a particular theme ask the following questions:

1. In what way do each of the texts reflect a unique cultural/ socio-religious setting and to what extent are they reflective of a universal human quest for meaning?

2. What unique contribution to our understanding of the theme does each text make? Can the unique contributions resonate with followers of another religious tradition?

3. Identify any understandings of the theme that are common to all the selected texts. Do these understandings appear more prominent in one tradition than in another or are they likely to resonate equally across all traditions?

4. How do these texts enhance your appreciation of their authors as ‘religious geniuses’?


Sources 78, 37, 35a, 62a, 15

In many ways love is the most universal and basic expression of the religious life. Can these texts be read interchangeably, regardless of the religious context in which they were authored, or does each of them carry the marks of its particular context? If it is conditioned by context, does the context limit our ability to be inspired by the particular text?

Each of the texts below deals with the theme of ‘love’ or ‘loving-kindness’. Read the texts and the commentaries, if you desire, guided by the accompanying questions. After reading the texts, refer to the question above, a synthesis of the four questions on the previous page with respect to the theme of ‘Love’.

Source 78 (Christian): Thomas Merton

No Man Is an Island

Questions for consideration: Is the type of love for one’s fellow human being described in the text below pragmatic and self-serving or is it truly indicative of an elevated appreciation of the unity of creation? Explain.

Compassion teaches me that my brother and I are one. That if I love my brother, then my love benefits my own life as well, and if I hate my brother and seek to destroy him, I seek to destroy myself also. The desire to kill is like the desire to attack another with an ingot of red hot iron: I have to pick up the incandescent metal and burn my own hand while burning the other. Hate itself is the seed of death in my own heart, while it seeks the death of the other. Love is the seed of life in my own heart when it seeks the good of the other…

Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good. The enemy must be destroyed but I must be saved. But love sees things differently. It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitations that I do. That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspiration for a peaceful and harmless human life. And that death is the same for both of us. Then love may perhaps show me that my brother is not really my enemy and that war is both his enemy and mine. War is our enemy. Then peace becomes possible. It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for men. When a country has to be rebuilt after war, the passions and energies of war are no longer enough. There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.

Source 37 (Jewish): Rav Kook

Questions for consideration: According to the text that follows, ‘lovingkindness’ can exist even when there are no manifestations of it in human behavior. How is that possible?

In all genius, the eye of clarity that penetrates to the spiritual content that is the cause of action, sees the grandeur of the spirit of genius in its self, in the might of its valor, in the splendor of its magnificence. In the compassionate genius of the greatly charitable individual, for whom lovingkindness and benefiting [others] are his ideal and the crowning glory of his life, his inner contemplation is cognizant of the inherent brilliance [ziv] of lovingkindness, which is something very precious and uplifting, more sublime and lofty than all the acts of lovingkindness and benefits that are realized in the actual act. We all will rejoice if the light of lovingkindness is spread among us. The world will rejoice, humanity will rejoice, and the nation will rejoice, when the sight of the genius’s generosity is manifest in one of its sons. The holy spirit of generosity is the treasure of life that gives tremendous worth to all, the breath of life [see Genesis 2:7] for every individual soul in the nation, which it embellishes in its entirety with the crown of everlasting beauty. At times this genius of lovingkindness is manifest among the poor of the land; only, at times the holy glory of a life of lovingkindness dwells constantly within their hearts, while at other times it is actualized in practical generosity. When the aptitude of generosity meets the ability for this, when embodied in action, this spirit is even more wondrous. Those, however, who appraise life in its true worth, the philosophers and thinkers of pure thoughts, are conscious of the majesty of lovingkindness, even when it is wrapped in many veils that prevent its manifestation.

(Shemoneh Kevatzim 3:40 [vol. 2, p. 27]).

Commentary by Dov Schwartz:

In his writings Rabbi Kook coined the terms “compassionate genius” and “the genius’s generosity.” In this passage Rabbi Kook presents the path to revealing the foundation of genius. At least two interpretive strata present themselves in this passage:

(1) On the literal level, an analysis of moral genius (a term that appears in his work Adar ha-Yakar) uncovers an inner faculty of lovingkindness. The moral genius is blessed with the capability, and infrastructure, of lovingkindness, which is infinitely more sublime than actual acts of lovingkindness. The existence of this lovingkindness facililty is the cause of happiness and elevation for the whole world.

(2) On the symbolic level, contemplation of genius reveals the divine nobility that emanates lovingkindness. In other words, an examination of the righteous individual reveals the theosophical source of his inspiration and sweep of vision. The Jewish people, specifically, and the world as a whole are made fruitful by the bringing down of the divine emanation, by and through the righteous one.

Source 35a (Hindu): Ramana Maharshi

Question for consideration: What is meant by ‘renunciation’ and what is its relationship to ‘love’? Is love a natural outcome of renouncing desires or something that must be nurtured independently?

Renunciation does not imply apparent divesting of costumes, family ties, home, etc., but renunciation of desires, affection and attachment. There is no need to resign your job, only resign yourself to God, the bearer of the burden of all. One who renounces desires actually merges in the world and expands his love to the whole universe. Expansion of love and affection would be a far better term for a true devotee of God than renunciation, for one who renounces the immediate ties actually extends the bonds of affection and love to a wider world beyond the borders of caste, creed and race. When this expansion comes one does not feel that one is running away from home; instead one drops from it like a ripe fruit from a tree.

(David Goldman, The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (133-134).

Commentary by Anantanand Rambachan:

Ramana’s genius is also apparent in his novel interpretations of traditional concepts that get quickly to the heart of the matter and illumine an ancient teaching with fresh insight. This passage deals with renunciation, a central theme in the Hindu tradition that is often presented as a prerequisite for religious search. Ramana, however, redefined it as love.

Source 62a (Muslim): Al-Jazuli

Questions for consideration: What is dangerous about love? Considering the dangers, why is it still ‘the most precious thread’? What is ‘real’ love, according to al-Jazuli?

Verily Love (maabba) is the most dangerous of human attributes and the most precious thread by which the necklace of righteousness is ornamented (wa asnā silkin ulliya bihi jīd al-isān). Its stations (maqāmāt) are the highest and most exalted of stations; they are the sweetest and most refreshing water sources (al-mawārid) and the times (awāqīt) when they are experienced are like the finest and most valuable pearls. Through Love one garners the moral virtues and refines the characteristics of the Desirers (al-‘ushshāq). It delights the thoughts, illuminates the consciousness, and opens the way to spiritual insights. Only the most refined and cultured people can express it and only the person of deepest understanding can explain it. There is no blame for the turmoil caused by annihilation in it. Around its sources roam thirsty and fearful hearts and the sweet breezes of its diffusion cause seedpods to burst open. Hearts flutter like butterflies around the fire of its desires and in its glowing flame things unseen are revealed. Perfections are indicated by its subtleties and its refinement makes even the incoherent (al-‘ajam) eloquent. It makes the coward brave and unties knots from the tongue. It opens the hand of the miser so that goodness gushes forth. All human powers are subservient to its command. It motivates universes of pens and the heavenly bodies of discourse revolve around its axis (jarat kawākib al-aqlām wa ‘alā qubihā dārat aflāk al-kalām). However, Love of God Almighty is the most noble, highest, most glorious, and most exalted of its stations. It is the surest way toward the attainment of one’s desires and the approach to the loftiest goal. It is a beautiful tree whose roots are firmly fixed and whose branches are in the heavens. Its roots are fixed in the world of the unseen and its branches grow in hearts…

In reality, there can be no beloved other than God alone, for there is no existence in any individual thing other than through God’s existence. God Almighty inspired unto David (peace be upon him): “Oh David! I am your necessary warrant, so make my warrant necessary for you” (anā birruka al-lazim fa-alzim birrī). Likewise, there is no doer of good works (musin) in reality other than God. In the same way, there is no beloved other than God, who motivates hearts to love the one who beautifies [good works] through God’s good works (may He be glorified). These are more numerous than anyone can count and his grace is more exalted and more perfect than what anyone can comprehend. He is the culmination of all grace and the perfection of all good works that are done for His sake. Thusly, Love is caused by Him, is manifested through Him, and is part of His nature (fa-kadhālika al-maabba fīhi wa bihi wa lahu).

Commentary by Vincent Cornell: This source is an extract from a treatise that looks at different kinds of love as they relate to both profane and spiritual experiences. The treatise from which it is drawn links the practice of asceticism to Love mysticism and ends with monistic theology by describing God as the sole reality of all existence.

Source 15 (Buddhist): Buddha, Karaniya Metta Sutta: Loving Kindness; Sutta Nipata 1.8

One man should not humiliate another; one should not despise anyone anywhere. One should not wish another misery because of anger or from the notion of repugnance.

Just as a mother would protect with her life her own son, her only son, so one should cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings and loving-kindness towards all the world. One should cultivate an unbounded mind, above and below and across, without obstruction, without enmity, without rivalry.

Standing, or going, or seated, or lying down, as long as one is free from drowsiness, one should practice this mindfulness. This, they say, is the holy state here.

Question for consideration: Why is the text below a text on ‘love’, when the word is not even mentioned?

“What do you think, Brahmin? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?”

“Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?”

“Sometimes I do, Master Gotama.”

“But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?”

“If they do not accept it from me, then the food still belongs to us”

“So too, Brahmin, we – who do not abuse anyone, who do not scold anyone, who do not rail against anyone – refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at us. It still belongs to you, Brahmin! It still belongs to you!”…

How can anger arise in one who is angerless,
In the tamed one of righteous living,
In one liberated by perfect knowledge,
In the Stable One who abides in peace?
One who repays an angry man with anger
Thereby makes things worse for himself
Not repaying an angry man with anger,
One wins a battle hard to win…

Commentary by Vanessa Sasson: A religious genius must have love at the heart of their being – a kind of love that is in no way entrenched in a sense of the self. There are many passages in the Buddhist canon that have love as its central message. This Pali passage is from the Samyutta Nikaya and is about the danger of anger. An angry Brahmin approaches the Buddha with questions, and this is the Buddha’s reply.