Most people probably understand the words ‘eros’ and ‘erotic’ as relating to sex.
But this is not exactly right.
‘Eros’ is an ancient Greek word which, although applicable to the area of romantic love is also intended to cover other types of sensual arousal. Eros is what draws us in. It could be the beauty of a pristine beach on a sunny day, the magnificence of a Rachmaninoff concerto, the exquisite richness of a chocolate truffle. Our senses are engaged and we are hooked.
So far it does sound like the attraction we feel for another in romantic love, but Plato gives us a much more nuanced account of eros in his ‘Symposium.’ On this view eros is indeed the physical attraction we feel for someone and, if given the chance to course its full trajectory, it becomes love of love itself, or love of the Good. Here’s how the story goes…
At first we experience eros as attraction to one particular person and we are duly infatuated. Pretty soon we notice that there are lots of other good-looking people around, and that makes us happy. We follow our physical attractions and our experience of love is more or less skin deep. After a while this gets old and we start to want more from the objects of our affection; we value character. As we mature and gain wisdom through life experience the traits we care about in a partner reflect our overall value set. So if we prize honesty; a strong work ethic; financial integrity; concern for the environment; humanitarianism; liberalism, and nurturing family ties (amongst other things), these are qualities that we’ll seek in a partner and we’ll be happiest with a partner who also prizes such values – the usual ups and downs and vagaries of relationships notwithstanding.
We want a partner with similar values because, as love draws us further along her path, we come to understand that the most important things in life are not material. They may be instantiated in physical form but they can never be wholly contained in any one physical object. For example beauty can’t be captured in any one instance, though we can point to many examples of the beautiful. Roses, sunsets, paintings, sculptures, pieces of music, may all be said to be beautiful, though no one of them fully explains beauty.
Why take beauty as important? Clearly our lives are enhanced by beauty and beautiful things make us happy, but as we’ve seen, mere physical beauty soon looses its appeal without something more substantive to illuminate it from within.
Plato wants us to understand that the mystery of love is that it leads us from eros to love of LOVE itself. He uses the metaphor of a ladder leading to the Beautiful (that which is eternal, unchanging and beyond form). The first step on the ladder is one beautiful body, the next two beautiful bodies, above that all beautiful bodies, above that beautiful character traits, and so on until we arrive at the top and the nature of beauty itself. So we see that love carries us from erotic inclination to the realm of permanence and the formless ground of all form.
If this sounds familiar it may be because it sounds like the non-dualism of Shankaracharya, according to which Brahman is the ground of all being, that which gives rise to all form, but is beyond form, that which is permanent but can be experienced in temporary guise.
Yoga points us to the ground of being which is beyond the temporary here and now, beyond the vrittis (fluctuations) of the mind and beyond our emotions, feelings and sensations, so that we may experience our true nature – limitless, boundless, permanent. Although different schools of yoga emphasize different ways of getting there, they all agree that we attain union with the source by transcending our isolation, our here-and-now-ness, through the practice of yoga in its different forms.
Asana (poses) and bhakti yoga (chanting, the practice of kirtan and puja worship) both represent the eros of yoga. The senses are the way in. With asana practice, the body is the vehicle to work with the mind in order to be free of its tyranny; when we chant and sing kirtan the voice is the way to the heart, to the expanse of LOVE beyond.
Plato offers us a view where the physical is what initially draws us towards love, but Love itself is seen to underlie all physical instantiations of it. Love itself is drawing us from eros to pure love for Love’s sake. The 16thC bhakti poet Mirabai was an ardent Krishna devotee. Her songs are infused with eroticism and longing and convey the very personal relationship she felt with Krishna, the God-personifiation of love. When we worship Krishna, we worship love itself to the extent that Krishna’s name is a stand-in for love and vice versa.
And she does think of Krishna as her lover. He is the cosmic Cassanova, the absolute epitome of love. But it’s the love that causes expansion and becomes love for all beings, not just for the lover. It is beyond eros. Just as in Plato’s ladder of love, the move is from the particular to the general, from love of one being, to love for Being.
In the case of Plato, and of yoga, ultimate reality is thought to be beyond form and there are different ways to get to experience that reality. In the ‘Vijnana Bhairava Tantra‘ we are given 112 dharanas (techniques) for tasting the delicious nectar of the ultimate. Although tantra uses everything, all of the senses, feelings, emotions, the world of sensory experience and the world of the mind, to get to ultimate reality, that reality is still consciousness. It is the consciousness of Shiva, or Bhairava and his consciousness permeates the entire universe. The whole world of experience is a manifestation of Bhairava stretching his consciousness for fun, because that is what he does.
Lorin Roche (Sanskrit scholar and meditation teacher) has rendered the VBT into exquisite English in a text called ‘The Radiance Sutras.’ Many of them read as erotic love poetry, some relating to love-making, many in the broader, Platonic sense of eros.
Jagdhi pana krita-ullasa
Rasa ananda vijrimbhanat
Bhavayed bharita avastham
Maha ananda tatah bhavet
Eating dark chocolate,
A ripe apricot,
Your favorite treat –
Savor the expanding joy in your body.
Nature is offering herself to you.
To realize this world can taste so good.
When sipping some ambrosia,
Raise your glass,
Close your eyes,
Toast the universe –
The Sun and Moon and Earth
To bring you this delight.
Receive this nectar on your tongue
As a kiss of the divine.
This language is so sensuous, tantalizingly evocative, a rich example of eros, leading us from sheer indulgence of the senses to apprehension of the Divine. Asana can do the same thing…our physical practice can be a profoundly sensuous meditation of embodied presence ultimately leading us to a place of merging with the absolute. More on that next time.
In the meantime relish your senses, let yourself be pulled deeper into the mystery of Love itself masquerading as eros.