Ask the Yogi: Love in Sanskrit

Q. What is “Love” in Sanskrit?

A. Your question about what love is in Sanskrit intrigued me a bit.  So I looked at an online dictionary and found that, in addition to bhakti, there are literally over a hundred entries!  I thought of Eskimos and how many different words they had for snow, describiing the subtle nuances and differences and thought that this was a pretty good technique to use for the word “love” as well.

There is some speculation that the English word Love has an etymological path winding all the way back to the Sanskrit word lobha, or greed.  Though this may describe the very lowest of attractions we confuse for love, it certainly does not encompass the life-opening potential of this state of consciousness.  Many definitions of love have to do with deprivation or self-denial and speak to the self-effacing qualities of love where union begins to become possible by the loss of attachment to self as the center of the universe.   These particular definitions can be associated with much suffering as they require the “sacrifice” of the little self.  Some Old English roots for the word love have an affinity with allowing or approving.   Latin origins center on the energy of pleasing.  Here are a few listed Sanskrit findings that have more to do with love’s “positive” qualities:

Bhaj (from Bhajan, a meditation technique which occurs after simran) and bhakti both have, among their meanings, a practice of dividing or apportioning.  This is an extremely important aspect of these words because they speak to the partial human ability to love which transforms the practitioner into the embodiment of Divine or perfect love that is whole and complete.  These two words usually refer to a Divine love or love for the Divine and devotion and speak to the miracle of that one eternal source of love from which we have “emerged” and into which we shall “return”.  It is desire in a higher sense, the embracing of the indivisibility of the self and what is sought, an intense desire for wholeness and unification so strong that its outcome is felt in the very yearning.

Abhikama (lit. to move toward desire) and kAma (desire) speak more to the pull of earthly love and affection and can be frought with attachment.  However they can also become a clean-burning fuel for a “higher” love by offering an opportunity to see the Divine in all things.  KAma can be sexual love or desire for what is not present.  Noting in life would happen without desire; without it you would still be in bed from this morning.  In many ways kama is the engine of the universe and the handle turning the wheel of karma.  This type of love is not to be discounted or looked down upon; How can we love something as seemingly intangible and impossible to cognize as “God” unless we are first able to experience attraction (and inevitable repulsion) on the earthly material plane?  KAma elevates mere desire for pleasure or sex without love into the sexual union as sacred sacrament.  Through the practice of Tantra such a union leads to the path of liberation integrating wholeness and unity.

Bhava can be love as a process or feeling or state of being, an energetic presence with the feeling or heart/soul quality of love itself with less of a focus on the object of that love.  Bhavabandhana andbhavabhAva deal more with the fettering quality of this love as it links heart to heart or to link one to earthly items.

Karuna often associated with compassion, it also has a mournful or suffering quality to it as it requires empathy (which is quite different from pity).  With karuna we actually feel the loved one’s pain as our own, yet do not claim it as an ego posession or badge of devotion.  The one who experiences true compassion does not identify with this pain and remains free in the grace of a love that is beyond judgment.

Mihr and mitrasneha is the love of friendship.

man, manyate, -ti, manute
 all come from the root “manas” which deals with our abilty to reason and the mind.  These definitions are more concerned with the thought and intellectual ponderings of love and their thought revelations that can lead to indulgence, distraction, or a transforming understanding of the love that resides in one’s heart.

Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.

Comments 1

  1. “Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have thirty words for snow, because it is a life-and death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of thirty words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it come to feeling.” – Robert Johnson, Fisher King, p. 6

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