Florists, confectioners, jewelers, and restaurateurs are gearing up for their annual economic stimulus. And who can begrudge an economic stimulus program--this year estimated at $18.6 billion-- that does not originate inside the Washington beltway? Still, I imagine that amorous professions on Valentine’s Day hardly honor its eponymous saint, and while Hindus may sympathize with fellow pluralistic pagans whose celebration of Lupercalia in mid-February was supplanted a millennia ago, what do we make of this cultural export that will compel folks in India to spend nearly millions on flowers and chocolates on this day alone.
Does the land that gave the world the Kama Sutras really need the lessons of V-Day? Sure, Hindus allow themselves kama, or creative desires and pleasure, as an acceptable goal of life, though a lower one than that of moksha, or ultimate liberation. Hindus even have powerful stories of Kamadeva, or the Lord of Love, enlivening their traditions, so where’s the need for Cupid?
Lest one stop reading the bitter words of a Valentine grinch here, allow me to offer that I bought my wife a car today. Sure it was a needed vehicle--the timing even coincidental--but what a happy coincidence! Declarations of love have their own manifestations, and four wheels with heated seats and a moonroof never hurt.
But it seems we are forever consigned to fighting against the tide of rampant commercialization to remember the “meaning” of our most raucous festivals: the Christmas spirit, Valentine’s Day, Lent, and in my home, Diwali, Holi, and Navaratri. And so, this day given to love is just the right time to contemplate the “meaning” of love and remember a monk whose life personifies that spirit--another apostle of love.
Call him the patron saint of three million Hindu Americans, Swami Vivekananda’s words are ubiquitous these days as our inboxes fill up with invitations to celebrate his 150 year birth anniversary in our community temples, interfaith events and homes. It was his stirring address at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 that catapulted the Hindu tradition--long suppressed after 1,500 years of Islamic conquests and British rule--into the pantheon of the major religions once again. His articulation of the Hindu schools of yoga, and the very essence of pluralism, and mutual respect--not tolerance alone--among religions paved a path for Hindu philosophy traveled later by Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and many others.
“Life itself is love,” said the Swami. “All expansion is life, all contraction is death. All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction and love is therefore the only law of life.”
It was during his time in the prosperous West that Vivekananda truly felt the contrast of his own nation mired in poverty, enslaved to foreign masters and seemingly blind to its own wondrous spiritual legacy. Love imbued Vivekananda’s collected works authored during his American sojourn as he implored 300 million Indians back home to cultivate a new consciousness: seva, or selfless service to others, is the highest profession of love.
This concept of service, always at the core of Hindu teaching, is dormant in contemporary life, though it was rejuvenated by cadres of Indians as they began to take responsibility for their depressing circumstances and shake off the chains of caste and gender discrimination impeding their rise.
“It is love and love alone that I preach, and I base my teaching on the great vedantic truth of the sameness and omnipresence of the soul of the universe,” he wrote, explaining that witnessing pure consciousness, or truth, in every being, is the essence of the Vedas, the most voluminous and significant of the Hindu scriptures. Look beyond differences in gender, caste, and religion, he would demand, to behold the same divinity shining forth in every being. As one of his American disciples said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself, because your neighbor is your self.”
It was this call to action, “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached,” that inspired his contemporaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, whose civil disobedience was just bearing fruit in South Africa, and many other leaders of the Indian independence movement. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate poet, one of the intellectual founts of the movement famously said, “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda.”
So mark Valentine’s Day we will, for who can turn their back on chocolate and flowers or a new car? But even as we celebrate kama, we cannot forget our karma yoga--selfless service without attachment to results; in our love for our spouses, families, and friends, let’s not forget to love our neighbor. I’m sure the monks--both St. Valentine and Swami Vivekananda--would agree.
Dr. Shukla is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation and an Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Views expressed here are his own.
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