Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Lessons on Love From Shakespeare and the Gita

By Eknath Easwaran

Shakespeare was a great sonneteer, and he has given us one of the most practical, elevating definitions of love in a very beautiful sonnet. It is a perfect description of what love means according to the Gita and the Buddha. Anybody who bases their loving relationships on these lines will find life deeply fulfilling.

This sonnet also throws light on some of the deep-rooted emotional problems which can prevent us from building lasting, loving relationships. Love has to grow, year by year, almost day by day, and if it isn’t growing, there is something lacking in it. Through the practice of meditation and the mantram we can learn to be steadfast and loyal in our love, whatever happens. Here is the first part of the sonnet:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no! It is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

 “The Marriage of True Minds”

In the opening line Shakespeare points out that love is a “marriage of true minds.” These are words which could be taken straight from the scriptures of any major religious tradition, but which contradict all our modern conditioning. Look in any book, any magazine, watch any movie, any television show – almost all of them convey, not very subtly, that love is the marriage of bodies.

The Bhagavad Gita has a different approach. It doesn’t deprecate the body or negate its legitimate needs, but it reminds us that the body is only the house in which we live. In a marriage, the Gita would say, the real relationship is between the residents, not between the residences. If it weren’t so tragic it would be a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy. All these attempts to establish romantic relationships between houses! That is why all the world’s great spiritual teachers will say, Don't ever try to build your house of happiness on a physical foundation.

The reason is not moral, not even religious – it’s that physical attraction doesn’t last. Sex is only a fleeting sensation, whereas love is a continued state of consciousness. I am not against physical attraction or making the best of our physical appearance, but when we build our relationship on a fleeting sensation, we are building our house on sand.

Back in Berkeley in the sixties, when I was teaching one of the first courses on the theory and practice of meditation to be offered at any Western university, one fellow came to me confidentially and said, “I have decided to get married, but I have a choice.” I asked, “What is the choice?”

“I can marry for money or I can marry for sex.” He thought he had put me on the horns of a dilemma, and he was enjoying it thoroughly. “I want your advice,” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “if that is your choice, I would advise you to marry for money. It will last longer.”

Another student in those days used to mention his romantic adventures in the journal they all kept for our meditation class. In his comments he would explain, “I’m just getting it out of my system.” I wrote in the margin, “You are just getting it into your system.”

Learning to Love

To learn to love takes many years, and even in our twenties it doesn’t come easily. But by that time we have at least weathered the most stressful period of emotional and physiological change, and we are ready to start learning. Experience – with luck, not too bitter – has made vividly clear to us certain truths that as teenagers we could only dimly suspect. We have come to realize, probably, that our deepest desire is for permanent, loving relationships. And we may well have watched ourselves trying in vain to build those relationships on a physical, sexual basis.

What draws us again and again into sexual involvement is that for just a moment it releases us from the deep sense of separateness that haunts every human being. In a completely loving and loyal relationship, sex can have a beautiful place, but lasting love is not based on sex.

Relationships which are based on physical, sensory, personal considerations are unlikely to be true marriages. They are temporary relationships, which come and go. Deep cultural interests – a shared love of literature, music, or art – all these will make a relationship last a little longer.

But lasting romance has two precious components: increasing respect, and tenderness that grows every day. This is a continuing state of consciousness, and it is what all of us want in a relationship. It calls for great effort and unremitting enthusiasm, and that is why I consider loving a skill, a great skill that can be learned.

“Love Is not Love Which Alters When It Alteration Finds”

Shakespeare is taking into account here the frailties of human nature. This line is the real test of love, and meditation and repetition of the mantram can enable us to pass with flying colors.

When your attention is wandering away to someone who may seem more attractive, or more intelligent, or more prestigious, the practice of meditation as I teach it — as the training of attention — can be enormously helpful. When you are meditating on the Prayer of Francis of Assisi or the second chapter of the Gita, keep bringing your mind back to the passage whenever it wanders away. If you practice this systematically, you will find that when your attention is wandering away from Juliet or when your loyalties are slowly moving away from Romeo, you are able to bring your attention back and keep it trained on the one you love.

The Gita tells us: put your permanent relationship first. Don’t let yourself be swayed by the fever of the moment. If you feel a strong physical attraction to someone else, repeat the mantram and remember that physical attraction, by being physical, cannot last. The practice of meditation and the mantram lifts the veil and enables you to see where this new relationship would be after a short time.

Kama or Prema?

In Sanskrit, physical attraction is called kama – selfish desire, in which I ask only what pleasure I will receive. It is a tremendous force, as we can see from the lives of those with strong passions who are hurled in and out of relationships even against their will. But kama can be transformed – not negated or repressed, but made a matter of free choice, by gradually changing the focus from me, me, me to you, you, you. Then kama becomes prema: pure love, where my attention is not on my own pleasure but on the happiness and welfare of those around me.

Look at our travel ads – “Experience the Bahamas.” How gullible we can be! They show us a couple of swaying palms, some azure waters lapping at white sands, and then they ask innocently, “Wouldn’t you like to sit beneath these coconut palms and fall in love?” I come from Kerala, the “land of the coconut palm,” and you can take it from me: never try to pursue your dreams beneath a coconut tree. Coconuts have a way of falling on romantic heads, and even the smallest nut, if it drops from a height of fifty feet, can put an end to your romance before it starts.

What do swaying palms and azure waters have to do with love? Love doesn’t need an exotic setting; it can flourish in the kitchen, in the garden, wherever two people are putting each other first.

If you want to know what love is, look at a woman who knows how to be patient when her partner is irritated. Instead of fanning his mood, she strengthens him by bearing with him until his mind quiets down. In my book, that woman is a great lover. Or look at the person who comes home and plays with his children even though he’s tired and talks with his wife while they do the dishes, instead of flopping down in front of the TV. He is a great lover, even if you never see his name on the Hollywood marquees.

Moving Closer

Particularly in the early days of our spiritual life, when our mind and senses are untrained, it is only natural for every human being to have quarrels and difficulties in personal relationships. During such times, as the Gita says and as Shakespeare is echoing here, we should not move away from our partner – we should move closer.

This is how “love alters not when it alteration finds.” In our contemporary culture, love has to alter when it alteration finds, or alters even when it does not find alteration.

When I first came to this country, everybody was talking about freedom. The idea was that if you came together freely, you were always free to walk out; this was supposed to be a complete safeguard against unhappy relationships. When my friends would talk this way I used to answer, “Oh, yes, you are free to walk out of such a relationship. There is no obligation; there are no bonds; there are not even any ties. But what happens if you go on doing this is that you never acquire the capacity to love.”

Loyalty and Forgiveness

Loyalty is the quintessence of love. When two people tell each other, “As long as you do what I like, I’ll stay with you, but as soon as you start doing things I don’t like, I’m packing my bags” – to me that is not love; that’s indifference. Loving somebody means that even when they upset you, you don’t let yourself be shaken; even when they are harsh to you, you don’t move away; even when they make a mistake that hurts you, you don’t go off and make the same kind of mistake to hurt them.

All of us are so liable to human error that unless we have some capacity to bear with the errors of others, we will not be able to maintain a lasting relationship with anybody, which is the tragic situation that many people find themselves in today.

Forgiveness is important in every relationship, but it is essential in love. When two people love each other deeply, if one makes a mistake, that is the time to stand by the person you love and offer support: not conniving at the mistake but helping that person to overcome it and grow. This is a great art. It cannot be done in judgment or condescension, which means we have to get the ego very much out of the way.

Loving a Little More Each Day

Most of us are not able to draw on a deeper will and a higher wisdom to do all this, so our relationships go wrong. There is no reason to bemoan this. I have made many mistakes in my ignorance, and so has everybody else I know. But from now onwards, by building our lives on meditation, we can learn to stand firm in situations where we used to crumble and be loving and respectful when we used to get resentful, hostile, or vindictive.

Learning to love is like swimming against the current of a powerful river; most of our conditioning is in the other direction. When the river by my village used to flood with the advent of the monsoon rains, we boys liked to try to swim across without being swept downstream by the current. To tell you the truth, I never succeeded. The only time I came close was the time someone told me there was a crocodile after me. But a few of my cousins were such powerful swimmers that they could fight the current and reach the other side exactly opposite from where they had set out. It is simply a question of developing your muscles: the more you use them, the stronger they get.

Similarly, when you put the other person’s welfare first every day, no matter how strong the opposing tide inside, you discover after a while that you can love a little more today than you did yesterday. Tomorrow you will be able to love a little more again.

Free to Give, Free to Love

In lighter moments, I have thought I might try my hand at a sequel to Romeo and Juliet. Instead of dying, the two lovers would get married and settle down together – long enough to become the noisiest couple in Verona. Once Juliet thrilled to the touch of Romeo’s hand; now the same fingers feel clammy. Her lips seemed as unsullied as a rosebud in the morning dew; now he notices they are often in a pout. She was so innocent; how is it that she now seems immature? He used to be so witty; how could she have forgotten she detests puns? And their quarrels are all “Why didn’t I stick with Rosaline?” and “I wish I’d never gone to that wretched ball!”

I am not a writer of tragedies. In my sequel, Juliet goes to her nurse and pleads – just as I have heard so many young people plead – “What happened to us? Is he different now? Am I different? Have I lost the capacity to love?” And the nurse tells her tenderly, “Not at all, my dear.” When selfish desire is removed from a relationship, there is no hankering to get anything from the other person. We are free to give, which means we are free to love. Then we can give and support and strengthen without reservation.

Only then can we really see each other clearly. It is infatuation that is blind; love sees. The infatuated mind cannot help caricaturing. It sees only what it wants; then, when the desire passes, it sees only what it does not want. When two people are really in love, they do see each other’s weaknesses, but they support each other in overcoming those weaknesses so that each helps the other to grow.

“Call it not love that changes,” Juliet says. Very wise for a fourteen-year-old. Selfish attachment waxes and wanes; selfless love only increases. When you live like this, the time will come when you find it impossible to think a harsh thought about each other. You may not completely understand each other, you may not always see eye to eye, but each of you knows without a doubt that the other’s loyalty will never waver.

This article comes from the Blue Mountain Journal, Spring 2022.