This piece on love, human and divine, has just gone up at the Guardian’s Cif Belief…
There is a long tradition in Indian religion that links human and divine love. Kama, as in the Kama Sutra, is India’s Eros. Firing arrows of flowers, he made Shiva, the god of destruction, fall for Parvati, a tender consort. The myth speaks of how the aggressive and nurturing urges in the human psyche might be united. The life of the gods is our life too.
Related themes are touchingly portrayed in the miniature paintings called ragamala, which feature in a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. They have a similar appearance to medieval book illuminations. Richly coloured, conveying a dream-like, archetypal feel, some show gods in icon form. Others convey intimate narrative scenes of devotion.
Ragamala imagery is also inspired by the musical modes known as raga. Each mode has a unique feel. One is bright and uplifting. Another, dark and melancholic. Each picture is a visual representation of the emotional mood associated with a raga. Though their precise function is contested amongst scholars, it seems fair to assume that listening to the right mode, or contemplating the right image, deepens insight. They offer a meditative, aesthetic therapy.
The most accessible ragamala in the exhibition reflect on the theme of love. We see a female lover walking in parkland, and then conversing quietly with an older and presumably wiser confidant – or perhaps a guardian angel. In one, she longs for her beloved. In another, she seeks shelter from the storms of passion.
Similar erotic themes are central to the Platonic theology of the Christian traditions. Again, the ups and downs of human love are imagined as a shadow of Eros’s deepest longings: union with the divine. Or think of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. The different chapters in the story of human love can be taken as allegories of the spiritual quest. The woman in the ragamala is a lover and a human soul too.
The deployment of psychological moods to cultivate insight was a major theme of the Renaissance. Writers extensively explored the links between sound and soul, colour and spirit. “I often resort to the solemn sound of the lyre and to singing to raise the mind to the highest considerations and to God as much as I may,” wrote the humanist philosopher, Marsilio Ficino.
Modern music therapies revive the tradition. In a recent article for the Lancet, Professor Martyn Evans explained that “when music works upon us therapeutically, it expresses, recalls, and even rekindles general features of our embodied experience and of our ordinary being.” It nurtures “bodily and psychological fluency and vitality,” he continued, adding: “[and tells] of our place in the universal order of things.”
Love is more important to Christianity than reason or learning, writes Christos Yannaras, a leading Greek theologian. To be a believer is to embark on an erotic adventure because God is a “mad lover”, he ventures. The human soul rises to the divine in the passion of ecstasy – passion being the operative word, as the journey is one of pleasure and pain because it necessitates a stepping out of yourself, an ek-stasis.
“The thirst for life is implanted in our very nature, in each tiny fold of our existence,” Yannaras explains, in On the Absence and Unknowability of God, “and is an unquenchable thirst for relationship, that is to say for the reciprocity of self-abandonment and self-offering.” Falling, as when falling in love, speaks of the collapse of the walls with which the individual protects him– or herself, though also isolates him– or herself too.
So also the spiritual struggle. The Sufi poet, Rumi, was another influence on the tradition of the ragamala and advised this: “Tend within to the opening of your heart.” There’s a message for Valentine’s Day.