Valarie Kaur, a young lawyer and civil justice activist who is the daughter of Sikh farmers in California, coined the term “revolutionary love” to describe the ideal taught by sages throughout the ages that remains radical despite its pedigree: loving without limit, loving all, seeing no one, even opponents, as strangers.1
When we read the words of the sages, we can see why this limitless love is called “revolutionary.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.2
This ideal of Christ – ‘turn the other cheek’ – is often quoted, but do we actually believe it? And can we follow it? Most of us, in theory at least, wish that we could respond with kindness and mercy to those who have harmed us. But when we are hurt, or when a friend or family member is hurt, our first reaction is to want justice – we can’t imagine turning the other cheek to be slapped again. So we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: Are we ready to give up our ideas of justice? Do we even want to do this? And if so, how can we transform this natural tendency to retaliate against evil – how might we evolve into revolutionary lovers?
In the Adi Granth, Guru Arjun Dev gives the conditions under which we can access revolutionary love:
I have forgotten my envy of others since I found sacred company. I see no enemy. I see no stranger. All of us belong to each other. What the divine does, I accept as good. I have received this wisdom from the holy. The One pervades all. Gazing upon the One, beholding the One, Nanak blossoms forth in happiness.3
Once we take the “sacred company” of a spiritual teacher, gaining “wisdom from the holy,” we can begin to learn to see no enemy. This ability comes with seeing all people as belonging to one another, as members of one family. We are all related because we are all parts of the One. When we gaze on anyone – friend or enemy, loved one or stranger – we behold this One who pervades all. And when we turn our gaze to the One, miracle of miracles, we evolve into revolutionary lovers and “blossom forth in happiness.”
Valarie’s journey to revolutionary love began after her uncle was killed when she was only twenty years old. This drew her to civil rights activism. She became a lawyer and filmmaker, working to protect those who were targets of hate crimes. But very little seemed to change – no matter how many culprits were put behind bars or how many hurtful policies were changed, the problems persisted. Fifteen years after her uncle’s death, she and her uncle’s younger brother went to yet another memorial and dared to ask the question, “Who is the one person we have not yet tried to love?” And the answer was: her uncle’s killer.
They phoned the murderer in prison, and he expressed sorrow for what he had done to her uncle. He then said that when he goes to be judged after his death, he will ask to see her uncle and request his forgiveness. Valarie replied that she and the uncle’s brother had already forgiven him.
Valarie started meeting with the killer, approaching him with “wonder” – wondering who he was and what his wounds were. Through this process she began to understand the grief and fears that had motivated him. She told him her story, so that he could also see her not as a hated stranger, but as a sister, a member of the same family.
For Valarie, this process of developing revolutionary love is built on the foundation of a concept key to Sikhism – charrhdi kala, ever-upwelling joy – the ability to sail through life with optimism and positive energy, always trusting in the will of God no matter what adversity one faces.
Charrhdi kala is mentioned in the last line of the daily prayer recited by Sikhs. This short line encompasses the parameters for achieving ever-rising joy: “Nanak Nam charrhdi kala, tere bhane sarbatt da bhala.” – “Nanak, with Nam comes ever-rising joy, and through your will may there be blessings on all.”
In this one short sentence, the path to revolutionary love is outlined. The first component is Nam, the divine energy, the divine love through which the One became many and created the universe, the energy that pervades the whole of creation, the energy through which we will all return to the One. This energy knows no evil – it is 100% positive. It is only “with Nam” that we can activate our own positive energy and begin learning revolutionary love. Without Nam, our universe is small and fearsome, our horizons limited, our joy circumscribed. With Nam, we see all as One, we expand and rise and love.
As long as we identify with our ego, our mind, with ‘me’ and ‘mine’, the attacks we receive seem really big and we see the world as our enemy. But when we broaden our horizons through contact with Nam, the big ego becomes small – we see how puny we are in the scheme of the Lord’s plan. When we complain to the Master how strong and stubborn and unconquerable our minds are, he just laughs. The ego strong compared to Nam?! How absurd! When we experience the power of Nam, we begin to see how petty our concerns and our hurts are. The Buddhist text, the Dhammapada, says:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox. … If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.
"He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred. … Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.4
These verses identify the culprit that keeps us away from charrhdi kala – it is the mind. Being able to love our enemies is an ideal – we will most likely spend years trying to even approach this state of non-hatred. In the meantime, when we are abused or robbed of something or someone we love, we probably will feel grief and anger. This is natural and shouldn’t be suppressed. But what we can begin to control is what happens with those feelings – what we give energy to, what we feed. In the story of the two wolves, sometimes attributed to the Cherokee Native American people, a wise man tells his grandson that there are two fighting wolves – one is darkness and despair and the other is light and hope (charrhdi kala). When the grandson asks which one wins, the man answers, “the one you feed the most.”
We naturally have both these wolves inside us. We are not advised to kill one or the other, but to be very careful about which one we feed. When we constantly put energy into thinking about our hurt and abuse, we are feeding darkness and despair. When we put our energy into connecting with Nam, we are feeding light and hope, our ever-rising bliss. Nam lives in stillness, and we connect with Nam through stillness; as the Dhammapada says, when we stop giving safe harbor to thoughts of anger, we still our hatred. When we clear our mind and make it pure and still, happiness follows like a “never-departing shadow.”
How can we connect with Nam, how can we still our mind so this ever-upwelling joy can be fostered? There are three ways to do this:
The first is with simran, the repetition of Nam, the names given to us at initiation. This stills the constant spinning of our thoughts so that we are able to open ourselves to the boundless energy of Nam, which can’t be felt through the thick curtain of our ruminations. Once the mind is cleared, there is room for love to replace hatred, compassion to replace anger. When we are with simran, we are with Nam.
The second is through contact with Nam in human form – the Master, the “Word made flesh.” The Master is the personification of the One – he brims with charrhdi kala and models it for us. We feel the power of his joy, of his love and care. We want to become carefree and positive, full of well-being, with nothing but love for those who oppose us, just as he is.
And the third way is through the practice of dhyan and bhajan, gazing upon the One, feeling his presence within, and listening to and experiencing the Shabd dhun, the sound with which Nam manifests itself. With this we become absorbed into Nam and into the One, and the bliss of charrhdi kala naturally follows.
The next important concept in this line is “through your will.” With the ever-rising joy and positive energy that stem from making friends with Nam, we will find ourselves able to ask the Lord that, through his will, all beings may find happiness, all beings may prosper. As the Adi Granth verse quoted earlier says, “What the divine does, I accept as good.” This acceptance of the Lord’s will is crucial to nurturing the upwelling of happiness.
We can learn to accept God’s will by replacing the negative aspects of our mind with its positive features. One way to do this is by using our sense of discernment and clear thinking. Through discernment we are able to completely accept the concept of karma. We come to know that we are never victims; we are the architects of our own fate, as are all the people in our world. What we have wrought in previous lives is bearing fruit in this life, and whatever suffering we need to go through is for our own good. We realize that cleaning the vessel of our heart, making it radiant and pure, often takes some hard scrubbing. The brass pot may hurt from the abrasive scrubbing, but there is no other way to make it shine.
If we have hurt someone in a previous life and it is our turn in this life to be hurt, we can stop the cycle by not retaliating. If we want ‘justice’, if we want this person to hurt as we have, then we are just continuing the rounds of give and take. But when we can let go of the hurt, when we don’t feed it by constantly thinking about it, when we practice Nam and gladly accept the Lord’s will in every instance, then charrhdi kala naturally emerges, and we enter into the bliss of dissolving our hardness and negativity. Then compassion has room to flourish.
Compassion means a feeling of empathy and tenderness toward one who is suffering. We can approach our hurt and suffering with compassion toward ourselves, our suffering, not blaming ourselves, but accepting that these feelings come with the human state. We don’t have to dwell on them and thus magnify them; we can simply do our simran and bhajan and accept our pain in the presence of our Master – in his refuge. His presence helps us to nurse our pain, to heal our wounds, so that the obsessive thoughts and plans for retaliation can dissolve. Then we can approach others with compassion. We can happily ask for blessings for everyone – ourselves, friends and enemies, the ‘evil’ and the ‘good.’ We can see our opponents as people like us, weak and wounded, but also permeated by the divine – souls filled with love. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”5 And Martin Luther King said:
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says ‘love’. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.6Just as the Sikhs recite this prayer asking for blessings on everyone every day, other spiritual traditions also have prayers to foster blessings on all. In the Buddhist practice of loving kindness, some time is set aside daily to consciously repeat wishes for well-being, for example, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe.” Practitioners first offer these wishes for themselves, then for someone close to them, then for a neutral person, and then for someone with whom they have conflict. This quiets the mind and transforms the negative energy of the inner critic to that of acceptance and love. It helps to connect with Nam, it allows charrhdi kala to rise and blossom. We can start each day with an attitude of loving kindness like that described in the Sikh prayer, “with Nam comes ever-rising joy, and through your will may there be blessings on all.” Or we can begin our day with the first prayer that the Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh learned when he became a monk:
Waking up this morning I smile.
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.
I vow to live them deeply and learn to look at everything
around me with the eyes of compassion.7
- Bible, Matthew 5:38-39
- Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Raag Kanarra, 1299:13–15, trans. Kaur, Valarie. See No Stranger (p. 321). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Dhammapada 1:1-5 Buddhanet Presents the Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path to Wisdom, © 2008 - BDEA / BuddhaNet. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/dp01.htm
- Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the first person to say this, but this quote is often attributed to him. See https://quoteinvestigator.com/2020/05/13/make-friends/ for information on the sources.
- From "Loving Your Enemies" ―Sermon by Martin Luther King Jr., in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat. Silence (p. 128). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.