“You know, Paro, so much beauty is not right for one person to have. Isn’t it obvious – the moon is marked because it is so beautiful. Come, let me mar your face and spoil its perfection.” –from Devdas, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
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As Navratri approaches again, I am reminded of something I read last year about the artists who create devi pandals in West Bengal, India. During Navratri, the nine-night festival dedicated to honoring the Goddess (Devi) in her various forms, it is customary in West Bengal to create elaborate dioramas of Durga slaying the demon Mahisha, of Kali drinking the blood of Rakhtabija, or of the terrifying goddess Chandi. However, growing numbers of Hindus are requesting less violent imagery for their pandals. They want Durga holding flowers instead of swords, discuses, spears. They’d like a clothed, smiling, less bloody Kali.
I have also been spending my Monday evenings learning to chant the Sri Rudram, a set of mantras from the Yajur Veda dedicated to Rudra, a destructive form of Shiva. Certain epithets have stood out to me: the Leader of Armies, the Spear-Wielder, the Angry One. And yet, he is still described as compassionate, loving, abiding in the hearts of all.
Even if we ignore these outwardly violent forms of isvara and turn to cuddly, big-bellied Ganesha, we must remember that his head was severed before he could have his famous elephant head – by his own father, no less. Lakshmi, who embodies all that is sweet, beautiful, healing, was born from a heated push-and-pull of devas and asuras; love was born from a difficult and painful churning. There is no running from aggression when we face God.
In our own lives, love and aggression often cannot exist without the other. We feel the most visceral anger towards those we love very deeply. Nobody pushes our buttons like those who know exactly how to love us best. Some people and animals are so cute that we want to squeeze them, devour them, or are so fluffy that we want to die. Via text message, we inundate our loved ones with red heart emojis; when we are angry, we “see red.”
Dr. Richardson of Georgia Regents University found that we are most likely to display “everyday aggression” towards those whom we love the most. She hypothesizes that the stronger a relationship is, the safer we feel during confrontation, and the more likely we are to slip into aggressive interactions with them.
There is fire in love. Kama, the god of love and desire, was burned to ashes by Shiva. Kamakhya, the Tantric goddess of desire, is depicted as on fire herself, or seated with flames. A related goddess, Kamakshi, is seen holding various implements of war. Love kills. And yet, it is our instinct to let it kill us.
We may understand that to drain these aspects of God of aggression is to dilute their love. Yet, in our societal drive to sanitize, organize, and dominate that which we do not understand (i.e., that which frightens us), we almost always place together “love/good” and “aggression/bad.” We have come to approach the aggression present in both love and spirituality in the same way. We turn a blind eye to any aspect of religion which seems moderately aggressive, dismissing it as primitive or fundamentalist, rather than dialoguing with it. We medicate children against their anger, rather than teaching them how to express it healthily. We dismiss the valid concerns of our friends, lovers, co-workers with, “maybe people would listen to you if you calmed down.” We run from our own anger, or are consumed by it, lashing out without awareness.
That said, aggression in love is not abuse. We may feel a desire to see a loved one in pain, either in a sexual encounter or during a heated argument, but we don’t actually want to hurt them or see them die. Aggression is not the same as violence, compensation for deep fears of impotence, symptomatic of those who perpetrate abuse. Brutal, regressive violence is fueled by inadequacy. When love contains aggression, however, it is somehow freeing.
There is aggression present in many ways that we love. I met a three-year old boy in one of my clinical practica whose father was often away on business trips. Though his mother was very sweet and cuddled and kissed him often, he expressed that he missed the way his father loves – by play-fighting, tossing and tumbling him around the bed. There is aggression in the love between friends, when we feel as if we could kill our friends when they’re not being good to themselves. There is aggression in the passion of the erotic moment. In physical eroticism, we know from literature and narrative accounts that lovers have enjoyed biting, scratching, slapping, restraint for centuries in India, China, Greece, Egypt, Japan, Korea, and many other places. Spiritually, we find poetry from Mirabai which uses metaphors of erotic aggression in describing her relationship with Krishna: he twists her wrist forcefully and brings her close to him, pulls her hair. In turn, she hurls insulting language at him to express intimacy. Rabi’a writes with ruthless love. Rumi dreams of the beloved’s bloody sword.
The relationship between love and aggression is primal. As the infant comes to recognize the self as separate from caregiver, they are angry at recognizing this separation from the love object and source of their nourishment. I love you so much, how dare you be separate from me? Even more painful is when the infant learns that the one who supplies affection and sustenance can also be the source of pain at times. Kaplan writes, “Deep sadness is much too painful for a young child. Deep sadness would have to include a full recognition that the other is not all that one had imagined. Therefore whenever possible, children literally run away from sadness by becoming extra active and lively. Anger is yet another way of avoiding sadness.”
In adult relationships, we try to replicate the feeling of love we felt as infants before we came to self-awareness. We seek those fleeting moments of oneness with our partner, where everything is exactly as it needs to be, and all the trouble and responsibility that comes with being an “I” vanishes. Aggression towards the lover seems to help us regain possession of our existence in the madness of being in love. On the other hand, the instinct towards that which we love is to incorporate it; thus, “aggression is as much an attempt to achieve closeness as an attempt to destroy the object.” Our instinct in loving is to make the love object a part of us, so much that we may destroy the loved one in the process.
To our dismay, we cannot exist in this world without understanding ourselves as being distinct individuals. Love is blissful, and so we seek to destroy the love object, because it reminds us that we cannot live in the safety of love’s holding space/the womb forever. However, love would be no fun if we were always in a state of union. There must be an Other to move towards and away from in order for there to be pleasure. There is no erotic or romantic pleasure between partners when they are too distant from each other, but also when they are so close and know each other so well that there is no more novelty. Aggression expresses how lovers play between these extremes.
If we are afraid of aggression, we are afraid of the expression of love. In the play of aggression within love, we are deeply disturbed that we cannot be one with the love object, so much that anger rises to the surface. In the loving-aggressive act, we also express our deep desire for union. We recognize the boundary between our bodies/minds/souls, we seek to use the energy which comes very naturally to us in the form of aggression to break it. Loving-aggression is somewhere between union with and destruction of the love object. Individuals who learn to love their aggression and play with this energy are all the more free and powerful because of it. Sadly, many of avoid this place within ourselves, never learning of its potential. When we are met with aggression, rising in ourselves or when confronted by others, and we find ourselves feeling defensive, dismissive or afraid, we must go deep and ask ourselves why.
And so, God(dess) holds a sword in one hand and a lotus flower in the other. This is a God which melts the distinctions between tenderness and hardness in love, which recognizes the play of opposites while destroying any need for distinction. We can love insofar as we also can become comfortable with the fact that aggression has its place within us. When we cannot recognize one or the other extreme of love in the soul, we lose touch with the entirety of love present in the self, with our humanness.
 Kaplan, L. J. (1978). Oneness & separateness: From infant to individual. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Fenichel, O. (1945) The psychoanalytic theory of neurosis. New York: W W Norton & Company Inc.