What is Love? Words for Love in Hinduism and Ancient Greece

Did you ever wonder about the types of love described in different cultures?

Although Valentine’s Day tends toward commerciality and focuses on romance, this year I am trying to celebrate different types of love at home.

This intention had me thinking about how love is described in Hinduism, as well as how those words line up with the more popularly understood words used by the Ancient Greeks.


Hinduism addresses six different types of love. It doesn’t surprise me that definitions of love are intricately tied to the mythology, belief system, and religious basis of Hinduism.

  • Kama – sexual desire or craving (yup, the Kama Sutra)
  • Shringara – romance and emotional intimacy between lovers, and represented in mythology as the relationship between Radha and Krishna
  • Maitri – which can be translated as “mother’s love” but really encompasses compassion for all living creatures, and which is demonstrated by simple acts of kindness. One source defines maitri as amity, or goodwill despite the differences between us.
  • Bhakti – devotion, to God or to the world or to some higher ideal. In Hindu mythology, Hanuman is considered the epitome of bhakti.
  • Karuna – compassion. This word originates in Sanskrit as “sadness,” which I find interesting, since compassion is rooted in understanding and wanting to help others. However, karuna is different from pity, which Hindus believe to be rooted in selfish motivation.
  • Atma-prema – love for the soul, or love for that part that connects all of us. Interestingly, atma-prema is defined as self-love. In recognizing that the unique thing that makes one’s “self” is shared among all of creation, one can offer unconditional love because everyone is connected at the source.

Ancient Greece

This Super Bowl ad stole my thunder, though it only references four the of the eight different types of love defined by the Ancient Greeks. The words 

  • Eros – sexual passion, most similar to the Hindu kama, and which the Greeks treated as something negative because it represented an irrationality and a loss of control. Obviously, it is also the name of the Greek god and forms the basis of the word erotic.
  • Ludus – playful affection, between children, between those flirting (and falling in love), between teasing friends, (and yes, it is the origin of ludicrous, which means something that is amusing because of its absurdity).
  • Mania – I’m sure this one requires little explanation, but this is obsessive love.
  • Philia – loyal, sacrificing friendship, particularly among those who fought side-by-side on the battlefield (and you know this word as the suffix in words like bibliophile, a lover of books)
  • Pragma – a mature, enduring love based on compromise, patience, and tolerance between couples who have been together a long time or in long-lasting friendships (of course, this is the root of pragmatic, meaning practical)
  • Storge – love between family members, like the love shared by parents and children.
  • Philautia – love of the self. This is not to be confused with the negative narcissism, but rather more positively as healthy self-esteem, which that permits you to show kindness to others because you show kindness to yourself. 
  • Agape – selfless love, or unconditional love, which eventually translated into the Latin word for charity and reflects our empathy. Greeks believed that agape was the purest form of love because it was free of any expectation. Hindus call this type of love karuna.


Literally no one: …

Me: What is love?

You’re welcome.

No matter what type of love you’re celebrating, I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Previous Posts

Cupid and Psyche * An inspiring Valentine’s message * The best Valentine’s party * My most popular Valentine’s series

Cupid and Psyche, not your typical Valentine

Why is a little winged boy shooting arrows one of the symbols of love on Valentine’s Day?

Probably because the hot naked angel™ might not lead to very loving comparisons…

In some versions of his mythology, Cupid (or Eros) could shoot with one of two arrows, the gold-tipped ones causing untamed desire and the lead ones generating aversion.

Apollo and Daphne (Bernini) (cropped)

Cupid famously won an archery challenge against Apollo by shooting the other god with the gold-tipped arrow and Daphne with lead.

We know how that worked out for Apollo: to escape his attention Daphne turned herself into a tree.

But we’re not here to talk about wood nymphs and sun gods on Valentine’s Day, especially since Apollo was traditionally unlucky in love.

Today’s focus is on Cupid’s own famous love affair, a story most of us know better as “Beauty and the Beast.”

Like many stories in Greek mythology start, a goddess envies a mortal. In this case, Aphrodite (Venus) is jealous that three sisters are celebrated for their beauty. In particular, the youngest, Psyche, is hailed the next coming of Aphrodite, much to the goddess’s disgust.

So Aphrodite sends her son to teach Psyche lesson, AKA make her life a living hell because the ancient Greek gods were vindictive monsters. She wants Cupid to shoot Psyche with an arrow so that the girl falls in love with some hideous beast.

But Cupid accidentally scratches himself with his arrow and falls madly for Psyche.

Meanwhile Psyche’s father receives a prophecy that Psyche’s husband will rain death and destruction on the world. Like any rational loving parent, he decides to sacrifice his daughter by leaving her on a cliff.

A wind god transports her to a gorgeous garden on the edge of gorgeous magical manor. Hiding from her view, Cupid gives her various instructions that end up with them in a dark bedroom. He forbids her to look at his face. Night after night, they tryst in the darkness, and he leaves before dawn.

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - Amore e Psiche - Google Art Project

Her older sisters, who might have been jealous of Psyche’s change of fortune, recite the prophecy of the awful winged creature back to her and urge her to do something about the monster that she’s taken to her bed.

So one night, intent on seeing then killing the beast (so she’s both Belle and Gaston here), Psyche hides an oil lamp and a dagger that she takes out after Cupid falls asleep. But instead of a monster, she sees a—ahem—hot naked angel™.

She’s so shocked to find this perfect specimen of male beauty in her bed that she bumps into his quiver, wounds herself on an arrow, and is so beset by passion that she shakes the oil lamp, burning Cupid and awakening him.

And now the hot naked angel™. is full of wrath that she betrayed his trust.

So Cupid flies away and Psyche (who is now pregnant, by the way) tries to follow him, but she fails. Because, duh, she’s a mortal and can’t fly.

Cupid decides to nurse his wounds at his mother’s house, where Aphrodite finds that her son failed to punish Psyche like she originally wanted.

So the goddess takes her revenge, violently torturing Psyche before fashioning a series of trials, which Psyche completes mainly because all these random things (ants, reeds, eagles, towers) decide to help her. I guess they don’t much care for Goddess of Beauty either, and besides that, Psyche has endeared herself to some of the other gods who want to help her because she’s not actually this horrible person Aphrodite’s making her out to be.

The goddess’s final trial sends Psyche with a box to fetch some beauty from the goddess of the Underworld. When she completes the task, Psyche
—like Pandora—can’t resist opening the box to claim some of this treasure for herself.

But the box, purportedly containing beauty, actually holds the sleep of death, which makes me wonder why Persephone wanted to kill Aphrodite or, more philosophically, if death is the only way to permanently capture the memory of beauty.

Now a healed Cupid comes upon Psyche, apparently defying his mother yet again. We should totally forgive him for ignoring his lover up to now, leaving her in her time of need, and letting his mother abuse her, and suddenly remember that Psyche broke his trust and he’s the wronged one in all of this. And if none of those reasons work for you, I’ll remind you he’s a hot naked angel™ (and a spoiled ancient Greek god).

So he comes to her rescue because he was struck by own arrow, hoisted by his own petard, so to speak, and still loves Psyche.

Cupid removes the sleep from Psyche’s face (which smacks of Sleeping Beauty to me) takes her and the box to his mom, and then goes to make his case to Zeus to let him marry Psyche, make her a goddess, and protect her from further scheming by her new mother-in-law.

And they live immortally ever after.

Not sure if this makes you feel better or worse about Cupid as a symbol of Valentine’s Day, but if you don’t want to think about cherubic babies pointing sharp objects at you, you can always instead envision a hot naked angel™.