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Socrates, in Plato's work "Symposium", introduces the ladder of love through his conversation with the God-like figure, Diotima. The more knowledge about love one gains, the higher they climb and the less they focus on physical beauty. After Socrates has explained these concepts, Alcibiades steps in. He is confused because he himself is in love with philosophy, but he is also lost in bodily desire. According to the ideology of Socrates as expressed in Plato's work "Symposium" the musician girl from Mehta's "A River Sutra" is at the bottom of Diotima's ladder because she is so entirely infatuated and obsessed with the love of physical beauty, and not Socrates ideal, which is love of wisdom. In the same way, one might say that also Alcibiades is lost in bodily desire at the bottom of the ladder.
In Diotima's Speech, Socrates explains that Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty; "love is wanting to possess the good forever" (Plato 52). He introduces love as a broader term; it is what makes a person happy, and therefore one only desires good things. According to Diotima, Love is a spirit that mediates between man and gods and is therefore not a god. He argues that an ascetic life with passion for wisdom and beauty is the true Love. By saying this, Plato is rejecting the act of sexual love. This argument is in harmony with a philosopher's pursuit of truth. The ultimate goal is to live a pure life so that afterlife goes as smoothly as possible. The body is in the way, trying to disturb this process. Therefore, he concludes, the philosopher's search for wisdom is the most valuable of all pursuits.
Socrates states that understanding love is a process. The process is called the "ladder of love." One begins as a young boy who is attracted to one beautiful body in particular and together they take part in beautiful rituals. The next stage is to understand that all bodies are similar and that it is foolish to only love one specific body. This will make the boy love all beautiful bodies. After a while he will understand that real beauty comes from the mind, not from the body. He will then come to appreciate and love those who are beautiful in mind, whether they are beautiful in body or not.
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Socrates lives in moderation and has no interest in physical pleasure in return for educating Alcibiades. He does not want to exchange deep wisdom for cheap thrills. However, according to Socrates it would be right for Alcibiades to experience heavenly love, so that he can climb one step closer toward love of the Form of Beauty. As long as he keeps Alcibiades from doing this, however, Alcibiades will be stuck on the bottom of the ladder and trapped with bodily desire. In this way he confuses Alcibiades, who then tries to seduce Socrates himself which, which logically does not work. "I couldn't help admiring his character, his moderation, his fortitude-here was a man whose strength and wisdom went beyond my wildest dreams!" (Plato 71). This speech shows that Socrates possesses the qualities of the ideal lover which is introduced in Diotima's speech. Socrates is not physically attractive, but his great wisdom attracts Alcibiades more than any handsome man could. The love of wisdom is therefore presented as the most desirable of all kind of love. People have to learn how to control bodily desire because one may quickly grow tired of a sexual partner. However, the attraction to wisdom, truth, and beauty is unavoidable and always fulfilling.
In "A River Sutra" the reader is faced with the same problem as in "Symposium". The narrator is shocked when he sees the musician girl's face because from behind she looked attractive; "She turned around to thank me and I gasped, astonished that she should be so ugly when I had imagined her so beautiful. A large nose tilted across her almost masculine face to overshadow the thin lips lost in a chin that curved upward like a handle" (Mehta 195). This incident makes the reader understand how the narrator is emphasizing bodily attractiveness. In response to the quote above, the musician girl answers "People are always alarmed the first time they see me" (Mehta 195). It is not only the narrator that considers bodily attractiveness to be important, it is the society and religion as well; "Shiva was moved to such tenderness by the sight that he created an instrument to immortalize his wife's immortal beauty-the first instrument of music, the veena" (Mehta 196). The musician's mother never did anything to comfort her when the other kids sniggered at her ugliness. This is another example of how the Indian society values appearance.
The musician has been aware of her ugliness all her childhood. Her father, however, can be said to act as a foil to her, as he seems to be the only one who values other qualities and loves music; "Perhaps only genius can see beauty in what appears ugly. My father can. And he is called a genius" (Mehta 196). In this way we can see the likeness between Socrates and the musician's father, they both desire wisdom of some kind instead of bodily desires. She mentions that "He told me he would die happy if he were able to create such music five or ten times in a whole lifetime" (Mehta 202). In Socrates definitions, this means he is in love with music and in love with the mind of a musician. Another example of this is "Perhaps I did my father injustice. Through music he tried to free me of my own image so I could love beauty wherever it was to be found, even if it was not present in my mirror" (Mehta 211). The father tries to teach her to love music instead of bodily attractiveness, just like Socrates who tries to teach the other philosophers to love wisdom instead of bodily desire.
After a while the parents want their daughter to marry. The proposal falls naturally on a handsome boy who is dedicated to music. In exchange he will get music lessons from the daughters father. This is an offer that cannot be resisted, but when he sees the daughter he is shocked. However, he is willing to sacrifice because his love of music is stronger than the love of the body. Here also, we can see that love is often based on bodily attractiveness. This is not the sophisticated kind of love, according to Socrates. However, after they have had lessons together for awhile, struggling with the strict father (teacher), they seem to get along better and better, and play better and better. It seems like they are climbing a "ladder of music", in Socrates' terms;
"I embraced the music of the stranger's veena and through the strings of my sitar I told him that I dared to love his beauty. Slowly, oh how slowly, the stranger's music began responding to the request in mine until we were no longer conscious of my father's presence in the room, only hearing the pleading of my ragini to be the wife of his lordly raga, the silence between our notes growing electric with desire" (Mehta 222).
The music seems to be bringing them together, but when the father decides to let the student decide himself, whether or not to marry her, he marries someone else for an unknown reason. This is what breaks the musician's heart. Additionally, it's the reason for her pilgrimage to the Narmada river, where she hopes to get cured. She is obsessed with bodily desire, and cannot play music before she is cured inside; "He says that I must understand that I am the bride of music, not of a musician. But it is an impossible penance that he demands of me, to express desire in my music when I'm dead inside" (Mehta 226). This quote shows that the musician is still on the bottom of the ladder of love, because she hasn't yet experienced common love. This is her only wish, proving that she has not advanced to the next stage on the ladder yet. It seems that she is negative towards the pilgrimage she is doing, to get rid of this desire. If she does not get to experience the love of a beautiful body, it will be impossible for her to move on and learn that all bodies are the same. We can draw a parallel between the musician and Alcibiades in "Phaedo", who both are lost in bodily desire, and cannot move on until these desires are satisfied in one way or another.
In both books one can understand that there are different levels of love, as one experiences more love, one advances and gets closer to what is defined as sophisticated love in "Phaedo". The difference seems to be that "A River Sutra" describes a whole society, where many individuals naturally have not been able to move on to the next stage yet. In "Phaedo", Plato describes a small group of wise individuals, who have contemplated more than the average person about the subject. It is therefore natural that the philosophers have a more sophisticated view upon love.