There is nothing foul in love and war” is a frequently used and oft-debated line, inspiring many to get reckless in the pursuit of their coveted goals while vexing and perplexing an almost equal number of human beings for justification of unethical behaviour in achieving the targeted end through purely unfair means. Incidents of passion involving men and women have had many mind-boggling, soul-inspiring as well as macabre and gutwrenching conclusions since the arrival of human beings on earth, and they have cut across countries, cultures, castes, creeds and religions.
While most religious scriptures and traditional cultural norms find true fruition of such passionate relationships in marital love and happy life ever after, an uncountable number of such relationships unfortunately end or have ended catastrophically, in real life as well as in fiction, mythologies, legends and folklore, resulting in the murders, deaths, grievous injuries, barbaric revenge or other painful consequences for one or both the lovers, and in many cases involving families.
Some recent incidents of disturbing nature have brought to the fore the question whether ethics, morality, tolerance and sanity at all matter in the pursuit of objectives in love relationships. Cases of unnerving nature involving “love” are being reported from many parts of the globe on a regular basis and pleasant romantic tales are getting replaced by sordid passion sagas with motives of greed, conversion, violence, and vendetta.
While love in itself is a divine feeling cherished and celebrated by religions, communities, poets, philosophers and people of all ages and climes, it has quite often generated feelings like possessiveness, jealousy, mendacity, treachery, faithlessness, fickleness and violence. Leafing through the pages of ancient epics and mythologies one finds instances of violent and unethical acts and behaviour of leading characters that stun our sensibilities and pain our conscience.
With love, violence is usually never far behind in a number of Shakespeare’s plays like Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida, where violence and vile feelings have been unleashed ruthlessly. In the major tragedies like Hamlet and Othello, love is encountered by or mired in villainy, virulence, treachery and suspicion. Even in his comedies and romances, love is often overwhelmed by vicious conspiracies, disloyalty, abuse and acrimony.
A classic example of the portrayal of violent love is Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights where the central character Heathcliff pursues love with violent passion rather than with intelligence, gentleness and sophistication. In fairy tales, love often encounters vile plots and scheming villains delaying its otherwise smooth march. In today’s world too, love often gets entangled with violence, falsehood, brutality, and unscrupulousness. Violence in love knots, marital or otherwise, have been generally taken for granted by women as they are guided by traditional social or cultural norms which prescribe and normalise dominance and superiority for men and deference and dependence for women.
Women quite often cite or rely on romantic narratives – which entail both fairy tale and dark versions – to make sense of violence in their relationships. Partner abuse takes on many forms: physical, emotional, or verbal and sexual. Other forms of abuse include stalking, financial abuse and digital abuse (use of technology to harass, stalk or intimidate the partner). Love takes a lurid turn where the lover allegedly forces the beloved to convert to his or her faith for the purpose of marriage. Love jihad has been a burning topic in India for quite some time, yet an equally alarming thing is the rise of ‘honour killing” incidents where a boy or girl is killed by their family members to “protect” the reputation or honour of their families.
But violence in marriage and love has no moral or religious approval or sanction. St Augustine wrote that the true basis of married love is the attachment of hearts. World religions and the Natural Law have always protected the sanctity of marriage and the family. Marriage affords a framework for the mutual love and self-giving of man and woman to each other in human sexuality, and in so doing provides for continuity of the human family.
In Hinduism, marriage is considered to harmonise two individuals for ultimate eternity, so that they can pursue dharma (responsibility/ duties), arth (meaning wealth or property), and kama (sensual pleasure). Romantic love holds an unusually important place in Hindu imagination. It is the prime focus of courtly poetry, and complex narratives about romantic love date as far back as 300 BCE. Love relationships maturing into marriage also find place in Hindu religion as is evident from the love legends of Dushyant and Shakuntala and Savitri and Satyavan.
The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (13:4-8) states: “Love is patient, love is kind, / love is not jealous or boastful, / it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves describes four kinds of human love: affection, romantic love, friendship and the love of God. Plato considered Eros or romantic love something like poetic rapture upon seeing the beauty of another. Eros is not mere carnal desire, but the longing for the beauty and company of the beloved when two persons fall in love.
Karol Wojtyla who later became Pope John Paul the Second wrote in his book Love and Responsibility in 1960 that in true love between a man and woman, there is an evolution from attraction and desire to a feeling of good will towards the other. A healthy integration of sensuality, sentiment and kindness takes place so that one looks to the other with love and treasures the other person.
The Danish existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard described love as uniting the temporal with the eternal. Even though one’s loved has died and is no longer with that person, love lives on for the one who is cherished. Love is the favourite subject of artists and poets throughout the ages. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a story of two starcrossed lovers, is one of the most moving plays ever written. Tennyson wrote that “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”.
The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote “Love is to know the pain of too much tenderness… ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation”. Popular music is also filled with the subject of love, and some of the memorable love songs include “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, “Earth Angels” by the Penguins, “Close to You” by Karen and Richard Carpenter and “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce.
But violence in personal relationships and phenomena like domestic violence, “honour killing” and marriage for religious conversion mar the blessed saga of love cherished so much in all religions and in all communities. According to the report “Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates 2018”, published jointly by different components of the United Nations system, one in three women experiences domestic violence globally. In the 1980s, the FBI reported that in the USA a man beat a wife or girlfriend every 18 seconds; by 1992 this happened every 12 seconds. The situation is not much different in other countries and violence is only intensifying with time. Laws to ban forcible religious conversion are welcome, but discretion is required to avoid unnecessary victimisation.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of women are murdered globally by their families each year in the name of “family honour”, the perpetrators go unpunished, and the concept of family honour justifies the act in the eyes of some societies. Some reports submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights show that this despicable phenomenon has occurred in countries like Bangladesh, Great Britain, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and Uganda.
Eric Fromm, the German social psychologist (1900-1990), stated: “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and, yet, which fails so regularly as love”. But true love is not a wilful activity, it springs from the innermost core of our being and as Shakespeare wrote in Merchant of Venice, it, like mercy, cannot be forced. Love flows eternally in the hearts of men and women in spite of the risk of failure, tragedy and separation or intimate partner violence. Undoubtedly, the word “love”, as Shelley felt, “is too often profaned”, cheapened and vulgarised, yet it still remains mankind’s greatest source of comfort at all hours of our existence, at all times and in all climes. As long as living beings exist on earth, love is there to stay as, to quote St. Paul, “Love is eternal”.
(The writer, a Ph D in English is a freelance contributor who teaches at the Government sponsored Sailendra Sircar Vidyalaya, Shyambazar, Kolkata.)