The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist, it is by the ideal that we live. – Victor Hugo
When it comes to the talking about love no other country has, as many love stories as India. Royalty in ancient India might have tied the knot for sake of convenience, but all our Gods had ‘marriages of choice’. Often they did much ‘tapas’ to get the object of their affection. And even though Laila-Majnun’s story is originally not Indian, India has immortalized it in movies, and songs, more than the country of its origin. Not to mention that we have several such Indian stories to beat the Romeo-Juliet concept. And not to forget that erotic love in India was not only accepted but, actually celebrated.
So why object to Valentine’s Day celebration?
Growing up in India, we may not have known much about St. Valentine, but we sure heard much about love. How can you not in the land of Geeta Govinda? (I would include Bollywood but in the last two decades our film industries have tried to match non-Indian film industries in forwarding what ‘love’ means.)
Commitment and dedication in marriage, and the significance of having only one partner in a lifetime was also drilled into us! Commitment was held higher than meaningless attachments. And such expectations of physical and emotional purity, an important aspect of defining character, were not ‘only’ from women but also men. And therefore, the idea of ‘Puroshottam Ram, the ideal man who broke the tradition of Kings having multiple wives, and was devoted only to Ma Sita, even they were apart, whether as Ravana’s captive, or with Rishi Valmiki when Lord Rama had to give up his pati-dharma to follow raj-dharma.
Celebration of love in the Indian context was also never limited to romantic love, amor but acknowledged an agape like passion for various relationships. Parents’, especially mother’s love for their children, (also rendered in mythology, history, movies, songs and poetry), love for your family-especially the sister-brother relationship through Raksha-Bandhan, love of students for their teachers and vice-versa, and so on. There were many words to distinguish between various manifestations of love – prem, sneh, vatsalya, mamta, pyaar, preet, pranay, kaamna, chaah, sammoh, and anuraag.
Rich, deep, thought-provoking, inspiring stuff!
Did it mean that we did not have unhealthy relationships where love’s flow was blocked? Absolutely not! There were cracks. And they cracks were measured with an ideal—Adarsh! What ought to be!!
But a rude awakening, about how narrow was the understanding of love in many places, awaited me. On my first Valentine’s Day in the US, along with junk mail, phone bill and some coupons, in my dorm mailbox, there was a condom. The resident director smiled at my confusion, and said, ‘Happy Valentine’s day!’, as if it was a token of genuine concern.
The word ‘love’ itself was used glibly – love for a person was expressed with same words and tone, as love of food, pets or TV shows. Like was equated with love, love was often only a like. And romantic love, though may nor may not have the intention of commitment, was always accompanied with physical affection. In fact, exchange of physical affection was how a ‘love’ relationship began, in the expectation that it will lead to trust and a healthy emotional relationship, not the other way around.
Interestingly, today this idea of love—where physical precedes and takes precedence over the emotional, mental and spiritual, is what is reinforced via the media. But more interestingly, this message of love and sex (and consumerism) being intertwined is often directed at people who are not in a committed relationship. Despite being romantic musicals Bollywood, until recently, focused on emotional involvement sans physical one. Mainly because it understood that exchange of physical affection without meeting of the souls was meaningless. Physical union was not less important, but enhanced by an emotional connection. Since the support of western studios, even Bollywood has leaned towards a more Hollywood style of ‘love’, which promotes physical intimacy, without accountability. More movies about joys of uncommitted sex are made than an unwanted pregnancy or emotional scars from meaningless relationships.
Valentine’s Day was supposed to address both platonic and romantic love. But, the mother of all media industries, the US, has focused only on the romantic and intertwined sex and love, very conveniently, in service of market economy. Every sitcom and magazine has special issue dedicated to the day. No surprise that come Valentine’s Day, restaurants are booked, sales of chocolates and flowers goes up, movies are released, diamond rings are bought, and possibly sale of contraceptives is high around February. In fact, countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia have complained about the fact that condoms are promoted as a ‘guilt free pass’, around February 14.
So, when these holidays get transported to India, Indonesia, Pakistan etc. the focus on platonic love is missing. Delivering a dual function, of consumerism and westernization, Valentine’s day is turned into a ‘youth festival’ and made to seem ‘progressive’ which the ‘backward, older generation’ cannot understand.’
For those who are already turned off by reading this and will not read further, let me state that Valentine’s day celebration is not that popular in Europe, the birthplace of the Saint. And that by no means am I supporting the violence that has sometime accompanied Valentine’s Day in India and other countries.
While protests against Valentine’s Day are presented as protests against modernization (think westernization), here are some thoughts on aspects that are hardly considered in detail.
Concept of Love itself
The concept of love in the east, with its special focus on reincarnation, is certainly very unique. In the east, love was not arrived at, by trial and error, it was a resolve that continued for lifetimes, not just one short life, and so in a sense as it was close as one can get to eternity. The seventh century novel Kadambari, is actually a love story where the lovers go through several lifetimes to be with each other. The adarsh in India was long-term relationship, even when it was a Gandharva vivah (equivalent of western romantic love), which provided security to the family unit and therefore the society. Not a fling, nor just summer-dating, or something to be experimented with. Inherent in that idea was conviction of ‘knowing one’s heart’. Indian spring holiday of Vasant Utsav or Holi and autumn celebration of Vivaah Panchami were dedicated to celebrating love and commitment. While Krishna, is associated with Holi, both Lord Ram and Lord Shiva hailed on Vivaah Panchami, testifying that love in all forms was praised in our culture.
Valentine’s Day, as celebrated today, does not focus on commitment. The focus on the same person and several lifetimes would make it much too eastern. Valentine’s Day in the way it is advertised to keep it controversy free is — just about the moment, flowers, chocolates, latest movie followed by a three course dinner at an expensive restaurant. Very market oriented—with a focus on boosting sales!! An example of this thinking is that a sleazy film like Fifty Shades of Gray was released in February of 2014, as a date-movie. What’s love got to do with it?
The Adarsh is Missing, and love is commoditized
Adarsh, the ideal what ought to be, is a standard which every society must have, both personal and public. What is the ‘ideal’ in this case? Is there one? The concept that what we do in private lives does not matter until it affects anyone is quite incomplete. As I see it, many of our acts, both public and private have a ripple effect. But the fact is that Valentine’s Day with its public celebration is not really a private affair. And often this depiction of love does not necessarily imply long-term commitment or sacrifice, both of which are an important component when we talk about ‘love’.
While there should not be any restriction on how and with whom we fall in love, the casual associations and flings promoted as a lifestyle are certainly not the ideal. In fact, it is a good recipe for taking commitment lightly. Old Bollywood movies therefore, reflecting the Indian ideal, began in playfulness, courtship and usually ended in marriage. But the commitment free emotional entanglement is a sure recipe for creating a very insecure population because it removes the significance of accountability. Love, in a real sense should begin and continue in commitment with an inherent idea of improving oneself and the relationship. As I heard somewhere, ‘Love is a decision’. In fact, it is both an emotion and a decision, but once the decision is made, emotions are not the only ones leading the way, for they fluctuate even with the waxing and waning of the moon. Because, ideally the emotion and the decision, are supposed to function like one.
What value is love without commitment? Romantic or not. Adarsh-romantic love, would always end up singing, janam janam ka saath hamara!
Critique is equated with Being Regressive, even as every emotion is commoditized
Globalization can be blamed for this one. As a part of a global market we must join forces and believe that all these holidays –especially if they come from the west, are just part of being ‘modern’. We must also buy the idea that all cultures and civilizations end up on the same road as that the west has paved.
Mother’s and Father’s day, also new to India, are holidays to bring families together in countries where adult children do not live with their parents. In India, holidays such as Raksha Bandhan, Bhai Duj, Goad-Bharai (for pregnant women), and tradition of post-natal women to stay at their parents for months are ways in which families connect regularly. During these visits, daughters and sisters, sons and brothers exchange gifts. Parents, grandparents and other extended family members are always a part of that celebration.
While people have less of an objection to parent’s day celebrations, they are artificially created Hallmark holidays (the card company)! Notice how cleverly the days are placed on Sundays, which while providing no extra time away from work (no loss to the state) generate revenue for the stores. Valentine’s Day is the same, while it does not fall on a Sunday because it is the birthdate of the saint, no day is given off and it generates sales. But to question these new imports is considered backward, and an opposition to modernization. So, how about we change the question. Would countries like the US be willing to add about three national holidays for these days? So that families and romantic relationships can truly be celebrated at home with loved ones? But that would cost the state and might even reduce sales – na bibi na bachcha, na baap bada na maiya, the whole thing is that ke bhaiya sabse bada rupaiyah!
Duplicitous media: Media‘s Deliberate Incomplete Reporting
Advertisements for Valentine’s day start appearing in January, but there is hardly ever a show on what might be common wo/man’s arguments against this. Media simply covers the anger and violence that follows Valentine’s Day, without ever having a serious coverage of various viewpoints or questioning the impact of short term love commitments on a society. It is interesting to see how Indian media, for the last decade, has reveled in first reminding people of the day, and then covered the anger towards the celebration. Never have they tried to do a long series on understanding of love from a stand-point of different cultures, and the reasons behind them. Nor do they critique the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day. Nor have they talked about failure of romantic love, almost everywhere. Considering practically ‘every marriage’ in western countries is supposedly a result of ‘love-interaction’ it is interesting to examine the high rate of divorce or the fact that people would rather co-habit than commit. Seriously, where in this scenario do we smell ‘love?’ If media were concerned, it could simply make a pact with the concept of ‘non-commercialization of emotions’, and not allow any ads related to Valentine’s day, no celebration of it on any TV shows and no Bollywood songs around it. After all, India has a much better celebration for spring, – Saraswati Puja, Goddess of knowledge, how many countries outside of India, does one see copying our festivals? The fact is that media, especially English speaking media in India has been interested in presenting native traditions as being in conflict with modernity, animal rights and environmentally conscious behavior. So it frames everything from Illayraja’s win to IPL auction in terms that somehow show divisions in India, or present India as a strife-stricken society that is still living in the dark ages. Kahein to —- Kahin pe nigahen, kahin pe nishaana…
Alla Hjartans Dag (All Hearts Day)
In Scandinavia only weeks before Valentine’s Day, I realized that there were a few things different from the US. Valentine’s Day not only did not have much presence in the display windows, but also there were hardly any special sales, or ads or shows on TV to ‘celebrate’. In the following years, I would learn that Sweden, a country that very much prides itself in its domestic culture and has resisted Americanization in many ways, comes up with a Swedish equivalent for every English word and even a new name for a supposedly an international holiday (my favorite Swedish word is häftapparat—stapler. No other country that I have lived in or travelled to has called it by any other name other than a stapler.) Swedes, who refuse to accept domination of English and Swedishize everything. So Valentine’s Day then becomes Alla Hjartans Dag—All Hearts Day and is associated more with agape than amor. But more importantly, there is no focus on spending. People usually spend it at home with loved ones, in some cases sales of flowers may go up, for they work well with freezing February in Sweden. In that sense, the suggestion of turning Feb 14 to ‘Love Your Parents Day’, is not such a bad idea. So, yes, ‘love your family day’ instead of Valentine’s Day is a good option. Well, an Indian ‘Alla Hjartans Dag’ can be ‘Har Dil Pyar Kare’ (every heart loves). All about love! No need for gifts, no flowers, no three-course meals at restaurants, but just a heart crazy with love that sings with passion.
Featured Image: Flickr