Having previously written on the varieties of love; on Indian films; and on ethnic, religious, and cultural conflicts, I was delighted recently to discover on Amazon Prime an Indian film that dealt both with different types of love and with Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan conflicts. The title of the movie is Sita Ramam; and like Romeo and Juliet it comes from the names of the story’s two lovers, the female Sita and the male Ramam (or more frequently Ram).
As might be expected from the film industry, whether in the USA or India, the main type of love dealt with here is the most popular type, romantic love. The central plot involves the young Ram, a lieutenant in the Indian Army, receiving letters from a mysterious woman named Sita and their subsequent blossoming love for each other—and the various impediments that arise threatening to thwart that love.
I greatly appreciate such romantic love, and was once myself a young army lieutenant who received letters from a distant love (my future wife, Nancy), and like Ram in the film I cherished them. And also like Ram, I felt that period of getting to know a loved woman was a wondrous time—though not accompanied with as much singing and dancing as in Sita Ramam.
Besides the music, its additional plusses are colorful scenery, attractive main characters, dramatic plotting, and flashes of humor, with only its length (2 hours, 38 minutes) being a minus—at least for some.
But for several reasons, this essay will not emphasize the love story of Sita and Ram. First, it is complex and dramatic, and revealing too much detail, especially about the ending, would spoil the not-knowing-how-it’s-going-to-end experience of potential viewers. Secondly, the type of love I wish to stress is a more complex type, sometimes called agape (“love that intentionally desires another’s highest good”), which is only briefly alluded to early in the film.
That occurs in a scene in London set in 1985. There a Pakistani student named Afreen is called by a college official who tells her to apologize to an Indian philanthropist, Anand Mehta, whose car she has recently set on fire. (In England today live more than one million each of people of Indian and Pakistani descent.) Mr. Mehta asks her, “Why are you so full of anger?” She replies, “Simple. To Find a Solution” To which he answers, “There is only one solution for your rage, your hatred and your violence. And that is love.” Afreen understands the type of love he means, and says, “Oho! So, you are the kind of guy who shows the other cheek when slapped on one, right? Like your man, Gandhi?” (Filmscript can be read here.)
And she was right. Gandhi (1869-1948) did stress that type of love. Here are just a few samples.
I am trying every moment of my life to be guided…by love.
THE FORCE of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth…Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force… And what is true of families and communities is true of nations.
Wherever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love…If love or non-violence be not the law of our being…there is no escape from a periodical recrudescence of war, each succeeding one outdoing the preceding one in ferocity.
Forgiveness is a quality of the soul…It is a positive quality and means the supreme virtue of charity or love.
Love never claims, it ever gives. Love ever suffers, never resents, never revenges itself.
We must widen the circle of our love till it embraces the whole village; the village in its turn must take into its fold the district, the district the province, and so on till the scope of our love becomes co-terminus with the world.
I have known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths.
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The real love is to love them that hate you, to love your neighbour even though you distrust him.
If we are to reach real peace in this world…we shall go from love to love.
Little wonder that the Catholic lover-of-the-poor Dorothy Day wrote, “There is no public figure who has more conformed his life to the life of Jesus Christ than Gandhi.” Day sometimes participated in protests along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers, and King was also a great a great admirer of Gandhi and his words on love.
In fact, while still a theological student, MLK was heavily influenced by Gandhi and began developing a theology and philosophy based on love. According to Stephen Oates’ biography of King, in the early 1960s King stated that “love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.” Oates sums up Gandhi’s teaching and its influence on King. “Gandhi’s goal was not to defeat the British in India, but to redeem them through love, so as to avoid a legacy of bitterness. His term for this—Satyagraha [non-violent resistance]—reconciled love and force in a single, powerful concept. King considered Gandhi ‘probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful effective social force on a large scale.’”
In 1957 MLK delivered a powerful sermon on “Loving Your Enemies.” In it he said, “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” In February 1968, just two months before his assassination, he told a congregation at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta that he wanted to be remembered as someone who “tried to love and serve humanity.”
Although both Day and King realized (as Day once wrote) that the continuous practice of such love is “a hard, hard doctrine,” they were not alone in preaching it. One of my favorite writers, Kentuckian Wendell Berry, has also emphasized it. For example, “Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence. What can accomplish this reduction? I will say . . . that only love can do it. Only love can bring intelligence out of the institutions and organizations, where it aggrandizes itself, into the presence of the work that must be done.” Berry also believes that love is the key to saving us from war, racism, and the politics of hate.
And this brings us back to Sita Ramam because the story of the lovers Sita and Ram is framed by the conflict between Muslims and Hindus, especially in the disputed territory of Kashmir, where in 1965 Lt. Ram is stationed. Part of it we learn from flashbacks after the student Afreen returns in 1985 to India and Pakistan, including Kashmir, part of which remains a contested area. (An Indian newspaper earlier this month reported that two anti-Indian terrorists were killed by security forces in the Srinagar area of Kashmir.)
In 1947 the British granted independence to their former colony of India. But the Muslim leaders in that territory feared they would be treated as a minority in an independent India, so they persuaded Britain to divide their former possession into two states, and one became India, where Hindus were dominant, and the other Pakistan, where Muslims were the majority. The main problem, however, was that Muslim and Hindu communities were scattered throughout British India, and conflict between the two groups occurred right away. One source estimates that because of it “15 million people were displaced and an estimated one million died.” The war that broke out in 1947 between India and Pakistan was also known as the First Kashmir War because Kashmir was a central locus of the conflict.
All of this killing and displacement of both Hindus and Muslims troubled Gandhi greatly. A few of the most moving scenes in the film Gandhi (1983), for which Ben Kingsly won an Oscar, come near the end of it. Troubled by the violence against Muslims that he witnessed in the Indian capital of Delhi, Gandhi began an indefinite fast that he said he would not end until the violence against Muslims ceased. As he fasted for six days and seemed closer to death, the violence ebbed dramatically and a peace pledge was signed by almost 200,000 that read: “We the Hindu, Sikh, Christian and other citizens of Delhi declare solemnly our conviction that Muslim citizens of the Indian Union should be as free as the rest of us to live in Delhi in peace and security and with self-respect and to work for the good and well-being of the Indian Union.”
But before that point was reached, bringing Gandhi to end his fast, he also met with a Hindu man, who confessed that he killed a Muslim child because Muslims had killed his own son. Gandhi tells him, “Find a child–a child whose mother and father have been killed. A little boy…Only be sure…that he is a Muslim. And that you raise him as one.” Not long after this meeting, while at a prayer session on 30 January, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu who thought that preacher of love and peace, who thought of himself as a Hindu, was too pro-Muslim.
As mentioned above, Sita Ramam is framed by the conflict between Muslims and Hindus, especially in the disputed territory of Kashmir. And although the film barely indicates that Sita is Muslim and Ram a Hindu, Ram finds himself in the midst of the conflict between the followers of the two religions, and this conflict will eventually decide the fate of the two lovers.
I have often written of ethnic, religious, and other types of intolerance, and agree with Gandhi’s sentiment that “the golden rule of conduct…is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision…The only possible rule of conduct in any civilized society is, therefore, mutual toleration.”
Most recently I favorably quoted words from a boy’s father in Belfast, another film that dealt with a conflict that on the surface was about religious differences but deeper down was much more complex. After the Protestant boy asks his dad if he has any possible future with a Catholic girl the dad responds, “That wee girl can be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist or a Vegetarian Anti-Christ. But if she’s kind and she’s fair, and you two respect each other, she an’ her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.”
In our world today intolerance runs amok—against other races, against other nations, against immigrants, against those with differing political views. This is true in the USA, and it is still true in India—and maybe even more so during the eight-year rule of nationalist Prime Minister N. Modi. In many parts of Europe and in the USA an increasing number of migrants and refugees have inadvertently fueled right-wing opposition. Russians and Ukrainians are at war. In the Middle East, Jewish-Muslim tensions are ongoing.
The Bible, Gandhi, MLK, Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry, and many others might stress one type of love (agape), and Hollywood and foreign films highlight another kind (romantic love), but intolerance, wars, and religious-ethnic-cultural conflicts still garner more headlines than either. A valuable aspect of Sita Ramam is that it reminds us of the delights of romantic love, while at the same time depicting the horrors of the absence of another type—agape love.