Sunday, August 16, 2015

Friendship - Does it matter with whom?

                Friendship is  a wonderful feeling, not restricted to mankind alone. We hear about unusual animal friends, elephant and dog, fox and cat, cheetah and dog1. Friendship is a very unique experience which transcends the physical connection. It is a special bond that glues even the impossible connection between odds or even the closest possible human relationship as witnessed in long time married couples.

                Friendship has been extolled in Ramayana and Mahabharata. Friendship principles are defined through various characters. We see friendship even in robbers, corrupt people and also amongst saints. Though friendship can be glorified, do the robber friends take each other to a better place by robbing together.

                Many confuse being friendly and loving to all as friendship. This feeling must be taught universally as it helps us to be tolerant to the divergent views of others. But is this friendship? Another frequently suggested romanticized idea is to overlook the flaws and be a friend. I will later on show how this is totally wrong.

                There is also a modern understanding of having friendship for the duration it lasts. Sounds more along the lines of making hay while the sun shines. This is more businesslike and does not constitute friendship.

                Avvaiyar, one of the greatest south Indian poet saints, has given her eternal insights into relationship. The test of a good relationship is what they do under duress. A friend in need is a friend in deed, says an English proverb2. Friendship is one of the finest forms of relationship.

Avvaiyar's Moothurai
அற்ற குளத்தில் அறுநீர்ப் பறவைபோல்
உற்றுழித் தீர்வர் உறவல்லர் -அக்குளத்தில்
கொட்டியும் ஆம்பலும் நெய்தலும் போலவே
ஒட்டி உறுவார் உறவு
A water-bird leaves a pond if it dries up. Likewise, relatives leave in times of poverty and they are not true relatives. True relatives are those who stay without leaving even in bad times similar to the flowers (kotti, lilies, neithal) that stay in the pond even when it dries up.

                Thiruvalluvar has dedicated an entire set of 10 Kurals (Natpadhikaram) to highlight this special relationship - friendship. The one that captures the entire spirit of friendship is

முகநக நட்பது நட்பன்று நெஞ்சத்து 
அகநக நட்பது நட்பு.
                         - kuraL 786 ( நட்பதிகாரம்)

Not the sheer smile on the face makes a friend sincere
But, that which makes the heart smile and rejoice is truly dear.

                By these definitions, we should be able to conclude that even the best of robber friends can be a definition of friendship. Indian literature is filled with the wisdom and incidents on various aspects of friendship. Before we rush in haste, let us examine some of the great examples cast in Ramayana and Mahabharata.

                We need to cast aside the currently portrayed TV/media versions of Ramayana and the usual debating points to gain a better insight from scriptures. Many of them do not spend time studying these, but have gathered it from hearsay or other's talking points. The danger in such an approach is we have a totally imaginary understanding of scriptures.

                Lord Rama, is not the mere hero of a pastime story, but an ideal example of being the most ideal person.  He is referred to as MaryadaPurushottama.  Let us take the three examples of friendship he strikes, but whom he treats as his own brothers - Guha, the boatsman; Sugreeva, the vanara living in fear from his brother Vaali and Vibhishana, the brother of his adversary, Ravana.

                Guha, a small time leader of a boating community, sets the tone of friendship. Rama proves that in friendship, both the participants are equal. The status or prowess of the participants are not of any value in a relationship. Nor is their status in the society.  In Guha-Rama friendship, both are of equal stature, though Guha's  friendship morphs as bhakthi. This is often seen in many friendships where one personality is more dominant than the other.

                We see the above pattern repeat for Sugreeva and Vibhishana also. But Rama does not let this adoration alter his friendship. He repeatedly highlights their strengths and is thankful for their contribution.  Rama sets an example of how to treat a fallen friend. Sugreeva is lost in merry making, forgetting the promise he made to Rama in finding kidnapped Sita. Rama implores Sugreeva who keeps procrastinating. Lakshmana is bent on destroying Sugreeva for his folly. Rama had to tone him down and make him promise not to hurt. But repurpose his anger to remind and bring some sense to Sugreeva. This is an excellent example, that we must not give up on a fallen friend or one who goes back on his promise. But is there a case when one is totally bent on violating friendship. We will see this shortly in the case of Duryodhana-Karna.

                Sugreeva's episode also highlights that promises made to a friend ought to be kept at all costs. Rama is caught in Dharmasankata, a choice between two dharmas. Having already promised the Kingdom to Sugreeva he is forced to make a choice of shooting Vaali . Friendship pact also can bind one to making moral choices as our morality can be colored by friendship.

                Vibhishana episode provides extreme insight into the balance of Rama's mind. He not only took the enemy's brother who surrenders under his wing, but also elevates him to a brother. Rama is not moved by the suspicions of Sugreeva or Lakshmana.

                In all the above examples, there is a give and take in friendship. It is never a one-sided equation. Guha gets a chance to serve Rama by taking him across the river. Sugreeva raises a huge vaanara army to support Rama's cause of defeating the Rakshasa army of Ravana. Vibhishana comes to the aid of Rama by providing pushapaka vimana to aid in Rama reaching Ayodhya to rescue Bharata and uphold his promise to return on time.

                While the Ramayana provides glorious examples of friendship, there is not much to differentiate the diversity that occurs in real life. Mahabharata provides numerous examples, but we will limit to only four such pairs of friends.
                Drona and Drupada, being the best of friends in ashram part ways. Drupada promises Drona half the kingdom in the name of friendship. Both Drona and Drupada take this to extremes.  Drona under the pressures of extreme penury is forced to believe that he can claim  half the kingdom. Drupada, not keeping his word, insults the former. This leads to nasty turn of events of revenge throughout both their lives. This gives an outstanding message that intimate friendship can turn to bitter rivalry when egos are not kept in check.

                Duryodhana-Karna form a beautiful bond of friendship, right at the moment, Karna enters the plot. Karna despite having higher internal values cannot maintain this elevated moral ground due to the friendship. They both are genuinely interested in each other, but their lives are the best clue to answering the question, does it matter whom we are friends with.  Karna plays second fiddle during the Lakshagraha incident. He goes to extent of insulting Draupadi as a prostitute to please his friend. Though his core values of charity, valor are not lost, but one can clearly observe Karna's intellect being clouded due to his friendship. Duryodhana is equally placing his trust in Karna. Even when Duryodhana is captured by Chitrasena, despite Karna's fleeing or the entire Kaurava army being routed by a single handed Arjuna, does not dent his faith in Karna's valor.

                Karna gets to know his birth secret from Krishna and also a way to resolve the conflict without wat. Karna knew very well that  Yudhishtra will never consent to fight at any cost, if he comes to know Karna is his brother. Though his personal rivalry with Arjuna comes to the fore, it is his friendship with Duryodhana that guides his decisions. This is a great example of friendship steering the moral compass and the decision making process.

                The episode of Sudama-Krishna showcases  the exact opposite way to treat a good old friend. Sudama, unlike the idiotic TV representations, is a highly pious man in deep poverty. He is often wrongly portrayed as a man with so many children. Reluctantly under the pressure of poverty and the need to feed his family, he treads to Krishna's palace on the behest of his wife. Carrying borrowed poha (beaten rice) as an offering he announces hesitatingly at the gates. Krishna on hearing his name, rushes to the gates to bring him with full honors. Krishna's wives have never seen anyone command so much respect join him without his inputs. They wash his feet with arghya and but Krishna and Sudama's tears of joy seem to be more. In a spell of love and friendship that transcends time the two unequals redefine friendship.

                Krishna reminds Sudama if his wife had sent any gift, as Sudama is too ashamed to offer. This teaches an important lesson that in our past Indian culture, no one, especially ones in higher states of love, relationship, status is visited empty-handed. Krishna blesses his friend without him asking anything, having understood his state. Krishna, like Rama sets a practical example of friendship. It is noteworthy to note that Sudama does not go and ask for help unlike Drona who goes and demands his share of kingdom.

                Arjuna-Krishna friendship is the epitome of friendship. Though separated by years, they bond not only on mutual respect and love but a special relationship. This comes to light when Arjuna confesses to Krishna after his VishwaRoopa Darshan in Bhagavad Gita. Krishna on his part seeks unfaltering friendship with Arjuna when Agni seeks to give both of them benedictions for helping him burn the Khandava Vana to cure his ailment. Krishna gives continuous support and advice throughout the trials and tribulations of Pandavas. He personally leaves no stone unturned to seek peace, to avoid untold number of deaths and related miseries for the living. But out of this friendship is born Bhagavad Gita, song celestial.

                Arjuna despite getting the best wisdom in the heat of battle, retains only what he needs to do and not the entire purport of Gita. Krishna out of extreme love blesses him and the mankind with Anu Gita. Again after years, he goes back to Krishna for another session, Uttara Gita.

                Though Arjuna may not have followed everything taught by Krishna, he is not judged and out of extreme love based on friendship, Krishna keeps giving the deepest secrets of ever known to mankind in the simplest expressions.

                These instances show that there is wisdom in the saying, "Better be alone than in bad company”. Friendship with the bad is a drain on the mind and impacts the thinking capability with the burden of unwanted heaviness of a relationship. Friendship also needs nurture of time.

                One can raise on the shoulders of friendship like Krishna-Arjuna or fall as witnessed by Karna-Duryodhana. The characters involved in friendship ultimately determine the outcome of friendship. Though in all cases, friendship may cause the heartwarming of those involved, it has different outcomes depending on the intensity, nature of participants, duration, egos and actions involved. Friendship is nonetheless a transforming experience. If one chooses to work on oneself, the quality of friendship seems to also elevate. Bottom-line whom we befriend  and what we do with our character are going to determine the experience of friendship.

Om Tat Sat



  1. Lucid, with a nice children story feel without losing any of the seemingly complex impact points, superbly constructed, solidly premised, the stand out for me is the writers ability to contextualise the essence of the great Indian epics in the modern day complexities....................loved it absolutely.............................

  2. The essence of this piece is so strong , so powerful.
    LOVED IT !