My wife and I recently invited some old friends to share prasadam with us at our home in Alachua, Florida. Although life in the Covid era had kept us physically apart for the last several months, our relationship with this couple has, both on the personal level and the service to ISKCON level, been consistent over the decades. The evening was filled with remembrances of good times, other friends, family members, including grandbabies, and yes … some trials and tribulations.
I first met my godbrother Kalakantha Prabhu in 1974 when he opened the door for me upon my arrival at the ISKCON temple in Philadelphia. I had been sent there from the ISKCON temple in Washington, DC to join the famous BBT Library Party. The Library Party was A group of brahmacari book distributors that had caught the eye of Srila Prabhupada and other brahmacaris around ISKCON by placing standing orders for all of Srila Prabhupada’s books in College and University libraries. To this very day, I mark the significance of Kalakantha Prabhu’s opening that door for me. To me it symbolizes a welcome to the honor of serving with an elite group, the tremendous opportunity for me to expand my service to Srila Prabhupada, and the opportunity to make some new friends.
“Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend” says Calvin, artist Bill Watterson’s five- or six-year-old philosophical alter ego in the syndicated comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.1 Essential truth spoken concisely is true eloquence. Calvin astutely points to the dangerous nature of this world, our common needs, and our desire for intimacy as the raison d’etre for friendship. Yet, Ethicist and Philosophers have speculated for eons trying to translate these justifications for existence of friendship into the reality of relationships. Who is a friend, and most essentially, why are they a friend? How many among us today can say that we have a true best friend, or worse, how many of us do not even care whether we have such a friend or not. This, my friends, is a mistake.
Friendship is a necessary part of our personhood, in both our material and spiritual being. The ancient Sanskrit text Hitopadesa (“Beneficial Advice”) speaks extensively on friendship in simple story form which incorporates maxims, worldly wisdom, and practical advice. In the first book of the Hitopadesa, Mitralabha (“Gaining Friends”), the qualities of a true friend are listed as purity, generosity, chivalry, being composed in happiness and distress, politeness, affection, and truthfulness. Probably everyone looking for friendship who reads this list thinks, “Great, that’s exactly the kind of friend I’m looking for!” So, why haven’t you been able to find such a friend? Why do your friendships remain distant to one degree or another? Here is an important question to ask yourself. As you read this list, who are you thinking about as the embodiment of these qualities, your potential friend or you?
If you are thinking of your potential friend, your relationship is sure to remain on the theoretical platform. But, if you are thinking of yourself, you have found the most crucial aspect of true friendship, selflessness. In the first instance above you are taking from the relationship, whereas in the second instance you are giving yourself to the relationship. Selflessness is how things get real.
So, how does it feel to have a best friend? The Sanskrit language has at least three words to describe how it feels to be a friend, all of which, to different degrees, address issues embedded in the raison d’etre for friendship: protection from the dangerous nature of this world, building community to serve our common needs, and ultimately our desire for intimacy in personal relationships.
Bandhu is a word that means “kinship,” “relation,” “association,” “friend” or “respect.” Hitopadesa describes four types of protective friendship centered around the family unit: one related by blood, related by marriage, a friend of the family, and who protects one in distress.
Mitra is a general term for friend which has the connotation of equals, mutual benefit, even alliance in the sense that the common need is based on some individual motive. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
Suhrd is when friendship is not dependent upon what I get from you, but solely on what is your best interest, that is suhrd. A suhrd friend intimately knows the heart of his/her friend and acts unhesitatingly for his/her benefit without being asked or without doubt.
External circumstances play an important role in bringing these types of friendships alive. If you talk to people who have been through tough times together, I think you will find that their shared experiences have forged deep and enduring friendships. Soldiers at war, communities struggling during a natural disaster, or even brahmacaris on a traveling book distribution mission become best friends for life when faced with adversity.
When I look back on my own experience on the BBT Library Party I feel a strong comradery born of the high adventure coupled with the shared spartan experience. Our food was simple (mostly un-cooked), we slept in our vans at whatever campground we came across (saving money for the BBT), sometime one or two of us got a little grumpy (like a brother), but we had a mission and our friendships (of all three kinds) infused us with an intimacy which continues to nourish me in both my material and spiritual being. This is the blessing of having a best friend (or friends).
Fast forward to the present. As our evening with Kalakantha and his wife Jitamrita came to a close, my wife, Madhumati, and I felt inspired to give them a gift. I recalled that I had a rare color photo of the BBT Library Party boys taken at a stop somewhere during our caravan like travels throughout North America. I felt the photo wonderfully captured the mood and movement of brahmacari life in ISKCON during the 1970’s. Some … nay many of those in the photo, are no longer of this world, but the spirit the friendships born in those times spent together in our youth still burns brightly in my heart.
1 In his compilation The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson stated that Calvin is named for “a 16th-century theologian who believed in predestination,” and Hobbes for “a 17th-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature.”