Friendship has the potential to be one of the most powerful forces for healing the ills of the world. Throughout this past century, modern society has faced mass “war,” “individualism,” “unilateralism,” and “loneliness”—all of which can be mitigated through friendship that is both sufficiently “conceptualized” and effectively “institutionalized” [i]. One of the most important components of these goals is obtaining an accurate and comprehensive view of how friendship has been viewed and acted upon in both the past and present (in order to be able to plan for the future). Religions are particularly relevant, from Christianity and its possible overemphasis of charity, to Confucian perspectives on duty, to different Islamic thinkers… though Hindu traditions have received less attention. They are incorrectly seen as lacking sufficient examples of friendship to be worthy of study when, really, friendship exists in all cultures. As a collection of beliefs and practices that influences many, many people, it is important to understand the histories and current representations of friendship in Hindu traditions as part of the general conceptualization of how friendship has and can function in the world. This article aims to do just that, first solidly refuting claims that friendship does not exist in Hindu traditions, then giving specific examples from texts (one text in particular), analyzing themes such as duty and war in the context of friendship.
Lack of Study
Within friendship studies, much more is being said about friendship in most all major religions other than Hindu traditions. The one article we read for class was six pages long and admits, itself, that while friendship is still of course highly valued as an important part of a fulfilling life, there is a “marked lack of discussion about the nature of friendship in Indian philosophy” [ii]. It does go on to analyze friendship and duty in the context of the Mahabharata, but those six pages do not quite add up to all of the literature on other religions’ and cultures’ conceptions of friendship. Furthermore, friendship actually is present throughout Hindu traditions, enough to merit significantly more discussion. For example, Cicero, a man often cited within friendship studies, praises friends as “divine gifts,” and this can also be found within Hindu traditions; the Hitopadeša 1.210 says, “By whom was created this… friend… which protects one… and which is the abode of delight and confidence? (IS 6527)” [iii]. Additionally, just as Aristotle describes true friendship as consisting in two friends living together, the phrase, “In this world there is nobody more fortunate than he who has a friend to discuss with, who has a friend to live with, and who has a friend with whom he can make confidential talk (IS 5390),” also exists within Hindu traditions [iv]. Nehamas and Montaigne, with their conception of friendship as so wonderful to be indescribable, are in agreement with the statement, “Friendship with a good man is like brahman, beyond description, unbreakable, limitless, unchanging, and uprooting (all sorts of) suffering (IS 300),” though without the additional religious metaphor [v]. It is clearly seen that many classical and/or well-established perspectives of friendship, ones that are cited often, can also be found within Hindu traditions. Clearly, then, they are no less relevant in the study of friendship than any other religion. We will focus now on how Hindu traditions are unique and can add new perspectives of their own, specifically through looking at traditional and modern retellings of a few parts of the Mahabharata, and then the Ramayana, with significant focus put on a more modern, graphic novel retelling.
One story that deals with friendship in the Mahabharata is the story of the princess, Savitri [vi]. In the story, Savitri learns just after choosing her husband that he will die within a year. She marries him anyway, but then, in a year when Yama, the god of death, comes to take him away, she argues with him. She says: “It is said that friendship with the virtuous is the highest good. I will walk with this virtuous man,” and, “only the truly virtuous are compassionate even to their enemies” [vii]. As in Aristotle’s definition of true friendship as virtuous friendship, Savitri describes a friendship between virtuous people as the best possible connection to exist in the world. Additionally, she widens the application of the friendship, at least in the most virtuous people, even to enemies. It could perhaps be said, then, that, in her view, friendship is anti-war. Additionally, recognizing the validity and importance of her words, Yama is eventually convinced to bring her husband back to life, showing that her point of view is spiritually endorsed (at least by this one god).
It is interesting, however, to acknowledge the context in which this story is placed. While Savitri’s statements may imply a friendship that would be against violence and war, the Mahabharata on the whole (with the crucial decision being made in the Bhagavad Gita) seems to encourage war and present it as Arjuna’s most moral and dutiful choice through his relationship with Krishna. Just before the war begins, Arjuna has second thoughts about all of the pain and bloodshed that will be brought to people he loves. However, through his friendship and trust in Krishna, he is convinced that he must do his duty, his dharma as a kshatriya, and go to war. This is deeper than just pro-war rhetoric, though, expressing a high value placed on “community directed social obligations,” even to the point of there being “no room to accommodate an individual’s needs and desires” in addition to duty [viii]. This contributes to Indira Mahalingam’s theory of Hindu friendship as expressed in the Mahabharata as distinctly duty-based, with the role of the friend being to help their friend do what is right. It is refreshingly non-individualistic, though potentially to an extreme. While it may focus on community in regards to upholding order and duty, it could be argued that war is distinctly not good for the community.
As the Ramayana as traditionally told is primarily a story of the ideal couple (except in some feminist retellings), and Rama and Sita do not seem to be particularly good friends (to be explained more later), the friendship of Rama and Sugreeva is one interesting example. It is after Ravana kidnaps his love, Sita, and he has lost all hope that Rama eventually comes upon Sugreeva and his monkey kingdom and “Rama, at the first sight of Sugreeva, felt an instinctive compassion and also felt that this was a momentous encounter, a turning point in his own life” [ix]. It was friendship at first sight! They speak about their problems—Rama about losing Sita and Sugreeva about issues with his brother Valin—and then Rama “was filled with pity for Sugreeva and promised, ‘I will help you. Tell me what you want” [x]. They then mutually help each other, and there is evidently great trust and willingness to sacrifice for each other in their friendship. As is written in an article on The Hindu website, “both Rama and Sugriva are in a plight where mutual help would be beneficial to them” [xi]. However, this does make it seem that this is a friendship of utility more than anything else. Friendship of utility is still friendship, however, and of course a friendship of utility can always grow into something more. On the other hand, it could be seen as a kind of friendship of duty (related to ideas from the Bhagavad Gita), if that could become a fourth type of friendship. Once Rama and Sugreeva have agreed to help each other, it is then their duty to fulfill their promises. Regardless, their dedication and sacrifice for one another is certainly remarkable. As far as the traditional telling of the Ramayana goes, the only other significant friendship may be the friendship of Rama and Lakshmana, though that is similarly expressed through devotion and sacrifice and often seems less balanced.
However, the “traditional” telling of the Ramayana is not the only one. Sita’s Ramayana, by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, is a graphic novel reinterpretation of the classic Indian epic. While the main focus is on Sita as a feminist character reclaiming her voice, it also has much to say about war/peace and friendship. The main friendship in the story is between Sita and Trijatha. Trijatha is Ravana’s niece and one of Sita’s jailers “Who Was Different,” “kind and compassionate” instead of aggressive and mean like the other rakshasi’s (jailers) [xii]. Instead of Lanka (Ravana’s city where Sita is kept prisoner) being portrayed as wholly evil as in other tellings, it is through this unlikely friendship that it is possible to see a new side to the city and its people. From the beginning, Trijatha disagrees with Ravana and cares for Sita, encouraging her that “Rama would come” [xiii]. Regardless of their differences, Trijatha saw Sita’s pain and was there for her encouraging her when no one else was, one of the most powerful characteristics of a true friend. Even when Hanuman set fire to Lanka after visiting Sita, “Trijatha still believed that what had been done to [Sita] was wrong” and stayed by her side [xiv]. Just as with the saying regarding giving as many excuses as possible for a friend’s bad behavior [xv], Trijatha also makes forgiveness a part of her and Sita’s friendship, understanding that her city’s misfortune is not Sita’s fault. Very few friendships are able to achieve this level of understanding, trust, and loyalty.
In fact, when Vibhishana leaves to join Rama, he suggests Trijatha join him, and Sita explains to the reader what Trijatha said next: “my friend was loyal to both me and Lanka… She would remain in Lanka, to tell me the truth, to be my friend and console me in those moments when I succumbed to despair” [xvi]. Sita and Trijatha have formed such a deep friendship that it has become more important to her than her own personal well-being. Additionally, the friendship is not one-sided. Sita says, “I felt Trijatha’s anguish. So much death, so much destruction. But I could not grieve… this war was the inevitable result of… my unjust imprisonment” [xvii]. While Sita does not feel exactly what Trijatha does as they are on opposite sides of a war, through their friendship, she can empathize. This highlights even more how, throughout the story, both women are fully aware that they are on opposing sides, but can still empathize with and be there for each other. Trijatha supports Sita by “promising to be [her] eyes and ears” as everything happens and assuring her Rama will rescue her [xviii], while Sita is able to understand the pain befalling Trijatha’s people and wish with her that it did not have to be that way.
As an aside, this is not the only time that Trijatha appears in a retelling of the Ramayana as Sita’s friend. “For more than twenty centuries,” Trijatha’s friendship with Sita has been told in similar, though of course not identical, ways, and, according to Father Camille Bulcke, a Jesuit missionary in the 1900s, Trijatha “will live forever in the hearts of millions as the ideal of a true friend, because she comforted Sītā in her darkest hour: A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed” [xix]. His words should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt considering his position as a foreign researcher and without knowing details about his research ethics and methods, but what he said bears significance nonetheless. Even for someone coming in from the outside, Trijatha and her friendship with Sita is clearly a broader theme in Ramayana retellings than just this graphic novel, and is also much, much older. While Rama and Sita may be the ideal romantic couple, at least according to some people, the honor of being the ideal true friends falls to Sita and Trijatha as they are truly there for each other. Still in other retellings though, Trijatha is aligned with Ravana, while it is another character, Sarama, who is Sita’s friend [xx]. Regardless of who is Sita’s friend, though, it is clear that the history of the Ramayana is by no means devoid of examples of friendship. Sita has so much misfortune befall her, and all of these people are here for her, showing the power of friendship to encourage people in the face of insurmountable odds.
In Sita’s Ramayana, too, there is another character that acts as a friend to Sita, Ravana’s “virtuous brother Vibhishana” [xxi]. While Vibhishana is almost always a “good guy” in retellings of the Ramayana, he is even more specifically a friend to Sita in this story. He “tries to convince Ravana many times to release [Sita]”[xxii], but is finally banished in his last attempt [xxiii]. Like his daughter, Trijatha, Vibhishana understands that what was done to Sita was wrong and wants to do what he can to help—he will even disrupt the natural order of who gives commands to who to support his friend. Before leaving, he asks Sita many questions about Rama to make sure he feels comfortable supporting him. When Rama finally takes over Lanka later in the story, Vibhishana becomes the new king of Lanka and, instead of being horrible like his brother, “thinks of the common good,” is “virtuous,” and is “always just” [xxiv]. It was through the friendship of Sita, Trijatha, and Vibhishana that this was able to come about. If Vibhishana had not joined Rama, the war would have gone differently, potentially with more struggle on Rama’s part, and someone else would have been designated ruler at the end. Perhaps Rama would have decided to put one of his own on the throne. However, with Vibhishana on Rama’s side, Lanka was much better off in being able to have a ruler that was also from Lanka and wished the best for it. This can be seen as a lesson in how political situations often turn out better when people are able to have friendships with people on the “other side.” People can sit down and talk together, figuring out what works best for everyone.
It was also through friendship that Sita was able to empathize with the people of Lanka and recognize the true horrors of war. Even after Rama kills Ravana, Sita says, “I Should Have Been Happy, Overjoyed. But I Was Not… I heard the women of the palace, shrieking. I saw Ravana’s queens running to the battlefield, tears streaming down their faces” [xxv]. In other retellings, this might not even be remarked upon; it would go straight from the killing of Ravana to Sita and Rama’s cold reunion. But here, especially through her friendship with Trijatha, Sita’s eyes are opened to the pain and suffering of other women of Lanka, concluding that “violence breeds violence” [xxvi]. As one of the main messages of the graphic novel, this theme of emphasizing the suffering of other women, even those women who would usually be disregarded and/or seen as the “enemy” shows up in other places, as well. After Lakshmana injures Soorpanaka and she screams, Sita says, “I Can Never Forget That Scream. It Still Echoes In My Ears” [xxvii]; after Rama kills Valin and Tara is supposed to return to Sugriva, becoming both a “widow” and a “bride” in one day, Tara says, “Is This Right Or Just, Rama?” [xxviii]. Soorpanaka is often just seen as an evil woman aligned with Ravana, but here we see how Sita is still haunted by the memory of how much pain was caused to her; while the death of Valin is often a celebration, in this story attention is brought to the pain of Tara and disrespect shown to her. While Sita was friends with neither of these women, it is her friendship with Trijatha that adds to this general theme the understanding that these “enemies” and side characters are human (or with human-like feelings and thoughts in the case of the monkeys) just as much as the protagonists. Sita’s friendship with Trijatha shows how, really, she could just as well have been friends with Soorpanaka, Tara, or any other women in the story.
However, she never could have been friends with Rama. As a feminist retelling of the Ramayana, Sita’s Ramayana makes a point to emphasize Rama’s mistakes and character flaws, so it also follows that, while Sita and Trijatha would be an example of an ideal friendship, Rama would be an example of how not to be a friend. For example, when Lakshmana injures Soorpanaka, Sita says that, while Rama “should have stopped him,” but he only “Spurred Him On” [xxix]. One of the worst traits in a friend is to peer pressure your friends into harmful behavior, which is exactly what Rama did. Later, when Sita is taken by Ravana, Rama turns to Lakshmana and says, “I Told You Not To Leave Her Alone! This Is Your Fault!” [xxx]. Again, a friend is one who forgives, not one who blames. Along with the general lack of trust Rama has in Sita that is present in most Ramayana’s that is also present in the graphic novel, Rama is by far the least friendly character in this story.
In terms of Sita and Trijatha’s friendship, though, some could claim that it is not sufficiently reciprocal to count as a legitimate friendship. However, it is clear throughout the story that Sita understands and sympathizes with Trijatha, and it is also true that some stories can emphasize different positive traits of friendship. While one friendship story may focus on reciprocity, shared past, etc., Sita’s Ramayana depicts a friendship that is both anti-war and values sacrifice. It may not be completely reciprocal, but that is because, at this point in the story, Sita is the friend in most need of support. Instead of having a harmful emphasis on reciprocity of support regardless of situation, Trijatha becomes friends with Sita, sees how much support she needs, and is able to provide greater support, giving her time and energy out of a trust that Sita would do the same for her if their roles were reversed. Friendship is not always perfectly balanced, and that is okay. Additionally, the second main lesson of this particular friendship is how deep friendship is anti-war. Through Sita’s relationship with Trijatha, the audience is able to sympathize with the people of Lanka and understand the true cost of the final battle.
So, while the most “authoritative” versions of the Ramayana may have less examples of friendship, it is by no means absent from people’s engagement with the epic. Additionally, it is interesting how the older versions focused less on friendship, while this modern, graphic novel retelling has friendship in the forefront. Especially regarding the struggle of friendship in modern times, this is an example of how it is possible to re-envision traditions, old stories, and other central parts of cultures through the lens of friendship. Instead of teaching women to be docile wives, the Ramayana can instead encourage friendship with people different from you and compassion for their suffering.
While some people think that friendship is mostly absent within Hindu traditions, that is far from the truth. There are plenty of different perspectives; for example, whether friendship should encourage doing one’s duty in support of war or whether it should instead lead to levels of compassion that cannot tolerate war altogether. In all cases, there is an extreme level of loyalty to friends, and valuing them as moral guides. This paper was only a small investigation into all of the possible sources of friendship in Hinduism, and much more research should be done to help make Hindu perspectives a part of the intellectual discussion surrounding friendship. In this effort, too, it will be important to focus on not just the oldest, most established texts, but more modern reinterpretations, different religious practices, many different people’s beliefs, etc. Through these sources, it is even more evident the power of friendship to change the world.
I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code of Oberlin College in this assignment.
[i] M. Jafar Amir Mahallati, Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Lecture 2/5.
[ii] Indira Mahalingam, “Friendship in Indian Philosophy,” pg. 264.
[iii] Minoru Hara, “The Hindu Concept of Friendship,” pg. 157.
[iv] Ibid, 157.
[v] Ibid, 158.
[vi] Carole Satyamurti, Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling, this specific story can be found on pages 288-292.
[vii] Ibid, 291.
[viii] Mahalingam, 267.
[ix] R. K. Narayan, The Ramayana, pg. 99.
[x] Ibid, 101.
[xi] The Hindu, “Friendship as Devotion.”
[xii] Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana, pg. 31. Note: Title case will be used in quotes of words in all caps for the sake of readability.
[xiii] Ibid, 33.
[xiv] Ibid, 57.
[xv] Mahallati, Lecture.
[xvi] Arni and Chitrakar, pg. 68.
[xvii] Ibid, 91.
[xviii] Ibid, 72.
[xix] Camille Bulcke, “Sita’s Friend Trijata,” pg. 112.
[xx] Ibid, 110.
[xxi] Arni and Chitrakar , 31.
[xxii] Ibid, 57.
[xxiii] Ibid, 68.
[xxiv] Ibid, 59.
[xxv] Ibid, 112-113.
[xxvi] Ibid, 16.
[xxvii] Ibid, 16-17.
[xxviii] Ibid, 47.
[xxix] Ibid, 16-17.
[xxx] Ibid, 37.
Arni, Samhita, and Moyna Chitrakar. Sita’s Ramayana. Groundwood Books, 2015.
Bulcke, Camille. “Sita’s Friend Trijata.” Rāmakathā And Other Essays, Vani Prakashan, 2010, pp. 104–112.
“Friendship as Devotion.” The Hindu, 18 Oct. 2016, www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/religion/Friendship-as-devotion/article14408782.ece.
Hara, Minoru. “The Hindu Concept of Friendship.” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali, vol. 75, 4 Jan. 2001, pp. 157–187.
Mahalingam, Indira. “Friendship in Indian Philosophy.” Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Oliver Leaman, Curzon, 1996, pp. 263–269.
Mahallati, M. Jafar Amir. Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Course, Oberlin College. Spring 2019.
Narayan, R. K. The Ramayana. Peguin Books, 1972.
Satyamurti, Carole. Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling. W.W. Norton, 2016.