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Spiritual Friendship

In London, some years before I took up the practice of Krishna consciousness, I once met a girl when I was feeling lonely on a crowded street I made some excuse to talk to her, and we quickly became friends. Afraid of the disillusionment and pain that often accompanies relationships, we made a pact to stay together for a short time and view some of London’s sights, and then to part company with no plan or foreseeable way to ever meet again.

We had a good time together. We were enlivened by each other’s company, and the lonely, drab day turned out a happy one for us. We climbed St Paul’s Cathedral and viewed the panorama of the city stretching into the misty distance. I felt tempted to embrace her, but I remembered our agreement and checked my lusty desires.

After a few fleeting hours, it was time to part company. I saw her off on the underground train. We held hands and looked into each others eyes. “You are like my brother,” she said with a smile. She turned and boarded the train.

I immediately thought of running down the tracks after the train or jumping on the next one. But I again resisted my surging emotions. I remember wondering if this was the only way to have a spotless exchange with another person. Actually it wasn’t spotless, because there was the pain of separation even after so short a time. I wondered why there couldn’t be close relationships, with nothing to mar their perfection.

And now, almost twenty years later, my wandering mind sometimes churns up a poignant regret. Although such lamentation is certainly unreasonable, it reminds me of the essence of material life. Are we not all hankering for someone to be close to—someone to “possess”—and don’t we all lament losing someone dear to us?

We all want friendship. Nobody likes to be lonely. Sometimes a person may prefer to be alone for a while, but never permanently. We wish to share ourselves with others. This inclination of ours is one of the qualities we have in common with God because we are part of Him. You never see a picture of Krishna alone; He is always with His friends and devotees.

The material world is a perverted reflection of our real home. the spiritual world. As such, every relationship is imperfect only partially mirroring what it could be and what we yearn for. Nevertheless we keep trying. Yet material existence imposes powerful restrictions on developing satisfactory relationships with others. Because we have willfully separated ourselves from Lord Krishna, the reservoir of all loving relationships, we are now suffering from a spiritual psychosis and consequent inability to understand and experience love. Desires push us around the world, and we switch from one partner to the next The small bud of love, however, is unfailingly snapped off before it can unfold, bloom, and produce a fruit.

When we take up Krishna consciousness, we turn once again toward the sweetest loving friend of all, Lord Sri Krishna, and our outlook changes back to what it should be. We cease to be limited by the puny material body in its temporary setting, and our vision expands to eternity. Our life begins to revolve around the Lord, and as soon as we understand Him to be the supreme controller and enjoyer of all that exists, as well as our best friend, we attain relief from the pangs of material miseries. We do not struggle anymore to control every detail of our lives but put ourselves securely under His direction. Our motivation changes from self-centered calculation to a constant desire to please Krishna. Loneliness vanishes as we begin to relish the constant company of the Lord. It is only by developing, in the course of time, such a blissful state of consciousness that one is able to perfectly relate to others without the least trace of friction or flaw.

A self-realized soul can be depended on because he or she is not restricted by selfish desires. In fact a Krishna conscious person. being satisfied, is in a position to perfectly relate with others. A study of Srila Prabhupada’s life will reveal this secret of perfection. Srila Prabhupada did not want anything from anyone, and yet he was always requesting people to do things. His disciples knew that he was asking on Krishna’s behalf, and therefore they did not feel imposed upon or threatened. They felt it was in their own interest to carry out his desires.

Srila Prabhupada was always deeply absorbed in his meditation on and relationship with his guru and Krishna, and so would never become sentimental about temporary things related to the material body. Yet he displayed all kinds of emotion, from soft tender empathy to hard, blazing anger. In fact he exhibited a much wider range of emotions than anyone I have ever met. But he never entangled his disciples in painful emotional knots. Even if they became depressed because he was displeased, that depression became an impetus for them to render more sincere service, which in turn became the source of spiritual inspiration and bliss.

When a disciple wrote to Srila Prabhupada expressing a sense of loss at being separated from him, Srila Prabhupada replied, “The separation you are feeling on account of my physical absence is a good sign. The more you feel such separation, the more you will be situated in Krishna consciousness. Lord Caitanya felt this separation, and His process of approaching Krishna is the feeling of separation.” He also explained that spiritual separation is another feature of meeting. and so his disciples gradually learned to associate with him in more meaningful and lasting ways than just by physical proximity. In short he taught us how to develop perfect spiritual relationships.

Friendship in Krishna consciousness is very different from friendship on the material platform. Srila Prabhupada gave an analogy of airplane pilots. On the ground before take-off, a squadron of pilots may sit closely together for training and briefing sessions. But in the air, each pilot is on his own. Similarly, at the time of death, when we finally lose control of this body, we are externally all alone. But because spiritual relationships are beyond the body, the devotee still has spiritual association. At the time of death, he tries to remember his friend Lord Krishna and chant His holy name.

During his life, a devotee concentrates on internal spiritual growth, while performing external activities conducive to Krishna consciousness. Friendship in Krishna consciousness is a most meaningful opportunity for one’s personal development In fact Krishna conscious relationships in this world serve as a preparation for associating with the Lord and His devotees when we return to the spiritual world, which awaits anyone who seriously follows the process of Krishna consciousness.

Srila Prabhupada explained that because we are by nature social beings, if we don’t find satisfaction in our Krishna conscious relationships, we will certainly look for friendship elsewhere. If we associate with persons with little interest in spiritual life, our own Krishna consciousness will dim. When Lord Caitanya was asked to define what a devotee is, He replied, “A devotee is one who avoids the association of nondevotees.” Attachment to nondevotees and their habits opens the door to material life, whereas attachment to self-realized souls opens the door to spiritual reality. As it is said, “A man is known by the company he keeps.”

If you have little opportunity to associate with devotees, you can try to find potential devotees where you live and induce them to become serious about spiritual life. Of course, it is not easy to do this. Srila Prabhupada, a topmost devotee, went alone to the West where there were no devotees of Krishna. Yet he was able to inspire others to become devotees. But be cause we are nowhere near Srila Prabhupada’s level of spiritual realization, we need spiritual association. Otherwise, we can neither maintain our own Krishna consciousness nor give it to others.

There is an art of spiritual association, and it has been described in the scriptures. If we meet someone less spiritually advanced than ourselves, we should be compassionate and try to inspire that person in Krishna consciousness. If we associate with someone equally advanced, we should befriend him and share our realizations with him. And if we have the opportunity to meet a much more advanced devotee than ourselves, we should respectfully hear from him and serve him.

If we learn the art of properly associating with others, we will find that every relationship becomes a great impetus for our own development of Krishna consciousness and therefore a source of great joy. Persons avowedly inimical to Krishna should be avoided because they will destroy our faith and devotion.

The basic principle of spiritual relationships is one of sharing and giving rather than taking. Often in this world of exploitation, people’s exchanges with one another are just the opposite of ideal spiritual relationships. If a materialist meets someone less materially qualified or fortunate than himself, he feels happy. He thinks, “That’s one less competitor.” If he meets someone equally qualified, he feels threatened, and he will want to challenge that person. And if he meets someone more qualified, he will criticize and denigrate him to try to bring him down. If a materialist’s superior falls from grace, or even dies, a materialist feels glad because of the new opportunity for himself.

In contrast a devotee does not feel pressure from anyone else’s existence or actions, because he is convinced that Krishna is unlimited and that everything in relation to the Lord has unlimited potential. He knows that the wealth of his own spiritual knowledge will increase the more he tries to share it with others. If it is not distributed freely, it will dry up. He knows that his guru and Krishna are pleased if he tries to reach out to those less advanced or less fortunate. If Krishna is pleased, what is there left to achieve?

A devotee likes to work as a humble member of a team. and therefore he is relaxed with his peers and happy to serve Krishna with them. Together they can relish hearing and chanting Lord Krishna’s glories. To advance in Krishna consciousness, one must learn how to associate with devotees and how to hear from the right persons about Krishna. A devotee is delighted to receive an advanced devotee of the Lord. Instead of trying to pull him down, he wishes to see that devotee become even more elevated. He thinks. “How nicely this person is serving Krishna! Let me try to serve Krishna like him.”

In The Nectar of Instruction, Srila Rupa Gosvami discusses six ways in which devotees can relish spiritual relationships. The first two are “giving and receiving charity and gifts.” The next two are “revealing one’s mind to another devotee and inquiring about the confidential service of the Lord.” We should reveal our mind openly to our friends and learn to inquire confidentially about spiritual matters. We should primarily be concerned with each other’s spiritual health because the soul is the real person within the body.

A Krishna conscious person can talk about anything, but the basis of the conversation is always Krishna. Once in England Srila Prabhupada was talking with race-car driver Graham Hill, who didn’t know much about spiritual life. For half an hour they jovially talked about car racing. Then Mr. Hill mentioned that when driving at high speeds, he sometimes felt he was a hair’s breadth away from death. Immediately Srila Prabhupada began speaking about more important matters, related to Mr. Hill’s eternal existence beyond the body. expertly elevating him to a higher level of consciousness. This is the real meaning of friendship—to inspire confidence and friendship in a person by genuine concern and then point him in the right direction.

The last two features of exchange mentioned by Rupa Gosvami are “offering and accepting krishna-prasadam [food offered to Krishna].” Giving and accepting gifts of food have always been symptoms of friendship. In the Vedic culture a person is not enthusiastic to eat alone with his family. He likes to have a guest for lunch. Traditionally, in the absence of a guest a householder would go to the street and request any hungry person to come and share the meal.

My father once told me I would be lucky if I made one or two real friends throughout my life. When I joined ISKCON, I thought, “I’ve got thousands of friends now.” In an ideal spiritual society, one no doubt does have millions of friends, but deep, spiritual friendship requires spiritual maturity. For a lasting friendship, friends must have a common goal, a common object of love. If our friendship is founded on pleasing Krishna without material considerations, there is hope of achieving an absolute and perfect friendship. To the degree that selfishness creeps in, the sanctity of the relationship suffers. Because Krishna is the reservoir of all pleasure. His devotee becomes fully satisfied in His blissful association. In such a position, the devotee can always give to others without motivation or interruption. That is the basis of spiritual friendship.