The quality of mercy in a friendship

Many of us may sport colourful bands on our wrists on ‘World Friendship Day’ tomorrow, in a rite of ‘global rakhi’. Whether we do or we don’t, the gods offer much material if we want to review the notion of friendship on the occasion. Shiva, for one, is known as ‘Asutosh’, meaning ‘easily pleased’, an endearing trait that sometimes leads to trouble, though in his case it’s a lila – just another game for the gods, even when Shiva grants boons to ambitious asuras. In such cases, Vishnu has to rush in to save the situation, although Shiva is also known to selflessly take his turn. He did this most spectacularly during the Samudra Manthan – churning of the ocean – by swallowing the world-destroying Kalakuta poison, setting an incredible example of selfless world love and friendship.

Like Shiva, mere mortals on earth may choose to figuratively swallow poison in the form of unkind words or bad behaviour for the sake of a larger cause. It is not ‘weakness’ but amity and goodwill on their part, and it’s their call to stop being merciful when it gets too much. The cause could be team peace in a project or family peace with a sibling or with in-laws who seem more like outlaws.

Krishna set an example, too, by giving Sishupala a hundred chances before he put a stop to his bad behaviour. We mortals may not be able to adopt Krishna’s methods but perhaps we could consider giving annoying people at least ten chances before we mentally disengage with them, in real life or on social media.

Vishnu, as the Preserver, displays ‘merciful friendship’ in other ways, too, that have never ceased to charm us. The epic examples of Gajendra, Dhruva, Prahlad, Draupadi and Arjuna are well-known. However, it is Vishnu in human avatar as Rama who melts the heart by his straightforward, open behaviour and utter lack of guile or sneaky agendas.

Valmiki says at the beginning of the Ayodhya Kandam that even before King Dasaratha thought of anointing him the Crown Prince, Rama was popular with the common people because ‘He was scrupulously just. He always spoke gently and never used harsh words even where deserved. Whenever someone approached him, Rama greeted him first, with unselfconscious friendship and courtesy. He forgave hundreds of wrongs but never forgot the smallest kindness. He never took part in profane talk, and he disdained to lie.’

‘ “He is dearer to people than I am,” thought Dasaratha …’

Nor does Rama hold back on the hugs. His most famous hug is for Hanuman when he comes back with news of Sita. Well before that, he warmly thanks Kevat, the boatman who ferries him across the river to exile, gives Bharata the full benefit of the doubt when Lakshmana warns of his approach to Chitrakoot and greets a repentant Kaikeyi as lovingly as ever. This is done by human Rama long before he realises his divine origin.

Rama vows in Verse 330, Sarga Chapter 18 of the Yuddha Kandam of the Srimad Ramayanam: ‘Sakradevam prappanaya ‘tavasmi iti ca yachate/ abhayam sarva bhutebhyo dadami etad vrtam mama’ – ‘Those who seek refuge in me just once, saying ‘I am yours,’ I assure him of safety against every kind of being; this is my vow.’

Who wouldn’t want a steady, loyal refuge of a friend like Rama, or aspire to be a friend like him?


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