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'Asi Me Sakhā': A Personal Experience on Friendship

07/19/2013 04:05 pm 16:05:57 | Updated Sep 18, 2013

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom."
-- Marcel Proust

Reading this quote -- blazoned by my desk calendar -- every time I came back into my dorm room was an enriching reminder. In fact, this past year at Princeton was a rather humbling and enriching one in general. One particularly important experience was gaining an incredibly inspirational and supportive friend -- someone who became my best friend by the end of the year. To preserve his anonymity and for convenience's sake, let us refer to him as Durgandh (Sanskrit onion; lit. "bad-smelling" thing). But the road to this friendship was not quite so easy, and even though I saw that quote in boldfaced Serif everyday, it took me a while to figure out what it actually meant.

By the middle of the year, I realized that Durgandh was precisely one of these "charming gardeners." Though I'd known him very well the previous year, it was only now that I realized how much I looked forward to spending time with him. When fortuitously presented the opportunity to be his Secret Santa, I grabbed it and made him a diorama-desk lamp of a billboard: a pratimā of an important offspring of his vivid imagination. Interestingly, in another circle of friends, my Secret Santa gifted me the aforementioned desk calendar. Thumbing through the pages, I thought the hard work I'd put into crafting Durgandh's present was evidence of how grateful I was that he and I were friends.

As the spring semester unfolded after the end of exams, however, my attitude towards Durgandh soured. He would often agree to spend time with me and then blow me off. A couple of times he even forgot to ask me to dinner when he went down with our other hallmates. Relatively minor offenses. But their repetition convinced me that he took me for granted. I began to feel entitled to reciprocation for each time I put my work and commitments aside for him. I felt slighted. Gratefulness was replaced by cynicism and self-glorification. Just before leaving for a weekend conference in nearby Trenton, I resolved to write him a letter explaining my grievances and acting upon them -- by deliberately pushing him away until he was forced to accept his mistakes. Thumbing through my desk calendar, August said, "Cut loose the [friends] who bring you down." The thought with respect to Durgandh was palpably compelling.

But I didn't send that letter before leaving. In fact, thankfully, I never sent such a letter. Why? There were a few things that happened that week. One was that Durgandh himself offered to watch a mutually favorite television show -- something that he had blown off earlier. A more important incident was when (in typical Indian fashion) I responded to a request from another friend to play "Hearts" -- which I perceived to be a routine "joke" ritual -- by pretending to throw my shoe at him. This friend made me realize what a hypocrite I'd been -- that I'd turned down so many entreaties from him, when in fact, he had been sincere about spending time with me. But perhaps the most important development was when Professor Graham Schweig came to Princeton as part of a Hindu Speaker's Lecture Series. The topic of discussion: Language of the Heart: Challenges to a Modern Interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita.

I remember that as soon as I saw this poster, I was awakened from my deep moral slumber to recall that I subscribed to a spiritual tradition in which the root of all suffering was selfish desire. That one of the most important lessons of the Gitā was that actions should not be pursued with the fruits in mind. As Śrī Kṛsṇa himself puts it, "It is in action alone that you have a claim, never at any time to the fruits of such action. Never let the fruits of action be your motive" (2.47). While listening to Schweig, these ideas hummed in the background, accentuating his profusely enlightening and comedic talk.

Indeed, I had been incredibly selfish. Every minute I spent with my friends, every gift I gave them was viewed as a debt that needed to be repaid. I was acting out of selfish desire. This central lesson of the Gitā helped me to realize how petty I had been. It compelled me to recommit myself to putting into action the words of the Gitā. Although I expected these words to be a general haze, I was reminded of how precisely they described my situation when I went back and re-read the Gitā after a long time.

I was, for instance, stunned by the passage, "From attachment, selfish desire develops; from desire, anger develops. From anger comes bewilderment; from bewilderment, disturbed memory, loss of discernment; from loss of discernment one becomes lost" (2.62 - 2.63) because of how accurately it hit the nail on the head. Since I had never had such great friends, my attachment to them was natural. But this attachment manifested itself as an entitlement to get back every little bit I had given. When this unreasonable expectation was not met, I became angry and upset, at which point I subconsciously distorted my own memories to glorify my own actions at the expense of others. I failed to see reality as it was, and became as the Gitā says, "lost."

Other quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, for example, "One who sees, by comparison to one's self, the same in all [beings]... that yogi is considered to be the highest" (6.32) have helped me empathize and understand others better. Indeed, try to become a better friend. The experience that I had with Durgandh was a humbling one. Since all of these events have unraveled, I have candidly shared my thoughts with him and we have become even better friends than before. Too seductive is the game theoretic trap of viewing everyone as a rational actor in a neat, mathematically ordered universe with every action being undertaken to maximize one's own utility for selfish gains. Though as a Math major, I am fascinated by game theory as a way to explain society, I am equally resolved to escape the impulse to center every life game around myself. Seeking detachment from all material desires and peeling away the layers of maya are difficult tasks. By no means do I (or any Hindu text) claim to have the only unique and authoritative answers to all of these complicated life questions. Nor do I claim by any stretch to have perfected the art of friendship. But perhaps embarking on a road of un-selfish, grateful friendship will prove to be a helpful first step.