By Roshan, New Age Islam
17 Feb, 2015
There’s an old step-well in the campus of the institute where I stay these days. It is home to half a dozen ducks. Once in a while, I stop to check out what they are up to. It’s fascinating to observe how happy and utterly content they seem in their own little world—lazily swimming about, sunning themselves on a boulder or taking an afternoon nap, their heads carefully tucked over their backs and into their neatly-folded wings. Amazingly, I’ve never seen any of them ever by themselves. Whatever they do, they always seem to do together. Not once have I seen them squabbling. They’re really the very best of friends—I haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling such close bonding in the human world in all my almost 50 years.
That’s how God has made ducks, I suppose. Throughout the animal world, it’s rare for any being to live all by itself, without the company of at least one member of its own species.
God has made human beings in the same way, too. Whether we want to admit it or not, all of us need at least one other person or being to communicate and share our emotions with. All of us need at least one friend in our lives. Without this, we are likely to lose our minds, sooner, rather than later, or even to lose our lives. When I was a child, I had no human friends, but, still, I wasn’t totally friendless. I had one friend—he was Solu, a ‘stray’ dog that had the most love-filled heart that I knew of. It was to Solu that I turned to share my terrors and hurts. I’d bury my head in his stomach and cry my heart out to him. I’d tell him all my buried secrets, and I knew he understood me fully. I knew that his love for me was unshakable. I'm sure he knew the depth of my love for him, too.
There are some people who don’t even have an animal as friend, though, but even they have, if they choose to remember, a friend they can always rely on: God. As the Hindi/Urdu saying goes, Jiska koi nahi, uska Khuda hai (‘He who has no one [as a friend] has God’).
“A friend in need is a friend indeed”—this well-known aphorism is undoubtedly true, but it is often understood only in a limited sense. It is generally taken to mean that a true friend is one who is always there when we need him—for instance, when I meet with an accident and I need him to take me to hospital, or when I feel lonely and empty or bored of myself and need him to give me emotional comfort or to amuse me, or when I need his financial help. At trying moments like this, someone who comes to our assistance, it is said, is truly our friend—our ‘friend indeed’.
This is not untrue, of course, but such a definition of a friend is an essentially utilitarian one. Going by this limited standard of friendship, a ‘friend indeed’ is basically someone who fulfills my needs. If he ceases to do that, then, I might cease to consider him my friend. If my ‘needs’ are understood in only a narrow, materialist sense, this definition of a true friend is a very restricted, and, indeed, very selfish, one.
There is, however, a broader way of understanding our needs, and, accordingly, of understanding what or who a true friend is.
A different understanding of a true friend emerges when seen in the light of the purpose of human life, or God’s Creation Plan. All religions teach that our short life on earth is not an end in itself, but, rather, a preparation for the never-ending life to come after we depart from this world. Our stay in this worldly realm is only a preparation for the life to come in another realm. If we lead our lives here in the manner our Creator wants us to, we can hope for a blissful life in the next world. What we make of ourselves while in this world—through all our thoughts, feelings, words and deeds—determines our future in the next world. This requires that each of us needs to work on ourselves to shape our feelings, thoughts, words and deeds so that they are pleasing to God and reflect His will for us.
When seen in the light of God’s Creation Plan, friendship has an immensely valuable spiritual role to play. A true friend, understood in this sense, is not someone who is there just to fulfill our worldly needs and to make us feel good about ourselves. Rather, she or he serves primarily as a means or instrument for us to fulfill our spiritual needs or the requirements for success in the life in the Hereafter (although he or she might also—but this is not necessarily always the case—assist us in other ways, too, such as providing us physical, emotional or financial help when we need it). He or she helps us fulfill our spiritual needs or requirements by acting as a channel to encourage us to grow on the spiritual path and fulfill the ultimate purpose of our lives.
This is one reason why many religions stress the importance of spiritual companionship—or what is called sangat in the Hindu and Sikh traditions, and sohbat in the Sufi tradition.
In this context, an interesting conversation is recorded in the Buddhist scriptures. Ananda, a close disciple of the Buddha, says to the Buddha, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie”, and the Buddha replies: “Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”
Seen in this way, then, a true friend is one who not only might help us when we are in physical distress or lonely or in financial need, but, most importantly, serves as an instrument for our spiritual growth. This she or he can do through her or his own example, which we might be inspired to emulate. Or, it might be through something she or he says or the spiritual literature or spiritually-advanced people or spiritually-enriching experiences she or he might help connect us with. And so on. In addition, she or he might also on the spiritual path by pointing out our faults that are a hindrance to our spiritual progress, faults that we might even be not aware of.
A defining feature of human beings is that we are prone to make mistakes and commit wrongs. If these remain unaddressed and we don’t sincerely ask God for forgiveness and repent, but, instead, continue with them, it can have serious implications for our fortunes in the life to come. In this regard, a true friend can play a very important role. He or she can serve as an instrument to point out our mistakes, faults and deficiencies, and encourage or inspire us to rectify them. In this way, he or she can prove indispensable for our spiritual progress.
A true friend, then, isn’t just someone who’s around when we have some or other material, physical or emotional need that we want him or her to fulfill for us. Rather, he or she is someone who plays an important role as far as our spiritual needs or requirements are concerned: both by encouraging us in our need to grow spiritually, as well as by admonishing us when we slip up and indicating to us the need to rectify our faults that, if we continue to ignore, can gravely hinder our spiritual progress.