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Duryodhana (Cambodia, ca. 900s AD)

Duryodhana (Cambodia, ca. 900s AD)

We don’t know very much about friendships among poor people in ancient India, or among women. But the stories that Indian people told had examples of strong friendships between powerful men. In the Mahabharata, which was first written down about 300 BCKarna and Duryodhana are famous for their friendship.

Early Indian philosophy in the Rig Veda draws parallels between speech and friendship: talking to each other, we make friends. But when we don’t listen, or we tell lies, the friendship fades. The Mahabharata, a few hundred years later, sorted friendships into different kinds. The faithful prince Bhishma lists several types of friends (the Mahabharata is big on lists): natural friends, who are very similar to you or members of your family; friends whose ancestors have been loyal to your family; business friends who help you make a profit; and the lowest kind of friends, friends who are only friendly because you buy them presents or pay them.

Bhishma adds, though, that the best kinds of friends are those who love you for your good character – your kindness, your generosity, your courage – but you can lose those friends by doing wrong. A little further on, the Sanatsugatiya episode (probably inserted later into the text) has another list. This one names six characteristics of friendship:

  • A friend is happy when something good happens to his friend;
  • A friend is sad when something bad happens to his friend;
  • A friend shares even his best things with his friend;
  • A friend doesn’t keep count, waiting for his gifts to be repaid;
  • A friend does his own work; he doesn’t count on his friend to work for him;
  • A friend puts his friendship above profits.

Indian ideas about friendship may come from an older Central Asian idea of the comitatus, a group of close friends who formed a bodyguard for Central Asian leaders from at least 3000 BC onwards. This idea may have come to India with the Indo-Europeans about 1500 BC, and became part of Vedic and later Indian culture. Or, the idea may have come to India with the story of Achilles, maybe with Alexander and his Greek settlers, about 300 BC – just about the time when the Mahabharata was being written down for the first time.

Learn by doing: write a story about a time when your friend did something on these lists.
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Bibliography and further reading about friendship in ancient India:

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