“Thereafter, being very pleased, that chastiser of enemies [Rama] gave to him [Hanuman] a ring inscribed with His own name as a token of recognition for the king's daughter [Sita].” (Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 44.12)
dadau tasya tataḥ prītaḥ sva nāmāṃka upaśobhitam ।
aṃgulīyam abhijñānam rājaputryāḥ paraṃtapaḥ
Certain symbols and attributes help us to properly identify others. In initial meetings with our fellow man, it is difficult to correctly gauge their qualities and personality types. Just as the laws of gravity apply equally to all objects irrespective of a person’s faith or skepticism towards it, the laws of spirituality, especially as they pertain to intrinsic qualities, apply equally to all forms of life. As such, every form of living being, be it a human, animal or plant, has the same essential characteristic of being a lover of God. The predominant quality of the individual represents their dharma, something which does not change based on time, circumstance or level of understanding. Nevertheless, in the conditioned state, the predicament the living entities currently find themselves in, the foremost nature of the soul is covered by qualities consisting of matter. Material nature envelops the jiva soul in a cloud of ignorance, thus causing forgetfulness of its constitutional position. Another unpleasant side effect to this ignorance is that man is not able to properly decipher who is actually knowledgeable and who isn’t, who knows what their dharma is and who has adopted some other concocted set of law codes to live by. Yet from studying a few important incidents from history, we can gain the necessary knowledge to be able to accurately gauge who is a friend and who isn’t as it pertains to advancement in spiritual life.
“That understanding which considers irreligion to be religion and religion to be irreligion, under the spell of illusion and darkness, and strives always in the wrong direction, O Partha, is in the mode of ignorance.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.32)
A friend is someone who shares with us a common interest, experience or quality. Depending on the specific field of activity, the nature of our friends can vary. For instance, if we are avid moviegoers and enjoy studying and critiquing cinema, we will take a liking to others who have similar passions. If we enjoy playing and watching sports, we will make friends with those who similarly enjoy such activities. In this way, we see that friendships are formed off of common interests, likes and dislikes. It’s important to have friends because life is very difficult to manage on our own. We are similar to the Supreme Lord in quality, but our quantitative powers are vastly inferior. God can create, maintain and destroy on the grandest scale, but we cannot. For any activity, complicated or simple, we require the aid of nature and the divine intervention of the Supersoul, God’s expansion residing within the heart. The individual soul, being free to choose its activities, can certainly serve as the impetus for action, but the results of work rest in the hands of more powerful forces.
“The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself to be the doer of activities, which are in actuality carried out by nature.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.27)
Due to the little control we have over the outcome of events, it is nice to have friends who are similar to us in quality, people who themselves have to struggle through life’s ups and downs. Yet identifying who is a friend and who isn’t is not so simple. We have to look for different signs, symbols and characteristics before we can be sure that an otherwise stranger is actually a friend. For example, if we are living in a foreign country and happen to meet someone who speaks the same language that we do, there is the likelihood that a friendship will be formed. This is true in any circle, for people with common interests will band together. Language is so important because it serves as the mode of communication and thought. If there are barriers in language, it will be difficult to share thoughts and ideas. If we happen to find someone who speaks our language, there is a relief in the sense that they will be able to understand our emotions, likes and dislikes.
The greatest friend is one who is a well-wisher to everyone; he shares an interest that is common to every single person. What interest could apply universally? As mentioned before, dharma does not change from person to person. At the core, the essential characteristic of the spirit soul is that of eternal companion of the Supreme Soul, or God. Yet most of us are unaware of this fact due to past karma and desires. The material world is a flawed replica of the spiritual world. Some of the activities and surroundings look the same, but the key distinction is that the Supreme Lord’s personal presence is absent in the material world. This is by design because only in the material world can the individual souls act on their desire to imitate the activities of the Supreme Divine Entity. The conditioned entity, through constant acceptance and rejection of different bodies, remains in the deeply flawed realm for as long as it desires to.
Though the conditioned jiva souls have a desire to imitate God, their essential characteristic, or dharma, does not change. Returning to the constitutional position is quite simple: one has to change their desires. We can’t change our desires if we aren’t aware that our current desires are flawed. Therefore we require the help of one who has already realized the essential characteristic of the spirit soul. Such a person then becomes a friend to all because they help others rise to the highest platform of knowledge.
How do we recognize such a person? Where do they live and what do they look like? When an individual realizes their true nature and acts based off this understanding, they are considered liberated. Liberation refers to the release, or moksha, from the cycle of birth and death. Release from the perpetual cycle of misery known as samsara is considered beneficial because when the individual ceases to take birth, his next life will be in the spiritual world. Due to God’s personal absence, the material world is a place full of miseries. This condition is guaranteed because no one can become the supreme controller, or ishvara, though everyone is trying to be in some way or another. One person is trying to be the ishvara of the house, another is trying to rein supreme in a community, while the greatest miscreants are trying to dominate the entire world. Competition for supreme control leads to lust, anger, greed, chaos, tumult, despair and all other inauspicious conditions.
The liberated souls attained their position through humble submission to the Supreme Divine Entity. Though there are different forms and names for this Person, His original form is that of Lord Krishna, who is also known as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. At the core, every person is a lover of Krishna. Those who have realized this fact and acted upon it are considered liberated. Such pure souls, who are known as devotees, then take to various activities based on their knowledge of the ultimate conclusion of God being Supreme. These activities, the collection of which forms the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, are performed in a specific manner, with the participants generally assuming a certain kind of dress and appearance. It is not that one is forbidden from engaging in devotional service in the absence of this appearance, but rather such signs and symbols help both the performers and those they encounter. For example, a person can engage in fighting enemies in a formal setting without donning a uniform and still be successful. But at the same time, a uniform proves beneficial because it allows fighters from the same side to understand who is a friend and who is a foe. The uniform also allows non-fighters to know that a military man is coming and to understand what their purpose is. Indications based on dress are similarly useful for police officers and the citizens they protect.
Devotees of Krishna, who is also worshiped in His form of Lord Vishnu, are known as Vaishnavas. Vaishnavas can generally be recognized by the tilaka marking on the head, tulasi beads around the neck and a simple robe for an outfit. The tilaka represents Vishnu’s lotus footprint, and the tulasi beads represent Tulasi Devi, the beloved devotee of Krishna who kindly grants bhakti to anyone who pleases her. This ensemble constitutes the basic uniform of the devotee, and it allows others to recognize who is a universal friend. Though the specific items making up the outer dress are certainly helpful in allowing others to identify devotees, the true power behind such markings is that they act as symbols of the Supreme Lord. The nature of the message one carries serves as the key determining factor in deciding whether they are a friend or a foe. Depending on the time and circumstance, the need for such identification becomes increased. The sincere devotees, those humble souls who have dedicated their lives to serving the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, require more proof than simply the outer markings on the body. They need to hear or see the name of the Lord in order to be truly won over in friendship. Such was the case with a beautiful and chaste woman who found herself in a terrifying circumstance many thousands of years ago. Her fears were allayed when she was shown a beautiful ring which had the most significant of markings on it. Due to the special engraving, the ring served as a token of remembrance, abhijnanam, allowing the princess to identify both the owner of the ring and its present bearer.
Due to His causeless mercy, the Supreme Lord doesn’t allow the conditioned souls to descend to the material world alone. Rather, He accompanies them in their journeys from body to body. The soul that represents the identity of the individual resides within the heart of the living entity. Next to this soul is the Supersoul, or God’s expansion. Problems arise due to the fact that the conditioned soul is ignorant of the existence of both of these powerful spiritual entities. When one learns to take direction from the Supersoul, all auspicious conditions are met. In order to help the conditioned entities link with the Supersoul, the same Personality of Godhead descends to earth and manifests without in a transcendental body. Such was the case many thousands of years ago when Lord Rama appeared as the eldest son of the King of Ayodhya. There is no difference between Rama and Krishna, for they are the same original Personality of Godhead.
As a pious and handsome prince, Rama had an equally beautiful and virtuous wife named Sita. Sita and Rama are always together, even in the spiritual world. Only Rama is worthy of such a wife. The Lord is often criticized by non-devotees for His treatment of Sita, but in reality His behavior towards such exalted divine figures is flawless. The miscreants are simply envious of the Supreme Lord’s ability to attract and secure such a beautiful and wonderful a person as Sita, thus they take to criticizing Him. One such perceived maltreatment was Sita’s kidnapping at the hands of a Rakshasa demon named Ravana. Aside from giving pleasure to the devotees, Rama’s self-assigned duty was to save the world from the attacks of Ravana, a deadly demon who had the intention of ruling the world. As a chivalrous king, Rama would never attack another without just cause. Therefore His excuse came in the form of Sita’s kidnapping.
Being taken back to the island kingdom of Lanka, Sita certainly found herself in a terrifying condition. Ravana tried his hardest to win her over with soft words, but a devotee gives their heart to God. Once the heart is given away in earnest, it can never be taken by another. Therefore Ravana reverted to threats of violence, giving Sita an ultimatum that if she didn’t agree to become his wife after a certain period of time, she would be killed. To make matters worse, Sita was left in a garden and harassed by female associates of Ravana day and night. In this way, she was constantly in a terrifying circumstance, taking everyone to be an enemy. The Rakshasas are masters of illusion, so even when they appear to speak soft and kind words, one would be wise to not take their entreaties at face value. Sita’s only solace were her thoughts of Rama and His activities. Through her behavior she taught everyone how to endure tough situations. Only by keeping one’s consciousness fixed at the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord can fears and worries be allayed.
Meanwhile, Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana engaged in a frantic search in the forest for Sita’s whereabouts. They were not by her side when she was kidnapped, so they didn’t know where she had been taken. Shri Rama, as the Supersoul in the heart of every living entity, certainly knew what had happened, but to show respect to the role He was playing, He feigned ignorance. This behavior also allowed Him to enlist the help of a band of sincere Vanaras, or monkey-like humans. Their chief warrior was Hanuman, a celestial figure possessing every beneficial quality and attribute. Hanuman’s commander, Sugriva, had vouched for the Vanara’s abilities, and Rama had seen Hanuman’s personal character on full display. Thus the Lord knew that Hanuman would be successful in finding Sita and returning the intelligence he gathered to both Sugriva and Himself.
But the Lord knew that Sita, wherever she was, was certainly in a precarious condition. Therefore she wouldn’t be forthcoming with information or welcoming to just any person. Hanuman, possessing the body of a monkey, wouldn’t immediately appear as a friend to Sita. After all, Rama’s alliance with Sugriva and the Vanaras was only formed after Sita had been taken away. To let Sita know that Hanuman was carrying His message, Rama handed over a ring inscribed with His name on it. The name is non-different from the Lord; it is simply the visible identifier of the sound vibration representation of the Supreme Divine Entity. Shri Rama knew that Sita would recognize this ring as belonging to Him. If Hanuman were to present the ring to her, she would have full faith in his words. She would be able to recognize Hanuman as a devotee because he would be carrying with him Rama’s holy name inscribed on a ring.
Events would play out exactly as Rama suspected. Sita would accept Hanuman as her greatest well-wisher and friend after speaking with him and seeing the ring. All would end well, as Rama and the Vanaras would eventually march to Lanka, defeat Ravana and his army, and rescue Sita. These incidents illustrate that the presence of the name of the Lord is the most important indicator in determining a person’s qualities. Those who always carry the names of the Lord found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, can be taken to be the best friends to all living entities. Devotees always chant this mantra and thereby inform all around them that they come in peace. The miscreants, the non-devotees in false guises, and the foolish atheists will never chant the Lord’s name in earnest, so they can immediately be ruled out as being supreme well-wishers. Hanuman is still worshiped to this day for his devotion to Sita and Rama. Though he doesn’t possess the body of an ordinary human being, he is still nevertheless taken to be a great Vaishnava. He always wears the tilaka mark on his head, beads around his neck, and most importantly, he always chants the name of the Lord. Hanuman is not only Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana’s friend, but he is a friend to the world as well.