“One can change his habit by good or bad association, and one has to become intelligent enough to discriminate between good and bad. The best association is the service of the devotees of the Lord, and by that association one can become the highest qualified man by the grace of the Lord's pure devotees.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.10.41 Purport)
Regardless of the specific Vaishnava tradition you follow, you will certainly hear recommendations for avoiding the company of those who are inimical towards God. If such people are hostile towards the Supreme Personality of Godhead, if they speak ill of Him, if they are openly defiant of His will, or worse, if they say that He doesn’t exist, you should stay away from them, even if they are a close friend or family member. While the recommendation may seem harsh, if you delve a little further into the issue, you will see its purpose and its validity.
To be a Vaishnava means to believe in Vishnu, who is the personal form of the Lord. Personal relates to a person, which implies individuality. Just as my son is different from me as a person, so the Supreme Personality of Godhead is unique. He is distinguished by His features, though they are incomparable to anything we’ve ever experienced. Only with a personal God is there a relationship established. Impersonal Brahman gains no benefit from our association. The idea of merging into an all-encompassing energy also carries no interaction. As interaction is at the heart of all kinds of enjoyment, there must be a corresponding, distinct personality if religious life is meant to be our true calling.
A Vaishnava particularly believes in and serves a personal God, but for the purposes of explanation we can look at any situation where there is a belief to see the need for selectivity in association. Let’s say that you believe that your parents are great. You love your mom and dad. That is your opinion. They are nevertheless distinct people who have their own experiences in life. They thus create friends and enemies through their actions. Not everyone will like them. There is no such thing as universal appeal, as even during the divine descents there are enemies of the Supreme Lord, who is by definition all-good.
Now let’s say that one of your close friends hates your parents. Whenever you are in their company, they speak ill of your mother and father. You make friends through sharing common experiences and interests. If you like to play tennis, you can make new friends by playing with or against other people. If you like to go to the nightclub, you can make friends by meeting people there. If you like sports, you can make friends with others who are fans of the team you like.
Friends look at each other as equals. That is what defines the relationship. When the equality changes, so too does the friendship. This notable truth is presented in the Bhagavad-gita as well. Prior to the scene in question at the outset of the work, Arjuna and Krishna were cousins and friends. At the battlefield of Kurukshetra, on the precipice of a great war, Krishna, who is the original form of the Supreme Lord and thus worshipable by all Vaishnavas, was actually acting as Arjuna’s chariot driver. He voluntarily accepted this position. One was the warrior and the other was the servant of the warrior, but in general respects they were both friends.
“I have in the past addressed You as ‘O Krishna,’ ‘O Yadava,’ ‘O my friend,’ without knowing Your glories. Please forgive whatever I may have done in madness or in love. I have dishonored You many times while relaxing or while lying on the same bed or eating together, sometimes alone and sometimes in front of many friends. Please excuse me for all my offenses.” (Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 11.41-42)
When Arjuna found trouble, however, the relationship immediately changed. Arjuna was confused about how to proceed. As a warrior you have to fight in order to win. Think of it like punching someone when you’re in a boxing match. If you don’t feel like punching, how are you going to defeat the opponent? Arjuna didn’t feel like hurling his arrows with the expert marksmanship that he was known for. Since friends and family were fighting for the opposing side, he wasn’t so eager for victory. Yet he knew that the war was beginning for a reason, that all other avenues for peace had failed. Not knowing what to do, he approached Krishna for help.
The relationship then changed. Krishna became the acknowledged superior and Arjuna the student. Krishna was the spiritual master and Arjuna the disciple. As friends they couldn’t have this relationship. Even if one of your acknowledged friends starts to lecture you on something, if you are to really learn anything, you must put them in the superior position, which automatically changes the nature of the relationship. After the Bhagavad-gita was delivered and Arjuna fully accepted the instructions through his own acknowledgement, the two returned to being friends.
As a friend is our equal, we must take their views and opinions as legitimate. For instance, if I like to eat at certain restaurants, my friend will want to go there with me from time to time. I must extend the same courtesy to them if I am to be considered a friend. I may detest the restaurant that they like, but if they go to my restaurant from time to time for my sake, I must do the same for them. This is how friendship works. There is automatic compromise. The other person is to be respected as an equal.
Now, in this hypothetical scenario, there is no room for compromise on the belief that my parents are great. Why on earth would I want to be around someone who holds such contempt for people that I love so much? If I remain friends with them, in the sense that I spend much time with them and compromise in all areas, I’m essentially giving legitimacy to their viewpoint. And really that should never happen; in my view there is no reason for anyone to hate my parents.
If we apply the same principle towards worship of God, we see that it is never acceptable to legitimize anyone’s hatred for the Supreme Lord. Whether they are a close friend or family member, their association should immediately be given up. Goswami Tulsidas says that one should never be around someone who is an enemy of Lord Rama, who is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord as a warrior prince. Someone may not know who Rama is, and so they may be informed, but if they are a sworn enemy of the Lord, if they speak ill of Him, why should we ever entertain their opinion?
“The many past births you spoiled can be rectified right now, today, if you start chanting Shri Rama’s holy name and renounce bad association, says Tulsi.” (Dohavali, 22)
To be an enemy of Rama is to be an enemy of God, who is the original proprietor of everything, the supreme enjoyer, and the best friend of every living entity. There is no reason to hate Him. It is the hostility towards Him which keeps one bound to the cycle of birth and death in a miserable and temporary land. You can only go through reincarnation over and over again if you are averse to divine love, which is the soul’s constitutional occupation.
Prahlada Maharaja was a loving son, but he didn’t listen to his father when he spoke ill of Lord Vishnu. The gopis of Vrindavana abandoned their family members during the middle of the night so that they could serve Krishna in the forest. Vibhishana gave up the company of his evil brother Ravana when the fiend had taken Rama’s wife Sita in secret. All of them were better off for having forsaken situations not conducive to divine love. Sometimes they may have ended up with no friends at all as a result of their decisions, but they still stayed with their worship of God. Such are the ways of the material world; friends come and go, but Shri Rama is there to stay.
I love my parents so very much,
Don’t have any sin, not even a touch.
If ill of them my friend will speak,
Their company I’ll never again keep.
If they are inimical in important belief,
Why to stay with them and invite so much grief?
Should be around enemy of Rama never,
In their company surely to be doomed forever.
Friend an equal, a person with whom to compromise,
Belief in God not for negotiation, never the thought should arise.