Friendship as an experienced form of human interaction has existed since the beginning of time. The fact that humans project such relationships on to other creatures as well, especially pets, suggests its pervasive and powerful presence as a form of social and emotional interaction. Today, the concept in its many forms and permutations has been analyzed and theorized, seen as an ideal of moral or social conduct, or as a formula that is constantly changing according to changing societies and cultures.
In this article, I have examined three stories from the collection of folk tales popularly known as the Jātaka, or stories of the Buddha’s previous births. These Jātaka stories first appeared in the Buddhist canon formulated by the council of early Buddhist monks in the third century bce.1 They were used—as they are still used—in sermons by monks to illustrate a moral point or some human frailty. The Jātaka were also depicted in early Buddhist sculptures, and in later
While most of the Jātaka were originally in verse form, with possibly a few prose commentaries, the first full prose version was believed by scholars to have been in Sinhala, a Buddhist commentarial text written in Sri Lanka; this version would have been translated into Pāli in the fifth century ce. In the fourth century ce, this Pāli text was translated (and maybe also adapted) into the Sinhala Book of Five Hundred and Fifty Jātaka Stories. As the Jātaka stories appear again in the fourteenth century as a retranslation from the Pāli, the early Sinhala version is very likely to have been lost. One thus gets a sense of the long tradition of translations of Buddhist texts—back and forth—that existed in the ancient and medieval Buddhist world. The fifth-century Pāli text was translated into English by E.B. Cowell; the stories presented here are taken from the fourteenth-century Sinhala work, volume one of which is now translated into English.2
The three stories that I have chosen deal specifically with the theme of friendship. Here a caveat might be in order: since my background is in literature, my approach to these texts may seem to be from a literary rather than a sociological perspective. Still, in analyzing these simple stories, I shall try to describe some of the ways in which the varied kinds of relationships were categorized as friendship, and the contexts in which they appear in these stories. In doing so I attempt to throw some light on how the concept of friendship was perceived and understood at that time and in that society and the moral codes on which the concept was founded.
Each story deals directly with the theme of friendship as it was understood and experienced in a traditional medieval South Asian society. Each story deals with a different form or kind of friendship involving different agents and contexts. I shall discuss what underlying conceptual resemblances there are between the different forms as illustrated in the three stories, even though they may not have been conceptualized in any formal way in those Indian or Sri Lankan societies; and if so, how they relate to modern day concepts of friendship. We can thus get a sense of how the special relationship we term ‘friendship’ existed in its many forms and variations, in human societies across time and geographical space.
The Jātaka Story of the Devoted Ones
Let us now look at this friendship. On a certain level the animal story is a metaphor for the human world. At another level it has a meaning and life of its own—as a possible relationship existing even between nonhuman creatures.
Two friends lived in the city of Sävät. One of the two became a monk, but the other visited him every day. The lay friend offered alms to the monk, then ate his own meal, and thereafter accompanied the monk to the monastery. There he chatted with the monk, walked around with him till sunset and only then returned to the city. The monk would accompany his friend up to the city gates and see him off.
The other monks began to talk about this close, almost unnatural association and they brought up the matter with the Buddha. The Buddha then related this story of the past.
A little dog was in the habit of hanging around the royal elephant’s stable and picking up left over grains of rice. The two became very close friends.
The dog would grab the elephant’s trunk and sway back and forth playfully. As they lived thus, one day, a villager from a remote hamlet, bought the dog from the elephant keeper, and returned to his village with him [the dog]. From then on that elephant, not seeing the dog, refused to eat his food, would not drink any water, would not even take his daily bath.
The king is upset that his royal elephant is dying and sends his minister to find out the cause. The minister checks the animal, sees that there is no physical illness, realizes that the elephant is sad about some loss, and makes inquiries from the elephant keeper:
“Did the elephant have a close association with anyone?”
“Yes master. There was a certain dog and they were very good friends.”
“Where is the dog now?”
“He was taken away by a certain villager.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“No your honor, I do not know that.”
The Minister realizes that the elephant is pining for his friend the dog. The king is informed, a proclamation is made throughout the country that a dog taken from the proximity of the royal elephant’s stable should be returned. The villager releases the dog, and the second part of the story ends as follows:
The dog ran swiftly to the elephant. The elephant lifted the dog in his trunk, placed him on top of his head, then wept for joy, put the dog down gently and ate his food only after the dog had first eaten.
The story concludes with the Buddha linking the story of the elephant and the dog to that of the monk and his friend. He says, “Monks, these two were close associates not just in this life but in the past too.”4
This particular friendship is unusual—between two unlikely species. Yet the word used is the same word that is still used in the language for friend—yahaluvo dedenek (two friends). There is the enormous difference in size, and such size should naturally generate fear in the smaller creature. In this case it happens not to be so. Nor is the relationship erotic or gender based. The source of the friendship is one that grows out of daily close association and the trust that such association generates. There is no special benefit that the one gets from the other, no reciprocity involved of any kind. True, the dog first comes to eat the left over rice in the elephant’s stable, but he could eat it and go away and the elephant would not even have noticed it. That is not what produces the friendship. Rather, it is the daily close association, which in this case produces trust between the two unlikely animals that in turn generates a certain companionship that then becomes a friendship. In fact another term that occurs in the text is visvāsa vūvō. The Sinhala word visvāsa means ‘trust.’ So, the phrase means, “they who trust each other.” The emotional bond based on trust and affection becomes so strong that when the dog is taken away the elephant pines and could possibly die of grief. The joy and delight expressed by both creatures when they are released and return to each other is movingly captured by the storyteller. In terms of this story then, a close association even among creatures that are very different can create bonds of deep friendship.
This concept of friendship, then, can be described as an accidental intimacy that happens to develop from continuous close association over time between two creatures of unequal size and status. It is neither contractual nor obligatory, nor based on kinship (the dog and the elephant even belong to two different species) or likeness (the one being a small animal and the other one of the largest of living creatures). Thus there is not even the commonality of likeness or species kinship. Yet the bond of friendship that develops between these two unlike creatures is so powerful that the huge animal is grief-stricken at the loss of his little companion.
Does this imply that all close associations produce friendships? We know it can sometimes produce an opposite reaction. Initial friendships can turn to hostility, annoyance, or even enmity between those who might earlier have been friends. However, in many of the stories in this collection it is a close association, often accidental (as quite often happens in the case of humans too), that generates trust and becomes the root of a friendship. There is no suggestion in this particular case that either creature approaches the relationship on the basis of some moral ideal of conduct. In placing the story in an animal world the moral dimension here is minimized. It does not enter into the relationship at all. It is simply an unusual but deep friendship, an emotional bond between two unlike creatures who have come to enjoy each other’s company. The association is completely arbitrary, totally unaccountable, and has no rational basis. But the implication is that it could be duplicated in other similar situations. Thus it can be defined as a form of friendship, based on proximity, on a close and continuous association and on the trust that such an association generates; this in turn produces the emotional bond of a close friendship.
Allan Silver, in an article on friendship and trust, describes the traditional ideal of friendship as being “voluntary, unspecialized, informal and private…grounded on open-ended commitments without explicit provision for their termination.”5 The friendship between the elephant and the dog falls within this definition and thus can be said to conform to the traditional ideal of friendship. However, in the context of this story there is no kind of commitment on either side at all—not even an open-ended one. The friendship described here is not dependent on any contractual obligations. When the dog is sold he is taken to a different destination. We are only told that when released he runs directly back to his friend. He does so, not because of any sense of obligation,
There is a slight innuendo in the concern of the monks in the first part of the story, about what seems an unusual, perhaps even an ‘unnatural’ closeness between the monk and the layman. The point here is precisely that the friendship seems to extend beyond the limits, the known expectable parameters of how friendships are defined. In relating the story of a past friendship between these two people in a former life as a dog and an elephant, such concerns are put to rest. The friendship between the dog and the elephant is clearly without any hint of sexuality. It is just a friendship that is then carried over into the present.
The Buddha explains such unlikely, deep, and unexplainable friendships by placing them within the framework of the Buddhist karma theory of rebirth. Such friendships are the consequence, it is claimed, of similar close associations in previous lives during the long cycle of rebirths Buddhists term samsāra. But for those of us who are trying to conceptualize the different forms friendship can take, outside the context of a religious belief system, this happens to fall into a special category—an unlikely, unusual and intense friendship that depends purely on an accidental association and the companionship and trust that develops from it. As this story illustrates, such friendships can and do happen.
The Story of Goodness
This, then, is friendship based on a totally different set of norms. It is a matter of a promise made, and an honoring of that promise in terms of a moral code. The lion’s friendship is based on reciprocity, gratitude for saving his life. And that act on the part of the jackal makes him not just a friend but also a kinsman. Thus friendship in this story is based on a contractual obligation that is maintained because it is tied to a moral code of norms that both parties honor. When the lion berates the lioness for her hostility to the jackal, he not only relates the story of how his life was saved by him but terms him an ishta mitra yāluva, i.e., a friend of the highest order. Given the values of the society of the time, such a friendship then is expected to carry with it all those additional emotional connotations that are associated with family and kin ties as well as adherence to a firmly accepted moral code.
The Bodhisattva was born as a lion living on a mountain top. At the foot of the mountain was a pool but the embankment had broken, the water had flowed out and created a grassy marsh beside it. Only light-weight animals like hare and deer could graze there.
One day, hunting for prey the lion sees a deer grazing in the marshes. Poised on a high rock he jumps down on the deer—who manages to escape.
The lion, unable to control his speed, fell into the marsh land, broke through the surface grass, and his four legs got stuck firmly in the mud and remained immovable like four pillars. Unable to free himself for seven days the lion remained there starving.
A jackal happened to pass by, saw the lion and became terrified and was about to flee when the lion said:
“My four legs are stuck in the mud. Come to me, do not be afraid, and help save my life.”
Then the jackal, unafraid, came to the lion and said, “O lion king, I will use whatever skills I have and try to save you. However I am afraid that as soon as I save you, you will turn around and kill me. It would be good if you promise to grant me the gift of life.”
“Jackal, do not be afraid. If you help me I will not hurt you. I will protect you for as long as you live,” said the lion.
The jackal saves the lion, they become friends, the lion asks the jackal to bring his wife and occupy a cave near him and his lioness. The two friends hunt together for prey. The lion always gives the jackal a share of the kill and carries two portions back for the lioness and the vixen in their respective caves.
The two families have cubs and the cubs play together happily. Then one day the lioness becomes jealous that the lion treats the jackal cubs just like his own. She suspects that the lion must have had an illicit affair with the vixen.
One day when the lion and jackal were out hunting the lioness went to the vixen and said, “Why do you continue to live here? Go away.” And the lion cubs began to terrorize the jackal cubs. That evening the vixen said to the jackal, “Her ladyship the lioness threatened me. I don’t know how good the lion king may be, but let us move away from this place.”
The jackal then approached the lion and said, “Sir, living together for a long time can sour a relationship. Her ladyship the lioness has threatened my wife and cubs. When weak creatures like us are not wanted we can be asked to leave. It is not necessary to threaten us. When the poor live among the rich, to send the poor away is not a difficult matter. Therefore your honor, give us permission to leave and find a place further away.”
The lion then goes to the lioness and says: “Do you know why I did not return [to our cave] for seven days? I leapt to kill a deer, missed, got stuck in the mud, could not move and starved for seven days. My life was saved by this jackal. Thus one can say he is both my trusted friend and
my kinsman. Therefore there is no reason for you to harbor anger against him. From this day forward whatever affection you feel for me you must feel for him too.”
From then on the two families lived amicably together. In the course of time the lion parents and the jackal parents died but the cubs lived together and the friendship continued for seven generations.7
What is interesting is that the story also clearly emphasizes the status difference between the two animals who later become friends. The jackal is very aware of this difference between him—being a carrion eater and so considered one of the lowliest of animals—and the lion, the recognized king of beasts. He is therefore shrewd enough to extract a promise from the lion before he saves the lion’s life. The awareness of the difference in status is constantly reflected in the language the jackal uses to address the lion and his consistently humble stance. Just as he shrewdly extracts a promise of friendship from the lion, so for all his stance of humility, and in spite of his use of deferential forms of address to the lion and the lioness, he makes a subtle critique of the ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ who have forgotten the codes of politeness and courtesy required even in dealings with those of inferior status. The lioness resorting to threats, when a polite request to leave would have sufficed, is subtly criticized and implicitly put down as being unworthy of nobility. Thus although the story is set in the context of a hierarchical society with distinct status differences, yet the story itself suggests the possibility of forming friendships across such social divides and status barriers when other factors become operative. In this case the moral code of honoring a promise and the importance of reciprocity, become
Also interesting is the fact that there is an implicit critique of the kind of friendship we discussed in the first story. The jackal says, “Sir, living together in close proximity can sour a relationship.” Unlike in the first story, here, living in proximity undermines the friendship instead of strengthening it. But once the facts that triggered the promise are explained to the lioness, the friendship formed on the basis of reciprocity and gratitude then becomes a binding moral operative and holds good not just between the two creatures that made the pact, but continues to influence the actions of two entire clans of animals over several generations. Thus an unnatural friendship between two creatures of unequal status continues to hold good over several generations because the early original contract between two single individuals is honored by both sets of descendants. While it is a friendship based on a contract, it is also based on an ideal of moral conduct that comes with it—and is carried out in ideal terms. A promise must be kept. It is a moral norm of good conduct. It does not have to be monitored, is not limited to a time frame, and brings into its orbit a larger extended group of actors who are made to understand and accept the full implications and commitments of the friendship.
This, then, is yet another, very different concept of friendship, based on ideals of morality that generate far reaching commitments and influence the actions of several others in the kin groups of both individuals who made the initial contract. In that sense it is much closer to the business contracts of modern society which are expected to hold good as moral commitments long after the initial actors are no more.
The use of animals rather than humans to demonstrate certain aspects of that special relationship familiar to human society and known as friendship is perhaps more than just a narrative device. It is, I think, intended to indicate the power of this particular kind of relationship between individuals and its extension beyond the confines of a single species. The implication is that the experience we term friendship is a very special and powerful emotional bond that has a moral code as an underpinning. The story is intended to reflect on and provide a commentary to the human relationship known as friendship. In situating the story in the animal world there is also the suggestion that such emotional bonding is not confined to the human species alone. Friendship in terms of the story is thus a powerful and distinct form of emotional bonding in human and animal interactions.
The Birth Story of Misfortune
Here is a story that, like the first one, extols the value of association in the forming of friendships. But unlike in the first story where the friendship is based simply on an accidental association, here there is in addition a strong moral component—that one has a commitment toward one’s childhood associations and must honor such early friendships. The Sinhala word used throughout the story is the same word used today for a friend—mitrayā—derived from the Sanskrit root mitra. In the friendship described here there is also reciprocity on the part of ‘Misfortune’ (the coincidence of his name providing some sort of secondary lesson) who looks after his friend’s properties well because he is grateful that his friend has given him a means of earning a livelihood. On the part of the nobleman there is the moral obligation to honor a friendship that goes back to childhood. In that sense the friendship is reciprocal but the reasons differ. For Anēpidu the nobleman, it is a moral commitment. For Kālakanni it is gratitude and reciprocity for help given.
When the Buddha, the Teacher of the Three Worlds, who is a ship in the Ocean of samsara, was living in the Devram monastery, he related this story about a friend of the noble merchant Anēpidu.
This friend and he had played together as children and studied under the same teacher. His name happened to be Kālakanni (misfortune). As time went on this friend lost all his wealth, became poor and had no means of livelihood. He then went to live with the great nobleman Anēpidu, who consoled him, assigned him a salary and asked him to administer his properties. He in turn discharged his duties well. When he was with his friend the nobleman would address him by his name saying, “Come here Misfortune,” or “Sit down Misfortune,” or “Eat Misfortune.”
Then another friend advised Anēpidu saying, “Don’t let this person live with you. When you say, ‘Come here Misfortune’ or ‘Sit by me Misfortune’ or ‘Eat Misfortune’ and use the word repeatedly, it is enough to scare the very devil [to bring (more) misfortune on you]. This man is not your equal. He is contemptible. What use is he to you?”
“A name is only a form of address. Wise people do not set any store by a name. I cannot abandon a person I have played with in childhood merely on account of his name,” responded the nobleman.
Then one day, when the nobleman was out of the city on some work, thieves decided that it was a good time to rob his house and surrounded it, armed with many weapons. Misfortune had stayed awake all night anticipating that the thieves might attack.
When he realized that they were surrounding the house he awakened the household, ordered one person to blow the conch, another to beat the drums and created a huge uproar as if a big performance was going on. The thieves thinking they had been given wrong information regarding the nobleman’s absence, fled, leaving behind all their weapons. Next day seeing the scattered weapons friends declared that had it not been for the wisdom of Misfortune the nobleman would have lost all his wealth.
When the nobleman returned he said to his friends, “Didn’t you ask me to get rid of this man who looked after my property so well? Had I taken your advice I would have lost all my wealth.” He then went on to
praise the qualities of a good friend saying, “If someone walks seven steps with you, he becomes your friend. If someone spends twelve days with you he becomes your very good friend. If it is for months and months he becomes a kinsman. If you live together longer you become soul-mates. Therefore how can I, a considerate human being, drive away this man Misfortune who has been so trustworthy for so long a time?” Thus, he extolled the value of friendship. After that nobody said another word against Misfortune.9
Thus even though the definition of friendship as spelled out in the story gives priority to association in the formation of friendships, yet there are certain implicit distinctions and gradations spelled out. A short association produces a certain kind of friendship. A longer period could result in a friendship that is equated with kinship, which is clearly higher up on the scale of graded relationships. A very long association can develop an intense form of mutual bonding, a friendship described as one between ‘soul-mates.’ This perhaps is how the friendship between the elephant and the dog can be seen. However, in spite of this carefully spelled out definition of friendship based entirely on length of association the story itself goes beyond those definitions and becomes inclusive of other important aspects of the concept, thereby incorporating aspects explored in both the first and second stories.
How is friendship conceptualized in these three stories, rooted within the context and values of medieval South Asian societies? That friendship was known and noted as an identifiable form of human interaction similar to, but
- (1)Association—especially long-term association between individuals, whether human or animal—is seen as a major factor that contributes to the formation of that special category of emotional bonding that is termed ‘friendship.’ This is expressed by all three stories.
- (2)In each of the three stories, the relationship is voluntary and personal. It is so in the story of the dog and the elephant. The jackal makes a voluntary decision to help the lion and so becomes his friend. The nobleman decides to help his friend even though others advise against it. They are all voluntary and personal acts in terms of Georg Simmel’s in 1907,10 since ‘substitutability’ is not possible in any of the three situations described.
- (3)Physical proximity that contributes to a continuing of an initial association is another factor that fosters friendship. Thus in the story of the lion and the jackal, the lion invites the jackal to bring his family and live in close proximity to him. They can then hunt together and their families can also become friends. In medieval societies this was no doubt an important component, since distances and the travails of travel would necessarily have put heavy strains on pursuing a friendship.
- (4)Equality of birth, intelligence, and status are definitely not considered a necessary component of friendship as described in these stories. Instead they seem to be intended to indicate the opposite. Perhaps it was because in the society of that time ‘equality’ or similarity of status was generally considered as a necessary given in the formation of friendships, that the Buddhist monks who made the collection specifically selected stories of friendships that cut across such barriers. In any case, here the statement is that friendship can and does occur across status and other divisions.
- (5)The pressure of moral ideals such as the values of reciprocity, trust, the keeping to commitments and promises, are other features that underlie and govern the fostering of this subtle almost intangible relationship we term ‘friendship.’ Such moral norms would have been important in traditional societies of the medieval period where the social groups were smaller and depended on such norms to maintain their cohesiveness.
Friendships can occur without being dependent on such norms but they are rare—as in the case of the first story. For the most part it is the mutual acceptance of moral norms that foster friendship.
- (6)Affection, which is a corollary of friendship and a strong component in the relationship, is substantially different from the affections generated from erotic or sexual association, even though the caring and the enjoyment of each other’s companionship in friendship can be as emotionally intense and close as those in a sexual relationship. This comes through clearly in the first part of the first story, where the relationship between the monk and the lay friend is so intense and close that it triggers concern among the other monks that there may even be a sexual component to it.
- (7)Judging from how the theme of friendship is handled in these early stories one can see that such relationships can occur in many different situations, be very varied in form and intensity and have different kinds of moral impetus. One can also see however, that friendship can be conceptualized as a distinct and identifiable form of human interaction, amenable to description and definition.
We might perhaps then generalize and say that friendship is a very special kind of experience or relationship, pervasive in almost all cultures and through time. It has been recognized and marked as such, and appears in the literatures of almost all societies. In some cases as with Buddhist literature it has been extended to include friendships not only between humans, but also between humans and animals, and sometimes stretching back over several previous births and rebirths. It can thus be described as an emotional relationship that can cut across species, and is perhaps pervasive among all sentient creatures—even though the concept has been analyzed mainly in terms of the human species, being most easily studied.
Burlingame Eugene W. Buddhist Legends. Translated from the original Pāli text of the Dhammapada Commentary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921; reprint London: Luzac & Company, 1969.
Cowell Edward B., ed. The Jātaka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births. Translated from the Pāli by Various Hands. 6 vols in 3. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
Obeyesekere Ranjini, ed. The Revered Book of Five Hundred & Fifty Jātaka Stories: Translated from the 14th Century Sinhala Version. Vol. 1. Colombo: M.D. Gunasena and Co. (Private) Ltd., 2012.
Rhys Davids Thomas W. Buddhist Birth Stories: Or, Jātaka Tales: The Oldest Collection of Folk-lore Extant: Being the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, for the First Time edited in the Original Pāli, vol. 1. Edited by Viggo Fausbøll. London: Trübner & Co, 1880.
- Export Citation
)| false Rhys Davids Thomas W. Buddhist Birth Stories: Or, Jātaka Tales: The Oldest Collection of Folk-lore Extant: Being the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, for the First Time edited in the Original Pāli, vol. 1. Edited by Viggo Fausbøll. London: Trübner & Co, 1880.
Simmel Georg. Philosophie des Geldes. Leipzig: Dunckler & Humblot (1900) 1907. The Philosophy of Money. London/Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
That a collection of these birth stories (though perhaps not in their present form) existed as far back as the third century bce was suggested by the nineteenth-century Pāli scholar, Rhys Davids, who claims that the collection was included as a section of what became known as the Buddhist canon in both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions of Buddhism. See Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories, lxxx–lxxxiii.
Obeyesekere, The Revered Book of Five Hundred and Fifty Jātaka Stories; see also Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births.
Cowell et al. Vol. 1, 69–70.
Translation Ranjini Obeyesekere.
Silver, “Friendship and Trust as Moral Ideals,” 274.
Cowell et al. Vol. 2, 17–21.
Translation Ranjini Obeyesekere.
Cowell et al. Vol. 1, 209–10.
Translation Ranjini Obeyesekere.
Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes (The Philosophy of Money, 1900), as cited in Silver, “Friendship and Trust as Moral Ideals,” 281, who explains that the extent to which the ‘substitutability’ of persons is consequential indicates the extent to which a relationship is personal: i.e., the degree to which changing (e.g., patrons, partners, or friends) entails palpable consequences for the relationship in question.