[This is from a hard copy of the article given to Dave and Carolyn Hume when Swami Veda was still in the body.]
Bhagavad-gita 6.9 lists six kinds of relationships. These are explained by the great Shankaracharya in his Commentary as follows:
Su-hrd: one who grants benevolence without expecting a return
Mitra: one who feels an affection
Ari: an enemy
Udasina: one who does not take sides
Madhya-stha: a well-wisher to both parties in a dispute
Dveshya: one for whom one has a dislike (irrespective of the other party's feelings)
Here we are concerned with the two words expressive of friendship. Su-hrd means one with a good heart; his/her good-heartedness is not limited to just a feeling, a sentiment, but expressive itself in unselfishly good deeds for which one seeks no return. The word mitra, at least here, simply expresses the feeling of affection. A bandhu loves only because of a congenital or marital relationship, whereas a su-hrd and mitra do so with no other relationship except that of good-hearted affection.
Another word for friend that is found in the earliest Vedic hymns is sakhi. And friendship is sakhya.
Devanam sakhyam up-sedima vayam (Rg-veda-samhita 1.89.2): In friendship with the devas we sit close to them.
Yaska’s Nirukta, the earliest work on Vedic etymology explains the word sakhi as samana-khyana, one whose consciousness or level of awareness and understanding is akin, similar, to one’s own. But there is more to it than that. Su-hrd enjoys the state of eucardia. We shall come to the word mitra later. The word sakhi (the feminine form of which is sakhee) is derived from sam or sama plus kha. The prefix sam expresses harmony and togetherness, wellness, also thoroughness. Its cognates are found in words like sympathy, synchrony, and German samen (together), for example samenwerken (to work together). Sama means ‘same’, ‘similar’ and so forth. It is ham in Persian, as in ham-shireh, ham-dard, ham-vatan. The second part of the word sakhi is from kha, which is a word of mastery. The Yajur-veda-samhita ends with
Om kham brahma – YV.40.17
This is one of the earliest references to Brahman, the Transcendental Reality as Kha, which can be rendered as space, shunya, zero, neti. The philosophical concept and spiritual experience, from which the zero was derived to be written the best way, a space, may be expressed by circling an imaginary area of space: 0. The way the Roman zero is written, an elongated oval, is not true to the original concept. In the Hindu numerals, and in the Arabic ones derived from them, it is a round circle.
Just a little later in the Vedic period, the word kha denotes senses, giving rise to the words su-kha (pleasure) and duh-kha (pain), a comfortable space of the senses and an unpleasant state of the senses.
Anyway, the word sakhi means one who shares the same space, feels the same way, senses the same way, shares the same pleasures and pains, and in the final goals of life, is similar in the level of realization of the Transcendental reality. The nominative singular form in Sanskrit is sakhaa. Arjuna’s mistake was:
Sakheti matvaa pra-sabham yad-uktam….
Tat kshaamye tavaam --- BhG 11.41
Thinking of you as my sakhaa, I addressed you (informally) as an equal. I ask you to please forgive me.
Until Krishna showed him the divine vision of his true form, Arjuna thought that Krishna was his sa-kha, sharing the same space, the same comprehension of reality.
Now we return to mitra. In the earliest usage the word is one of the names of the Sun Deity. In the ancient religion of Iran it becomes Mithra that becomes the Roman Mithras. The religion of Mitra or Mithra spread far and wide. Mithra as synonym of the Sun becomes Mihir. We have the famous Sanskrit polymath Varaha-mihira. The emperor Mihirkul. The town near Delhi known as Mehrauli, perhaps the site of an ancient astronomical observatory. And the Shah of Iran bore the title Arya-mihir, Sun of the Aryas. To this day, in performing the daily surya-namaskara, the set of yoga postures known as solar salutation, we recite, among the salutations to the 12 aspects of the Sun, Mitraaya namah: Salutation to Mitra.
Quite early in the development of the language, the word mitra began to denote a ‘friend’ as well. However, whereas mitra meaning Sun is masculine, the same word meaning friend is in the neuter gender. Why that should be so is still a mystery of the whims of a language. Of the twenty mantras of the Rg-veda beginning with the word mitra, two begin with it meaning ‘a friend.’ Mitram na yam shimyaa goshu (RV.1.151.1); Mitram na yam su-dhitam (RV.6.15.21); Mitram krnudhvam khalu (10.34.14). We recite in the Vedic hymns:
Mitrasya maa chakshushaa sarvaani bhuutaani sam-eekshantamm. Mitrasyaaham chakshushaa sarvaani bhuutaani sameekshe. Mitrasya chakshushaa sameekshaamahe.
May all beings look at me with an eye of a friend. May I look at all beings with the eye of a friend. May we look (at each other) with the eye of a friend.
In the Vedic wedding ceremony, the bridegroom addresses the bride:
Mitrasya tvaa chakshushaa sam-eekshe
I look at you with the eye of a friend.
One is tempted here to elaborate on the expression sam-eeksh. It does not mean simply ‘to look’. Refer above to the meaning of the prefix sam. Merge its meaning with that of eeksh, to see, and the word sam-eeksha will reveal its meaning.
But who is a true friend? The Buddha called himself everyone’s kalyana-mitra, noble friend, friend on the noble path. He encouraged his disciples and followers to be kalyana-mitra to each other. As a good friend seeing his friend about to slip on a banana peel, warns him, holds him back, and helps lift him up if the friend has already fallen, so does a co-disciple express his/her affection towards a co-traveller on the path. S/he reminds the friend not to get lost, not to waver, not to slip but to remain steadfast. This brings us to the verb root meaning of the word mitra, from maa ‘to measure’. The Sun is the measure, and the measure of all time, so He is mitra. This sense of measuring is expressed, inter alia, in the Rg-veda 1.38.14; 5.59.8; 9.64.19. A friend measures the capacity of the friend, watches and measures whether the friend is progressing, so serves like a solar beacon. Thus do the meanings ‘sun’ and ‘friend’ unite in one.
Such a friendship is not a short time game of fun and frolic. It is a part of our karmically established connections. Once a soul-mind jumps into it, it must continue for many life times. The Sanskrit texts state:
The friendship of the shallow is like the morning shadows.
The friendship of the wise is like the evening shadows.
The morning shadows start large, covering the whole earth but vanish by noon. The evening shadows start small and turn into an envelope for the planet.
It is such a friendship, amity, that is called maitri in Sanskrit, metta in Pali. Both in Buddhism and in the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali (1.33) it is the first of the four ‘frolics in God’, brahma-viharas. Amity, together with three others, constitutes the yoga practice of chitta-prasaadana, making the mind pleasant and clear; clear, thereby pleasant; pleasant, thereby clear. This pleasant clarity of mind, like that of a clear and pleasantly flowing stream, also becomes sthiti-ni-bandhani, not merely stabilizing but firming up, permanently establishing stability.
A friend, thus, is one who starts off out of a sentiment of affection; grants benevolence without seeking a return or an acknowledgment; slowly shares the same space of awareness, awakening of same level of consciousness and the realization of the Transcendent; at each step encouraging the friend to keep on the path, not to slip into apathy and darkness and confusion; serves as a solar beacon to light up the friend’s path and helps to stabilize him permanently into a clarity and pleasantness of the mind. Su-hrd, mitra, sa-khaa.