Just as a person who desires to improve his tennis will seek out tennis experts and enthusiasts, so a person interested in spiritual life will want likeminded friends. But where do we find them? And even if we meet students of self-realization and God consciousness, does it mean we will automatically develop loving friendships with them? The scripture states, "Seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." And so it is with spiritual friendships.

The surest way to find God conscious companions is to join with the topmost pure devotees, saints, and sages. Although most of them lived many centuries ago, we can be with them now in their writings, their teachings, and through their living followers. Although the pure devotees of a past age are not walking the earth today, we can become kindred spirits with them and benefit in a very personal way in their association.

According to Vedic knowledge, there are two ways to become intimate with advanced spiritual persons. One way is through their direct association, such as cooking with them, walking beside them, sitting and talking with them, and so on. This is called, in Sanskrit,vapuh. The effect of a friendship with an advanced devotee is described by Bhaktivinoda Thakura in Harinama Cintamani:

If one stays near a pure Vaisnava [devotee of Krsna] for some time, one can receive the bhakti [devotional energy] flowing from his body. If one can bind that energy within one's heart, after one develops strong faith bhakti will develop…. Thus if one lives close to a Vaisnava, devotion will soon appear within one's heart.

When we are not in the presence of a spiritual friend but we associate with him by hearing and following his instructions, that is called vani. Of the two, the experts state that the vani form of relationship is stronger and everlasting, whereas vapuh, although especially sweet, is subject to time, death, and other forms of human separation. Either in the form of vapuh or vani, spiritual friendships are very influential. As one Vedic teacher said, "Association is very important. It acts just like a crystal stone, which will reflect anything put before it." The influence we receive through teachings and writings can act negatively or positively. For example, the nineteenth century German poet Goethe poured out his youthful anguish in a novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the tragic result was that several young men committed suicide after reading Werther As submissive readers can become degraded or doomed by poisonous writings, so the opposite is true: we can gain the highest goal of life, revival of our blissful, eternal relationship with God, by faithfully associating with pure souls through their biographies or recorded teachings.

But we cannot live only in books. We live in a world of people family, friends, fellow workers, neighbors. As we traverse the spiritual path, we naturally want companions. For the inner life, we want close friends, not just formal or official relationships with people who are strangers to our soul. Personal association is so important that the Vedic scriptures caution us against living with those who are averse to godly life. In fact, when Lord Caitanya was asked by a follower to define a Vaisnava, He replied, "He is one who avoids the association of materialistic people, sense enjoyers, and nondevotees." On another occasion, when Lord Caitanya asked His learned disciple Ramananda Raya what was the most painful experience, Ramananda Raya replied, "Apart from separation from the devotee of Krsna, I know of no unbearable unhappiness." And it is stated in the Brhad-bhagavatamrta, "Out of all kinds of desirable things experienced in the life of a living entity, association with the devotees of the Lord is the greatest. When we are separated from a devotee, even for a moment, we cannot enjoy happiness."

We can increase our chances of forming spiritual friendships by visiting a place such as a temple of Krsna. But devotees are not found only in temples. Neither do they belong to a particular religious sect, live in a particular part of the world, or belong to a particular sex or age group. They are known by their genuine symptoms, which are described in the scriptures. Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.25.21) states:

The symptoms of a sadhu are that he is tolerant, merciful, and friendly to all living entities. He has no enemies, he is peaceful, he abides by the scriptures, and all his characteristics are sublime.

In The Nectar of Instruction, written in the sixteenth century, Rupa Gosvami analyzes devotees in three categories and advises us to honor all devotees. He describes the neophyte class as those who sometimes chant God's names but don't strictly follow all the rules of spiritual life. Devotees in the intermediate stage strictly follow rules and are fixed in their convictions about devotional service to God. Above all are the pure devotees, who harbor no envy toward any living creature, and who see everyone as a servant of God.

We should see all the devotees as our friends, and yet there is an art for selecting proper persons with careful discrimination. Rupa Gosvami further explains that there are six kinds of loving exchanges among devotee friends:

Offering gifts in charity, accepting charitable gifts, revealing one's mind in confidence, inquiring confidentially, accepting prasadam [spiritual food], and offering prasadam are the six symptoms of love shared by one devotee and another. The art and etiquette of friendships in Krsna consciousness can be best learned from genuine devotees.

If one has not developed a good spiritual friendship among the people he works and lives with, then he should pray for this and seek it out. We cannot keep aloof from spiritual friendships and at the same time please the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Lord Krsna says, "He who says he is My devotee is not My devotee. But he who is a devotee of My devotee is actually My devotee." Similarly, Narottama dasa Thakura, a great Vaisnava poet, wrote, "No one has ever become liberated without the association of devotees."

But perhaps my readers are already aware of the importance of spiritual friendships. And perhaps you already have connections with spiritual friends. In that case, let us simply remind each other not to neglect these valuable ties. Let us go to our friends and share the happiness of God-centered love. As described by Lord Krsna in theBhagavad-gita (10.9): "The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me." SDG