Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXXI: Sugrīva, the Friend – Part I

Bijoy Misra

December 10, 2019

“Friendship” as a concept is a social construct. We accept a friend, because at times we need a friend.
Normally, man is solitary. We breathe on our own, we eat on our own and we die on our own. There is a
human natural diversity that separates people. Parents remain “friend(s)” to us when we are babies, but
we separate out to branch off pretty easily, to go live our own lives. We develop playmates and classmates
during our young years, but rarely we make a life-long friend. We do find our partners in marriage, but it
can become a conditional relationship unless we accept the partner as a “friend”.


Sugrīva appears in the Rāmāyaṇa story when a distraught Rāma is wandering in the forest, anxious about
his kidnapped wife. Rāma had some indication that she was taken in a southerly direction, but he had no
other clues or support. Lakṣmaṇa was with him but he was guilt-ridden that he failed to follow Rāma’s
instruction to provide security protection to Sītā. He was depressed and was following Rāma quietly as a
co-wanderer. A distraught man needs a friend. A friend is he who may rescue a man from distress.
In the early Vedic literature, the sun has been considered to be a man’s friend. The sun gives light,
provides heat, causes rains, and nourishes our health. The original word mitra (meaning “friend”) is a
synonym for the sun. While the sun is a friend to all, it is too remote to be of immediate help. We need
something terrestrial as a local friend. In the later literature of śrīmadbhāgavatam, “air” or vāyu plays
the role of a friend, an unseen partner that supports us, irrespective of the state of our body or mind. Yet
air does not take away the stress of the mind, nor does it give us support to walk.


In Vālmīki’s story, Sugrīva is connected to sun in his origin, just as Rāma is through his clan. Whether the
friendship between the two is linked to these ancestral connections is unknown to us. We do not know
what causes two individuals to become friends. In Sugrīva’s case he declares that he and Rāma have a
common problem: both have wives who were kidnapped by stronger opponents. Sugrīva sanctifies their
friendship by taking vows and going around the fire.


While Sugrīva knew that a man may not be trusted, he knew the power of his own trust. It is not clear if
Vālmīki chose to characterize Sugrīva as vānara to bestow in him an extra sense of gratitude and trust.
We don’t know exactly what the vānara(s) were, but they are characterized in the Rāmāyaṇa as smart,
intelligent, discriminating and diligent. At the same time, the anatomy that they are endowed with
enables them to leap across long distances through the sky.


More interestingly, Vālmīki’s vānara(s) are able to express themselves in understandable language. In
fact, all characters in the Rāmāyaṇa express themselves in interpretable languages. In a literal sense,
perhaps we can think of this as an ability to use gestures and facial expressions that can readily be
interpreted as communicable language. A major difference between the vānaras and humans seems to 
be that humans have the flexibility of fully formed functioning fingers which endow them the skill of
creating tools and weapons.


Sugrīva was admonished for misconduct by his older brother Vālī, who was so upset that he wanted to
destroy Sugriva. Sugrīva was banished by Vālī from Kiṣkindhā. Sugriva’s wife Rumā was not allowed to
accompany him. Hounded by Vālī, Sugrīva ran for his life accompanied by only a handful of vānara
associates. The skilled Hanūmān remained loyal to him. Finally, he and his vānaras took shelter over at
the Rṣyamūka mountain, which was under the overall supervision of Rṣi Mataṅga. Vālī knew of Rṣi
Mataṅga’s penances and his powers. Vālī was scared of Rṣi Mataṅga .


Rāma was told of Sugrīva by the demon Kabandha in the Pañcavaṭī forest. Vālmīki does not tell us how
Kabandha knew that Sugrīva might be helpful to Rāma, but Kabandha knew where Sugrīva lived and
provided the instructions to Rāma how to find him. Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa trekked through the forest to
Pampā lake in the direction of the Rṣyamūka mountains. Sugrīva, ever-alert to advances by Vālī, noticed
the princes from his mountain perch. He alerted Hanūmān: “I feel scared of these two long-armed brighteyed strongly-built men who are wandering in the forest carrying bows and arrows! They could be Vālī’s spies in disguise! Please check them out!”


Sugrīva instructed Hanuman: “Check their style of speaking and their gestures, and whether they are
happy in their minds or whether they look agitated. Quiz them repeatedly. Read their minds. And yes,
don’t forget to ask them questions with your face towards me! You must find out why they have entered
this remote forest, and figure out if they are honest or hold crooked intentions!” Vālmīki characterizes
Sugrīva as one who possesses leadership skills of reading situations through interactions. This attribute
of Sugrīva to detect the honesty of individuals by testing them becomes an asset for Rāma as the story
develops.


Hanūmān’s encounter with Rāma is the story of a cosmic bondage that is suddenly revived. We will discuss this encounter later, when we write about the characterization of Rāma. Hanuman explained himself to Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, as directed by Sugrīva. Once he understood that their purpose was to meet Sugrīva, he escorted them over the mountains to Sugrīva’s abode. He briefed Sugrīva about the identity and the mental state of the brothers.


Sugrīva made “the best of his appearance” to greet the brothers. He had already made up his mind about
the authenticity of the brothers’ intentions. “I have heard about your qualities of righteousness, humility
and austerity from Hanuman. It is my privilege to be of service to you! Please extend your hand if you
wish to cultivate friendship with a vānara like me. Joining our hands will give a long life to the dignity of
our friendship!” Sugrīva shook hands and hugged his new friend.


Hanūmān seemed to know Sugrīva’s vulnerability in a possible combat with Vālī, and sympathized with
Sugrīva. He also recognized Rāma’s credentials. He assembled wood, set up a fire, and created an
auspicious setting by decorating the woodpile with flowers. Rāma and Sugrīva circumambulated the fire
and committed themselves to the dignity of a mutual friendship. Whether thissymbolic commitment was
a traditional social ritual ofthe time, or whether it was Sugrīva’s way of further verifying Rāma’s intentions
to be a “friend” to him, remains unclear.


Sugrīva extolled: “Today we are friends-in-arms with a common purpose. Let our pain and pleasures be
together!” Sugrīva then told Rama about his own vulnerability, which made him eager to “befriend”
Rāma. “I have been banished from my land by my brother Vālī. My wife has been taken away. I live in
this forest with fear and anxiety! Please free me from the fear of Vālī, and make it so that I never have to
be fearful again!”


Sugrīva knew that he could be of help to Rāma, but he was unsure about how to tackle Vālī, the valiant
forest dweller of his time. Sugrīva thought that Vālī could only be vanquished by sharp weapons and not
in a duel or rock fight. Seeing the bows and arrows on Rāma and his brother Lakṣmaṇa, Sugrīva determined that they could be of value in getting rid of Vālī. So, he orchestrated the quick “friendship” ceremony. He was anxious to move to the task of confronting Vālī as quickly as possible!


Rāma had no choice. He was helpless. He had exiled himself from Ayodhyā to fulfill his father’s
unfortunate vow. His wife had been kidnapped in the forest. He was totally unprepared for the untoward
situation of not knowing where she was and if she was alive. Sugrīva was his only solace in the
desperateness in the forest. To establish his sincerity of his friendship with Sugrīva, he gravely
reciprocated: “I know how to pay you back for the gestures of friendship! I will kill the evil Vālī, who has
taken away your wife from you! My poison-laden, sharp, gold-leaf, sun-like arrows will indiscriminately
hit him like angry snakes. Vālī will fall on the ground as a broken-down mountain!”
Sugrīva heard what he wanted to.


Let Sai bless all!