Atithi Devo Bhava…

शिरीषपुष्पमाघ्राणात् म्लानं संजायते यथा ।
तथाऽतिथीनां वदनं स्याद् गृहस्थे पराङ्‌मुखे ॥

The delicate blossom of the anicham flower withers when merely smelled; an unwelcome look is enough to wither a guest’s heart.

सूंघा ‘अनिच्च’ पुष्प को, तो वह मुरझा जाय ।
मुँह फुला कर ताकते, सूख अतिथि-मुख जाय ॥

मातृदेवो भव । पितृदेवो भव । आचार्यदेवो भव । अतिथिदेवो भव ॥ ४ ॥

mātṛdevo bhava | pitṛdevo bhava | ācāryadevo bhava | atithidevo bhava || 4 ||

Treat your mother as a God; as a God treat your father; as a God shall you treat your teacher; treat your guests too as Gods.

Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.4

We are familiar with the truncated version of this phrase – Atithi Devo Brava – treat a guest as a god. This simple yet powerful message has echoed though the centuries, and this is why we Indians have an inherent tendency for hospitality. In fact, ancient texts advocated the Panchopchara Puja – or the five-steps of worshipping God at home, that are also extrapolated to taking care of guests.

  1. Fragrance (Dhupa) – While receiving guests, the rooms must have a pleasant fragrance, so as to welcome the guest with good smells. A simple agarbatti (incense stick) can help.
  2. Lamp (Dipa) – Prior to the electrification of India, a lamp was put between host and guest so that expression and body language would remain clearly visible and therefore no misunderstandings would take place between the host and guest. Today, a well-lit room would be sufficient.
  3. Edibles (Naivedya) – Fruits and sweets made of milk were offered to guests. This practice continues to date, where guests are first offered water.
  4. Rice (Akshata) – It is a symbol of being undivided. A tilak, often made of a vermilion paste, is put on the forehead and rice grains are placed on it. This is the highest form of welcome in Hindu Indian families. Nowadays, this practice is reserved for special occasions, such as festivals, engagements or marriages.
  5. Flower Offering (Pushpa) – A flower is a gesture of goodwill. When the guest departs, the flower symbolizes the sweet memories of the visit that stay with them for several days. When pujas are conducted at home, guests usually leave with a few flowers and prasad as offerings.

Tiruvalluvar too speaks about the value of a guest in times when knocking on a stranger’s door was not considered dangerous, both for the host and the guest.

People used to travel through dense forests and cross rivers to reach their destinations, and so seeking shelter at a stranger’s house was common.

It was the duty of the host to graciously serve the guest and make him comfortable – even at the cost of the host’s own comfort. Valluvar conveys this beautifully in the two couplets above. There is no excuse to deny a guest shelter – even if you are having the best food, or engaged in the most sacred prayer. Your duties towards the guest take precedence,says Valluvar.

The couplet is very poetic, and translations do not do justice to it. Just as the smell of a beautiful flower withers away when smelled, so does the guest feel unwelcome if the host displays the smallest signs of unpleasantness. Hosting a guest is not enough, pleasing a guest is true virtue.

Contrast that to today’s times when forget hosting a guest, we do not even meet our own neighbours. We don’t know them, they don’t know us. Yet we live next to them for years and years.

Meetings with friends are scheduled, not impromptu. Convenience is the deciding factor, not the eagerness to meet.

Funnily enough, this kind of social behaviour puts us city-dwellers in the ‘civilised’ category of human beings. Go to a village, and you will find out what hospitality is – Atithi Devo Brava is still practised there, with fervour, with reverence. They don’t just share what they have, they ensure that the guest gets the best of what they have. Such love, such devotion to hospitality, and we call them ‘villagers’, in a derogatory manner.

Food for thought!