Spirituality

Hospitality aka Atithi Devo Bhava!

Three WIse Men, Nutcracker Museum, Seattle, WA(Three Wise Men, Nutcracker Museum, Leavenworth, WA)
Photo Courtesy: N. Ravi

Introduction

Hospitality is the ‘friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors, or strangers,’ where such gesticulation involves hosting another or others without expectations.  All religions have stressed hospitality as a necessity than a mere gesture. ‘Atithi Satkar’ in Indian culture means welcoming every visitor with warmth and respect, the importance of maintaining a good host-guest relationship has been well accentuated.  Eons ago, the sages of ancient India handed down to posterity the ‘universal truths’ of life through sacred texts.  Again, the dictionary explains truth as ‘facts’ that are not things ‘imagined or invented.’  While Altruism and Hospitality are semantically connected, hospitality differs from customer service and satisfaction.  Atithi Devo Bhava has come to be used as a catchphrase to augment tourism in today’s context, where the primary goal of such an industry is ‘customer satisfaction.’ Through such exchanges, revenue is generated, skills are developed, the standard of living is enhanced, and there is a greater willingness to embrace change.  The fundamental difference, however, is that while ‘customer service’ (interaction between consumer and sales representative) is restricted to the assistance offered for a specific outcome – sales, hospitality is more broad-based, personalized, and has a deeper ethical significance; it is an experience with emotions attached.   Mere theoretical reading does not take people far, internalizing the values of generosity, love, altruism, kindness, and other ethical codes of conduct through inspirational anecdotes and imbibing them to the extent possible serves as a motivational tool to keep hopes alive during periods of self-doubt, boosts confidence, imagination, and creativity.

Meaning and significance

As the dictionary elucidates, Hospitality is the ‘friendly and generous reception of guests, visitors, or strangers,’ where such generosity and gesticulation involves hosting another or others without ulterior motives or expectations.  All religions have stressed upon hospitality as a necessity than a mere gesture. An unwritten diktat and decorum!  Many of us have studied the meaning of ‘Atithi’ in our childhood –‘jiskee aaney kee thithi na ho!’ ‘Tithi’ implies date.  It simply means a guest is someone who arrives without prior announcement and leaves at his/her convenience.  Until the not-so-distant past, guests were revered as God (Atithi devo bhava). ‘Atithi Satkar’ in Indian culture means welcoming every visitor with warmth and respect, the importance of maintaining a good host-guest relationship has been well accentuated.

Ancient texts of Bharat (India) upheld the cultural heritage of the land and highlighted that any guest - rich or poor was to be treated with equal importance.  The best example of a friend’s hospitality is revealed in the story of Lord Krishna, the ruler of Dwaraka and Sudama, a poor Brahmin.  Unable to bear penury and hunger, Sudama’s wife requests him to pay a visit to his childhood friend Krishna. She packs a handful of puffed rice, so that he need not go empty-handed. Krishna receives the tired Sudama with much warmth and joy, seats him on his throne, and washes his tired feet with sandalwood and warm water, all the while recounting the wonderful time they had spent together at Guru Sandipani’s ashram.  Even though Sudama does not want Krishna to see the cloth bag with the puffed rice, Krishna notices, opens it and eats it with great enthusiasm. Overwhelmed with the royal treatment at his friend’s place, Sudama is too embarrassed to ask for more favors, therefore, returns home quietly. To his surprise and disbelief on his return, he sees a magnificent palace in the place where his hut once stood. And his wife and children are dressed in all finery. Tears of gratitude and happiness roll down Sudama’s eyes.

Teachings from sacred texts that bring out the essence of hospitality

The characters of the Mahabharata expound precisely the human feelings of love, courage, truth, honesty, wisdom, cowardice, conceit, foolishness, hospitality, and generosity among others. Two stories read while at school readily come to mind.

One rainy evening, Sri Krishna and Arjuna went to Yudhishtra and asked if he could arrange some wooden logs for important construction work in the capital.  Yudhishtra immediately ordered his servants to procure the best quality logs. After a very long time, one of the servants came along and said they could not fetch them because all the wood had got drenched in the monsoon. Yudhishtra looked at his friends helplessly.  The duo then went to Karna’s residence. Welcoming them with respect, Karna enquired the purpose of their coming at such an hour. When Arjuna told him the reason, Karna sent his servant to fetch wood, the servant came back with the same reply as Yudhishtra’s man did.  Immediately, Karna went inside.  When he did not return for a long time, they peeped in and found that Karna was cutting the legs of his wooden bed.  When Arjuna asked Karna why he had wasted his precious sandalwood furniture, Karna gently smiled and replied that things could be made again; sending someone empty-handed was greater grief.  

The same Karna, at a later date parted with his golden armor and earrings, (kavacha-kundala) which was a gift from his father, the sun, at birth.  Karna’s hospitality is unparalleled and unimaginable to the prosaic and rational minds of the present, although it has its unique reference and relevance to date – Karna’s unconditional acceptance and support to all!  Without being judgmental about a visitor, Karna wholeheartedly offered him anything that he wanted. A story of him gifting a golden bowl with oil to a poor mendicant while he was applying oil over his body is inspirational with a valuable lesson.  When questioned why he had gifted the bowl with his left hand, Karna replied that he did so, because he did not want his ‘mind to change’ before he returned after washing his hands 

Today’s humanistic psychologists talk about ‘unconditional positive regard’ which implies ‘acceptance and support of a person’ irrespective of what he says or does; and this is mostly used in the context of ‘client-centered therapy.’  Eons ago, the sages of ancient India handed down to posterity the ‘universal truths’ of life through sacred texts.  Again, the dictionary explains truth as ‘facts’ that are not things ‘imagined or invented.’

Hospitality is the greatest of virtues; reference to it has been there from times immemorial. Tracing Homer’s thoughts on hospitality, the author states - “though I celebrate courage in my Illiad and perseverance in my Odyssey, there is a third, greater virtue, apart from which civilization can neither thrive nor survive. I speak of Xenia…”   “Xenia” is an ancient Greek concept of hospitality; it translates as ‘guest-friendship’ or ‘ritualized friendship,’ involves the ‘relationship between a stronger and a weaker person,’ say, a ‘stranger, suppliant, guest or a host.’  Yielding to ‘please of the weaker’ and not making ‘use of him for his own benefit’ is the underlying philosophy here. 

Before discussing further, let us read and understand this virtuous act of hospitality through another story from the Mahabharata.  Just after the Rajasuya yajna performed by Yudhishtira was completed, a mongoose came and started rolling over the ‘yajna-vedi,’- the altar.  People found this strange. Half of its body was grey; the other half was ‘gold.’ The mongoose narrated its story: (People of ancient times could understand the language of animals, just as Saint Francis of Assisi, Ramana Maharishi and many other great men of the past could!)

There was a terrible famine, and the king of the land arranged for rationing of food. A Brahmin family had just got their weekly quota when an old mendicant came up to their hut and asked for food saying he was extremely hungry. Offering him a seat, they argued about whose share should be given. First, the householder gave his share, the old man was still hungry, and so his wife offered him her share, followed by their son and daughter. After the entire meal was consumed, the satiated guest revealed his true form to the members and blessed them that their granary would ever be full. The mongoose chanced to roll on the leaf where that Brahman had taken his meal, and half his body became golden.  Ever since, the mongoose kept wandering in search of hearths where great sacrifices were made with ‘pure altruistic motives.’ 

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself”

Altruism implies ‘unselfish regard or devotion to the welfare of others.’ The best way to elucidate it is through ‘The parable of the Good Samaritans’ from the Bible (Luke10:25-37) of the New Testament, which is among the greatest of commandments for the welfare of all human beings.  Once, a man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On his way, he was attacked by robbers, they beat him, and took away his belongings, and his clothes, leaving him half-dead.  A priest who was passing by walked past without stopping, and so did another. A good ‘Samaritan’ who was traveling that way, came up to the man, took pity on him, bandaged his wounds, and took him to an inn. Offering money to the innkeeper, he told him to take care of him during his absence. 

Hospitality is not Customer Service

While Altruism and Hospitality are semantically connected, hospitality differs from customer service and satisfaction.  One other lexical definition of hospitality is ‘the activity or business of providing services to guests in hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.,’ and this includes leisure destinations such as theme parks, cruise liners, and more.  Atithi Devo Bhava has come to be used as a catchphrase to augment tourism in today’s context, where the primary goal of such an industry is ‘customer satisfaction.’ Through such exchanges, revenue is generated, skills are developed, the standard of living is enhanced, and there is a greater willingness to embrace change. 

The fundamental difference, however, is that while ‘customer service’ (interaction between consumer and sales representative) is restricted to the assistance offered for a specific outcome – sales, hospitality is more broad-based, personalized, and has a deeper ethical significance; it is an experience with emotions attached.  While good customer service is appreciated, hospitality is cherished and treasured for the euphoric experience that it offers. Moreover, customer service begins only after a ‘sale’ has been effected; on the other hand, hospitality commences the moment anyone enters the company space - they become a ‘guest’ and are to be ‘treated in a friendly manner.’ 

Changing scenarios and cultural changes have altered perceptions

In today’s fast-changing era of technological innovations, multinationalism and globalization, the fundamental concept of ‘Atithi devo bhava’ is not accorded much priority as days bygone did.  Hospitality is no longer a way of life.  Seldom does a guest knock, even close family members visit only after an appointment. While in rural, close-knit societies, this may not be very relevant, it is prevalent in metropolitan zones of India and elsewhere.  One valid argument is that both men and women are working professionals, forever racing against time, and a surprise caller would be difficult to handle. Moreover, families today are nuclear, having migrated towards greener pastures, which brings along this question - Has this way of life has largely been left behind?   

Not exactly, even though it has assumed different dimensions with time. Hosting parties and participating in reunions and get-togethers has been a way of life for people from middle-class backgrounds and the affluent. For the common man struggling to make ends meet, parties may quite be a rarity; however, on auspicious occasions such as festivals, birthdays, anniversaries or others, hosting a feast for near and dear is quite common. The Tamil saint and poetess Avvaiyar in her ‘Aatichudi’ waxes eloquent ‘Aram Seiya Virumbu,’ which translates -‘Desire to perform just acts.’ This possibly goes on to signify that hospitality does not signify throwing lavish parties and displaying opulence; contrarily, with a generous heart, sharing a simple meal is considered hospitable. 

For the large diaspora away from their homeland, hosting parties and extending hospitality to guests (at least before the pandemic began!) is a definite means to stay connected with members from their cultural backgrounds, also to nurture friendly bonds in a new cultural environment. “Our fast-paced society ceaselessly produces new technologies and various innovations, all propelled quickly by information networks, challenging our capacity for adaptation. More than ever we are confronted by the strangeness of the world and tormented with feelings of insecurity. We could try to protect ourselves from the strangeness, but that would probably require withdrawing from modern society. Or we could practice hospitality and learn to welcome the strangeness.”

Without a doubt, hospitality lets people out of self-imposed seclusion brought along by gadgets, and brings in a whiff of fresh air into people’s lives. By welcoming the ‘strangeness,’ we could become ‘curious and generous, open and receptive to the unknown.’

The desire to do good should continue amidst challenges

A slight caveat surfaces while discussing hospitality in the ‘modern society,’ and its ‘practice.’ There are growing concerns that Atithi devo bhava  is no longer the way of life in the materialistic world where the focus of individuals has acquired a paradigm shift towards love ‘with expectations’ and ‘financial considerations.’ Competing with one another in hosting lavish thematic parties has come to be the order of the day. In other words, the hearts of people are tied together in ‘money,’ rather than in companionship.

Furthermore, the pandemic era brought along lockdowns, social distancing, masking and other restrictions forcing people to remain within the confines of their homes, and led to a more virtual existence, both on the social and the professional fronts. Other horrors of the pandemic include loss of jobs and loved ones, lowered standards of living, and greater stress to cope with the unforeseen challenges - all of which have given little time to think of guests.  However, some valuable lessons of the pandemic are definite to make individuals more humane, empathetic, and generous. It has made us understand our ‘fragility’ and taught us to stay better connected as a ‘community,’ empathize by lending  a helping hand, and above all, appreciate the blessings of kindness and generosity of people, regardless of  religion, culture, customs, socio-economic backgrounds and geographic locations. 

To conclude, theoretical reading does not take people far; internalizing the values of generosity, love, altruism, kindness, and other ethical codes of conduct through inspirational anecdotes and imbibing them to the extent possible serves as a motivational tool to keep hopes alive during periods of self-doubt, boosts confidence, imagination, and creativity. Quoting from Swami Vivekananda, “We are responsible for what we are, whatever we wish to make ourselves, we have the power…”

Let us desire (Virumbu) to do good deeds, the challenges notwithstanding. 

References from the Internet

Image (c) istock.com
 

15-Jun-2024

More by :  Hema Ravi

Top | Spirituality

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