Honoring a Guest (Athidhi) in Hindu Ethical Code of Conduct

Guest, Athidhi

by Jayaram V

Athidhi (athidhi or athithi, San. अतिथि) means any guest. Literally, it means one who may unexpectedly come on any day and at any time (a+thidhi) during a lunar cycle, customarily unannounced or without a fixed appointment. In ancient times, guests usually arrived unannounced since there were no telephones, emails or Internet, and travel involved journey through difficult terrains and inhospitable weather, with physical strain and risk to one's life. Since many usually came exhausted, hungry and thirsty,  Vedic tradition placed a great emphasis upon treating them with respect and consideration.

According to the tradition, a guest verily is like a god (athidhi devobhava) and should be treated as such. The same practice now forms one of the core values of Hinduism and guides its ethical social and cultural values. We present here a few important ethical and moral values associated with honoring guest by a Hindu householder as a part of his dharma or duty.

Who should be considered a true guest?

Hindu tradition recognizes mainly two types of guests.

  • Those who visit the house of another at any time during the day, with or without invitation.
  • Those who are either invited or who come on their own to grace a sacrificial ceremony or an important religious event.

In both cases it is the obligatory duty of the host to treat them with honor and respect and make their stay comfortable. Hindu law books also prescribe some rules to determine who should be considered a true guest. The important ones are listed below.

  • A guest should not usually stay for more than a night or unduly prolong the stay.
  • He should not be from the same village where the host stays.
  • He should not be someone who visits frequently or who by profession earns his livelihood through social contacts.
  • He should not fall into any of the following categories, heretics, those who follow forbidden occupations, or who live like cats, rogues, logicians, (arguing against the Vedas) and those who live like herons.

Obligations on the conduct of guests

The law books impose certain obligations on guests and how they should conduct themselves during their stay in someone else's house, enjoying their hospitality.

  • They should not misuse or exploit the generosity and hospitality of hosts.
  • They should not place unreasonable and undue demands upon the host
  • They should not constantly try to seek food since those who do it run risk of being born as cattle in the households of those from whom they seek food.
  • They should not overstay.
  • They should not ill treat or disrespect the women of the household.
  • They should not boast before the hosts about their family names, lineages or status, with a desire to seek special treatment.
  • They may reciprocate the generosity and kindness of the host with gifts or blessings.

The justification for honoring guests

Honoring the guests with respect is one of the core values of Hindu dharma for various reasons. Even a king has an obligation to treat the guests who visit his court with reverential attitude, irrespective of their financial condition. He may also honor them by giving gifts or land grants. The important reasons why guests have to be treated well in Hinduism are stated below.

  • As stated before, guests in the past usually arrived after a long and grueling journey and needed proper care and attention before they could recover from the exhaustion and feel at home.
  • If someone took all the pain to visit another person's house because of love and affection or to fulfill some obligation, it was incumbent upon the host and his family to reciprocate the gesture and keep their honor.
  • Vedic people entertained the belief that gods often visited their devotees in the guise of a guest or a saint to test them. Since it was not possible to know in advance whether the visitor was a god or not, people preferred to treat every guest with respect and consideration.
  • Honoring the guests is a sacrificial ritual in itself in Hindu tradition. Hindu domestic rituals are built on the idea of treating every deity who is to be invoked as a divine guest and extending all the honors that are due to him
  • Nourishing gods, ancestors, humans, pious people, students, renunciants, alms seekers, mendicants, etc., through sacrificial rituals and ceremonies is considered an obligatory duty in Hinduism. Honoring and nourishing guests on such occasions is a part of that sacred duty.
  • The law books state that honoring guests during sacrificial ceremonies will expiate people of worst sins. It is a good karma and virtue. According to Manusmriti the sins which arise from the use of five slaughter houses (the hearth, the grinding-stone, the broom, the pestle and mortar, and the water-vessel) will be cleansed when one accords hospitable reception to guests.
  • The practice of honoring guests promotes charitable activity and encourages people to engage in selfless service, which is considered the highest virtue in the age of Kali. Further, it is a sacrificial action in itself.

How a guest should be treated

The law books prescribe many rules to treat guests. Some of them are listed below. (In quoting them, we have removed the archaic caste references and presented the bare ideas which are reflective of the values that are contemporaneous.)

  • A guest who comes on his own should be treated well according to one’s ability.
  • He should be offered a seat, water and food, which is well cooked and garnished to the best of one's ability, not left overs or what remains after the members of the household finished eating.
  • The host should not eat any food which he does not offer to the guest.
  • If the guest visits in the evening around sunset time, he should not be sent away. In in any case, every guest however they may arrive must be treated well and kept entertained during their stay.
  • A guest should be served with food first, before it is offered to others. The exceptions are newly married women, infants, the sick, and pregnant women.
  • If a guest expresses any desire or wish during his visit, the host must comply with it to the best of his ability.

Contemporary practice

Treating a guest as an important person or a god is still an obligatory duty in Hinduism. Our domestic and sacrificial rituals are still centered around the same ideal. For humanitarian reasons (manava dharma) also it is considered a virtuous deed with positive consequences for the people who engaged in it.

However, with a  few exceptions, in contemporary Hindu society it is rarely practiced with the required seriousness or sincerity. Most guests who visit a Hindu household do not necessarily receive the best of treatment. It depends upon personal equation and many other worldly factors such as how wealthy, important, powerful, influential or useful a person is.

People may also treat a spiritual guru or a saintly person with utmost respect, usually for worldly reasons, hoping that they would be blessed by the visit and it would do them a world of good. Economic and social pressure and pressures of urban life such as lack of proper living space, time constraints, workplace problems, make it difficult for people to accommodate guests or give them adequate attention.

At the same time, we cannot say that people have totally forgotten the traditional duty of honoring their guests. Many people still try to keep that value in mind and do their best when guests visit them, although their idealism is often tempered by their pragmatism and practical difficulties.

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