Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Atithyam - The Crown Jewel of Indian Culture

Recently, I was visiting some Hindu families both in India and abroad. Their reception style made me wonder - are we Bhaaratiiyas anymore or just amorphous, sterilized world citizens? That led to the question - What is the litmus test? What sets a bhaaratiiya family apart from others?

Is it ....

  • Pursuit of Indian classical arts? No. Other cultures do that too. 
  • Study of Indian yoga, vedanta, vedic chanting, Samskrit etc? No. So many are doing that out of intellectual curiosity. That has become a fashion. 
  • Visiting temples, doing pujas/parayanas? No. Many other cultures have such ceremonies.

It is the custom of Aatithyam. Atithyam is how a family treats an unexpected guest. Only a bhaaratiiya family treats a guest as a god-sent opportunity to shower love, a priority above other pursuits, and not as an inconvenience or someone to be "helped". Atithyam is fast-dwindling among Hindu families - even those practising all of the above.

To children > 7yrs, visitors are intruders. To the elders, a visitor is an inconvenience, to accommodate only when other appointments aren't jeopardized. Offering a meal is almost gone. Forget about offering to stay. When someone comes from out of town, god save him.

Mind you, I observed these traits in well-meaning people who actually think they respect Indian culture and are interested in Indian spirituality.  The ceremonies are increasing, but the core is disappearing. Why? 
  • ajnaanam - ignorance of the inner meaning of our customs,  
  • aalasyam - unwillingness to incur inconvenience for others due to laziness.
Sanaatana Dharma is not merely a self-help program; it's a radically different way to deal with the world around us. Without bringing its concepts to work in our dealings with the society, mere adhyayana, japa and dhyaana won't do much good. I feel that's the misconception leading to the apathy towards aatithyam. "Let me spend more time on useful things like studying Upanishads than feeding those who can feed themselves".

Entertaining guests is not a waste of time. It is part of saadhana, if done right.


The Concept of Atithyam

Atithyam is central and unique to Bhaaratiiyataa, with roots deep in Sanaatana Dhaarmic outlook on life.

How is Atithyam different from hospitality?

It is the attitude of the host to the guest that is different. In Indian culture, the host treats a guest's arrival as a God-sent opportunity to shower love. The host is not doing a favor to the guest. Rather, it is the guest that is doing a favor to the host by giving an opportunity to serve. Indian culture treats loving service as an act of sacrifice, yajna. Yajna is indispensable to rise Godward breaking the petty fetters of individual self (dehaatma bhaavana).

Ego is man's self-imposed jail and the chief hurdle to self-expansion and God-realization. All bhaaratiiya sampradaayas (customs) are aimed at helping the individual rise above separative to cosmic consciousness. Atithyam is the mother of all sampradaayas. It is so central that it is weaved into religion. The bhaaratiiya concept of worship (pUja or archanam) is not prayer (begging for favors), but aatithyam (giving love) - invoking God omnipresent as a physical person just so one can shower love by providing all the physical and emotional "comforts" - even at the expense of one's own inconvenience.

Since any agent helping one rise above his lower self is considered a vibhuti of God,  a guest is also treated as God, not as a helpless individual seeking a favor. Hence an Indian host's feeling towards a guest is not dayaa or compassion, but aadara, reverence.

This attitude changes everything. It naturally compels the host to prioritize aatithya above other personal appointments and comforts. Personal inconveniences are brushed aside only in an act of love.

Atithyam is dwindling among Indians

However, nowadays, this unique custom is fast disappearing in Indian families, mainly because of the rise of competitive individualism imported from the Western culture. To the west, a guest is an individual seeking a favor, an intrusion into the private life of the host family, an inconvenience, or someone to be "helped". Since the host is doing the guest a favor, the host is free to put his personal appointments and comforts at a higher priority than hosting.

At the root of this lies the identification of oneself as one's body and those of the family members. Since the goal is "self"-satisfaction, whatever comes in its way naturally assumes lesser priority.

How to bring back Atithyam in Indian families?

By reversing the process by which it is lost. First by reminding oneself of the rationale behind aatithyam, and how it benefits them individually. Second by practicing it oneself in a conspicuous manner, so one's neighbors cannot help but feel the fragrance of aatithyam. If you shower love on your neighbor, the neighbor will be naturally drawn to reciprocate, spreading the custom.

Overwhelm your neighbors or strangers with love by inviting them as your guests every once in a while. But real aatithyam is not inviting known people, but serving an UNEXPECTED guest. At least this practice prepares one for handling an unexpected guest. The more you show love, the more Divine will send atithis to knock at your door. That's how Dharma works.


The Practice of Atithyam

Now, let us examine common questions that arise in practising aatithyam. Please post any unaddressed questions in the comments. I'd appreciate it.

What if the guest is well-off and can afford restaurant visit?

The point is not to do a favor to someone but to seek an opportunity to show that you care, even though the other person doesn't need your service. Try inviting the well-off guest over to your home once, and you'll know how well he/she will receive it.

Can I take my guest out to a restaurant?

That doesn't count because there's no personal effort involved (other than driving and time).

But I do invite friends for a party often. Isn't Atithyam the same? 

That's a start, but the idea of aatithyam is to willingly accommodate unexpected guests.

But cooking for a guest is such a big overhead. I can't provide simple meals to a guest!

Yes you can. The idea of aatithya is not feasting, but to share whatever you are having with others. Don't create unnecessary overhead. Make the ritual so lightweight that you can afford to do it often.

If you only eat leftover food, start by sharing it with the guest. Though that's not good, it's better than nothing. Try to add more freshly cooked food gradually to your meal.

What if my spouse doesn't cooperate?

I hope at least you get your food at home. Share it with the guest.  Otherwise, step in and cook something simple. 
Aachaara prabhavo dharmaH. Show others dharma by practising it yourself first.

I am in IT and don't have time

But you have to eat everyday to survive, right? Invite someone to join at your family meal once in a while.


Call to Action

Start an aatithya vratam at your home today! Host someone once a month. 
Here are some tips. We practice many of them at home, but need to expand:
  • Whenever someone comes home around lunch or dinner time, make it a point to offer a meal. That's the minimum bar, no matter how busy you are.
  • When you want to give a treat to your office colleagues, instead of taking them out to a restaurant, invite them for a meal at home. If you can't handle large batches, invite them a few at a time. 
  • Invite your neighbors for an evening snack or a morning breakfast together. I'd prefer the latter, because it will force them to get up early. 
  • Consider it a shame on you if someone you know (even remotely) is visiting your town and has to go to a restaurant for food.
  • For those living outside India: When a friend's parents are visiting them, invite the parents over to stay at your home for a few days. This gives immense joy to them as well as you. Our personal experience.
  • Actively find out if a full-time volunteer of a social organization is visiting your town and beg them to stay at your home. A selfless worker is NaaraayaNa himself. You will be blessed.
  • Provide aatithyam at least once a month. Consider it your misfortune (daurbhaagyam) if no atithi came to your house for a full month (either to stay or to have a meal)
  • Most important: involve your children in helping to serve the guest. Do not shunt them away. You don't have to push them to say hello to the guest (that's embarrassing to the children). Just ask them to provide water, set the plates, bring the pickle or something. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice & worthwhile initiative. Keep up the good work. I'll ensure I share such works of yours as this with all my circles the world over. Thanks for writing & sharing.