Atithi Devo Bhava – the meaning at a practical level
Recently someone came to the Spiritual Research Centre and Ashram as a guest, and during the few days she was here she did not behave well with the seekers or with the ashram administration. Yet seekers in touch with her tried to do their best to accommodate her and her wishes, some of which were very unreasonable. At the point in time when the guest was leaving, she apologised for all the inconvenience she had caused. However this incident prompted a discussion amongst a few seekers that according to Hindu Dharma, there is verse from the Taittiriya Upanishad, Shikshavalli I.20 that says: matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava, atithidevo bhava. It literally means “be one for whom the Mother is God, be one for whom the Father is God, be one for whom the Teacher is God, be one for whom the guest is God.” So the question in our minds from a personal spiritual practice standpoint was to what extent does the guidance of treating a guest as God apply? If a guest behaves badly, to what extent should the host accommodate it? Suppose a guest steals from or attacks the people giving him shelter, should they as hosts just accept it?
There is also a famous story from Victor Hugo’s novel ‘Les Misérables’ where a recently released convict steals from a bishop (a senior Christian priest) who had provided him with shelter. During the night, the ex-convict awakens and steals the bishop’s silverware and silver plates, and runs off. He is arrested and brought back to the bishop. In the enquiry that ensues, the bishop takes the thief’s side saying that he had himself given the thief the silverware so that he can use it to become a better person. This story of the bishop’s behaviour is often quoted as an example of good Christian values. The story does have a good ending as the ex-convict does eventually use the opportunity to become a better man. However is this something that a common person should use as benchmark in dealing with such guests?
Recently the Government of India too adopted the same ancient verse as a tagline for an advertising campaign on ‘Incredible India’ to raise awareness amongst Indians on how to treat tourists in a proper manner and to attract foreigners to India.
We asked His Holiness Dr Athavale how our thinking should be. He guided that ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ actually has an implied meaning, which is that one should treat a visiting seeker as God. When the verse containing ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ was created, people had the sixth sense ability to understand who a seeker was. In that era, both the host as well as the guest were seekers and behaved in a seeker-like manner. Accordingly this statement in that era was applicable to most people.
In the current era, unfortunately most people are not doing any spiritual practice and hence do not understand what it is to behave as seekers, guests and hosts included. Seekers make up a very small segment of society. Keeping this in mind, ‘Atithi Devo Bhava,’ which really means, if a seeker of God visits you treat him like God, can only truly be exercised by a host towards a small segment of society. If a host treats every guest as God, he can be hurt or taken advantage of. If a guest misbehaves or attacks a host, the host is well within his right to protect himself and or ask the guest to leave. If the guest slaps the host, from a spiritual perspective the host is not expected to turn the other cheek, but can protect himself.
With regards to the story of the bishop and the silverware, this guidance or behaviour cannot be the yardstick for everyone to be measured by or the benchmark to follow. In Spirituality, guidance can never be the same for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all aspect to spiritual guidance. In Spirituality (Sanatan Dharma) guidance changes depending on various factors such as the spiritual level of the people involved, the circumstances of the situation, according to the time or era, etc. Regular spiritual practice is the only way to bring lasting positive changes in the character of a person. The spiritual purpose of life is to use our lives to grow spiritually. This can only happen by accompanying practicing Spirituality and spiritualising every aspect of our lives.
In the case of hosts and guests, along with regular spiritual practice, if we as hosts can be as accommodating as possible to our guest’s wishes, without harming our spiritual practice, then listening to others helps to reduce our ego, which is an important requirement for spiritual growth. In every situation focusing on chanting the Name of God as a spiritual practice helps us to remain calm and behave in a seeker-like manner regardless of the other person’s behaviour or the situation.