One of the often quoted injunctions from the Upanishad states: Mathru Dhevo Bhava; Pithru Dhevo Bhava; Acharya Dhevo Bhava; Aththi Dhevo Bhava (your mother, father, teacher and guest exist as your God). This statement is often used to teach the basic moral principles. This injunction can be followed merely by being respectful to our parents, elders, teachers and guests in all our actions and doing the needful for their care and welfare. This can be thought of as Karma Yoga (The practice of self-control through action).
There are times when parents become old, disabled or ill or have a different point of view and thus challenge our abilities to care for them. One may grow in his/her education that exceeds the knowledge and competence of the teacher. Needs of the guest may be far larger than what the host wishes to comply with. These are examples of the occasions when our mind could bump against a resistance to accept and implicitly follow the above injunction. But, these are also instances that require internalizing the above injunction – as a moral code of conduct – through a genuine emotional connection and faith in a lager order or the God (Dheva). This in turn leads to an implicit respect for the parents, elders, teachers and the guests irrespective of the circumstances. Such implicit compliance to the injunction based on faith as the core, may be thought of as Bhakthi Yoga (The practice of self-control through faith).
At times the reflective mind asks: “Why treat the parents, teacher and guests as God? After all they are also human beings like the rest us? Also why this special place for the guests?” It is this curiosity to learn and understand that is the basis of Gnana Yoga (The practice of self-control through reflection, knowledge and understanding).
Sanskrit language is unique in that any single word like “Bhava” can convey several messages. Two among them are: “exist or remain as” and “become or transform into”. Hence the above injunction can also be understood as “your mother, father, teacher and guest transform into God; become aware of this transformation”!
Parents represent the past, the origin, the very beginning. Teachers represent the transition – from here to there. Often teachers are thought of as the ladder that helps you to get from one level to the next higher level, from the present state to a higher future state. Guests represent the present – here and now. The guest is one who is part of your life today and may not be part of your life tomorrow. Can you see the seamless existence of the same entity in all that which represents the past, present and the future? Then you have a clear vision of God! In other words the abstraction of a single God can be visualized through the many real entities (i.e.) the parents, teacher and guests.
Thithi in Sanskrit stands for a fixed period of time. Hence Athithi stands for one without a specified time or appointment. While it might sound odd for someone to show up without appointment, reflect on this from the point of view of such a visitor. Who would want to show up without an appointment? Someone in real need who genuinely believes that you are capable of meeting such need and is also certain that you will meet the need willingly and without hesitation? Someone who knows you well enough to believe that you will recognize his/her need and hence willing to go out of the way to show up at your doorstep, without prior discussion, reservation and confirmation? Rare indeed are such individuals. But, to the extent you can view all your guests with such mindset Godliness permeates in your thoughts and deeds.
In other words parents, teachers and guests are not Gods by themselves. But, through our thoughts and understanding they transform into representations of God in our day to day life.
Can you shed all self-imposed constraints and show up at some one’s door step unannounced? This calls for a genuine faith that you will be accepted. It also calls for a faith that your actions and behavior in the present are not tainted by the experience from the past and that the arms of the host will be equally open without reservations. These are not hypothetical descriptions. When an individual and all his/her connections are truly unattached and actively engaged in the welfare of each other, the true meaning of guest (Athithi) is realized. May your next gathering or party be a means for such reflection and development of the spirit of Athithi Dhevo Bhava in every one!
Attachments of one kind or the other inhibits us from doing what is right for the moment. We postpone or procrastinate what we wish to do now for a future time and date. Uncertainty of possible future need prevents us from sharing what we have today for genuine and well identified needs. The joy and a genuine internal happiness of helping others in need is lost through such attachments and indecisions. To minimize such possibilities, we have a tradition that I have observed as a young boy growing up in the village. Pilgrimage to holy places is undertaken once in a while by any family in the village. Before departure, they visit all other families in the neighborhood with a bag in their hand. This is literally like going from home to home, with a hat in hand. As they reach the door step, they would say “Athithi Dhevo Bhava”. Each house holder will deposit in the bag whatever they have such as rice, coconut, jaggery, legumes or cash. All such collections would be taken to the temple and deposited for use in the welfare of the needy. In modern society we may not have such traditions. But, we should not lose the principle of such traditions through the passage of time. Can you find a charity or worthy cause for which you contribute on occasion and without plan or appointment? May the spirit of Athithi be with you!
A leaf, flower, fruit or even a drop of water that is offered by one with devotion and in pure consciousness, I accept all such offering. B.G. 9.26