Over the past 6½ years, I’m grateful to have spent a significant amount of time in India. I’ve taken many powerful lessons from the immense sub-continent, about yoga, life, and love. One exceptional and priority shifting lesson relates to hospitality.
In India, there is an expression that’s both widely used and observed: Atithi Devo Bhava, or “The Guest is God.” One reason to treat those who enter the home with such reverence is that it’s unknown where that relationship might karmicly lead. And, though Atithi Devo Bhava originates from the Taittiriya Upanishads, its observance often extends beyond the Hindu religion. I have been blown away by the hospitality of my friends from all of India’s major faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, and Islam. The word atithi literally means “without a fixed calendar time,” for before modern communication it was often unknown when a guest might come and go. Though visits are usually scheduled in advance these days, impromptu drop-ins are still almost always welcome in India.
Before I proceed, it’s important to state that I’m not seeking to undermine hospitality in the United States. I certainly grew up with some amazing hostesses, such as my mother, grandmother, and my aunt Martha Stewart. All three went to unbelievable extremes to welcome guests into the home. In fact, it is because of this unique exposure that I am so moved by the exceptional hospitality in India. If anything, this blog is written out of nostalgia for those more leisurely days of simple entertaining, which have become fewer and farther between with amazing yet life-expediting and schedule-cramming technological innovation.
Today in New York, despite having many wonderful friends, I rarely visit people’s homes. If I do, it’s for pre-orchestrated, special events, which I appreciate greatly. Occasionally, I’ll make a casual (though scheduled) visit to someone’s apartment, such as to pick something up or drop something off. I feel thankful if I’m offered a glass of water. I think the last impromptu visit I made (other than going to my brother’s) was when I visited my friend Emily more than three years ago. Randomly knocking on someone’s door is almost unheard of these days. In fact, it might even come across as offensive and disruptive of one’s space/work.
In India, it’s quite the contrary. Visits are almost always welcome, even to the homes of new acquaintances. And, hosts insist on giving. Those who live in what we might consider complete poverty will still, without question, extend themselves beyond their means to give.
One is almost always requested to sit down and offered coffee, tea, and/or some type of chats (snacks). Sometimes, I’ll find myself eating a full meal. There have been times when a host has firmly insisted I take a seat while they run to the store and purchase rations to offer. Over the years, I have learned to comply and accept all that is given, even by those who have very little, for to do otherwise can offend.
My close friends in Karnataka bring me on the verge of tears with their kindness. They rearrange their work schedules to welcome me. Against my will, they insist on giving up their rooms so I can sleep more comfortably. They cook amazing food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, always requesting I have seconds and thirds. Likewise, they regularly tease and scold me for saying “thank you” at a high frequency, as it creates unnecessary formality. They constantly place greater value on human relationships than work (yet their work always gets done!). They ceaselessly remind me of our immense potential to share.
Outside of the home, adithi devo bhava doesn’t go forsaken. On the train, for example, everyone is a guest. I love venturing through India in the cheapest rail class, which is inevitably filled with people. In the past, I used to crave personal space and grow frustrated by the crowds. When I changed my thinking, however, and accepted the environment, the train became a beautiful experience of sharing.
It really is aparigrahah, or the social discipline (yama) of non-possessiveness, in action. The desire for privacy must be abandoned. A berth for three becomes a quite cozy seat for six. Rarely does someone unpack a delicious home cooked meal without offering some to those nearby. Many smiles, laughs, and stories are constantly shared with strangers.
So, as I transition back home to New York, a city I love immensely, I keep adithi devo bhava in mind at home and on the street. Doing so has also inspired me to become neater and more appreciative of my surroundings to the best of my ability. After all, if we consider a guest as adithi in nature, our house should always be ready for an unexpected visitor. When I have company, I try to be the best hostess possible, which brings great joy. I’m also going to try and be more patient and helpful with the tourists around Times Square, even during rush hour. I’ll do my best!
Remember your ability to give and always place value on our human relationships. After all, the greatest gift we can grant another is our attention, love, and time.
Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.