This morning Venu forwarded a link to a talk by a gentleman who dwells on some of the things which make Indians the way we are, and which make us different from those of some other cultures.
The speaker makes some interesting observations which explain some of the subtleties of the Indian way of being, things which people of other cultures therefore don’t “get” about us a lot of the time.
This made me think of another aspect of our Indian-ness which ,over the years here, I have found people of many other cultures are often surprised by. And that is the manner of our hospitality. It is there in the spread of food when we entertain (the fact that this requires the host to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen and which we do willingly appears to make a real impression on some of our guests); it is there in the manner in which we welcome guests in to our homes so that they are accorded the same respect and treatment as members of the family; it is there in the willing and friendly help we extend to foreigners who are visitors in our country (one could write a whole book about the warmth, friendliness and generosity that people we meet recount having encountered during their travels in India and which strikes them as such a positive point of difference from other cultures they know) ; it is in the the effort we make to welcome guests in to a clean, tidy home; all of these things are informed, I feel, by the philosophy of atithi devo bhava – literally, “the guest is God” . It is a way of being which I think permeates our culture and is perhaps ingrained in our collective DNA.
Not that we can claim this quality to be ours exclusively. For example, Jenny and her family are Jewish, and when we visit them I find that many of the same operating principles prevail in their home. And I think there is a Spanish saying ,”mi casa es su casa” , which expresses much the same idea -“my home is your castle” i.e. “you are welcome and feel at home”. There is, as well, the Iranian mother of one of Indira’s classmates who talks proudly of a whole way of Iranian hospitality which I am able to relate to since it sounds so similar to the Indian way.
But the reaction from many of those not from India, to the way we are as hosts has often made me wonder over the years about the reasons that make us like this (some admire and appreciate this difference, others seem discomfited by it. Perhaps the latter feel that it places on them the burden of an expectation of equivalent reciprocity, although this is not our intention?). I tend to think now that this is because our side in many of these interactions is informed, often subconsciously, by this ideal- that the guest is God – that most Indians internalize but which to them may seem like a very quaint notion if I were to elaborate it to them.
In this context, I also seem to recall an interesting parable about the origin of this Sanskrit saying. I don’t know if I have the details right but I think it involves God visiting, in the guise of a stranger, a household whose members received him well even though they had no idea it was God they were playing host to. They therefore received his blessings and this became the basis for the injunction to treat every visitor as you would God.