God as Guest: Hospitality in Hindu Culture

By Swami Tyagananda

This article is  a summary of the presentation made at a seminar organized by Boston College in 2009.  Swami Tyagananda is the head of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society of Boston.

Prayer is generally the first natural and conscious response in a person who has had some kind of religious awakening. The awareness of our human limitations and mortality is generally enough to turn us in the direction of, and seek help from, a Power or a Person who is not bound by those limitations.  As a form of “receiving,” prayer is a movement from God toward human beings. When a prayer is answered, the heart is filled with gratitude. Worship is an expression of gratitude to God, expressed through love, praise and offering of anything that one holds dear. As a form of “giving,” worship is a movement from human beings to God. How does his movement from human beings to God manifest in daily life?

Hindus view everything as permeated by God’s presence, so hospitality becomes an act of worship. God is the only possible guest, encountered inside a temple through ritual worship, and outside the temple through karma yoga or selfless service to others seeing them as manifestations of God. Saints and mystics have experienced the presence of God through both ritual worship and selfless service, attesting to the power and authenticity of these practices.

God as Guest in Ritual Worship
In Hindu forms of worship, God is the divine guest and rituals recreate, mostly symbolically, the kind of hospitality that is generally offered to an honored guest in India. Among the things that are offered are an honored place to sit, words of welcome, water for washing hands and feet, water to drink, water for bathing, clothes, ornaments, sandal paste, flower, incense, light, and food. The offerings themselves are symbolical and are accompanied by appropriate Sanskrit mantras. More important than the symbolical offering and the chanting of mantras is the focusing of the mind on God with love, devotion, and faith.

Another form of Hindu worship, called arati, involves waving of light, water (poured from a conch shell), cloth, flower and a fan, ritually recreating a respectful welcome to the honored, divine guest. The five items that are offered correspond to the five primary elements which the Hindu texts view as the building blocks of the material world: fire, water, space, earth, and air, respectively. In this form of worship, God is both a personal guest and a cosmic presence, welcomed simultaneously in one’s home as well as in one’s heart.

God as Guest in the Practice of Karma Yoga
The presence of God is encountered not only inside temples but also outside them. Hindu texts have proclaimed that the divine is present in everything and everyone. Helping others can be more than simply “helping others.” It can also include acknowledging and worshiping the presence of God in their hearts. Hospitality thus becomes not merely an act of service but also worship.

When work becomes worship, helping others is transformed into service of God in everyone and in everything. It involves giving of oneself freely without seeking anything in return. Hindu texts categorize “giving” into three types:

The sattvika gift is one that is given with no expectation of return, in a right place and to a worthy person, with the idea that it is good to give. The rajasika gift is one that is given with an expectation of return, or with an eye on the result, or given with reluctance. The tamasika gift is one that is given at the wrong place or time, to unworthy persons, without regard or with disdain.

The satvika gift is the one that qualifies as karma yoga. Vivekananda spoke glowingly about the spiritual benefits of serving others in the spirit of karma yoga:

Although a man has not studied a single system of philosophy, although he does not believe in God, and never has believed, although he has not prayed even once in his life, if the simple power of good actions has brought him to that state where he is ready to give up his life and all else for others, he has arrived at the same point to which the religious man will come through his prayers and the philosopher through his knowledge; and so you many find that the philosopher, the worker, and the devotee, all meet at one point, that one point being self-abnegation. However much their systems of philosophy and religion may differ, all mankind stand in reverence and awe before the man who is ready to sacrifice himself for others.

Two Stories
I shall conclude with two stories: one from Hindu mythology and the other from recent history. The story from mythology highlights the dual role of God as guest and teacher. Disguised as a wandering mendicant, Krishna visits a wealthy family, who welcome him warmly and offer him hospitality that matches both their devotion and prosperity. When it is time to leave, he blesses his host profusely, promising him even more wealth and glory. Krishna’s next visit is to a poor widow, whose only possession is a cow. She too welcomes him with great devotion but all that she can offer him is a glass of milk. When it is time to leave, Krishna blesses her and tells her that her cow will die soon. Arjuna, who has accompanied Krishna to both the places, is horrified. He asks Krishna, “Your wealthy hosts lacked nothing and yet you blessed them with even more wealth. Whereas your blessing to the poor devotee accompanied the ominous news that she will lose her cow. This is unfair and unacceptable.” Krishna smiles and tells Arjuna, “My wealthy host is insanely attached to his wealth and his reputation; he has a long way to go before he becomes spiritually awakened. On the other hand, this poor devotee is already far advanced on the spiritual path. The only thing that is separating her from the highest freedom is her attachment to her cow. I removed the hurdle from her path.” The insights that this story provides are obvious. God can enter our lives in any form and at any time, often in most unexpected circumstances. The blessing that the divine guest bestows upon us can be difficult to decipher at first glance.

My second story is of a relatively recent origin: it happened in southern India where I lived in the early 1990s. A cyclone had wrought enormous damage in and around the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. A monk of the Ramakrishna Order and a few volunteer members visited the affected area and were temporarily accommodated in a classroom of a school that had partially escaped the destruction. They had reached the place late in the evening after a long train journey. Exhausted, they had gone to sleep right away. Early next morning there was a knock at the door and they were surprised to see a middle-aged person with a bag filled with food. He said that he had a dream the previous night when a woman appeared and told me, “Go feed my children who have just arrived.” The dream was so vivid that he woke up with a start and narrated the dream to his wife in the morning. She first asked him to just forget about it but when she saw how much affected he was by the dream, she felt it would be good if something were done about it. They learnt that some people had arrived form Chennai the previous evening and were staying in the school next door. To get the dream out of his mind, they decided to give some food to those strangers and be done with it. As the man was speaking with the swami and his companions, he noticed the picture of Sarada Devi on the small temporary altar the group had set up the classroom. At once his face lighted up and he exclaimed, “That’s the woman I saw in my dream last night!” Baffled at what was unfolding before them, the swami and his group wiped their tears of joy and gratitude.

Life offers infinite opportunities to extend hospitality in one form or another. In a worldview that has God’s presence pervading all existence, God is not only the divine guest but also the host. Hospitality is worship for those who understand its inner significance and potential.


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God as Guest: Hospitality in Hindu Culture