Swagatham, and Varaverpu, words of welcome that rained down from sound-clouds of Shiva and spelt out in Bharat Varsha aeons ago, in the oldest structured languages in which humanity anywhere found articulation, augmented into Sanskrit and Tamil, virtually rivers of wisdom, flowing like Ganga and Kaveri over the linguistic-scape of present day India; these words attained local definitions as Ahlan wa Sahlan in the Arab world, Yokoso, Huanying, Hwan-yeong, Selamat datang in the Far East, Sbagata, Khush aamdid, Hosgelnidiniz, Barukh ha-ba, Bienvenida, Bienvenue, Benvenuto, Willkommen, Kalosorisma, Akeyi, Failte, E Komo Mai, Dobro pozhalovat in several other parts of the planet, all mean ‘welcome’, the greeting used to receive visitors or guests everywhere. The word ‘welcome’ ornaments spaces at points of entry, visible on doors, sign boards and hoardings as one enters a new city or state, shopping arcades, hotels and homes. One of the most beautiful words in English, it is a compounding of ‘well’ and ‘come’, with slightly different connotations. The root of ‘well’ can mean a shade close to ‘wellness’ or ‘well being’, or carry the added nuance of desire or pleasure; ‘well’ also links with ‘weal’, the root of ‘wealth’, to imply the sense of blessing. ‘Come’ is derived from old English ‘cuman’, also carrying the root of ‘comer’, meaning one who arrives, or perhaps closer to the Greek, to mean one who is received. Thus ‘welcome’ in its earliest sense denotes an invitation to come and be well, or to be well in coming. Either way, it is an invite to be ushered into goodness of a new place, where one has just arrived.
The art of welcome is founded on age old practices of hospitality. Athiti Devo Bhava, translating to ‘guest is equivalent to God’, says the Upanishads. The credo has since become a clarion call, guiding conduct of Indian societies, and, commercially, the hospitality industry. Drawn specifically from Taittriya Upanishad, the verse states, ‘mathrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava, athitidevo 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’. Mathrudevah, pitrudevah, acharyadevah, athitidevah are all single words in Sanskrit, denoting devah or divinity associated with each. Tithi in Sanskrit stands for calendrical date; in primitive times, when means of communication and transport were limited, it was not always practicable for guests to schedule arrivals and departures, so athiti effectively means ‘without a fixed calendrical time’, depicting a visitor’s characteristic, as he or she who could barge in anytime. Devah becomes Devo in euphonic combination while following certain consonants; it means God, and bhava means ‘be’ or ‘is’, thus athiti Devo bhava together mean, ‘be the one for whom the guest is God’. The act of primary worship in Vedic tradition consists of five steps, known as ‘panchopachara puja’, and the same is observed while receiving guests: the first step is fragrance (dhupa), while welcoming guests, it is ensured that rooms are filled with pleasing fragrance, as it enhances the guest’s experience and keeps him or her in good humour. The second step, revealing of times lacking in electrification, is lighting the lamp (Deepa), and placing it between the host and guest to afford visibility, the third is refreshments, offering fruits and sweets made of milk to the guest, the fourth is putting a mark or tilak on guest’s forehead with vermilion or sandalwood paste, finally ending with offer of a flower (pushpa) as gesture of goodwill. The flower stays with the departing guest, as a fragrant reminder of happy memories of the visit. Some practitioners of hospitality are masters of the art, always cordially willing with accoutrements of endearing receptions. An appropriate beverage, food, comfortable seating, thoughtful enquiries about the comer’s journey or general situation, combine delightfully to make the guest feel at home. Recipients of such hospitality would know what it means, and if he or she is also a practitioner of the art, it is with full awareness that it is valued and appreciated by the recipient.
These practices, it would appear, carried over to distant lands of nascent communities and yet-to-be cultures, aided by large scale migrations of mankind. The ancient scriptures speak of the great flood that triggered movement of people from southern parts of Bharat Varsha, to northern regions, and therefrom to various parts of the planet. These include not only humans but also avatars and incarnations of cosmic power, and their retinue, including animals, some of them beastly only in physical form but intrinsically powerful and benevolent in spirit. Thus Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Parvati, Ganesha, Karthikeya are believed to have travelled around the earth, leaving primal imprints that influenced lives widely across geographies. The cultures of hospitality in present day countries of the Far East and Middle East, Africa, Europe, Artic regions and Americas bear striking similarities largely due to these foundational currents. The Vedic scriptures abound in illustrative anecdotes of how ignoring a guest would invite wrath of the cosmic spirit. Abhijnanasakuntalam, the classical dance drama in Sanskrit verse, written by Kalidasa, exemplifies it in the act of Sankuntala, who, while daydreaming of her lover King Dushyanta, ignores, by oversight, the visiting sage Durvasa (believed to be an incarnation of Shiva), and in so doing incurs his ire attracting curse on herself, by which she gets totally wiped out from Dushyanta’s memory. On realising her unintended lapse, she pleads forgiveness and the sage subsequently softens his curse to allow for redeeming the situation, which follows after a series of trials.
For Jews and Christians, hospitality has been an integral part of their belief systems. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Torah and was an index of Hebrew community’s faith in the Almighty. When a traveller came to town, he waited by the community well, and it was incumbent upon townspeople to feed the visitor and provide overnight shelter. Such travellers were always strangers, folks unknown to the community, and opening homes to these people was risky, as much as it would be in this day and age. The human need for hospitality is a constant, just as apparent as human fear of the stranger, and substantially so in our times. Nonetheless, hospitality featured dominantly in the Hebrew identity. The risk did not define the people, but their hospitality did, for they were strongly aware that it was central to the character of their God. The same was true in the early Christian communities. Paul reminded the Romans to offer hospitality to the alien, and in letter to the Hebrews, the people were exhorted to be hospitable to all, for in so doing some also attracted added blessings by entertaining angels without being aware of it. In Acts, the early deacons practised hospitality throughout the community, welcoming those in need. In Matthew’s community, hospitality still measured the faithfulness of people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples, whom Matthew called ‘little ones’, was part of a disciplined custom.
Discipline is the key to faithful hospitality. In her book ‘Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith’, Kathleen Norris narrates the story of an Alzheimer’s afflicted nun. Though her memory was fading, she still insisted on being moved in her wheel-chair to the door of her nursing home to enable her to greet every guest. Another of her ministerial colleagues commented that she was no longer certain about the purpose for which she was into the act, but hospitality was so deeply ingrained in her that it had become her life itself. Norris maintains of having read in an essay on monastic spirituality, which affirmatively holds that only people who are basically at home in themselves can offer hospitality, in turn breaking through insularities. Welcome just does not occur as a practice of hospitality, it has to be conditioned into one’s behaviour, so that one pays attention to dismantling those barriers and biases constructed, sometimes intentionally, and many times unintentionally, around perceptions and perspectives constituting attitudes towards life in general.
The term xenophobia is fairly well known to all. There are cultures around the world that are still xenophobic, arising from deep distrust of the outsider. Ravindranath Tagore, in his collection of discourses titled, ‘Sadhana, The Realisation of Life’, begins by stating that “The civilisation of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all the modern civilisations have their cradles of brick and mortar. These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of ‘divide and rule’ in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition”. In sharp contrast, civilisations and communities in Bharat Varsha evolved in forests and alongside rivers, in intimate connect with nature. The need to divide and possess, wall human lives within narrow spaces, was never felt, as individual power was realised in consonance with other myriad forms of life around, and not in isolation. The fact of being the highest form of creation was recognised by humans just as a final link in the ecological chain, as integral part of entire flora and fauna, in the hospitality extended by each constituent to enliven the other, resulting in harmony of the whole, in reverence to the cosmic spirit residing in the orderly manifestation of Nature. Nature’s hospitality to all forms of life is readily conspicuous in the all pervading oxygenated air, and water occupying major portion of earth’s surface. According to a study, the measure of oxygen inhaled by a human being over a twenty four hour period, if quantified in terms of its market value, equates to a whopping, hold your breath, Indian Rupees 1.3 million, the equivalent of USD 20000/-. Yes, that is what it takes Nature to sustain a human being for a day and night. Multiply that figure by over seven billion to arrive at the mind boggling value of Nature’s hospitality, imperative to keep every human alive on a daily basis.
It is interesting to observe that in Greek, the word for stranger, xenos, also means, in respective contexts, ‘guest’ and ‘host’. In the contemporary era of balkanisation, walled countries, bordered states, and gated communities, xenophobia, or fear of the stranger, leads to morbid nationalism, racism, jingoism, and even genocide. It degenerates to greed and selfishness, obsessive keenness in one’s own material comforts, with total disregard for the other, even in an emergency. How else can there be a rational explanation for ongoing refugee crisis, where thousands fleeing from violence and misery in their countries of origin, are meeting with callous response from affluent nations capable of stretching their arms receptively, at least temporarily, to offer shelter and alleviate suffering? To welcome another, is xenophilia, or love of the stranger or deemed outsider, who is also, contextually, the guest, as embodied by prophet Jesus, and host, as depicted in the evening grouping of disciples after their long walk on the road to Emmaus.
How does one nurture the divine act of hospitality? It entails continual practice, by bringing to bear who we are, what we have, where we are. At times it may be generous, at times meagre, extracted out of one’s own difficult pecuniary circumstances, just as Sudama’s modest gift of rice flakes to Krishna; in all times, it is the gesture itself, the practice that defines beauty of the encounter, the profile of participants, of grace investing essence of the moment. Welcoming another requires attention to the other, even setting aside our discomfort in the trauma and alienness of the other, in generously accommodating its claim, at least for a limited period, on our resources to cope with the situation as it presents itself. The divine is realised in blessings, accruing in several proportions higher than the element of grace featured in the welcoming act. Be it the current refugee crisis arising from some unsettled regions, or acts of terrorism and strife elsewhere, trials and tribulations appear in mystifying forms and events, to periodically awaken humanity out of its stupor, wrench it out of comfort zones aggrandised on avarice and hatred, envy and unlimited lucre, to enable due appreciation of supreme energy in the One, wherefrom all things emerged, and evanescence of life, impermanence of every form and matter, as even a supercontinent such as Pangaea that clustered Eurasia, Americas, Africa, Antarctica, India and Australia at a time in the hazy past over three hundred Ma, subsequently splintered into multiple continents and landmasses, and these continents are not static as outwardly perceived to be, but continue to drift, to regroup to newer geographical configurations in deep time. In the whirligig of time, all things shuffle around; a distant outsider, or a bordered out entity in the neighbourhood, rattled by extraneous circumstances today, may well be a richly endowed, magnanimously inclined, and graciously welcoming host tomorrow, and vice versa, provided, provided, and provided humankind everywhere adhere to principles of dharma, the order that sustains.