Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Story of Nachiketa Part 8 (Kathopnishad)

After arriving at the palace of Yam-Raj, Nachiketa was informed that the Lord was not present, and will be back after three days. Nachiketa sat on the footsteps and waited for three days and nights; without any food or drink.
Yam Raj, the Lord of death returned after three days and found a young, pale boy sitting at the doorsteps of his house who was turned away by his father, shouting in anger “To the Death shall I give thee”.  

The Lord must have been pleased to know that Nachiketa had voluntarily come to offer himself in the service of the Lord, with a keen desire to learn about ‘Death’. But he was also angry that the boy was not attended properly by his consorts and servants, and was not given any food or drink. 
He says to his family and servants:

              वैश्वानरः प्रविशति अतिथि ब्राह्मणो गृहान 
            तस्यैताम शान्तिं कुर्वन्ति हर वैवस्वतोदकम 

Vaishvaanarah Pravishati Atithi Baraahmano grihaan
Tasya etaam Shaantim Krvanti, Har vaivasvat- udakam
                                                            Shloka 7 - chapter one

“A Brahman (learned, wise person) guest enters a house like fire. 
 The hosts (are supposed to) offer water to quieten them”

The word ‘Brahman’ does not mean a person who belongs to a specific heritage lineage. It implies to an intellectual or Pundit; learned and cultured person with a pure and kind heart. 

Guru Kabeer ji says: 
Kahe Kabeer jo Brahm vichaare
So Brahman kahiyat hamaare 
“Kabeer says the one who contemplates upon Brahm (the Almighty Lord) is called Brahman among us”

Lord Krishna says:
                    चातुर्वण्यं मया सृष्टम गुणकर्म विभागशः 
"Chaatur varnyam mayaa srushtam Guna karma vibhagashah"

The four divisions of people have been created; based on the Guna (character) and Karma (profession) 
                                                              (Bhagavad Gita 4:13)
In other words, this division is not based on birth or family lineage; but on talent, action and profession. 
So, in the 7th verse of Kathopanishad, Dharam Raj is actually saying that a guest, especially an intellectual and well-cultured guest, must be treated with respect and courtesy – and should be offered food and water. 
In fact, this is one of the major characteristic of Indian culture.
A phrase ‘Atithi Devo Bhavah’ - Atithi or guest should be treated as God – was (and still is) well nurtured and taught to the young Indian minds from the early childhood. 
I remember my grandmother, after cooking the day’s meal, always took two servings of everything out, and kept them aside. 
At her request, an elderly Brahman lady, wife of our ‘Kul-Purohit’ used to come to my grandparent’s home every day around noon and my grandmother would give her those two servings of freshly cooked food with folded hands – with respect and gratitude. 
No one was supposed to eat lunch until the food had been served to her – to be taken for her family. My grandmother, like all other religious and traditional women of her time, believed that one revered guest must be offered some fresh food every day– that is whatever we eat, and before we eat. It was considered an offering to God and was always offered with humility and gratitude. 
During my childhood, I always saw that even if a guest arrived – unannounced or even at some odd hours - my mother, aunts and grandmothers always welcomed them and quickly and happily prepared some food - with whatever was available at home - to serve them. This was a common scene in almost every house, every family I knew – a wonderful tradition which is still being followed by many.

Westerners, and even the first generation of Indians who are born in foreign lands (or under western influence), always wonder why Indians - especially well cultured ladies of the Indian households always offer and even insist upon having some food or drinks to anyone who comes to visit. In fact, some people, especially some ladies, insist so much on serving more food - that the guests may even feel uncomfortable – that they are being forced, against their will, to eat more.
Like anything else, meaning of the old cultural traditions should also be understood properly and some wisdom should be used while following them. Excess or over-doing of anything is not good - it loses its charm and may even have adverse effect. 

Dharam Raj was upset because Nachiketa was not attended properly and courteously by his consorts and staff. He knew Nachiketa was not an ordinary visitor. He had been patiently waiting for Dharam Raj at his doorsteps for three days and nights without any food or drink - which shows his firm determination, self-control, patience and discipline – a quality that a good and worthy student must possess in order to learn. 
Unfortunately, both of these traits – treating guests with due respect and humility by the households, and having firm determination, patience and discipline among the students – seem to be vanishing. 

Dharam Raj says: "a guest enters a house like fire… and must be offered water to quieten him". 
It may simply be understood in the context of geography of central India, that a guest, who has travelled from far in the hot weather should be first offered water to soothe him. 
However, metaphorically there are much deeper meanings of this verse. 
First, in the Vedic traditions, God is worshipped with fire; in the form of Yagna – havan or yagya. Even Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Catholic and many other Christian churches also use burning lamps or candles as sacred objects during the worship. 
By saying ‘the guest enters a house like fire’, Dharam Raj is suggesting that a guest should also be treated as sacred as fire. 

Secondly, fire - if used properly and cautiously provides light, warmth and heat to cook our food – is very useful and beneficial.
But if misused or mishandled, it can burn the house and all belongings - and can be very harmful and devastating. 
Similarly, a wise guest or visitor treated with respect can provide us wisdom, happiness and many other blessings. On the other hand, by mistreating the visitors, not only we lose healthy and loving relationship with them, but we lose our own respect as well. 

All thoughts; well-wishes or ill-wishes, travel like waves and affect the other minds and surroundings. Stronger the thought, stronger is its effect. 
Dharam Raj, a great Guru, warns: ‘a guest enters a house like fire …fetch water to quieten him’. 
Here, just like fire, water is also symbolic. In all ancient cultures, water is used as a symbol of humility. 
Therefore, the first lesson being taught by Dharam Raj: 
Treat the guests with respect and courtesy – serve them with humility (like water).
Keep them happy, and be blessed with peace and happiness. 

                                 ‘Rajan Sachdeva’

To be continued:


  1. Great idea
    Great revival of our inherited traditions
    Reminded my childhood in Nabha
    A person from the local Gurduara used to come every day around noon.
    My mother/ grand mother used to give him food cooked and kept aside for them.
    Keep blessing us

  2. Very insightful! I like the expanded explanation of "Atithi Devo Bhavah". Excellent mix of religion and everyday culture.

  3. Very insightful! I like the expanded explanation of "Atithi Devo Bhavah". Excellent mix of religion and everyday culture.

  4. Thank you Dr. Rai ji and Manminder ji

  5. Simply Wonderful! Keep Blessing.


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