In Indian Culture Why do we welcome Guests?
Welcoming a guest is as much an expression of man's cultural sensitivities as his world-view. Hence, each culture has its own way of welcoming a guest. In Indian custom, it has been said that one should look upon a Guest as God verily. It is based on the dictum given in Taittiriyo Upanishad 1.20 -- Atithi Devo Bhava, "May the Atithi (guest) be God unto you."
"Tithi" in Sanskrit or even in the Hindi language means a (calendrical) date. "A-tithi" means who does not have any date. The term Atithi means 'one who comes without a date' or prior intimation (a-tithi, without a date). But, now the word Atithi is extended to mean all guests, whether they come with intimation or without it. And treating an Atithi with respect is a part of Indian way of life.
Guest is God
In olden days, there were no fast modes of communication as compared to today and thus if anyone wants to visit or meet his near and dear ones, there were no ways he could communicate his arrival. So he used to pay a visit without any information and therefore in course of time guest used to be called "athithi" one who does not have fixed time of arrival. "Devo" in Sanskrit means God-like and "bhava" means to assume/understand. Atithi Devo Bhava means to assume or understand a guest as god-like and so respect and homage in the similar way one would give to his God.
"Atithi Devo Bhava" - the Indian Way of Welcoming Guests
The Indian tradition of welcoming the guest as God has stayed alive despite countless changes India has gone through. Keeping the dictum "atithi devo bhava" in view, there are various ways of welcoming a guest in the Indian household and social gatherings. Generally welcoming consists of, besides exchange of pleasantries, offering the guest a seat, greeting him with a namaste or pranam, offering him something to eat or drink and seeking him off when he is leaving.
In a more specific sense, a guest was traditionally offered various items called upacharas. There is much variance in the way these and other upacharas are offered.
Rituals or Puja
Once a guest is assumed to be God-like, then comes the process he should be treated. As the God is treated with reverence and respect and there are proper ways to show that respect, those ways are called "rituals". Similarly, the guest should also be shown the respect through the same rituals. In Hinduism, these rituals comprise of five-steps which are known as Panchopchara Puja. These five rituals from the worship similarly become the five "code of conduct" to be followed while receiving guests which are as follows:
Salient features of Welcoming a Guest
Some of the salient features of welcoming a guest are:
1) Fragrance / Incence (Dhupa):
When one receives a guest, the room should be filled with a pleasant fragrance since this is the first thing that attracts or detracts guests from their visit. A pleasant fragrance puts the guest in a good frame of mind.
In many areas, especially villages and small town, a respected guest is first given water to wash feet. For monks, the head of the household pours waters on the feet of visiting monk. Water cleansing is considered a holy act of cleansing and offering respect.
3) Flower (pushpa):
A flower not only symbolizes freshness but is also a gesture of goodwill. It symbolizes the sweet and enduring memories of the visit between the host and the guest that stay with them for several days. Offering fresh fragrant flowers or flower garlands (malas or haras) is part of welcome. It is a gesture of good will and honor.
4) Lamp (deepa):
The lighted earthen lamp looks beautiful, fire is considered pious and also a source of light which disperses light so that everything between guest and the host is clearly visible.
In some areas such as Gujarat and Maharashtra, a guest is often welcomed by waving an oil lamp, an arati before he enters the house. In earlier days, the lighted lamp was put between the host and guest to make their facial expression sandy body language visible to each other. This helped to remove all barriers between the host and guest.
5) Tilak and rice grains (akshata):
Tilak is considered not only a symbol of warm wishes but also an expectation of well-being of the person on whom it is applied. A symbol unity and auspiciousness, a Tilak, of vermilion or sandal past, along with some rice grains, is put on the forehead. This is the highest form of welcome in Hindu families.
6) Eatables (naivedya):
Offering water to the guest is very important part of welcome. This may be connected to the tropical weather and sweating which makes frequent drinking of water a necessity. Then, fruits and sweets were offered to guests. These days it is common to offer a cup of coffee or tea or aerated drinks as well as some snacks. Full meal (dinner or lunch) is served if the guest stays longer.
One finds these and other forms of welcoming the guests mentioned in Indian religious books such as Mahabharata, Ramayana, and many Smritis. The important thing to note is that the tradition has continued to exist through some forms and terms have changed.