On the night of July 31st, I found myself in a place that would be slightly alarming for anyone. Well, perhaps place wouldn’t be just the right term, as the problem was that my apartment lease would end at midnight and I had nowhere to go. For the two weeks of classes I had left to complete at University, I had to find a place to stay, and fast.
I had made tens of calls, but everyone either was unable to accommodate a guest, or couldn’t reach their phone. The few responses bore sympathy, but not solutions. My backpack began to feel very heavy, and my arms began to imagine the weight of the rest of my belongings. My thoughts verged on the delusional: how much of a threat exactly was it to my safety if I, say, slept on a sidewalk for two weeks? A few minutes later, I was weighing the relative merits of one pavement over the other (under the tree to which pigeons retreated at night would not be a good idea).
A friend broke my mania, calling to advise me to stay at a local student-run motel. “It isn’t much, but it’s cheap,” he offered. Yeah, and it sure beats pigeon poop. I entered the tattered building and began making arrangements for my stay. Then – another call to my phone. “Just a moment! There’s hope!” I told the confused concierge, as I raced out of the building to take the call.
It was one of the many friends that I’d called in my initial panic. He had been in China, I realized just then, when I first got his answering machine several hours ago. If he’d returned, it would have been very recently. I picked up. “Hey,” he said, “sorry I missed your call. What’s up?” I started to give my spiel, but he didn’t let me finish. “Stay at my place,” he interjected. I remember sort of turning the 360 degrees you see in movies when someone on the phone gets groundbreaking news, like “It’s a girl!” or something. The sun setting on my future, I could swear, made a motion Eastward.
I later learned he had returned from his trip only an hour before he called me. He took me in, I can only imagine, driving home from the airport. It couldn’t have been with his parents’ permission; he couldn’t have known what I’d initially called about. Still, when I put all my belongings into his truck that night with an hour to spare on my lease and walked into his house fifteen minutes later, I was an immediately welcome guest, of assumed integrity and decency, and deserving of such hospitality as I’ve never known under such impromptu circumstances.
I’m writing this now after having spent my two weeks under their roof, and I tell this story with utmost gratitude and pride. The gratitude is for obvious reasons. But the pride is for entirely another.
There aren’t a lot of things we second generation Americans are going to carry into the families we beget that we take from our parents. Many of the little customs, observances, and diligences we practiced with our parents will be left in our fond memories. Ours, we assert proudly, will be a more worldly observance of Hinduism. A more intellectual. A more philosophical. We know how to interact and synergize, for example, with patrons of Christianity and Islam, just the way Swami Vivekananda would have liked. We know, for example, how to ask ourselves deep dharmic questions and reflect on them, and share in this dialogue with our peers. We know, as members of the university community, how to put on religiously significant events for people from a variety of backgrounds to enjoy and learn from. Notwithstanding, there is something important we can learn from my friend and his family about adapting our religion to this great Melting Pot. Something that, if we strive to preserve – even if it’s the only thing we carry over from our parents – will empower us to be greater Hindus as well as greater Americans.
Athidhi devo bhava, or the guest is God, it’s said in Sanskrit. It’s an axiom we invoke when we hold dinner parties or pujas, or when we have people visit for the evening. We offer them biscuits and tea, and tell them to stay longer as they make for the door. It defines us, as such, to give to the people who grace our home. When I used to ask my host if a certain appointment I’ve made will get in the way of his plans, as he would have to drive me, he’d say “We’ll make it work.” I see now, admiringly, that those must have been the words understood and conveyed between him and his mother when he walked into his living room that day, back from China with the extra piece of cargo that was me. I see now, how “We’ll make it work” is just the antecedent of athidhi devo bhava, the expression of a willingness to sacrifice something of one’s own for the sake of the guest.
Why is this axiom important, specifically with respect to being American? Because of our context. Imagine, for a moment, how it would be if we treated everyone like our guests? After all, it is this planet we share, altogether, like one big house, with a million biscuits and tubs of tea. What if we made guests of our teachers and students? What if we made guests of our bosses, our colleagues, our friends, and especially our enemies? What if we could be transcendent enough to disagree on fundamental questions of debate and still treat each other as guests? How much would it elevate our personal reflections, our interfaith dialogue, and university events, to make our peers immediately welcome guests, of assumed integrity and decency, and deserving of such hospitality as they’ve never known under such impromptu circumstances?
This is our athidhi devo bhava.