Atithi or Guest Reception (study)

by Sarika. P. | 2022 | 41,363 words

This page relates ‘Introduction to the Dharmashastra Literature’ of the study on Atithi-Saparya—The ancient Indian practice of hospitality or “guest reception” which, in the Indian context, is an exalted practice tracable to the Vedic period. The spirit of Vedic guest-reception (atithi-saparya) is reflected in modern tourism in India, although it has deviated from the original concept. Technically, the Sanskrit term Atithi can be defined as one who arrives from a far place with hunger and thirst during the time of the Vaishvadeva rite—a ceremony that includes offering cooked food to all Gods.

Part 1 - Introduction to the Dharmaśāstra Literature

Dharma is an important and ancient concept rooted in Indian culture. The word Dharma is derived from the Sanskrit rootdhṛ”. Maintain, support, protection, duty, right, justice, ordinance usage, morality, virtue, religion, good works etc. are the dictionary meanings of dharma. The one that helps for the overall development of every being is also regarded as Dharma. It has a structure that holds the whole universe together.

The concept of Dharma is deep rooted in Indian tradition. In Veda the term Dharma is used to denote different meanings. In Ṛgveda the word Dharma is used as upholder, supporter or sustainer.[1] It is used as the form of masculine gender in three times[2] and several times in neuter gender. The word dharma in Ṛgveda denotes religious ordinance or conventional observance.[3] Atharvaveda, Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, Chāndogyopaniṣad etc. speak of Dharma. Practice of Dharma is mentioned in the Śikṣāvallī of Taittirīya Upaniṣad.[4]

The concept of Dharma changes from age to age. Distinct dharma is prescribed for every āśrama and varṇa. According to Rāmāyaṇa, Dharma is the course of life. Thus there are different types of Dharmas. They are nitya dharma, naimittika dharma, sāmānya dharma, viśeṣa dharma, svadharma, paradharma, āpaddharma etc. Vālmīki presents Rāma as an embodiment of dharma, he attributes different kind of dharmas to him like dharmajña[5], dharmarakṣita[6], dharmanitya[7], dharmātmā, dharmavalsala,[8] dharmabhṛtāṃvara[9] etc. The following different types of dharma can be seen in Vālmīkirāmāyaṇa, pitṛdharma in Daśaratha, putradharma, patidharma and rājadharma in Rāma, bhrātṛdharma of Lakṣmaṇa, suhṛddharma in Sugrīva, strīdharma in Kausalyā and Sītā, sevakadharma in Hanuman and śaraṇāgatadharma in Vibhiṣaṇa etc.

Mahābhārata narrates the importance of Dharma in detail. Mainly three persons are presented as the embodiment of Dharma in Mahābhārata. They are Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīṣma and Vidura. They strictly observe the value of Dharma throughout Mahābhārata. Their opinions and actions have much significance in Mahābhārata. Bhagavadgītā is an integral part of Mahābhārata. The advice given to Arjuna by Lord Kṛṣṇa is mainly based on Dharma. Lord Kṛṣṇa in Bhagavadgītā proclaims that He will incarnate as and when Dharma declines and when adharma dominates over the world.[10] In Mahābhārata, Vyāsa says that if and when protected, Dharma will certainly protect the protector (dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ), where there is Dharma there victory is (yato dharmastato jayaḥ) etc. The ultimate success of life, the glory of truth fulfills only with dharma. The secret of Dharma is the soul which is hiding in the heart’s deep cave and Dharma is something that is said that the essence of Dharma is shrewded in obscurity (dharmasya tatvaṃ nihitaṃ guhāyām). Śāntiparvan and Anuśāsanaparvan of the Epic narrates the concept of Dharma in detail.

During the time of Dharmaśāstras the idea of Dharma gets transformed from that of the Vedic and Epic periods. During the time of Dharmaśāstra which is based on the varṇāśrama the Dharma mainly consists of rituals. There came the four varṇas namely brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra. When one family does a certain job, they become proficient in it. Eventually they establish their monopoly in that particular job and they try to keep away others from performing this job. Thus, the varṇa which evolved as a result of karma, later on, got a hereditary basis. Thus, the four-caste system known as brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra came in to being. During Vedic period varṇa was assigned as a result of one’s karma. In the course of time, it changed to birth right.

The concept of four divisions of human beings can be seen in Vedic literature. The first three groups; Brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas should follow four life activities in four stages of their life. The varṇāśrama dharma concept developed from them. A householder should offer certain daily offerings.There are some rites that are to be performed on special occasion and are to be known as naimittika karmans. One who seeks the heavenly abode must observe certain karmans. In order to be free from the sins one should do atonements as a remedy for that. These are basic practices that were to be performed in Hindu religion. Occasional references for these can be traced in Vedas, but not explained systematically. Kalpa is the collection of Vedic books which narrates the rules of Vedic gṛhya rites, śrauta rites, atonement etc. Some of these books are in sūtra style and are written in prose style. Others are written as poems framed in the anuṣṭup chandas.

Dharmaśāstra gives stress on the ways than the aim. The rituals practiced by good men are known as Dharma (dhriyate puṇyātmabhiriti dharmaḥ). The practice of Dharma should be for the overall development of the individual and the society as a whole. One of the criteria for it is that the control over one’s senses. Varṇadharma and āśramadharma are explained based on this as a criterion. Among the varṇas, kṣatriyas has got the right to protect the Dharmas.Thus, the duties of a king, especially about justice, are described in detail. Among āśramadharmas, duties of a householder assumes importance because he is the back-bone of a society.

The concept of Dharma is not static. Hence rituals also got transformed in course of time. The chief Dharma of Brahmin is penance. In Tretāyuga, it was knowledge of the self. During Dvāparayuga, it was yajña and in Kaliyuga it is charity. Though the observances like tapas, jñāna, yajña and dāna etc. are practiced in all yugas, it is seen that each of these were given importance during particular periods. In respective yuga the respective observance treated as the most beneficial one. Kaliyuga gave importance to dāna, because during this period. The duties of brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra are discussed in Dharmasāstra literature.Vedic teachings, vedic study, performing yāga, performing and accepting dāna are the duties of Brāhmaṇas. Protection of the subjects, dāna, yajña, Vedic learning are considered as the Dharmas of kṣatriyas and protection of cows, dāna, yajña, study of Veda, trade and commerce are the Vaiśyadharmas. Only one Dharma to śūdras that is, to serve the other three varṇas.

The primary sources of “Dharma” are the Dharmasūtras. Dharmasūtras are a class of literature forming part of Kalpasūtras. Kalpasūtras in turn are one of the six Vedāṅgas appended to Vedas. The Dharmasūtras are ancient texts which might have taken shape, in general, before Common Era. Almost all Dharmas which are to be followed by a person has already been there in Vedas. A person who observes Dharma that is mentioned in Smṛtis and Śruti- s is extoled by Dharmaśāstra, to become famous in the earthly world and to enjoy heavenly bliss in the other world. Śruti texts are the Vedas and Smṛtis are the Dharmaśāstras.Vedas and the Dharmaśāstra works of Manu etc. are considered as the basic sources of Dharma.

vedaḥ smṛtiḥ sadācāraḥ svasya ca priyamātmanaḥ |
etaccaturvidhaṃ prāhuḥ sākṣāddharmasya lakṣaṇam || Manusmṛti
, 2.12

Veda, Smṛti, sadācāra, ātmatuṣṭi are the four basic sources of Dharma. Śruti is considered as an important source for those who wants to know Dharma. Even in Śruti, same Dharma is told in two different ways but Manu takes both of them as representation of Dharma. Because the ancient scholars considered both as Dharma.[11]

Manu confronts a society where the four-caste group exercised an important role. Manu codified these laws as applicable to each group and prescribed his ideas and certain moral codes to the people through his Dharmaśāstra work.

Dharmasūtra texts gave way to Dharmaśāstra works, which are more popularly known as Smṛtis. There is vast corpus of literature based on these Dharmasūtras and Smṛtis, which are known as Nibandhas. And the extensive and elaborate commentaries on Dharmasūtras and Smṛtis also form a part of this literature.

Footnotes and references:


Ṛgveda.1.187.1 and 10.92.2


Ṛgveda.1.187.1, 10.92.2 and10.21.3


Ṛgveda.1.22.18, 5.26.6, 8.43.24,9.64.1


ṛtaṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca | satyaṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca | tapaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | damaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | śamaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | agnayaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | agnihotraṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca | atithayaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | mānuṣaṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca | prajā ca svādhyāyapravacane ca | prajanaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | prajātiśca svādhyāyapravacane ca | satyamiti satyavacā rāthītaraḥ | tapa iti taponityaḥ pauruśiṣṭiḥ | svādhyāyapravacane eveti nāko maudgalyaḥ | taddhitapastaddhitapaḥ || Taittirīya Upaniṣad, Śikṣāvalli,9.1


dharmajñaḥ satyasandhaśca prajānāṃ ca hite rataḥ | yaśasvī jñānasaṃpannaḥ śucirvaśyaḥ samādhimān | prajāpatisamaḥ śrīmāndhātā ripuniṣūdanaḥ || Vālmīkirāmāyaṇa, 1.1.12


rakṣitā jīvalokasya dharmasya parirakṣitā |
rakṣitā svasya dharmasya svajanasya ca rakṣitā ||
ibid., 1.1.13


kuru no yācanāṃ putra sītā tiṣṭhatu bhāminī |
dharmanityaḥ svayaṃ syātu na hidānīṃ tvamicchasi |
ibid., 2.37.19


sa evaṃ bruvatīṃ sītāṃ dharmajñāṃ dharmavatsalaḥ |
na netuṃ kurute buddhiṃ vane duḥkhāni cintayan ||
ibid., 2.28.9


tasyāstat kṣipramāgatya rāmo dharmabhṛtāṃ varaḥ |
cīraṃ bavandha sītāyāḥ kauśeyasyopari svayam ||
ibid., 2.37.14


yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānirbhavati bhārata |
abhyutthānamadharmasya tadātmānaṃ sṛjāmyaham || Bhagavadgītā
, 4.7


śrutidvaidhaṃ tu yatra syāt tatra dharmāvubhau smṛtau |
ubhāvapi hi tau dharmau samyaguktau manīṣibhiḥ || Manusmṛti
, 2.14
udite'nudite caiva samayādhyuṣite tathā |
sarvathā vartate yajña itīyaṃ vaidikī śrutiḥ ||
ibid., 2.15

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: