Friday, September 28, 2007

The Giving of Water

All cultures have it - the giving of food and shelter to pilgrims and wayfarers as an act of kindness.

This is Old Delhi's way of doing it - by giving free water to anyone who asks for it. In a hot country, naturally, this is the quintessential act of hospitality. A boy is employed, to sit there all day long, offering water to anyone who asks.
The water is cold - they use big blocks of ice to cool it down. Someone rich sponsors the whole thing, and of course, earns much merit in the process.

Hinduism uses the word athithi-dharma to describe every man's obligations to visitors or guests. It is one of the many dharmas a Hindu has. Others include dharma to your parents, to children, to ancestors, to birds / animals / plants and so on. As part of athithi-dharma, a Hindu is expected to attend to a visitor's needs before attending to his own.

The dharma of hospitality is not peculiar to Hinduism. There are several stories in the Bible, about men who took strangers into their homes. The Middle Eastern ethic of offering hospitality (and protection) to strangers is well known - in fact, there are elaborate and binding rules both on the host and the visitor. The Greeks were big on hospitality too - the god of hospitality is Zeus himself, and he's called Xenios Zeus (xenos means stranger, in case you didn't already know).

Mankind's long traditions of hospitality are still alive and kicking - for a modern international rendering of athithi-dharma, you really don't have to look beyond the CouchSurfers. Couchsurfing amazes me. What would make someone share their home with a complete stranger? I can understand this sort of thing if you live in a mansion with 20 rooms, with enough hired help to manage guests. But imagine living in a tiny apartment in New York! And waking up to find a guy snoring in your living room - or worse, messing up your one small bathroom. Gross.

Yes, there's the charm of meeting people from all over the world. There's the offchance that you'll meet someone warm and friendly (and clean), who'll tell you funny stories, help cook dinner, and - maybe they'll even like the same authors that you do. But personally, I think you should never get into Couchsurfing with any expectations. Just do your atithi-dharma. Make that leap of faith. And let events play themselves out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Not surprising that the giving of water to pasers-by is a Old Delhi custom. It is an old islamic tradition, specific beyond the generic good manners of graceous hospitality.

Yoo-Mi makes a few interesting comments about the way this custom manifests in the desert environment of Sudan here.

Stop in for a drink if you are ever in Pondicherry.