“A guest is equivalent to God”
NT is my roommate at USC and a very close friend. Her parents are originally from Southern India and moved to the U.S. thirty years ago. As a family, they have moved around a bit and have lived in New York and Michigan, and now reside in Texas.
NT- There is one saying that I feel like my mom has burned into my brain, “Athithi Devo Bhavaa.” She would always say it in Hindi, but the English translation is “A guest is equivalent to God.”
Interviewer- Would she say it only when specific people were coming over?
NT- No it didn’t really matter who was coming. But if she knew someone was planning to drop by, she would always shout the phrase in Hindi as a reminder to me, especially since I am an only child (rolls her eyes).
Interviewer- Do you know of a specific origin of the phrase, or does it just come from the cultural view of how important guests are?
NT- So there’s like a story in India that apparently some of our Gods will periodically go in random people’s houses and see how they are treated. It’s like a test to make sure you are being kind and welcoming to everyone.
This folk simile originated in India as a reminder to treat everyone well. Interestingly, the phrase instructs one to treat guests not just as they would want to be treated, but as a God. This implies that one should put their guests’ wants and needs above their own, as they do with their higher powers. The second element of this folk simile is the proverbial warning attached to the origin story. It implies that any time, a test could be administered to you unknowingly, likely with consequences if you fail. The possibility that a person or a family could receive a punishment directly from a deity, is a motivator to treat everyone very well. The phrase is told even to small children, which indicates how serious it is in Indian culture.