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Athithi dEvO bhava.

Why is a person, who happens to be athithi treated as god?
Let us see some scriptural explanation.

The special status to athithi arises owing to his being considered as
an embodiment of an Agni called VaishvAnara. This has been stated in
katohpanishad.When Yama sees Nachiketas waiting at his doorstep, he
realises that it is the biggest sin to make the athithi who also
happens to be a brahmin wait at the doorstep without being offered
food. For, when the athithi enters the house, it is VaishvAnara who
entersthe house. A difference is thus made between the athithi and
others in the name of VaishvAnara who is supposed to reside in the

Before going into the details on this, let me begin with why agni
comes to be associated with man or athithi in the first place. The
very meaning of the term shareeram(body) in sanskrit is closely
associated with agni."AgnayOhathra shreeyanthE", this became
shareeram,says Garbhopanishath. By virtue of it being pervaded by
agni, our body is known as shareeram.

According to Garbhopanishad which details the formation andgrowth of
the body in the womb, our shareeram is pervaded by 3 types of agni,
namely, Gyanaagni,Dharshanaagni and koshtaagni.
Koshtaagni helps in digestion and assimilation offood.
(achita-pIta-lEhya-shoshyam pachathi)
Dharshanagni helps us in seeing the rupam. (rupaaNaamdharshaNam)
Gyanaagni helps us in understanding good and bad andgood from bad.
(shubha shubhancha karma vidanthi)
This Gyanaagni is positioned in 3 places in our body,in the face as
Ahavaneeaagni, in the stomach as GArhapathyaagni and in the Hridayam
as DhakshiNaagni.

By means of these agni, constant yajna is taking place in our body.
Again we find in Katohpanishad (verse 5-9)."agni-yathaikO bhuvanam
pravishtO rupam rupam prathirupO babhuva" (Just as how agni enters all
bodies and takes up the shape of the respective bodies as its shape)
"thatha sarva bhootha antharaathma rupam rupamprathi rupO bahishcha"
(the antharyami enters all bodies and takes up the rupam of the
respective bodies.)

The inference is that all bodies are nothing but embodiment of agni.
For our better understanding, let us call this as internal agni.
Now about the external agni. This includes all agni-related vaidhiha
karma. I don't want to elaborateon this as I assume the readers are
well aware of this.
Suffice it to remind ourselves that this external agni (this is so
called for our understanding only) is to be governed throughout one's
life as per the Taittriya injunction, "Agnayascha

It is interesting to note that a sanyasi who is supposed to have given
up or discarded everything (except his mother) including agni, in
effect is not giving up agni. Before taking up sanyasa, he swallows up
the agni (external agni) asking it to unite with his Prana by saying
"PrANam gachcha swAhA" (JaabaalOupanishad 4-2) This is known as the
Viraja Homa andthe details of how this is to be done is explained in
this upanishad.

From the above, we further deduce that while the body (shareeram) of a
person contains only internal agni,that of the sanyasi contains both
internal and external agni.

Let us go on further to analyse the import of the version in
Katohpanishad which says that there is agni in athithi.
This agni is VaishvAnara which issupposed to be present in the one who
comes as an athithi. What is this VaishvAnara? Gitacharyan says that
He, as VaishvAnara, the gastric juice is pervading all beings.

Jaimini says, "Narayana is the agni(VaishvAnara) which is none other
than the Brahman"."This VaishvAnara Self extending from Heaven to the
earth," says Chandogya (V-XVIII-1). Though Brahman is present in every
being, a difference is being made by texts by a qualifying statement
that VaishvAnara, the'agni' which is none other than Brahman Himself
is present.

In whom?In athithi, says katohpanishad. "Vaishvanara agni enters the
house as athithi" Because the athithi comes hungry. "He who knows this
agni Vaishvanara.. abiding in man" (Satapata Brahmana) treats him with
reverence and satisfies the agni with food.

Therefore those around Yama tell him to bring water to wash the feet
of Nachiketas, a boy much younger thanYama himself, and offer food to
him.(Kato -Verse 1-8 ) "They tell Yama, 'in whose house,the athithi
stays without food, his desires, sankalpa,goodwill of others, his own
good deeds and words, the worship he has done to gods, his children
and his wealth (cattle) are all destroyed by the agni present in the

On the other hand, those who satisfy the VaishvAnara in athithi with
food stand to be benefited.When an athithi is offered food as a
sacrificial act,all the created worlds receive the offering by virtue
of its being offered to Brahman in the form of VaishvAnara. This is
made out in Brahma sutras.Jaimini says that VaishvAnara must be
worshipped as in Agni hotra sacrifice where Prana is worshipped.

" the fibres of the Iseeka reed when thrown in fireare burnt,
with this (offering to VaishvAnara) all his sins are burnt". (Chando

Here a question arises –since VaishvAnara is present in all beings, is
it not enough if we offer food to anyone from among ourselves who is
hungry and get the phalam?

It is replied here that the athithi is special. Because the texts say so.

"The first food which a man takes is an object of oblation" that is it
must be offered to some one else,not himself or his own family. And
the first food which is to be offered must go to the one who is in
dire need of it in such a way it gives him his life-force back by
satisfying his VaishvAnara which is waiting for long for the havis
(the food). "and he who offers that first oblation should offer it to
PrANa,saying 'swaha'." (Chan- V-X-1)

(Further elaboration ofthis can be found in Ramanuja's Bhashya to
Brahmasutra , 1-2-27) It is said that the PrANA mentioned above is the
abode of VaishvAnara and the offering made to PrANa is the offering
made to Vaishvanara.

That is why the grihastha has to wait for an athithi (who fulfills the
meaning of the term as said in earlier mails) to offer the first food
before he and his family take food.
 Such an athithi would be possessed of the VaishvAnara in him
expecting the havis. Thus athithi bhojanam was considered as a homa or
sacrifice. When the grihastha finds an eligible athithi, he offers
food with the realisation that he is offering food to Brahman.

This is how the athithi came to be regarded as god.
Now coming to further fine-tuning of our understanding– any man with
VaishvAnara is also possessed of the internal agni (discussed

But a sanyasin scores above this man in having swallowed the external
agni within himself. In the former case, the results occur visibly or
invisibly or as apurva. But in the case of a sanyasi, the results are
almost instantaneous.

This is what we find in Kanaka-dhara on the poor lady who offered amla
fruit to Adi Shankara.The opposite happened in Shakuntala's case when
she ignored the sage. In all, what is required is how sincere and
concerned one is in athithi bhojanam. If the situation warrants
supreme sacrifice, one must do that. (Outlined in stories in previous

The conclusion is that one must wait for an athithi (atleast one)
everyday to offer him the first food before taking one's meals. To get
a sanyasi-athithi is all the more great as the offering is made to one
with 3 agni (VaisvAnara, internal agni and external agni) in him.


Jayasree saranathan.


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