Atithi Satkara by Kapotadampati (कपोतदम्पती)

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Atithi satkara (Samskrit : अतिथिसत्कारः) or offering hospitality to an uninvited guest is ordained as the dharma of a grhastha, to be followed as a nityakriya. It has been an ancient practice to provide food, clothing and shelter to an uninvited guest, a traveller and to the needy; and towards this purpose annasatras, chatrams were constructed by Rajas and was seen in households

शरणागतस्य कर्तव्यमातिथ्यं हि प्रयत्नतः। पञ्चयज्ञप्रवृत्तेन गृहस्थेन विशेषतः॥ (Maha. Shan. 146.6)

पञ्चयज्ञांस्तु यो मोहान्न करोति गृहाश्रमे। तस्य नायं न च परो लोको भवति धर्मतः॥(Maha. Shan. 146.7)

śaraṇāgatasya kartavyamātithyaṁ hi prayatnataḥ। pañcayajñapravr̥ttena gr̥hasthena viśeṣataḥ॥ (Maha. Shan. 146.6)

pañcayajñāṁstu yo mohānna karoti gr̥hāśrame। tasya nāyaṁ na ca paro loko bhavati dharmataḥ॥(Maha. Shan. 146.7)

It is the duty of all to offer hospitality to the one who comes to their house. But it is the special duty of the grhastha, the householder, who is committed to the observance of panchamahayajnas. The grhastha who is so immersed in ignorance that he fails to perform panchamahayajnas cannot rightfully obtain a dignified place, either in this world or in the world hereafter.

Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 143 to 148) exemplifies the anecdote of a pious pigeon couple who in their performance of panchamahayajna, eventually offer themselves as food to their enemy, a hunter who has come for shelter under their tree residence, one stormy day.[1]

Sharanagati of Hunter

Once upon a time in a great forest there roamed a terrible hunter. He was fearsome and looked like Kala, the Mrtyudevata. Everyday he would set up his snare, catch birds of the forest in droves, kill them all, and sell them for their flesh. This was his daily routine. And he continued to ply his cruel trade day after day, for a long long time.

One day, while he was going about his business of dispensing death in the forest, suddenly there arose a vicious storm. Mighty winds began to fell the trees, the sky was overcast with dense clouds, and the darkness was broken only by the occasional glow of lightning. Soon it began to rain. And in no time the whole earth was covered deep in water.

The hunter almost fainted in that incessant rain and the sudden cold. He lost his way. And while moving around wildly without direction, he could not even make out the mounts and the ditches in the forest. Around him he saw droves of birds and herds of animals running around in great fright. Birds hid themselves in their nests, animals sought out the safety of dry high lands. But many perished in the rain and cold. The hunter was also half-dead with cold. He could neither stand, nor walk.

स तु शीतहतैर्गात्रैर्न जगाम न तस्थिवान्। ददर्श पतितां भूमौ कपोतीं शीतविह्वलाम्॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.143.25)

sa tu śītahatairgātrairna jagāma na tasthivān। dadarśa patitāṁ bhūmau kapotīṁ śītavihvalām॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.143.25)

In this state he saw a she-pigeon lying on the ground. Suffering from severe cold, she was unable to move or fly. The hunter too was in an equally helpless condition. But, even then, by sheer force of habit, he picked her up and consigned her to the cage. Used to living in papa (पापम्), he could think of nothing better even in his hour of intense suffering.

Then, all of a sudden, he saw a big tree. Its foliage was thick, dense and dark like a cloud. Numerous birds, seeking shade, shelter and fruit, had made it their home. It seemed as if the tree, like a saint, had taken form only for the purpose of serving others. As soon as the hunter saw that tree, the clouds began to break, and bright stars began to shine through.

In the clear dark night lit by the shining stars, the hunter noticed that he had strayed far away from his home. And, he was still shivering with cold. Therefore, he made up his mind to spend the night under the tree. And invoking the deities of the tree for protection, he spread some leaves on the ground and lay down with a stone as his pillow.

Pativrata Qualities

As luck would have it, there lived a beautiful spotted pigeon on that tree with all his relatives. His wife had been away in search of grain since the morning. She had not returned in the evening. And as the night fell, the pigeon began to worry about her. When the hunter reached the tree, the pigeon was crying for his dear wife, recalling her beauty and her unswerving faithfulness.

धर्मार्थकामकालेषु भार्या पुंसः सहायिनी। विदेशगमने चास्य सैव विश्वासकारिका॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.144.13)

नास्ति भार्यासमो बन्धुर्नास्ति भार्यासमा गतिः। नास्ति भार्यासमो लोके सहायो धर्मसङ्ग्रहे॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.144.16)

यस्य भार्या गृहे नास्ति साध्वी च प्रियवादिनी। अरण्यं तेन गन्तव्यं यथारण्यं तथा गृहम्॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.144.17)

dharmārthakāmakāleṣu bhāryā puṁsaḥ sahāyinī। videśagamane cāsya saiva viśvāsakārikā॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.144.13)

nāsti bhāryāsamo bandhurnāsti bhāryāsamā gatiḥ। nāsti bhāryāsamo loke sahāyo dharmasaṅgrahe॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.144.16)

yasya bhāryā gr̥he nāsti sādhvī ca priyavādinī। araṇyaṁ tena gantavyaṁ yathāraṇyaṁ tathā gr̥ham॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.144.17)

A wife is the faithful companion for a man in Dharma, Artha and Kama. He recalled the way she provided him constant companionship and unerring assistance in all difficult situations. And he wondered what kind of a place would his home be if his loving and caring wife were not there to enliven it with her pleasant speech? Would such a home be any different from the wild forest?

Hospitality to Hunter

His wife, ensnared in the hunter's cage, heard him wailing thus for her. And she felt greatly fulfilled. If her husband was so intensely pleased with her, there was nothing more that she wanted in the world. Forgetting her own woes, she could think only of protecting the dharma of her husband. And she advised him that he had a guest in the house, and it was his primary duty to look after him. He should therefore stop worrying about her and prepare to offer proper hospitality to the hunter. She even advised her husband that he had been blessed with sons and daughters, he had already fulfilled himself, and therefore he need not be constrained to protect his own body while arranging the necessary hospitality for the guest.

The pigeon almost cried with pleasure on listening to the sage advice of his wife. And immediately, he offered himself and his house at the seva (सेवा | selfless service) of that cruel guest. He graciously welcomed the hunter, asked him to feel free as if he were in his own house, and lovingly enquired after his needs. The pigeon also reassured him that he, the hunter, had come to his house and even an enemy coming thus ought to be offered proper welcome. After all, a tree does not withdraw its shade from the one who comes to it with the intention of cutting it down:

अरावप्युचितं कार्यमातिथ्यं गृहमागते। छेत्तुमप्यागते छायां नोपसंहरते द्रुमः॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.146.5)

arāvapyucitaṁ kāryamātithyaṁ gr̥hamāgate। chettumapyāgate chāyāṁ nopasaṁharate drumaḥ॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.146.5)

The hunter, accepting the offer of hospitality from the pigeon requested him to find a way of saving him from the biting cold. The pigeon gathered a large heap of dry leaves, and then flew to the blacksmith to bring fire. Soon he had a big blaze going. The hunter luxuriously warmed himself up on the fire. He was relieved of the cold. And then he began to feel the pangs of hunger.

Annardham Atmarpana

There was of course no food accumulated in the nest of the host. He was a pigeon, who ate as he picked the grains. He had no occasion to put away any of the grains he picked for use at a later time. For once he felt unhappy about such livelihood of a pigeon. Of what use was this livelihood that left him with nothing for entertaining the guests at his door?

But, whatever be the kind of livelihood assigned to him, he could hardly allow a guest to go hungry. He, therefore, thought for some time and, quickly making up his mind, gathered some more leaves and let the fire blaze high again. He told the hunter that he had no food to offer him, but requested him to accept his body instead. With this request and with the resolve to satiate the hunger of his guest, he went around the fire thrice and then dropped himself into the blaze.

निश्चिता खलु मे बुद्धिरतिथिप्रतिपूजयने॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.146.22)

ततः कृतप्रतिज्ञो वै स पक्षी प्रहसन्निव। तमग्निं त्रिःपरिक्रम्य प्रविवेश महामतिः॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.146.23)

niścitā khalu me buddhiratithipratipūjayane॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.146.22)

tataḥ kr̥tapratijño vai sa pakṣī prahasanniva। tamagniṁ triḥparikramya praviveśa mahāmatiḥ॥ (Maha. Shan. 12.146.23)

The hunter was shocked to the core of his being. He had seen the pigeon so gladly sacrificing himself to honour and satisfy an unworthy guest like him. He could no more bear to continue the life he had been leading till then. He quickly released the she-pigeon that he had encaged, and leaving behind everything - the stick, the torch, the snare and the cage —he set out on a great journey, that would lead to his death, with the resolve that he would follow the example of the pigeon and bring himself back to the life of dharma by incessant fasting and by undertaking great austerities.

Attaining Svarga

मितं ददाति हि पिता मितं भ्राता मितं सुतः॥ 12-148-6

अमितस्य हि दातारं भर्तारं का न पूजयेत्। नास्ति भर्तृसमो नाथो नास्ति भर्तृसमं सुखम्॥ 12-148-7

mitaṁ dadāti hi pitā mitaṁ bhrātā mitaṁ sutaḥ॥ 12-148-6

amitasya hi dātāraṁ bhartāraṁ kā na pūjayet। nāsti bhartr̥samo nātho nāsti bhartr̥samaṁ sukham॥ 12-148-7

The she-pigeon, released from the cage, began to recall the happy times she had spent with her husband. The qualities of a good husband reverberate in her words - A father, brother, and son can only give limited happiness to a woman, what she gains in the company of her husband is endless or infinite. Such a husband, which lady does not revere? For a woman, there is no greater protector than the husband and no greater happiness than him; for whose sake she foregoes wealth and ultimately even her ownself.[2]

Thus, unable to bear the pain of separation, the she-pigeon too jumped into the fire. Soon she was united with her husband, and the two of them together ascended to the heavens in a celestial chariot, escorted by hundreds of crores of men of great virtue, each of whom was sitting in his own celestial chariot.

The hunter, overcoming all temptations, entered a deep and inhospitable forest, full of thorny shrubs and savage beasts. Soon he was consumed by a great forest-fire, which cleansed him of all his papas; and thus he too found a distinguished abode in the heavens.

Thus did the sage pigeon-couple serve their guest, and fulfilled the dharma of grhasthashrama. Their commitment to dharma was, of course, extraordinary. Through such commitment they not only earned a place for themselves in the heavens, but also brought a violent person, like the hunter, back to righteousness and opened the path of heavens for him.


  1. Bajaj, Jitendra and Mandayam, Srinivas. (1996) Annam Bahu Kurvita. Madras: Centre for Policy Studies Madras
  2. Shastri, Ramnarayanadatta Pandey. Mahabharata Volume 5 (With Hindi Translation) Gorakhpur : Gita Press