Atithi Satkara by Kapotadampati (कपोतदम्पती)

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Once upon a time in a great forest there roamed a terrible hunter. He was fearsome and looked like Kala, the Mrityudevata. 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. 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 sin, 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 gods of the tree for protection, he spread some leaves on the ground and lay down with a stone as his pillow.

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. 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? 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 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. 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.

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.

The hunter was shocked to the core of his being. He had seen the pigeon so gladly sacrificing himself to honour and satisfy a 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.

The she-pigeon, released from the cage, began to recall the happy times she had spent with her husband, and unable to bear the pain of separation, she 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 sins; 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 grhasthasrama. 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.