Nepalese Fight for Their Beloved Trees
Kathmandu’s Ring Road improvement and inner city street-widening projects run into a roadblock as protesters turn every tree into a sacred shrine
BY SALLY ACHARYA, KATHMANDU
THE TREES FALLING TO CHAINSAWS along Kathmandu’s roads are old and stately, but the protesters’ tools are thousands of years older: sacred thread, vermillion powder and flowers.
Residents and others are alarmed because thousands of huge old trees are being cut down in two major and simultaneous road improvement projects and—despite promises—none is being replanted. The expansion of the Ring Road is planned and funded by China, while roads inside the city are being widened in a separate project of the Nepali government based on a plan from the 1970s.
The Ring Road itself was built in the 1970s, and in an example of successful environmental abatement the Chinese planted many roadside shade trees which grew tall and magnificent in their maturity. These days, though, the Ring Road is clogged with traffic. China is granting Nepal roughly $6.7 million (547 million Nepali rupees) to expand it, on condition that a Chinese contractor be used. The planning was done by a Chinese team. Alarmingly, sketches in the Road Department office indicate no trees or greenbelt.
Adding to residents’ alarm is the ongoing digging, tree-cutting and wall-breaking that has filled the city with debris as part of another road improvement plan, the Urban Development Implementation Act of 1977. This ambitious, massive plan to broaden the roads and reduce traffic bottlenecks, long delayed due to the reluctance of previous governments, was finally set into motion by the Maoist-led administration of Baburam Bhattarai, who left office in March. The work is continuing under the interim government.
But over the intervening decades, many residents unknowingly built shops and homes on lands the Act had earmarked for road work. The ditches and mounds that Kathmandu residents have been stepping around for months are filled with rubble from these shops and homes. In many cases homeowners have demolished and rebuilt their own walls rather than waiting for the road crews. Whole lines of shops and homes have pulled back from the streets, their exterior walls destroyed and rebuilt. Temples have been moved after suitable pujas. Trees can’t shrink back from the expanding asphalt, so they’ve simply been chopped down.
Plea for Eco-Sensitive Development
Few question the need for better roads in congested Kathmandu, with its narrow lanes and helter-skelter development. But many are skeptical of the planning for the projects, fearing there will soon be little greenery left in this city, where smog hides the Himalayas and people have taken to wearing face masks because of rampant pollution.
So the Nepalese are trying to stop the bulldozers with sacred thread. Many of Kathmandu’s trees are now blessed with sindoor, circled with thread and painted with messages as activists urge respect for what they see as two aligned ideals: the traditional sense of sacred nature and contemporary eco-sensitive development.
“Save Me,” says a message scrawled on a massive tree whose branches shade a chautari, or seating place, between a vegetable market and an area known as Tibetan Camp. Bulldozers have carved up the road around it, turning the local hangout into an island in the mud but leaving the thread-encircled giant alone for now.
“Save Me,” plead the words scrawled on trees along the Ring Road, some of the 1,239 trees marked for destruction along the southern arc of the city’s 17-mile beltway. Protesters are asking for a halt until they see a plan that makes an effort to save those trees that can be saved, ensures walkways and bicycle lanes, and follows legal and traditional precepts for planting more trees than are cut.
“It’s always been said it’s a sin to cut trees,” said Sampurna Basnet, a college student at a recent protest where environmentalists arrived with powder-filled tapari (bowls made of leaves) and Buddhist prayer flags.
“Birds are messengers of the Gods. Why would we take away their homes?” asked artist Milan Rai, who has been placing paper butterflies on endangered trees in a message of hope for positive transformation. “When people cut trees, they always used to plant more. We’ve always been nature worshipers. Now everybody is forgetting the connection. In the name of development, we’re becoming self-destructive.”
Over the past few months hundreds of young people have marched repeatedly to the Road Department bearing saplings, pledging to nurture them and asking the government to do the same for Kathmandu’s existing trees. They’ve also built a model bicycle path, using gravel and their own labor, to demonstrate their vision of positive development. It’s an intentionally peaceful and nonpartisan gesture in this often strike-crippled and politicized city, where the movement to save the trees has been unusual in many ways, not the least of which has been chants such as, “Are we part of an organization? No!”
Urging Respect for Nepal’s Heritage
One common thread in this informal, often Facebook-driven effort has been a vision of development that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of other countries but modernizes in a way that respects the environment and Nepal’s heritage.
In Nepali culture, planting trees and creating chautari where people can rest under the shade has long been a way to earn merit. The Vedas are full of invocations to the earth (bhu), atmosphere (bhuvah), sky (sva) and the primordial forces of nature. Sacred trees and plants are numerous; and while certain trees are particularly sacred, such as the spreading banyan and peepal trees, all trees are recognized as valuable and connected with Vishnu, the Preserver. Watering trees is seen as a spiritual duty, and those who cut down trees must plant more.
In some villages trees are worshiped in the month of Baisakh (April-May) with the creation of temporary temples under a tree to ask for rain. The people say that if trees are cut, the rains won’t come. In recent decades chautari have been leveled for roads all across the country, with little effort to save the old trees that once formed the heart of village life. This, while, Nepal’s news and even its school textbooks are packed with information on global warming and the importance of saving the environment. Protesters cite the irony of so many trees being cut in a capital city that is full of donor agencies, embassies and policy makers who urge Nepalis to become environmentally aware.
“What do we study in school?” twelfth grader Bijeta Bhandari asked a crowd at a recent rally. “The environment! Does the government have us study it because it’s important? Yes! Then what kind of example is this?”
The effort to save the trees began quietly last year as a beloved line of old trees near the zoo fell to chainsaws and roadwork approached a nearby khari tree that serves as a neighborhood landmark. Many Kathmandu neighborhoods, though tight-packed and urbanized, have their own giant trees where elders chat in the shade and youth clubs gather for sports. Some are sacred pipal and banyan trees; some are not. But they’re part of the urban landscape of Greater Kathmandu, along with the jacaranda that bloom purple in the spring and the tall trees that soften the dust-and-concrete grimness of the Ring Road.
“What I really love about those trees is that they have so many functions,” says Lucia deVries, a 21-year Nepal resident who lives near the Ring Road and helped organize the earliest protests. “They’re community parks. Shops are based under the trees—the tailors, the fruit sellers—and there are always boys playing football and table tennis. If you go to a place with no trees, people aren’t hanging out. Stretches with no trees are like barren places. They’re ugly.”
Questions about Health and Livability
Controversies rage. The government has been accused of ignoring private property rights, questions have been raised about who benefits financially from wood sold after chopping trees, and the dust in the air from demolition is linked to an increase in asthma and respiratory ailments. But many also admire the government’s ability to muster the political will after so many decades of inaction on the roads. And there’s little criticism of the ultimate goal: clearer, wider, less dusty streets. The protesters agree with that, too. The question is how to go about it and what a livable city would look like in the long run.
“We don’t want development that’s all about concrete and overpasses. That’s not our definition of development. We need ways for small children and grandmothers to walk and ride bicycles,” said protester Sail Shrestha. “All around the world, people are saying, ‘Oh no, we made a mistake here.’ They’re trying to come back to be like Nepal was. We shouldn’t follow their mistakes.”
Government Promises to Plant
Ashok Tiwari, who heads up both projects in the Lalitpur area, says his Road Department will replant four trees for each tree cut. It’s a Hindu tradition long enshrined by law in Nepal, although Tiwari says the law only applies these days to forest land and the Road Department isn’t legally required to replant.
After a day in which he got so many messages on his cell phone that “I couldn’t even breathe,” Tiwari said he spoke to the Chinese contractors and they agreed to mark the route publicly so citizens would know which trees are to be cut. That would also theoretically prevent illegal cutting of other trees in the name of roadwork. But as of this writing that has not happened, even though its commencement has been announced.
Inside the city, too, Tiwari promises that trees will be replaced eventually, although the pavement has already been laid. “We can tear up the pavement stones. It’s just sand under there. It’s not hard,” he says.
Planting New Trees Just Makes Sense
But after a year in which many neighborhoods have seen trees cut and no replanting, and in the general atmosphere of skepticism about government pledges and dismay about the charmless concrete that is spreading in the historic city, the protesters want more than words. They recently marched to the Chinese Embassy to ask its support in ensuring that the Shanghai contractors deliver a more walkable, contemporary, eco-friendly city design. After all, noted DeVries, it was China who initially funded the planting of many of the popular Ring Road trees. “They did such a great job then,” she says. “That’s the approach we need to see now.”
Many feel this approach would preserve cultural and spiritual values as well as the environment. “We need so many things from trees throughout our lives,” says 11th-grader Lirona Joshi. “With our first breath, we take their oxygen. We need their leaves for ceremonies, and when we die, we need their wood to be burned. Our elders planted trees, but now, instead of planting trees, we are cutting them. That is senseless.”
Older people sympathize with the protesters. Govinda Bahadur Karki, who spent 12 years in the Middle East, said the protesters have a better sense of real “development” and “modernization” than the tree cutters. “It doesn’t save money to cut trees,” he said. “If we go to the hospital because we’re breathing polluted air, don’t we have to pay money?”
Trees are good for business, added Gehendra Raj Koirala. Shops do more business when people come to enjoy the nearby shade. “We need development, and if a tree is really in the way of the road, it must be cut. But we need to save as many as we can. And we need to replant as we did in the past—big trees, not saplings. It takes many years for trees to get this big. If our generation cuts the trees, what will they think of us in the future?”
E D U C A T I O N A L I N S I G H T
BY LAVINA MELWANI, NEW YORK
BE ONE TO WHOM THE mother is a God. Be one to whom the father is a God. Be one to whom the teacher is a God. Be one to whom the guest is a God.” So advises the Taittiriya Upanishad of the Yajur Veda, affirming the remarkable Hindu reverence for a guest. The Sanskrit word for guest is athithi, “without time,” i.e., “one who has no fixed day for coming.” It remains today the accepted custom of Hindus to visit friends, relatives and even strangers without notice. Hosting guests is one of the five central religious duties or “sacrifices” of the Hindu householder: paying homage to seers, to Gods and elementals, to ancestors, to living beings and, manushya yajna, “homage to men,” which includes gracious hosting of guests. The ancient Tamil scripture, Tirukural, says, “The whole purpose of earning wealth and maintaining a home is to provide hospitality to guests.” In this article we explore the many facets of Hindu hospitality, from how to receive a guest to how to behave in the home, to the impact of modernization, urbanization and the advent of the nuclear family upon this most ancient and revered obligation of our faith.
DO YOU THINK YOU ARE THE PERFECT HINDU HOST? Well, here’s a story that will make you reevaluate your hospitality skills, for the host in this tale is none other than Lord Krishna. When his boyhood friend, Sudama—hungry, impoverished and in rags—arrived at the palace, the guards refused to allow him in. But Lord Krishna, overjoyed to see his old friend, received him with open arms and joyfully led him to his throne. He personally washed Sudama’s feet and fed him with his own hands. Sudama had brought a humble gift, a handful of parched rice tied in the corner of his shawl and was too ashamed to give it to Lord Krishna in front of all the fine courtiers, but Lord Krishna opened it with delight and ate the grains with pleasure and appreciation. To him, the true value of this meager gift lay in the affection with which it had been offered. Similar stories abound in our scriptures and histories.
Although I did not grow up in a particularly religious household, the concept of hospitality was still very traditionally Hindu, both in giving and receiving. I remember we stopped at a friend’s home in Mathura after a pilgrimage to Haridwar. The hosts received us like VIPs, with open hearts and minds. We ate a wonderful vegetarian meal in the cool evening air in their garden, and then, as the stars came out, the string beds were brought out into the open, for family and guests, each covered with a mosquito net to ward off insects.
Another time, I was with my older brother, who had to stop at an acquaintance’s home in Old Delhi to pick up some paperwork. The family knew we were coming and had prepared a feast. In this very Hindu home, we removed our shoes, washed our hands and feet and sat on the immaculate kitchen floor with the hosts while a brahmin cook served us one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten.
Indeed, you can never leave an Indian household without gaining a few ounces, for you will certainly be plied with some snacks, some tea at the very least, or a glass of cold rose sherbet in the heat of summer. In our home in New Delhi, family and friends came to us from everywhere, and they certainly got more than a glass of water: delicious meals, a comfortable bed, domestics hanging over their every need and, yes, even a guided tour of Delhi, and sometimes even Agra. Nor was the hospitality reserved just for visiting guests. Daily food was never eaten without my mother’s consecrating a small portion to God, and a portion being given to a passing needy person or a cow.
Relatives came and were joyously received, especially on days of shraddha when the priest, uncles, aunts and cousins would descend on the house to honor the memory of ancestors. The house would take on an almost festive air, as scores of children erupted out of the arriving cars. After prayers and feeding the priest, the aroma of sizzling puris and pakodas wafted from the kitchen while elders embarked on a massive talkathon.
Sundari Katir of California told Hinduism Today, “When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, guests would always be visiting us from different parts of the country and India. The whole household would jump into action. My mother would assemble the meal, and we children would get our rooms all ready, because we would give them up and sleep on mats on the floor. It was such a natural thing to do, and we were always delighted to have guests. Today my brother Ranjan is one of the few relatives left in Colombo, and he carries on the tradition. He treats everyone as God, with good food, comfortable beds and heartfelt hospitality. I have become a better hostess after observing him.”
Tips for Being a Good Guest
GUEST MAY BE ANYONE FROM A CLOSE RELATIVE TO A TOTAL stranger, and rules naturally vary accordingly. This summary is for a visitor somewhere between the two extremes.
Arrival: It is traditional that a guest need not inform a host of his impending arrival. However, in today’s busy world, more and more often guests do give advance notice. The host may insist that no advance notice is necessary, and close friends or relatives may even take advance notice as an affront, a disturbing sign that all may not be well with the relationship.
Duration: It is very impolite of the host to ask how long the guest is staying. But, as a guest, you should convey this information in an casual manner. In a gesture of hospitality, the host will naturally retort that you should really stay much longer.
Gifts: Gifts are always given to hosts by guests when staying overnight in a home. The value of the gift varies greatly, of course, depending on the guest’s circumstances and resources. It is proper to give a separate gift for the wife and the husband. The wife receives the nicest item. Small items should also be given for the children. In Sri Lanka, giving goes the other way as well. It is common for the host to give a gift to the guest, especially those poorer.
Helping: In a home without servants, considerate guests can help with housework and chores, as well as care for their quarters, even if the host insists it is not necessary. You can also help with cooking, as well as invite your hosts out for a meal.
Graciousness: It is an insult to refuse any offered drink or food. Blend into the family’s rhythms. Be a genuine friend, taking real interest in the family’s life and treating the children lovingly, as you would your own. Conversely, one should not meddle in family affairs, nor later make unflattering observations to others about one’s hosts.
Thanks: After returning home, remember to send a warm and sincere thank-you letter, hand-written, mentioning some specific detail of your visit that you most appreciated.
God as Guest: The most common Hindu form of worship, puja, is, in fact, an act of hosting. Rare is the Hindu home without a shrine for the Deities. From huge family temples of marble in the homes of the wealthy to modest shrines, Hindus revere their Gods. Daily, images of the family Gods are bathed, clothed and offered fruit, flowers and incense, accompanied by chanting and the tinkle of the bell, all in the format of hosting a guest. The full 16-step puja begins with an invitation for God to come to the home, continues through offering of a seat, washing the feet with water, offerings of drink and food, garments and incense, flowers, etc., until finally the God is thanked and bid adieu. While the standard human guest would receive less adulation, a holy man visiting a family’s home may well be welcomed and worshiped in this complete manner.
Festivals bring a more intense program to host God. At Dipavali, the Festival of Lights, when Goddess Lakshmi visits the homes of devotees, there is a frenzy of cleaning, sweeping and painting as homes are beautified and decorated with hundreds of earthen lamps to greet Her.
Guest as God: At the very heart of Hinduism is the belief that the Almighty permeates everything. Indeed, the Hindu belief in the presence of the Paramatma in every living thing transforms each one of us into God. The ancient Hindu texts say the guest has to be shown honor by the host’s going out to meet him, offering him water to wash his feet, by giving him a seat, lighting a lamp before him, providing food and lodging and accompanying him some distance when he departs. Thousands of years have passed, but this code of etiquette remains little changed from the ancient scriptures.
In the Manu Dharma Shastras, for example, the host is directed thus: “All the food shall be very hot, and the guests shall eat in silence. Having addressed them with the question: ‘Have you dined well?’ let him give them water to sip, and bid farewell to them with the words: ‘Now rest.’” K.T. Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion points out that guests had an honored rank in Vedic society and, after being ceremoniously received, were offered the ambrosial beverage, madhuparka, consisting of ghee, curd, milk, honey and sugar.
According to the Dharma Shastras, hosting guests is one of the five obligatory sacrifices or duties of the householder. Anusasana states, “The host should give his eye, mind and agreeable speech to the guest, he should personally attend on him and should accompany him when he (the guest) departs; this sacrifice (yajna) demands these five fees.”
The visit of a holy person is given extra special attention, and for good reason. Vriddha Harita Dharma Shastra says that if a brahmachari ascetic stays as a guest in a householder’s home for a single night, the latter’s accumulated sins are destroyed, and when such an ascetic takes food at a man’s house, it is Vishnu Himself who is fed.
Common Sense: It should be clearly stated that Hindu hospitality does not extend to being careless with the safety of one’s family and home. Even Krishna’s guards kept Sudama—a brahmin at that—outside the gates. When HINDUISM TODAY’S founder, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Gurudeva), was in Sri Lanka as a young man, he experienced wonderful hospitality across the island from all the communities. Part of the time he stayed in the traditional Tamil village of Alaveddy at the home of Kandiah Chettiar, one of his teachers, receiving instructions on, among other things, the hosting of guests. One day, Chettiar had given food to a suspicious-looking man at the gate, rather than inviting him to the porch of the house. When the young Gurudeva asked why he didn’t invite the man in, Chettiar replied, with characteristic frankness, “Because he would steal everything in the house.” The Dharma Shastras discuss at some length the issue of unworthy or even dangerous guests, yet advising that, no matter what the circumstances, the visitor should at least receive food.
Village Traditions: Sheela Venkatakrishnan of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, told HINDUISM TODAY, “You offer your guest the same love and respect that you would offer to God. Simple! A striking example of hospitality is when the whole town of Kumbakonam, where my father hails from, turns host during the week of the Mahamaham.” Thousands upon thousands of people come for the holy bath in the tank of the Kumbareswaran temple, and every home opens its doors to accommodate and feed all who reach its doorstep. No one is turned away.
Honing the Art of Hosting
HOSTING IS MORE AN ATTITUDE than a set of practices. The perfect host is truly open to guests and honestly delighted with their presence. That said, here are some specifics to keep your hosting up to par.
Welcome: Greet the guest with namaskara, invite him cheerfully into the house. Invite him to sit comfortably in the best surroundings. Speak pleasantly to him, inquiring about his welfare.
Refreshments: Always offer the guest something to eat and drink. Usually tea or juice is served, along with snacks. At least a glass of water is offered (with a smile and apology).
Hosting: Guests who are members of the extended family will just fit in to the family routine. When a bit more formality is called for, the father, if present, will speak with the guest. If not present, the mother and a son will fulfill this role, and if no son is present, the mother may act as hostess, but only with the accompaniment of someone close to the family. The children may go off to play among themselves, stay with the adults or come and go.
Wife Home Alone: If the lady of the house is home alone and a male visitor comes to see her husband, it is not proper for her to invite him in, or for him to expect to enter. Rather, he will leave a message and depart.
Punctuality: Life is generally more relaxed in the East than in the West. A good guideline is to not be surprised or offended if your guest arrives late or early. However, be punctual in your own engagements, as this is appreciated.
Duration of Stay: It is quite impolite to ask a guest how long he intends to stay, but it is good protocol for guests to make their plans and itinerary known from the outset.
Goodbyes: Always see your guest to his transport, and wave and watch until they are out of sight.
Sheela explained, “Houses in the villages and towns of Tamil Nadu usually have a fairly large platform just outside their front door, called a thinnai. This serves two purposes. One is temporary storage of grain during the harvest and also an airy place to sleep during the hot and humid summers. It is not unusual for a traveler to use this as a resting place. You could open your front door in the morning and find someone sleeping on your thinnai. This is where you would find the strangers during Mahamaham. Of course, family and friends would be accommodated inside the house. But everyone is fed, irrespective of caste. It is possible that in the morning there is one set of people, in the afternoon another and a totally different group at night. The meals served would be according to whatever time of day it is. Also, the bath area often has a separate access from outside the house.”
In her grandfather’s day, Sheela noted, it was the practice for the head of the household to stand at his doorstep at mealtime and ask loudly, not once but thrice, “Is there someone who needs to be fed?” Sometimes a traveler or a poor man would come in for food. It was only after the guest had been fed that family would eat—one of the explicit instructions in the Dharma Shastras. The Apastamba says, “He who eats before his guest eats destroys food, prosperity, progeny, cattle and the merit of his own house.”
Hospitality permeates Indian culture, both on a personal and institutional level. In Tamil Nadu, many of the bigger and older temples have the annadanam scheme—a daily free feeding. Recently, with the active patronage of the government, many more temples have revived this practice, where they feed a minimum of 100 people each day at noon. Muslim darghas have adopted this practice, while the Sikh gurudwaras have always followed it. Mention also has to be made of the Hyderabadi brand of hospitality that has few parallels. Made famous by the Muslim nawabs of Lucknow, those on the receiving end enjoyed courtesy, food, drink and congeniality—all served with an elegant world-class flourish. Every ethnic and religious subculture of India puts a premium on hospitality.
Little wonder, then, that in multicultural India these varied streams of hospitality have coalesced to produce a generous and warm people. Visitors to India come away with awed stories of the way they were embraced and included in every family celebration—in fact, made part of a larger, extended family. Often these relationships last over the years.
You cannot go to even the humblest home without being honored with food and Indian drink, as Janet Chawla found out some years back. Chawla, an American who married a Sikh and now lives in New Delhi, believes the charm of India is in the graciousness of its people, although it is getting less so in the big cities. She feels there is a grace, a way of sitting together, singing together at weddings. People in small villages, she says, really are very giving, sharing the little they have.
“In America, if we were sitting and working together, and I had a sandwich—I would open it and eat it alone. An Indian would never do that,” she says. “There is this kind of culturally prescribed sharing which I find very gracious.” Janet didn’t mention it, but some Westerners visiting India can find the level of hospitality discomfiting, especially the tradition of never leaving a guest alone. That impinges upon the Westerner’s desire for privacy and personal space—concepts absent from the Indian milieu.
Hospitality at Home: Hindu tradition lays great stress on the respect due to guests. The greatest hurt for a guest is the thought that the host or hostess does not enjoy one’s presence. Therefore, Hindus go out of their way to make each guest feel welcome. It is proper protocol to drop whatever one is doing, no matter how important, to entertain a visitor. One of the privileges of friendship in the East is being able to drop by any time without advance notice.
Mitesh Patel, whose family hails from Kathiawad region of Gujarat, says that in his hometown hospitality is extended to everyone: “When a guest comes to our house, we rarely let them go without offering a good meal. We don’t feel that guests are a burden, whether they are staying for few hours or few days, and offer them full assistance.”
He gives the example of his uncle who left the ancestral village 30 years ago to settle in the city of Rajkot. Three decades later, if anyone from the village comes for a medical checkup to the big hospital in the city, his uncle makes sure healthy, home-made meals go out to the patient every single day.
The level of hospitality depends upon several factors, the most obvious being family ties. Traditionally, any known or unknown member of one’s extended family—and the Hindu extended family includes not only blood relatives to several degrees removed, but also all the in-laws by marriage—is basically treated just like a member of the immediate family. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a student at the university to stay with distant relatives throughout his entire schooling.
Then there are friends, business acquaintances, people from the same village or state and so on, all of whom have some connection to the host. They, too, may be treated just like a member of the extended family, as Janet Chawla experienced, though commonly a bit more formally. We can see from Sheela’s description of her childhood village that the homes were designed to accommodate even total strangers in a convenient fashion.
The concept of hospitality extends to welcoming customers to business settings, where it certainly makes good sense. Go into a sari shop in crowded marketplaces and the owner will automatically offer you a soft drink in the heat. If you’re shopping for an expensive wedding trousseau, they are even more solicitous—offering coconut water, a snack and drinks from the market. I recall my father in his jewelry store not only offering soft drinks, paan in silver containers and candy, but also giving the kids who came to the shop small items as gifts.
Untouchables: Yet, one does have to admit that Hinduism’s glowing hospitality report card does have one very big black mark on it, something which the Gods probably did not ordain but which wily man has reinterpreted for his own gain—the treatment of the so-called lower castes. It is really quite inconceivable that a loving religion, which proclaims that God is in every living thing, would denigrate a whole class of human beings as untouchables.
The story of everyday village India is full of the low castes being turned away from village wells, being castigated for worshiping at the temple or merely for passing by the home of a brahmin. While things are improving in the big cities where caste and creed lose their importance in the great economic bazaar and where politicians see the lower castes as potential votes, the village scene remains woefully medieval. Buried in the back pages of newspapers are frequent stories of atrocities, which should shock us all from our complacency and our conceit of just how “hospitable” we may really be.
Loss of Tradition: In the larger hospitality picture, things seem to be changing for the worse as the time-honored extended family does battle with modernity. Dr. T. H. Chow dary of Hyderabad writes, “As people leave their villages and joint families break up and the educated move to flats in the cities, the old idea of hospitality is fast dying. In the villages and small towns in the past, in the evening when beggars came for food, whatever was left in the house would be given away. In those days of no refrigeration, food could not be kept. Now in the towns and cities, surplus is stored in refrigerators, which have thus come to be known as garibmar, the killers of the poor.
“Even when brothers and sisters and such near ones come, one silently wishes that they will stay in a hotel and, at best, they might come for a dinner or a breakfast,” he goes on. “What to speak of caring for the parents or relatives when the wife and husband have no time even to talk to one another! Or when the one-year-old child, the only child, is put in a day-care center so that both the wife and husband can earn enough to satisfy their ideas of modern comforts, including that refrigerator or new TV.
“What to speak of hospitality for friends and unknowns,” says Chowdary, “when the nuclear family of wife and husband are saying that the old father must stay with one son and the old mother with another son? They want to separate the old parents, considering them burdens to be shared by the sons.”
As Chowdary observes, with women joining the work force in large numbers, and time, effort and budgets stretched by modern life, the old-time hospitality is often compromised. Earlier, visitors could just drop in, but now hosts get agitated to find unexpected guests on the doorstep—a far cry from the hospitality of the village home’s thinnai.
Sheela Venkatakrishnan agrees: “In recent years, the trend has become, as Gurudeva said, ‘The women going out of their homes to work.’ Living in nuclear families, who is there to take care of the home, leave alone a guest? You tend to think twice about visiting a friend or relative, not wanting to impose or inconvenience them in any way.” Still, she points out that they have many relatives in joint families who welcome them with open arms. She herself lives in a joint family in Chennai where someone is always home: “The doors of our home and our hearts are open to God and all whom He chooses to send our way.”
The Diaspora Adjusts: The picture, however, is bleaker in the diaspora, where immigrants struggle with the beliefs they grew up with and the pressures of their new environment. Most manage to keep the hospitality intact for family and close friends. Some go to extraordinary lengths, sponsoring relatives and even opening up their homes to them till they get settled.
The Gujarati community is particularly strong in this respect, and many continue to live in large, extended families abroad. This sense of caring is extended to the entire community and, in fact, many Patels have managed to do so well in the motel business because of their unity and financial support of friends and relatives. No wonder the Gujaratis command a whopping portion of the motel industry. They are well-trained in the ways of hospitality, for as one of the successful hoteliers, H.P. Rama, affirms, “We Indians believe the guest is God.”
Mitesh Patel, who lives in Edison, New Jersey, came to the US when he was 15, so he has seen life on both continents. Now 24, he believes that Hindu hospitality has lessened in the US, Canada and the UK, but not in India: “I believe the reason is quite simple. NRIs are busy making big bucks in these countries. Sometimes even family members don’t see each other for a few days because they are busy working, so they feel that it’s hard to accommodate a guest.”
Indeed, living abroad, notions of hospitality do undergo a change. Also, abroad, one would never dream of dropping in on acquaintances without calling ahead. This is a culture where even children do not just play but have organized “play dates” scheduled out weeks in advance.
Indians living abroad do have to contend with housework, their jobs and the daily commute, all without the support of extended family or domestic helpers. So their standards of hospitality have diminished. Some compromise, putting guests in hotels or taking shortcuts in their care. Truly generous hospitality in any society or home depends on the strength, integrity and security of the family unit.
Changing Attitudes: Summer, especially, means an endless barrage of guests from India and points in the diaspora. Homes become as crowded as the Grand Central Terminal, and hosts are faced with a multitude of tasks. As one exhausted woman, whose house was full of summer guests, told me, “Houseguests are like fish: after three days, they stink.”
She didn’t know it, but this adage appeared in the 1736 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac by Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers. He said, precisely, “Fish and houseguests stink after three days.” The statement, and the attitude behind it, stand in stark contrast to the Hindu view of the guest as God. And it’s not just an American trait. Shakespeare wrote with a similar attitude in King Henry VI, Part I, “Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone.” In all fairness, there are many hospitable Americans and Britishers, but offering hospitality is not the religious obligation it is for Hindus. It is also relevant that, in the Hindu village, true strangers were served on the porch, or even at the compound gate, in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of the home.
While the pressures of life in the West are there for the hosts, to some extent their attitudes have also changed. The rhythms of the place where you live impact you. Leading frenetic lives in the West, people tend to become more brusque, more cynical. Like Franklin, they begin to regard the guest as an unwelcome nuisance. Standards of hospitality are indeed changing, and one wonders how far we should embrace modernization at the expense of true hospitality?
What to Do? Gurudeva once observed, “The guest is God, not an intruder. All Hindus have a heart to receive the guest as God. This is very important for us to remember, because guests come and guests go. Often, guests come and never come back, because of subtle inflections in the voice, because it was forgotten to serve even a glass of water, which is traditional in Hindu culture. The guest is God, not an intruder. When someone steps up to you, drop your work. People are more important than paper. People are more important than giving oneself to the computer. People are more important than anything else. People are the working out of your karma.”
Yes, it may help to remember an old Indian saying: Dane dane pe likha hai khane wale ka naam—“On each grain is written the name of the eater.” The people who turn up on your doorstep are meant to be there, part of your karma, part of the big cosmic play. Of course, it’s hard to see it quite that way when you are under stress at work and still have to produce dinner for your guests by 7:00 pm!
For Hindus caught in the modern world of hurry and scurry, it would be good to reaffirm their duty toward guests and to refresh their memories on how to be perfect hosts—and perfect guests. There is etiquette for both roles, and if each plays his part well, the whole experience can be rewarding.
Hosts should give of themselves with a generous and open heart, exerting every effort to make their visitors’ stay a memorable one, where the kindnesses and warmth are vast, even if the budget is tight. They should do all they can to entertain and help visitors in a new and bewildering place.
Guests should attempt to be considerate, informing their hosts of their length of stay in advance. They should pick up after themselves and not add to the harried hostess’ tasks. Bringing small gifts for the family members, entertaining the children or perhaps offering to take the family out to dinner are practical and appreciated gestures.
Hospitality is a virtue that has many benefits for the receiver and the giver, as these small kindnesses smooth social connections and build relations. It also shows the next generation the way to continue the beliefs of our ancestors. And of course, often the shoe is on the other foot—and the host himself becomes a guest. So he should treat his guests as he himself would like to be treated.
There are so many stories of God Vishnu himself donning beggar’s raiment and coming to the door for alms. So, the next time the doorbell rings, welcome your guests with an open heart. Look beyond the facial features, the clothing and the physical bodies into the eternal soul which glows within each of us like the purest of gold. This is the Self that scripture says is immortal, the one that water cannot wet, sword cannot cut nor fire burn. And so, bending low, with folded hands, welcome the divine Paramatma, the God who is within each of us.
Scripture Speaks About Hospitality
THE SOUTH INDIAN Ethical Masterpiece, Tirukural, composed in Tamil couplets by Saint Tiruvalluvar (ca 200 bce), devotes an entire chapter to hospitality. This sagely compendium of practical advice, called “a bible on virtue for the human race,” is so pithy, so profound and so sacred that it is sworn upon today in South Indian courts. Here now are verses 81 to 90.
The whole purpose of earning wealth and maintaining a home is to provide hospitality to guests.
When a guest is in the home, it is improper to hoard one’s meal, even if it happens to be the nectar of immortality.
If a man cares daily for those who come to him, his life will never suffer the grievous ruin of poverty.
Wealth’s Goddess dwells in the hospitable home of those who host guests with a smiling face.
If a man eats only after attending to guests’ needs, what further sowing will his fertile fields require?
The host who, caring for guests, watches hopefully for more, will himself be a welcomed guest of those whose home is Heaven.
Charity’s merit cannot be measured by gifts given. It is measured by measuring the receiver’s merits.
Those who never sacrifice to care for guests will later lament: “We hoarded wealth, estranged ourselves, now none will care for us.”
The poverty of poverties is having plenty yet shunning guests. Such senselessness is only found in senseless fools.
The delicate anicham flower withers when merely smelled, but an unwelcome look is enough to wither a guest’s heart.
(The author, Lavina Melwani, a popular free-lance correspondent, was born in Sindh, grew up in New Delhi and has lived in Hong Kong and Africa. She currently resides in New York with her husband and two children. T. H. Chowdary, Information Technology Advisor: Government of Andhra Pradesh, contributed to this article.)
Kedar Nath Das Gupta, Dharma’s Early Pioneer
An unsung hero of the Hindu renaissance, Kedar Nath Das Gupta raised the status of India and Hinduism in the eyes of the West
BY KUSUM PANT JOSHI, LONDON
ON DECEMBER 7, 1942, THE NEW YORK Times reported the death of Kedar Nath Das Gupta (1878-1942), a New Yorker whose cultural and interfaith activities were known on both sides of the Atlantic. An early force in the Hindu renaissance, he was directly linked to Indian leaders such as Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Today, in the space of less than 75 years, his name has vanished from public memory.
Beginnings in Bengal and London
Kedar Nath Das Gupta—or KNDG, as he was wont to abbreviate his name—hailed from Chittagong in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). As a youth he was deeply involved in the activism of Indian nationalism. To promote swaraj (national or self-rule) and swadeshi (indigenous goods made in India), he managed a swadeshi store in Calcutta, the Lakshmir Bhandar, that also sold goods made by impoverished Bengali widows. Through connections with Rabindranath Tagore, he became Secretary of Industrial Exhibits in Calcutta, where each year he showcased goods made in India. He also ran the powerful Bengali nationalist newspaper Bharati. Both enterprises were linked with progressive women from the Tagore family.
Emboldened by his stint as a political and social activist, he sailed to London in 1907 to further the sale of Indian goods and, following Gandhi’s example, to study English law. He enrolled as a law student in Lincoln’s Inn.
Before long, KNDG entered London’s theatrical world and set up a new organization, the Indian Art and Dramatic Society, which in 1912 he renamed as the Union of East and West. This shift into Britain’s cultural arena might seem puzzling; even today, ethnic arts in the UK struggle to find a place in the mainstream. But it was a wise move. British authorities were cracking down on Indian nationalist activism in the UK, especially after the 1909 murder of a high-ranking British official by an Indian militant. Yet, in the cultural sphere Britain’s perception of India was improving.
In early 1909 a band of eminent English writers and artists from diverse fields established the India Society, led by English artist William Rothenstein (a friend and admirer of Tagore) and his friend and copyist Lady Christiana Herringham. Its aim was to correct the negative Western projection and perception of India. As explained in a letter to the London Times of June 11, 1910, “The society desires to promote the study and appreciation of Indian culture, architecture and painting, as well as Indian literature and music. There is a vast unexplored field, the investigation of which will bring about better understanding of Indian ideals and aspirations.”
The time was ripe for KNDG to make a move. In a later interview he explained, “First of all I joined my countrymen in the fight for svaraj, or self-rule. We saw we couldn’t get rid of British rule until we got rid of our economic slavery. So, in 1902 we strove for svadeshi, or home industry. I even sailed to London to establish a market for our goods. But I was young and inexperienced. The big British capitalists soon killed my little business. I began to give lectures on India and present our classic dramas. Here was a chance for me to help India. So I founded my Indian Art and Drama Society. I laid down the rule that all controversy, whether political or religious, must be avoided.”
KNDG was the top impressario for Indian drama in the UK from 1912 to 1920. His English adaptations of classical Sanskrit plays opened Britain’s eyes to India’s ancient dramatic treasures and the profundity of its culture. In 1913 William Rothenstein wrote to Tagore in India, “The irrepressible Das Gupta is putting on Sakuntala at the Royal Albert Hall!” That play, written by Kalidasa, India’s foremost Sanskrit dramatist and poet, ran five times that year. During this eight-year period, KNDG put on 12 major productions, including pieces by Tagore, thus helping move his friend’s work into the limelight.
His most ambitious project, one that demonstrated his uncanny ability to build multicultural collaboration, was his 1919 production of Sakuntala at London’s Winter Garden Theatre. Its cast comprised a galaxy of artists whose names read like a Who’s Who of the early 1900s. The producer was British actor and theatre director Lewis (later Sir Lewis) Casson. The title role was played by Casson’s talented wife, Sybil (later Dame Sybil) Thorndike. The male protagonist, Raja Dushyanta, was played by Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Wontner, who would later immortalize himself by his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in English films of the 1930s. KNDG himself wrote the English adaptation of Shakuntala, then had it checked and finalized by Laurence Binyon, an Oxford-educated poet and oriental art expert and scholar.
Even today it would be a prodigious challenge and achievement to bring together and work successfully with such a powerful and diverse team. It is all the more amazing, then, that KNDG accomplished this feat in the early 1900s, in the heart of the proud and mighty British Empire, as an immigrant from a mere colony!
On to America
KNDG’s heart and mind remained fixed on higher goals than theatrical arts. On the last page of his adaptation of Sakuntala, he wrote, “The main object of the Union of East and West is to establish a meeting for the East and West in the field of Art, Philosophy, Literature, Music and the Drama.” He exhorted Britons to join non-Westerners in peacetime pursuits, just as India had joined England to fight the First World War: “The East has met the West on the field of Battle; will you meet us on the field of art, literature, philosophy, and drama, by joining the Society?”
After eight remarkable years of success in London, KNDG suddenly left the UK. He later recounted, “In 1920, I met Tagore in London. He told me America was wonderful and urged me to go there with him. I scraped up all my money and went.”
The America of the “Roaring 20s” was characterized by affluence, rampant consumerism, urban transformation, social ferment and the vigorous questioning of values. This provided an ideal atmosphere for KNDG’s creative activities. Wasting no time, he rented New York’s Garrick Theatre. By December 1920, within one year of his arrival, the New York Times reported that he had staged two Tagore plays at the Garrick: Sacrifice, considered Tagore’s finest play, and The Post Office.
From Stage to Interfaith
In 1924 KNDG met American social worker Charles Frederick Weller, of New Jersey’s League of Neighborhood, in 1924. Having witnessed the ravages of the World War I, both men were determined to build consciousness of the unity of all human beings irrespective of their race, ethnicity, nationality, background, faith, color or any other differences that seemed to divide them. The two men developed a fruitful partnership, and KNDG metamorphosed once again, becoming an advocate of theater as a tool to spread ancient India’s message of universalism and the brotherhood of man. KNDG wrote, “Weller and I decided to join our two movements and also create a third—the Fellowship of Faiths—based on a principle too seldom put into practice, the principle of appreciation. Brotherhood is more than mere peace or tolerance, and in my opinion it can be encouraged best by art, by sacred songs, dancers and the drama.”
They named their new initiative the Threefold Movement. It amalgamated KNDG’s Union of East and West, Weller’s League of Neighborhood and their newly founded Fellowship of Faiths. Organized systematically on a democratic basis, its membership encompassed people from all the major faiths and from diverse backgrounds. Well-known members included Theosophist Annie Besant, Spiritualist and writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, philosopher and psychologist Professor John Dewey and royals like the Maharajas of Baroda and Burdwan.
Headquartered in New York under KNDG and Mr. and Mrs. Weller, the Movement had representatives or “Committees of One Hundred” in fourteen cities of nine countries, spread over three continents. According to a contemporary description, “In four years, meetings have been held on an average of about one a day, with a total of about 100,000 participants. These include select dinners, mass meetings, festivals, lectures…”
The Movement published newspaper articles, magazines like Appreciation and Calamus and books like The Fellowship of Faiths. They read and staged Oriental plays, held exhibitions of Eastern arts, crafts and music, organized an annual “Peace Week” and did practical social work. They held events where people came together to learn of each other’s faith, pray and worship in various ways and realize the commonalities that united them. In his book Hinduism Invades America (1930), Dr. Wendell Thomas writes, “Perhaps the most impressive form of cultural Hinduism in America at present is the Threefold Movement.”
World Congress of Faiths
In 1933, KNDG and Weller organized a World Congress of Faiths (WCF) in Chicago and New York, coinciding with Chicago’s World Fair and echoing the First World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda had electrified Western audiences with his powerful addresses on Hinduism.
KNDG described the aim of the WCF: “Building bridges of understanding across the chasms of prejudice; enabling mankind to realize a united and fraternal world life; seeking a new spiritual consciousness competent to master and reform the world; cultivating appreciation between people of all creeds, classes, colors and convictions; uniting the inspiration of all faiths for the solution of such world problems as war, persecution, prejudice, super-nationalism, economic conditions, ignorance, intolerance, hatred, fear; helping men and women to develop their own character by broader and inner culture.”
The WCF was a huge success. Over 80 meetings were attended by 44,000 people; and a National Committee of 300 members was established. Bishop McConnell, one of the top officers, claimed that the 1933 event was “an advance” on the 1893 Parliament. “The first difference is that instead of a comparative parade of rival religions, all faiths are challenged to manifest or apply their religion by helping to solve the urgent problems which impede man’s progress. The second difference is that the word faiths is understood to include, not only all religions, but all types of spiritual consciousness or convictions which are determining the actual lives of significant groups of people. Educational, philanthropic, social, economic, national and political ‘faiths’ are thus included.”
The London WCF, 1936
A second WCF was held in 1936 at University College, London. Organized by Colonel Francis Younghusband, who had attended the 1933 WCF and was encouraged by KNDG. It drew eminent religious scholars from all over the world, including Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Professor Mahendranath Sircar and Professor S. N. Das Gupta on Hinduism, Sir Abdul Qadir and Salim Yusuf Ali on Islam, Professor Malasekara from Sri Lanka on Buddhism, Professor Nicolas Berdiaeff on Christianity and Dr. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, The London Congress saw limited success, as few actual religious leaders chose to attend. Undaunted, however, the organizers held several more conferences—at Oxford (1937), Cambridge (1938) and Paris (1939).
A Trail-Blazer to Emulate
The interfaith initiative sparked by Kedar Nath Das Gupta has yet to gather force and blaze forth in its potential glory as a powerful international movement, but the story of KNDG’s remarkable life and achievements must be resuscitated. This indefatigable soul, on fire with the Hindu ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the universe is one big family), provided an example that has the power to inspire generations to come.
(Kusum Pant Joshi, 60, is a social historian, writer and editor. She is chief researcher for the South Asian Cinema Foundation, London.)
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
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