Guest Is God: Hospitality of a Hindu Saint

Guest Is God: The Hospitality of a Hindu Saint

The story of a holy woman who sacrificed her life’s dream–and her
dying wish–in order to serve the poor.

By Doug Glener and Sarat Komaragiri

Considered a saint during her own life, Dokka Sitamma (1841-1909
C.E.) spent years feeding the poor and sick in her Indian village.
After her death, the holy woman was lauded throughout India as “Apara
Annapurna”— an incarnation of the goddess Annapurna.

Excerpted from Wisdom’s Blossoms: Tales of the Saints of India with
permission of Shambhala Publications.

Everyone in Andhra Pradesh knew Dokka Sitamma, and everyone had an
opinion about the elderly widow.

To the superstitious, Sitamma was an omen of bad luck because she,
like all widows, was responsible for the death of her husband. To
those blinded by caste and custom, she was an impudent old woman for
refusing to remain confined to her house as a Brahmin widow should.
But to the destitute and the devout, Sitamma was mercy personified,
for she unfailingly fed the hungry.

With no children of her own to care for, and a heart overflowing with
motherly love, Sitamma adopted the poor as her sons and
daughters. “This illiterate moron is doing great harm by inviting
those of a lower station into her home,” sniffed the orthodox
Brahmins, and when their condemnation failed to deter her, they took
to humiliating her. Though the calumnies and threats and loneliness
stung her, in the end they were little to one whose heart sung of
compassion and love.

“Come in! Come in! I have just finished cooking and was hoping that
you would join me for dinner tonight.” Sitamma would quickly say this
to those who came to her in need, thus sparing them the humiliation
of having to beg for food.

Because of the chicanery of some unscrupulous neighbors who despised
her ministry and prized her fertile fields, she found her large
holdings reduced year after year until she was left with a small plot
of land. A famine came and still Sitamma never turned away those in
need, somehow managing to make her shrinking supplies feed a growing
stream of hungry souls. And even when she had little to eat, she
remained grateful for the opportunity to serve, for it gave her joy
and feeding the poor was her chosen path to salvation.

One night after working in the kitchen for many hours, Sitamma
thought: `I have served four decades and now my body has become worn
out. I am nearing the end of my life. It is time for me to go to
Varanasi. There I may pass away in peace with the Lord’s name on my

For the last few years, Sitamma had dreamed of going to the holy
city, for to die there was to be assured of liberation. Every time
she set out, however, a desperate arrival or a traveling pilgrim
prevented her from leaving. So she would return to her cooking and
chanting, putting aside the only desire she had for herself, a desire
that daily grew more powerful. But tonight she knew that the hours of
her life were few and that only a handful of tomorrows remained

When morning came, Sitamma gave away her last few possessions so as
to bring her charitable works to a close. She hired a bullock cart
for the first leg of her journey and set out for Varanasi. Though
every rut and rock in the road jarred her old bones, and the sun was
unmercifully hot, Sitamma was filled with a happiness that increased
with each passing mile, for every turn of the bullock carts’ wheels
brought her nearer to the end of her earthly sojourn.

At eventide, Sitamma and the bullock-cart driver took shelter in a
free roadside inn for traveling pilgrims. The hard day of travel
weighed on her and she wearily lay down on a bed of rags. As she
began to fall asleep, she was awakened by the cries of young children
in the next room.

“I know that you haven’t eaten today, but we don’t have any food to
give you, my love,” she heard a father’s voice consoling his

“Can’t you ask for some? I’m hungry and my stomach hurts.”

“It’s not fit for us to beg. It would be better to starve. But don’t
worry. Tomorrow we will go to the home of Sitamma. She never sends
away those who are hungry.”

“Why is Sitamma the only one we can ask?”

“Because she treats her guests with respect and never expects
anything in return for her charity.”

Once the family had fallen asleep, Sitamma began to stir. “Get up,
get up!” she whispered to the snoring cart driver. “We must leave
right away!”

“What is the rush? If you have waited for 40 years to go Varanasi,
you can surely wait one more day,” the driver sleepily said. “We
can’t travel at night anyway. The road is filled with bandits and
wild animals.”

“I cannot wait.” Sitamma firmly replied.

“Grandmother, do you want to die in a ditch tonight or die in
Varanasi in a week?”

“Get up this instant! I have paid you to drive me and we are
leaving!” And with that, the two travelers stole into the night.

With the first rays of dawn, the starving family awoke and set out
eagerly in the direction of Sitamma’s village, unaware that the one
they were looking for had been lying but a few feet away.

The family traveled the same rough and wild road as Sitamma, the
whole way the children crying from hunger, their mother and father
struggling to soothe them despite their own wretched condition. By
evening they reached Sitamma’s village and after a few inquiries
found the dirt path that led to her home.

Seeing the darkened little house, the father despaired: `Is that a
candle light in the window or is it the reflection of the moon? Do I
hear the clanging of a pot or is that the sound of a cowbell?’

The mother feared, `She’s not home. If she is, will she receive us?
Have we come all this way for my children to die of hunger.’

Before the father could knock on the door and end the family’s
suspense, it swung open. The fragrant smell of dal and rice greeted

“Come in! Come in! I have just finished cooking and was hoping that
you would join me tonight,” Sitamma cheerfully said.

If they had not tried to conceal their tears of gratitude, the family
might have observed that Sitamma’s sari was frayed and sullied from
the dust of the road. If they were not so fatigued, the family might
have noticed that Sitamma was trembling with exhaustion from having
spent the night being bounced and bruised in the bullock cart and
then having to cook this meal. If they were not so hungry, the family
might have seen that Sitamma’s cupboard and garden were bare, and
that she had taken the shame of begging upon herself from her
neighbors so that they could eat.

Sitamma did not die in Varanasi. It was reported, however, that upon
her death, a great light burst forth from the roof of her house and
shot up into the heavens.

One reader responds:

7/12/03 1:18:46 PM

It is more compassionate to let the poor starve to death rather than
feed them. Otherwise, they will spawn more “copies” of themselves who
will more likely than not bask in the light of poverty themselves,
the chain continues (they spawn poor children), etc. In the long run,
you will be lessening the total misery on Earth to a far greater

The above is not true if you do not believe that poor/starving people
are miserable. But if you believe that they are happy and content,
then there is no reason for you to try and help them in the first
place! So you are caught, I have you. This charity business is not
real compassion. This logic is unassailable. If you operate on the
plane of superiority/inferiority, you must always come back to this
Beliefnet post of mine in your head.

The other option is to break your attachment to money, which no one
can do. Then you would be worthy of some respect. You will all run to
Shop-Rite gleefully with coupons galore in hand.

A second reader comments:

These days most People will only give if they get…a tax receipt or
a favor.

True giving (charity/love) is when you give something before one
needs to ask, for you can see a need, and it is still given
cheerfully with love from your heart, with no expectation of ever
seeing a return for your giving. To be blessed, your gift causes you
suffering, and you do it silently and cheerfully. Peace!

A third reader remarks:

It’s haunting that someone could give so much compassion in a time
when prejudice and caste-bias was so rampant.

I had never heard her story before, but to say the least, I am in
awe. A Brahmin woman who helped so many people (and even took to
begging), despite what other members of society thought—that’s
truly a work of God. I have tried to help the poor in many endeavors,
and I hope that Sitamma is watching over me.



In antiquity children read and memorized Homer’s epics because they
showed patterns and standards of behavior citizens were expected to
emulate. Among these was the all-important ethic of hospitality.
Today, if we’re wise, we don’t open our bolted doors to strangers
without proof of identity, we fear hitch-hikers, and we expect
visitors to bring a dish or bottle of wine when they come for a
visit. Rules of etiquette require us to make our guests feel at home,
but not to make people we don’t know our guests.

Strangers are the bogey-men we warn our children about. This hasn’t
always been the case.

Before the advent of coins, credit cards, Motel 6, and McDonalds,
hospitality to strangers saved lives. And it had its rules, the most
infamous breakers of which are, of course, Penelope’s suitors.

The miracle is this: The more you share, The more you have. —
Leonard Nimoy

Today, I think we are confused about the true definition of morality.
To the ancient Greeks, one of the most sacrosanct of these codes of
morality, that is, codes of how to live with one another, had to do
with extending hospitality to everyone, including strangers and
travelers. It was considered one of the greatest insults to the gods
to not extend hospitality to someone in need of shelter and a meal.

If one of our younger relatives was to announce he was going out
traveling to see the world and didn’t have much, or need much money,
but intended on relying, rather, on hospitality of people along the
way, our normal reaction would be to say that he was crazy, to deride
him, and do everything possible to stop or impede him from such an

But it was not always like this. There is a story from Greek
mythology of Philemon and Baucis.

Back in the days when the gods walked upon the earth, the gods would
occasionally come down from their mountain residences to check on
their earthly holdings. One day, Zeus, god of the gods, heard that in
a certain Greek town, bad things were happening. So he and his son,
Hermes, the messenger of the gods, decided to go take a look for
themselves. Dressed as common travelers, they took all day to walk to
this particular town. Hungry and tired after the day’s travel and
getting toward nightfall, they knocked on the door of the first house
they heard voices coming from. But as soon as they knocked at the
door, the voices stopped, and no one came to the door. The next door
down there were lights on and a party going on the second floor.
Again they knocked, and again no one answered. Knocking again,
finally someone looked out from the second floor window and, not
recognizing the men, told them to go away. And so they went, each
knocking at all the doors in town, and always the response was the
same – either no one would come to the door, or they were told to go

Coming to the edge of town there was a small shack, and when the
elderly couple who were its inhabitants heard the strangers walking,
came out to greet them. Seeing the two men were travelers, the couple
asked if they needed a place to stay the night. The couple had little
in the way of worldly possessions, little to share and the shack was
small, but the two men readily accepted.

The travelers asked if there was anything to drink, and the wife
brought out their only carafe of milk and poured glasses for them.
When they finished drinking they asked for more, and she was afraid
that there was not much left in the carafe, but when she went to pour
more, it was full again. They offered the men their own and only bed
and the couple slept on blankets on the floor in front of the

The next morning the strangers awoke ravenous, and the couple shared
what they had, a bunch of grapes from their grapevine, milk and part
of a loaf of bread. Each time the men asked for more, Baucis worried
that there would not be enough to feed them, but every time she went
back to refill the plates, there was always food there. And they all
commented on how delicious the food was – the milk had never tasted
so sweet, nor the grapes. The bread was fresh and wonderful.

Finally, after awhile and getting ready to resume their journey, the
two men asked if they could have some meat for a meal, as they had
much walking to do. The couple had only one goose and Baucis went out
to fetch it. While she was gone, Zeus remained at the shack and
Hermes took the Philemon to the front yard. There Hermes asked him to
look back at the village. There, where once was the town, now was a
beautiful lake. And when the wife returned carrying the goose, in
place of the their shack was a small temple – dedicated of course to
Zeus. And the two men revealed their identities and thanked the
couple for their generosity and hospitality, and asked if there was
anything they could do for them in return.

The husband replied, asking only that they be allowed to be the
caretakers of the temple, to which the gods had graciously hoped they
would. And also, since they had no one other than the two of them,
when the time came for one to die, that they both die together. This,
too, was granted by the gods.

For years the couple would extend the same hospitality they always
had to whoever passed by. And one day, when their days were no longer
so good, they walked hand in hand to front of the temple, looking
over the lake and reflecting on how fortunate they had been, the two
were transformed into two great oak trees, with branches intertwined.

For centuries after, travelers would hear the legend of the first
caretakers of this temple and left boughs and wreaths on the branches
of the trees in tribute to them.

The Mayans of present day Guatemala, have no word for door; they only
have one for a doorway “chijay”, which means “mouth of the house”. It
is a passageway to bring people into the home; the only purpose for a
home was to share it with not only family and friends but also
strangers and travelers when needed. A passageway is an opening and
an invitation into;while a door is a closing off from the other side,
it is intended to keep the outside out.

To the Bedouins of the Middle East and many other desert cultures,
hospitality was automatic; without thought. It was unthinkable to not
extend hospitality to a stranger passing by.

Today, the limit of our hospitality, outside of family and friends,
is a hotel.

We have doors with locks, and we protect our material goods,
extending hospitality only to family and friends – but what have we
lost in the process?

While we talk about “security,” what has the real cost been to our

I do not know, but I wonder, has modern civilization really
progressed – or have we regressed?

Entertaining Angels Unawares

Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain
strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels
without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their
fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves
were suffering.
Hebrews 13:1-3

Hebrews 13:2 tells us, “For by so doing,” that is, by giving
hospitality, “some people have entertained angels without knowing
it.” The writer may have been reflecting on the story of Abraham
which we find in Genesis 18. There we read, “The Lord appeared to
Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the
entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and
saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the
entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He
said, `If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your
servant by. Let a little water be brought and then you may all wash
your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat,
so you can be refreshed and then go on your way–now that you have
come to your servant'” (Gen. 18:1-5).

Notice, we do not see the angels knocking at the door of Abraham’s
tent. Here Abraham is taking the initiative, going to these
strangers, and saying, “Please come and be refreshed. Be my guests.”
Abraham is showing hospitality to these three men.

Who were these three men? Two were angels, but one was the Lord
himself. And as a result of entertaining these three men, Abraham and
his wife received a great blessing–their son Isaac.

We see the same type of thing in Genesis 19 when two angels went to
Sodom. In Genesis 19:1-3 we read, “The two angels arrived at Sodom in
the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he
saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the
ground. `My lords,’ he said, `please turn aside to your servant’s
house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your
way early in the morning.’ `No,’ they answered, `we will spend the
night in the square.’ But he insisted so strongly that they did go
with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking
bread without yeast, and they ate.”

Here again we notice that Lot took the initiative to meet with these
two men and show hospitality to them. As a result, Lot also received
a blessing: he and his household were delivered from the destruction
of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Malachi prophesied to Israel that Elijah would come before the
Messiah and before the “great and terrible day of the LORD” (Mal.
3.1, Mal. 4.5-6). The Jewish scriptures ended with this prophecy.
Every Jewish family that celebrates the Passover seder provides an
empty chair at the table. The empty chair is for Elijah as serves as
an invitation for him to return.

Matthew quoted Isaiah (Matt. 3.1-3; cf. Is. 40.3) and applied his
prophesy to John the Baptizer. According to Luke’s account, the
angel prophesied to Zacharias (Lk. 1.13-17) of John’s birth that he
would come in the spirit and power of Elijah.

The Empty Chair

Once we used to leave an empty seat for Eliyahu Hanavi, for Elijah
Prophet, at the Seder table. Tradition tells us that Elijah will come
on Pesach to herald the coming of the Messiah. So we set a place for
him and pour out a cup of wine, in case this year he comes. Over the
years there are many traditions that have evolved regarding an empty
chair at the Passover Seder table.

Do you remember Seder night over 50 years ago? We had empty seats at
our family Seders after the Nazi Holocaust.

Do you remember Seder night 20 years ago? We had empty seats in our
homes for a Jew in Soviet Russia.

Do you remember Seder night 15 years ago? We had empty seats in our
home for a Jew in Iraq or Iran.

This year, a high percentage of young Jews are being lost to apathy
and assimilation. Shouldn’t we still leave empty seats at our Seder

Please take a moment at your family Seder to join in this prayer,
written by Rabbi Naftali Schiff.

The Light in the Window

Rev. J. Vance Eastridge, 1998

This year we added a ‘tradition’. Traditions aren’t begun, traditions
become such by repetition over a period of time. But, in this
instance, it ‘started’ as a tradition because it visually represented
what was in our hearts all the while. After the lights were hung on
the ‘great tree’, the garland was strung, and the windows decorated,
we placed the candles in the windows. The candles were on electrical
timers that turned them on at dusk and turned them off at midnight.
Each year everything as planned has been carried out. This year,
however, a glitch occurred. The candle in the guest bedroom window
would not turn off with the timer. We replaced the timer with
another. That timer was defective. Yesterday I replaced a third timer
to that candle.

It came on at dusk as expected. This morning, however, at five
o’clock when I went to the gateway to the street to pick up the
morning paper, I discovered, on walking back, that although all the
other windows were dark, the candle in the guest bedroom was still
burning. Immediately, a revelation came to me. That is how it should
be. We should be leaving a candle burning in the guest bedroom window
to guide and welcome the Christ child into our home. And so, at the
breakfast table I announced that a new tradition has been born.
Whenever the Christmas season begins with Advent and the decorations
go up, the candle in the guest bedroom will be lighted and will not
be extinguished until Twelfthnight when the Christ child is at home
in the world. The candle is burning now!

In the Jewish heritage of our Christian faith, there is a custom that
is relevant to this. At Passover, an empty chair is placed at the
table bearing the Seder meal around which the family gathers. The
empty chair is left for Elijah should he come. The entry door of the
house is left ajar for Elijah to pass through to his place at the
table. The expectation of Elijah is central to the celebration
because it was believed that when the Messiah came, Elijah would
return to lead him into the world. It was in the fulfillment of that
prophecy that the apostles and early Christian saw John the Baptist
as Elijah announcing the Messiah, as, in truth, he did by the Jordan
River on that afternoon of Jesus’ baptism, beginning his messianic

So, symbolic of Jesus’ coming into the world that first Christmas
with no room at the inn and a forced hospitality in a cattle stall,
there is a candle in our window, burning in the darkness, to lead the
Christ child to a place of welcome and warm hospitality. Our guest
room is ready, and the candle burns in the window….


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