The Upanishads, Manusmriti, Ramayana and Mahabharta provide answer to the questions, ‘Who is a guest?’ and ‘How should he be treated?’ The term for ‘guest’ in Sanskrit is ‘atithi’ — one who visits your place without prior notice.
The Taittriya Upanishad, commands, “Do not turn away anyone who comes seeking your hospitality”.
It enjoins that the atithi be treated as god at par with one’s mother, ancestors and teacher.
This command is explained in the Mahabharta by Lord Krishna: “Finding an old person, a child, a tired traveller or a vulnerable one at the door, a householder should offer him worshipful hospitality, with the same exuberance in his heart, as he would to his own teacher”.
According to the Mahabharta, “The one who appears at the door at the proper time, even if he were an outcaste or such a one as partakes of the flesh of dog, deserves to be worshipped with the offering of food”. However, Manusmriti goes a step further. It does not make a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate time of the guest’s arrival. It commands that irrespective of the time of arrival, be it suppertime or otherwise, the needs of the guest must be attended to.
Without bearing any displeasure, the host should treat the guest with grace and courtesy. The guest, according to Manusmriti, should be “offered a seat and water, as well as food according to the host's ability”. According to the Ramayana, “food should be offered with all the ceremony and honour. In addition, the guest may be provided a “place for resting and greeted with kind words”. If the host is unable to offer food, he should at least provide him with “a stretch of earth to lie down, a bed of straw, a bowl of water, and pleasing speech” says Manusmriti.
This deep concern for the guest in the Indian tradition is there because at the transcendental level, the host and the guest are identical. The host sees his own self in the guest.