I have grown up in a Hindu family where religion is not strictly practiced. However, I learned many Hindu epics and traditions when my parents were giving me advice, because each epic has a moral. Hospitality consistently plays a role in Hinduism across epics. The stranger’s needs are always placed above the host’s. Yet, since elementary school, I have also been taught about “stranger danger” and told to avoid talking to strangers. Reconciling these views is not always easy, but a story from the Ramayana has helped me join the ideal with the practical.
Because the Ramayana is one of the two most valued stories in Hinduism, it has been a must-know since I was a kid. The Ramayana is the Hindu epic of Prince Rama, his brother, Lakshmana, and his wife, Sita, who have been banished from their kingdom for 14 years. One day in the forest, the demon Ravana attempts to kidnap Sita. He approaches her first in the guise of a golden deer, which attracts her. Lakshmana, guarding Sita from the suspicious deer, draws a magical circle around her hut.
“Stay inside the circle and you will be safe!” Lakshmana tells Sita.
Then the demon Ravana, disguised as a beggar, approaches Sita in the hut. Sita, who knows it is her duty to feed strangers and the poor, offers the man fruit. He asks her to come out of the hut because he is not allowed to enter her home. Hesitantly, she steps out — and is kidnapped by Ravana.
Why does Sita step out of the hut if she knows it is dangerous outside?
She has always helped old men and strangers because that is the custom. She can’t let the beggar walk away without help, and therefore pushes herself to leave the safety of her circle.
Sita’s actions in some way reflect the belief that there is a divine soul in every being. One should treat a stranger in the same way one would treat a god, because metaphorically, the stranger is god. The Sanskrit (Hindu liturgical language) word for guest is athithi. The basic translation means, “without time.” Or, “one who has no fixed day for coming.” Atithi devo bhava is a Hindu saying which means, “the guest is equivalent to god.” This is a Hindu ideal.
"Sita’s actions in some way reflect the belief that there is a divine soul in every being."
My family also identifies as Buddhist, where the ideal is similar. Buddhists believe that every person experiences infinite rebirths. A stranger could have been one’s mother — who should be respected above all others — at some point in her lives. Therefore, every stranger should be respected as if she were one’s mother. This ideal often reaps benefits in everyday life — my family has seen much kindness from strangers, from people who helped us with directions to those who have welcomed us into their homes and communities.
However, Sita’s experience with the demon-in-disguise shows us that strangers are not always good people. Many of us have grown up in environments where strangers can sometimes be dangerous.
When my parents first moved to America, their experiences with strangers were not always positive. A taxi driver once threatened to do something to my baby sister if she didn’t stop crying. A beggar once chased down my mom, demanding more than she had given him. I commute by train back from school every day, and normally feel nervous when I’m around stereotypically suspicious people — those with tattoos, weird smiles, bad smells.
My understanding is that we should take into account the Hindu belief of respecting strangers, but also be practical when facing them. The story from the Ramayana may not have been designed to emphasize the stranger-as-god ideal, but to explain that strangers shouldn’t only be viewed and treated as your religion stresses: your common sense should also factor in!
Perhaps we are to learn from Sita unthinkingly — or unconditionally — stepping out of the magical circle to help a stranger. Treating strangers like god is an ideal, but we should temper this with practical wisdom. A stranger who is a new neighbor is different from a stranger that I see on a New York City subway. We should treat both with respect, but our particular actions towards them should vary.
Vanita Sharma is a 9th grader in Ridgewood, New Jersey. In her free time she enjoys playing tennis, writing short stories, and reading fiction. She is interested in astronomy and plans to watch the next lunar eclipse.
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