on the day of Maha Sivarathri.
While non-Saivaites (I’m) may see it in the light of the god/entity/principle they may revere, the secular may see aspects of sharing with/serving others.
Here we go:
(lightly edited for readability from here)
After some time Swamigal started talking:
“Let me tell you about an incident that happened in 1938 or 1939….you’ll understand the greatness of athithi bhojanam…On the western side of Mahaamaha kulam (water tank) there was this large house of Kumaresan Chettiar. I remember his wife’s name was Sivakami Aachi. They did not have children. They brought in a young Chettiar boy to help them out in the chores and manage the shop. Chettiar and his wife were about 50 years old, engaging themselves as often as they could in Siva nama smarana (chanting ‘Siva, Siva, Siva’).
Every day his wife and he went by a bullock-cart to do snanam (bathe) in Cauvery. They would proceed to Sri Matam to do namaskaaram. For several years this couple were doing athithi bhojanam (feeding guests, a highly regarded ancient practice) (2). Don’t be surprised. Every afternoon they would feed any number of Siva bhakta’s coming to their house. Outside the house they received them, wash their feet, wipe them with a towel, apply sandalwood paste and kumkumam (1) and then escort them into the house. Sivakami Aachi would ask the athithi’s their likes, buy those vegetables, provisions and herself cook food of their choice. You must be wondering how I came to know of these details. It’s all from Sundaram Iyer, a staunch follower of Kanchi Mutt, managing the accounts of Kumaresan Chettiar.”
Swamigal paused for a while and continued:
“One day it rained heavily. Lunch time, still no athithi yet. Carrying an umbrella, Chettiar went around the kulam in search. In a small mandapam (3) he saw a Sivanadiar (a Siva bhakta) sitting on its steps after bath. Chettiar invited him to his house for bhojanam. The devotee, a scholar, obliged, singing verses from Thevaram (4) on the way. After washing his feet, he was respectfully conducted inside the house. Chettiar’s wife did namaskaaram to the athithi and asked:
“Swami, what vegetables do you like? Please do tell me so I may procure and cook the same.”
The Sivanadiar seemed quite hungry. He went to the backyard and saw plenty of mulai-keerai (a kind of spinach) patches. He told Mrs. Chettiar he would be happy with keerai kuutu (a gravy preparation) and keerai thandu sambar (a thick lentil soup with spinach stems tossed in). Accordingly Chettiar carried a basket to the backyard and pulled out enough keerai. Sivanadiar too joined him with another basket. All noticed by Sivakami Aachi.
Aachi washed both bunches of keerai separately and began cooking them in two separate aduppu’s (stoves). Sivanadiar wondered why Aachi was cooking same keerai in two different vessels. Once cooked, Aachi took the keerai plucked by Sivanadiar and offered to God as naivedhyam (5). Sivanadiar felt gratified she is offering his keerai. Because he was an adiyar (servent of the Lord)? He would ask the lady about this matter after lunch.
After lunch Sivanadiar brought it up with Aachi why she made an offering of only the keerai pulled by him.
“My husband was doing Siva nama samarana while plucking the leaves and hence it is already offered to God and there is no need to do nivedhanam (the formal offering) again. But you were silent, engrossed in pulling out the leaves. So I cooked them separately and offered to God.”
When they did namaskaaram finally, a mortified Sivanadiar took leave generously blessing the couple while appreciating her bakthi and intelligence.
Do you know what such wonderful acts of athithi bhojanam did good to the couple? After few years they performed shastiabda poorthy (60th birth-day) for Chettiar. On one Maha Sivarathri day they had a darshan of the four kaala pooja’s in Kumbeswara Swami temple. Coming home, a tired Sivakami Aachi just collapsed in the pooja room. Chettiar rushing to her side also collapsed near her. On that auspicious Maha Sivarathri day the couple thus reached the lotus feet of Lord Siva together.
You see the benefit of athithi bhojanam? On every Sivarathri day I remember the noble Chettiars…”
Swamigal got up:
“It is 2 O clock. You must all be hungry. Please go and eat well (in the Matam).”
Note: (1) Kumkumam is turmeric is dried and powdered with a bit of slaked lime turning the rich yellow powder into a red color (2) In many schools of Hindu thought, treating the guests, especially the bhakta’s, is equal/more to worshiping the god himself (3) A stone structure resting on pillars open on one or more sides (4) The Tevaram (Tamil: தேவாரம் Tēvāram) denotes the first seven volumes of the Tirumurai, the twelve-volume collection of Tamil Śaiva devotional poetry. All seven volumes are dedicated to the works of the three most prominent Tamil poets of the 7th century, the Nayanars – Sambandar, Tirunavukkarasar and Sundarar. The singing of Tevaram is continued as a hereditary practice in some Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu (5) Naivedhyam: formal offering of food to the gods before it is consumed.