In all cultured and refined societies, honouring a guest is considered as an important duty of a householder. The Hindu scriptures have extolled a guest as God himself (vide Taittirīya Upaniṣad 1.11). Out of the five daily sacrifices (pañcamahāyajñas) a householder is ordained to perform, mānuṣa-yajña the fourth one, concerns the feeding and the taking care of guests.
The word ‘atithi’ has been variously defined. The literal meaning is: ‘one who comes suddenly as a guest without any regard to the “tithi” (a day of the lunar calendar).’ Sometimes the word is defined as referring to any unknown person who arrives in the evening seeking food and shelter for the night.
The master of the house was expected to meet the guest, welcome him, wash his feet and honour him by giving a seat. Waving a lamp before him, giving food and other things he may need to appease his hunger and thirst, and objects like a bed to rest were also recommended.
Brahmacārins and saṁnyāsins as also learned brāhmaṇas of pure character got precedence over others. Honouring them and feeding them were considered extremely meritorious.
When the guests left, the master of the household was expected to see them off by going part of the way with them.
If heretics and sinners came as guests, they were not be entertained. However, out of human consideration, they could be given uncooked food articles.
See also PAÑCAMAHĀYAJÑAS.