Brain Food: Atithi devo bhava

Treating guests like gods
By
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Posted September 24, 2018

For many years, I have had a long-distance love affair with the country of India.

I love the food and can remember my first Indian meal in, of all places, Singapore, where the spices made my eyes water, my nose tingle and my salivary glands explode as dishes were being laid upon the table. Now my family and I eat at our favorite Indian restaurant two-to-three times a week. Shamsi, the chef, has welcomed my sons into the kitchen to teach them how to make a good daal. We have our own masala dabba, and it seems as though we now buy turmeric by the pound.

I have tried for years to maintain a yoga practice that, to be honest, is at times elusive. However, I can strike a remarkably well-balanced siting tree pose. It’s a great party trick.

I believe in the power of mindfulness and meditation and have built a 45-foot in diameter labyrinth in my back yard, down by the creek, for walking meditations. As I walk, my mind still drifts to the weeds that need pulling in concentric rings of the stone path. But, I bring myself back to focusing on my breath as one foot falls in front of the other and the crunch of pebbles adds to the percussion of cicadas shaking out their constant rhythm. 

And yet … I had not travelled to India, until a few months ago.

When I arrived in Mumbai to speak at the In-Store Asia Conference, it was 11 p.m. I had flown nonstop for 14 hours. I slept most of the way, but still arrived with a circadian rhythm that was saying, “Stay awake; it’s time to go to work.” Navigating my way through security, I began a short journey that would prove to be a sensory and emotional experience like no other.

The conference organizers had arranged for a driver to shuttle me to the hotel, and for the next six days, my mind and body were filled with the experience of a key tenet of Indian culture – atithi devo bhava, or the guest is equivalent to God.

With hospitality and grace, I was welcomed at the hotel. When the staff clamored to take care of my belongings and tend to my needs with a bottle of water, I said, “Oh, you are too kind.” In response to my self-deprecating comment, that there was no need to be so accommodating, the front desk associate responded, “Our guests are like gods - atithi devo bhava.”

It turns out that the saying is not just a catchy line to promote tourism in India, even though it was adopted by the Indian Ministry of Tourism in 2008 as a marketing and PR tagline. Instead, it is a beautiful example of the Hindu scriptures asking us to treat our guests with reverence and respect, as if they are gods.

Atithi means “without a fixed calendrical time” and can be used to describe a guest; devo means “God” and; bhava means “to be.”  The phrase has become more like a code of conduct, and it has made Indian hospitality well known for putting the guest at the forefront of the interaction between traveler and host.

Sam Walton had two rules of engagement with Walmart customers – “Rule 1: The customer is always right,” followed by “Rule 2: If something is wrong, refer to Rule 1.” This straightforward customer interaction protocol strikes a similar chord as atithi devo bhava, but presumes the enactment of the rule when the associate is in the midst of “something wrong.” It short circuits conflict by capitulation and deferring to the guest as the linchpin to the Walmart business. Atithi devo bhava has a different tenor; it is less about an interaction solution when things have gone amiss, but a (spiritual) mindset that positions the guest in an honorific role with respect to the host at the onset of the engagement.

The idea of treating our guests like gods has held fast in my mind because of multiple customer experiences that have left me feeling quite the opposite. What would it look like if, in all stores, guests were treated like gods? How many retail experiences do you remember where you have left the in-store interaction feeling like a god? This strikes at the heart of the associate’s role to promote respectful and empathic engagements with guests. It asks to place a premium on the service part of ”customer service,” something that is sadly lacking in many engagements.

While I was in India, I repeated the phrase “atithi devo bhava” over and over again. Partly to commit it to memory, partly because I loved the underlying message it conferred. My new mantra was put to the test with drivers, shopkeepers, hotel concierges, waiters, tour guides, conference attendees and my Indian colleagues. Without fail, they all delivered on the promise to make me feel godly.

Upon returning to the U.S., I continued to repeat the phrase. It turns out that this may be a good thing. Recent neuroscience research suggests that memorizing ancient mantras results in changes in the size of brain regions associated with cognitive function. The “Sanskrit Effect,” as it has come to be called, after studying the brains of Indian pandits who recite ancient texts committing them to memory, has been shown to enhance both memory and thinking capability. fMRI analysis of a group of Indian scholars’ brains’ showed dramatic increases in the size of numerous brain regions, especially in areas like the hippocampus which is responsible for both short- and long-term memory.

I will not forget my first trip to India. Perhaps because of the kindness and respect afforded to me as an extension of “atithi devo bhava.” Perhaps also because I have replayed the experiences and phrase so many times since my return that I have increased the size of my hippocampus.

David Kepron is Vice President - Global Design Strategies with Marriott International. His focus is on the creation of compelling customer experiences within a unique group of Marriott brands called the “Lifestyle Collection,” including Autograph, Renaissance and Moxy hotels. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. David is also author of “Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores will Shape the Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World,” published by ST Media Group Intl. and available online from ST Books. @davidkepron; www.retail-r-evolution.com.