“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.13)
Depending on the customs and norms of a specific society, there are certain rules of etiquette that are generally followed. Attending formal wedding receptions, tipping a waiter at a restaurant, and even in playing sports, rules of etiquette dictate our behavior in a wide range of social environments.
In America for example, it customary to bring cash gifts to a wedding. The attendees try to estimate the cost incurred to the host for their food and beverage at the wedding. The amount of the cash gift should be equal to or greater than this cost. When dining out at a restaurant, one is expected to leave a gratuity to the waiter of an amount between fifteen to twenty percent of the total bill. When playing the sport of tennis, players raise their hand up and apologize for points won through good luck, such as a miss-hit or the ball hitting the net cord.
These are just some of the examples of standard etiquette and there are many more associated with all sorts of activities. The one thing all these rules have in common is that they are all voluntarily implemented. No one is required to leave a tip in a restaurant or hold a door open for someone else. Yet the majority of society follows these rules. The reason they are followed is that human beings naturally have a tendency to serve. Etiquette represents a way for us to serve our fellow man and to show respect to others. By voluntarily abiding by them, we are thinking outside of our own desires, and giving attention to the feelings of others. Such activity naturally purifies us, since we are happiest when we are acting unselfishly.
The Vedas, the ancient books of knowledge originating in India, have many rules and regulations relating to etiquette. People living in the householder stage of life, known as grihastha, are obligated to serve the members of the other orders of society. Householders are involved in fruitive activity to procure wealth, religiosity, and sense gratification. While there is nothing wrong with earning a living, the Vedas teach a householder to use that wealth for spiritual advancement. For example, when eating, a householder is advised to first offer food to God, and then to distribute that food to the guests of the house. Only after the guests have finished eating is the householder allowed to eat whatever remains. It is also the standard etiquette that the wife and other women in the family don’t eat until after the male members have finished. Those growing up in Hindu families are very familiar with this custom. When attending family gatherings, one will often see all the women huddled together in the kitchen and the men together in a separate room. When it comes time to eat, the children and elderly are served first, followed by the men, with the women eating after everyone has finished. It takes much cajoling from the men to get the women to eat with them, for the women are very hesitant to break with tradition.
Such a system isn’t chauvinistic, but it is a means for creating a happy family life. According to the Vedas, the wife serves the husband, and the husband protects the wife. This leads to a peaceful life, leaving time for spiritual advancement. The wife shares whatever spiritual merits her husband accumulates, thus it is in her interest to see the husband succeed in his endeavors.
Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, who was God Himself, was very well acquainted with these rules of etiquette pertaining to husband-wife relations. Aside from being an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Narayana, Sita was raised in the kingdom of one of the most pious kings in history, Maharaja Janaka of Mithila. Though receiving no formal education in the Vedas, she was taught properly at home by her parents, which along with her inherent qualities, made her the perfect women. Her husband, Lord Rama, was ordered to live in the forest for fourteen years by His father King Dashratha. Instead of remaining home as Lord Rama had asked her to do, Sita insisted on following the Lord to the forest. As part of her plea, she informed Him that she would always walk before Him and take her meals only after He had eaten.
“Always I shall precede you when walking, and shall take my repast after you have taken it, willing am I to view mountains, rivulets, lakes, and ponds.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 27)
Aside from being proper etiquette for a wife, this also represents the rule that should be followed by devotees of God. Similar to the concept of saying grace, the Vedas teach us to offer our food to Krishna prior to eating. God is kind enough to provide us plenty of milk, fruits, and food grains for our survival. We should offer these foodstuffs to His deity prior to eating as a way of thanking Him. The Lord is so kind that He spiritually eats the food, but then leaves everything for us. The remaining food is known as prasadam, meaning the Lord’s mercy.
Sita Devi’s example is a very nice one to follow for devotees of the Lord. God is completely self-satisfied and requires nothing from us, but He gladly accepts anything offered to Him with love and devotion. Loving Krishna means following the highest standard of etiquette.