I often sign email mes­sages with “Namaste.” I’ve had a fair num­ber of peo­ple ask what that means, so I decid­ed to put it here and just refer them to it.

The lit­er­al mean­ing is “I bow to you.” The larg­er mean­ing is more like “the sacred in me hon­ors the sacred in you.

I find Namaste to be a pro­found con­cept. Every time I type it, I think about the sacred in the per­son with whom I am com­mu­ni­cat­ing. There are times when it caus­es me to go back and re-word what I’ve writ­ten in light of that knowledge.

David H. Albert, author of And the Sky­lark Sings with Me: Adven­tures in Home­school­ing and Com­mu­ni­ty-Based Edu­ca­tion and oth­er books used Namaste in some of his posts to a UU home­school­ing list. When he explained its mean­ing, I was intrigued and felt a need to learn more.

From Brent Hunter at :

“Namaste: The Great Per­fec­tion with­in me hon­ors the Great Per­fec­tion with­in you. The Great Per­fec­tion is the vast part of our­selves that is tru­ly one with the uni­verse, one with all oth­ers; one with all there is. This is true regard­less of nation­al ori­gin, cul­ture, race, age, polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion, reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al affil­i­a­tion, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, phys­i­cal looks, phys­i­cal con­di­tion or whatever.”

The longer expla­na­tion I like best orig­i­nat­ed in Hin­duism Today. I’m not Hin­di, nor did I read the arti­cle in its orig­i­nal incar­na­tion. The fact that I did find it, though, is part of the beau­ty of the inter­net. I’m repro­duc­ing it in full here, as the ver­sions I’ve found avail­able are dif­fi­cult to read.


“Shake hands and come out fight­ing.” It’s the ref­er­ee’s final coun­sel to two pugilists about to beat each oth­er’s brains out with clenched fists. Even out­side the ring, a hand­shake can be a lit­tle off-putting. When one returns to the West from an extend­ed sojourn in Bharat or else­where in Asia, the hand sud­den­ly thrust for­ward can seem more omi­nous than friend­ly, espe­cial­ly if the hand offered is that of a stranger. Of course, one soon accli­mates and the men­ac­ing aspect of this salu­ta­tion subsides.

Per­haps that moment of intim­i­da­tion derives from the his­to­ry of the hand­shake. Accord­ing to one anthro­pol­o­gist, the hand­shake evolved in medieval Europe, dur­ing the times of knights. It seems not all were laud­able Lancelots or gal­lant Gala­hads. More than a few would approach oppo­nents with con­cealed weapons and when with­in strik­ing dis­tance do the need­ful, dri­ving dag­ger or strik­ing sword into the unguard­ed paladin.

To fend off the fear of a foe’s foul foil, knights took to offer­ing their open and vis­i­bly emp­ty hands to each oth­er. It was a kind of sure­ty, a ges­ture of trust, which said, “See, I am unarmed, so you may safe­ly let me approach.” As the sto­ry goes, soon the ges­ture itself took on mean­ing and the less noble, less-lethal man on the street adopt­ed the hand­shake as the prop­er way to greet others.

In much of the world today, peo­ple do not shake hands when they meet. They may hug for­mal­ly or kiss one anoth­er on the cheek, as in East­ern Europe and Arab states. They may bow soft­ly, eyes turned to the ground, as in Japan and Chi­na. The Hawai­ian greet­ing, termed “honi,” con­sists of plac­ing the nos­tril gen­tly beside that of the per­son greet­ed, a kind of shar­ing of breath, which is life and Pran(a).

For, Hindu(s), of course, the greet­ing of choice is “Namaste,” the two hands pressed togeth­er and held near the heart with the head gen­tly bowed as one says, “Namaste.” Thus it is both a spo­ken greet­ing and a ges­ture, a Mantr(a) and a Mudr(a). The prayer­ful hand posi­tion is a Mudr(a) called Anjali, from the root Anj, “to adorn, hon­or, cel­e­brate or anoint.” The hands held in union sig­ni­fy the one­ness of an appar­ent­ly dual cos­mos, the bring­ing togeth­er of spir­it and mat­ter, or the self meet­ing the Self. It has been said that the right hand rep­re­sents the high­er nature or that which is divine in us, while the left hand rep­re­sents the low­er, world­ly nature.

In San­skrit “Namas” means, “bow, obei­sance, rev­er­en­tial salu­ta­tion.” It comes from the root Nam, which car­ries mean­ings of bend­ing, bow­ing, humbly sub­mit­ting and becom­ing silent. “Te” means “to you.” Thus “namaste” means “I bow to you.” the act of greet­ing is called “Namaskaram,” “Namaskara” and “Namaskar” in the var­ied lan­guages of the subcontinent.

Namaste has become a ver­i­ta­ble icon of what is Bharatiye. Indeed, there must be a Bharatiye law that requires every trav­el brochure, cal­en­dar, and poster to include an image of some­one with palms pressed togeth­er, con­vey­ing to the world Bharat’s hos­pi­tal­i­ty, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and grace­ful con­scious­ness. You knew all that, of course, but per­haps you did not know that there can be sub­tle ways of enhanc­ing the ges­ture, as in the West one might shake anoth­er’s hand too strong­ly to impress and over­pow­er them or too briefly, indi­cat­ing the with­hold­ing of gen­uine welcome.

In the case of Namaste, a deep­er ven­er­a­tion is some­times expressed by bring­ing the fin­gers of the clasped palms to the fore­head, where they touch the brow, the site of the mys­tic Third Eye. A third form of namaste brings the palms com­plete­ly above the head, a ges­ture said to focus con­scious­ness in the sub­tle space just above the Brah­ma-randhra, the aper­ture in the Crown Chakr(a). This form is so full of rev­er­ence it is reserved for the Almighty and the holi­est of Sat Guru(s).

It is always inter­est­ing, often reveal­ing, and occa­sion­al­ly enlight­en­ing to muse about the every­day cul­tur­al traits and habits each nation and com­mu­ni­ty evolves, for in the lit­tle things our Big Ideas About Life find direct and per­son­al expres­sion. Take, for instance, the dif­fer­ent ways that Amer­i­can and Japan­ese tool­mak­ers approach the same task. A saw for cut­ting lum­ber, if designed in the U.S., is made in such a way that the car­pen­ter’s stroke away from his body does the cut­ting. But in Japan, saws are engi­neered so that cut­ting takes place as the car­pen­ter draws the saw toward him­self. A small detail, but it yields a big difference.

The Amer­i­can saw can, if leaned into, gen­er­ate more pow­er, while the Japan­ese saw pro­vides more con­trol and refine­ment in the cut, requir­ing sur­pris­ing­ly less effort. Each has its place in the glob­al tool­box. Each speaks — like the hand­shake and namaste greet­ings — of an under­ly­ing per­cep­tion of man’s rela­tion­ship with things.

In the West, we are out­go­ing, force­ful, exter­nal­ized. We are told by Ma Bell to “reach out and touch some­body.” We are unabashed­ly acquis­i­tive, defin­ing our progress in life by how much we have — how much wealth, influ­ence, stored up knowl­edge, sta­tus or what­ev­er. Every cul­ture exhibits these traits to some extent, but in the east Moth­er is there to remind us, “Reach in and touch the Self.” here we are taught to be more intro­spec­tive, more con­cerned with the qual­i­ty of things than their quan­ti­ty, more attuned with the inte­ri­or dimen­sion of life.

So, there you have it, the whole of East­ern and West­ern cul­ture summed up in the hand­shake which reach­es out hor­i­zon­tal­ly to greet anoth­er, and Namaste which reach­es in ver­ti­cal­ly to acknowl­edge that, in truth, there is no other.

As a test of how these two greet­ings dif­fer, imag­ine you are mag­i­cal­ly con­front­ed with the Divine. The Para­mat­ma, Almighty, walks up to you on the street. What do you do? Reach out to shake His hand? Prob­a­bly not. Though suit­able between man and man, it’s an unseem­ly expres­sion between man and Para­mat­ma. We nev­er shake hands with para­mat­ma. I mean, what if your palms are sweating?

So, you namaste instead. The rea­son it feels nat­ur­al to namaste before Para­mat­ma is that it is, in its very essence, a spir­i­tu­al ges­ture, not a world­ly one. By a hand­shake we acknowl­edge our equal­i­ty with oth­ers. We reveal our human­i­ty. We con­vey how strong we are, how ner­vous, how aggres­sive or pas­sive. There is bold phys­i­cal­i­ty to it. For these and oth­er rea­sons, Popes nev­er shake hands. Kings nev­er shake hands. Even moth­ers don’t shake hands with their own children.

Namaste is cos­mi­cal­ly dif­fer­ent. Kings do namaste, Sat Guru(s) namaste, and moth­ers namaste to their own fam­i­ly. We all namaste before the Almighty, a holy man or even a holy place. The namaste ges­ture bespeaks our inner valu­ing of the sacred­ness of all. It beto­kens our intu­ition that all souls are divine, in their essence. It reminds us in quite a graph­ic man­ner, and with insis­tent rep­e­ti­tion, that we can see Para­mat­ma every­where and in every human being we meet. It is say­ing, silent­ly, “I see the Deity in us both, and bow before Him or Her. I acknowl­edge the holi­ness of even this mun­dane meet­ing. I can­not sep­a­rate that which is spir­i­tu­al in us from that which is human and ordinary.”

And while we are singing the prais­es of Namaste, it should be observed how effi­cient a ges­ture it is in an age of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion. A politi­cian or per­former can greet fifty thou­sand peo­ple with a sin­gle Namaste, and they can return the hon­or instant­ly. In such a sit­u­a­tion a hand­shake is unthink­able, and a mere wav­ing of one hand is some­how too frivolous.

There are oth­er, more mys­ti­cal mean­ings behind Namaste. The nerve cur­rent of the body con­verge is in the feet, the solar plexus, and the hands. Psy­chic ener­gy leaves the body at these junc­tures. To “ground” that ener­gy and bal­ance the flow of Pran(a) stream­ing through the nerve sys­tem, Yogi(s) cross their legs in the lotus pos­ture and bring their hands togeth­er. The Anjali Mudra acts like a sim­ple Yog(ic) Asan(a), bal­anc­ing and har­mo­niz­ing our ener­gies, keep­ing us cen­tered, inward­ly poised, and men­tal­ly pro­tect­ed. It clos­es our aura, shield­ing us psy­chi­cal­ly. It keeps us from becom­ing too exter­nal­ized, thus we remain close to our intu­itive nature, our super consciousness.

Here are some insights into Namaste from a num­ber of Hindu(s):

  • Namaste ele­vates one’s con­scious­ness, remind­ing one that all beings, all exis­tence is holy, is the Almighty. It com­mu­ni­cates, “I hon­or or wor­ship the Divin­i­ty with­in you.” Also it draws the indi­vid­ual inward for a moment, inspires reflec­tion on the deep­er real­i­ties, soft­en­ing the inter­face between peo­ple. It would be dif­fi­cult or offend or feel ani­mos­i­ty toward any­one you greet as Paramatma.
  • Namaste is a ges­ture of friend­ship and kind­ness, also of thanks or spe­cial recog­ni­tion. Mys­ti­cal­ly it is called “Namaskara Mudra” in the Aga­mi© Poo­ja, and it cen­ters one’s ener­gy with­in the spine.
  • I’ve heard it means “I salute the Almighty with­in you.” The true Namaste ges­ture is accom­pa­nied by bow­ing the head and shoul­ders slight­ly. This is a ges­ture that lessens our sense of ego and self-cen­tered­ness, requir­ing some humil­i­ty to do it well — where­as shak­ing hands can be quite an arro­gant event.
  • Touch­ing the hands togeth­er puts you in touch with your cen­ter, your soul. namaste puts you for­ward as a soul, not an out­er personality.
  • The ges­ture has a sub­tle effect on the aura and nerve sys­tem. bring­ing focused atten­tion and a col­lec­tion of one’s forces, so to speak. It also pro­tects against unnec­es­sary psy­chic con­nec­tions which are fos­tered by shak­ing hands. This might be called a form of puri­ty also — pro­tect­ing one’s energies.

This form of acknowl­edg­ment is so love­ly, so grace­ful. Just look at two peo­ple in Namaste and you will see so much human beau­ty and refinement.

Cur­rent Mood: 🤔con­tem­pla­tive
Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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