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 http://www.the-park.com/namaste.htm :
“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. 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.