Over the years I have been periodically greeted with a greeting known as “Namaste”. This is a gesture that entails a slight bow made with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards in front of the chest. I have witnessed speakers and performers greet their audiences with this sign. Many years ago our school hosted an exchange student from Thailand who when she first arrived would greet her teachers and fellow students with the Namaste gesture. Some of my yoga instructors concluded every practice by uttering “Namaste” while bowing with hands pressed together. Even in Taekwondo we bowed to our opponents although not with our hands together. A bow in Taekwondo was a sign of respect which is its meaning in all martial arts. We even bowed when we entered the dojang or gym as a sign of respect for it.
Whenever someone greets me with the Namaste gesture, and especially when saying the word “Namaste”, I feel very honoured. I feel respected and accepted. It truly is a wonderful feeling when acknowledged with a gesture of Namaste. So what does this form of salutation mean? Where does it come from as it is not a common form of greeting in my part of the world?
In my part of the world, the handshake is the popular form of greeting. A handshake is a ritual in which two people grasp one of each other’s like hands and give a brief up and down movement of the grasped hands. The origins of the handshake are unknown as historians say that the handshake predates written history, and therefore is somewhat difficult to track down. What I find fascinating is there are some historians who claim the ritual dates to the Romans who would approach each other and grab the forearm to make sure the other man was not carrying a weapon. If that is true, then the handshake has a very different connotation than Namaste does.
The Namaste gesture is widely used throughout India, Nepal, and parts of Asia. Namaste or namaskar is used as a respectful form of greeting, acknowledging and welcoming a relative, guest or stranger as well as with goodbyes. It is also used when a person expresses gratitude for assistance offered or given, and to thank the other person for his or her benevolence.
The gesture (or mudra) of Namaste is a simple act made by bringing together both palms of the hands before the heart (sometimes the forehead), and lightly bowing the head. In the simplest of terms it is accepted as a humble greeting straight from the heart and reciprocated accordingly. But does it have a deeper meaning? Being a teacher who taught Religious Education, I knew it did. So here is a lesson.
From the great religion of Hinduism, the sign of Namaste is an ancient Sanskrit greeting still in everyday use in India and especially on the trail in the Nepal Himalaya. Translated roughly, it means, “I bow to the God within you,” or “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you,” a Hindu knowing that we are all made from the same One Divine Consciousness. More specifically, nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means, “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”
Now this can be thought of in many ways. These are some of the ways the meaning of Namaste has been explained to me.
- The Divine light in me acknowledges the Divine light in you.
- The God in me greets the God in you.
- I honor the spirit in you that is also in me.
- The Divine wisdom in me recognizes and acknowledges the Divine wisdom in you.
Hinduism Today says the Namaste gesture
“bespeaks our inner valuing of the sacredness of all. It betokens our intuition that all souls are divine. It reminds us in quite a graphic manner, and with insistent repetition, that we can see God everywhere and in every human being we meet. It is saying, silently, ‘I see the Deity in us both, and bow before It. 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.’”
One practicing Hindu put it this way.
“I’ve heard it means, ‘I salute God 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.”
According to Buddha Weekly, it is not just a salutation. For Buddhists the gesture is called Anjali and it serves many purposes. In spiritual activities, the mudra Anjali (offering with both hands), indicates we are making a “divine offering.” In a Buddhist context, it is the “cure” for pride, one of the great obstacles in their practice. In day-to-day life it indicates respect, literally meaning “I bow to you.” Also, in acupuncture terms, the tips of the fingers activate certain energies.
Now I was raised a Christian, so how might this fit into a Christian context. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 it says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (NRSV) To me that aligns with the Hindu claim that the divine is within us. Christians just call it the Holy Spirit. I was taught that at baptism or confirmation, depending on the religious tradition, that the Holy Spirit entered and from then on resided in us.
In Galatians 5:22-23 it is written, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (NRSV) So Christians believe that if a person allows the spirit to be active in them, then that person should express love, joy, peace, and so on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians supported this belief with the Namaste gesture, a slight bow made with hands pressed together.
No matter how Namaste is interpreted, it invokes a sense of sharing a spiritual connection and creates a sense and feeling of oneness. It is a way to feel connected. It conjures up feelings of respect. It is a sign of universal oneness. Maybe this world would be in a better place if all humans practiced this simple gesture. As the Buddhists believe, it just may be a “remedy” for pride that is the cause of many problems. I’m convinced this simple gesture brings about more feelings of reverence and honour for others. Mohandas K. Gandhi allegedly said once, “Namaste. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. A place of light, of love, of truth, of peace, of wisdom. I honor the place in you where when you are in that place, and I am in that place, there is only one of us.” Such a simple sign, a bow with hands together, with the intended meaning as Gandhi explained, just might make all the difference in this world.