Hands over heart in prayer pose. A small head bow. A gesture of respect. A recognition of our common humanity. And no touching.
As people around the world choose to pit handshakes and hugs for fear of contracting the coronavirus, namaste becomes the perfect pandemic greeting.
Like a learned whose research focuses on the ethics of communication and as a yoga teacher, I am interested in how people use rituals and rhetoric to affirm their interconnectedness with each other – and with the world.
Namaste is one such ritual.
I bow to you
Originally a Sanskrit word, namaste is made up of two parts – “namas” means “to bow”, “to bow down” or “to honor”, and “te” means “to you”. So namaste means “I bow to you”. This meaning is often reinforced by a small head bow.
In Hindi and a number of other Sanskrit-derived languages, namaste is essentially a respectful way of saying hello and also goodbye. Today, namaste has been adopted into the English language, with other words from non-English sources. Many words, when borrowed, retain their spelling but acquire new meanings. This is the case with namaste – it has gone from meaning “I bow to you” to “I bow to the divine within you”.
For many American yoga teachers, most likely starting with Ram Dass in the 1960s and 1970s, namaste meant something like “the divine light in me bows to the divine light in you”. This is the definition of namaste that I first learned and often repeated to my students.
In the words of famous American yoga teacher Shiva Rea, namaste is “the consummate Indian greeting”, a “sacred hello”, which means “I bow to the divinity in you from the divinity in me”.
Deepak Chopra uses a similar definition on his podcast “The Daily Breath with Deepak Chopra“: namaste means “the spirit in me honors the spirit in you” and “the divine in me honors the divine in you”.
Namaste has a sacred connotation. When you bow down to another, you are honoring something sacred within them. When you bow to another, you recognize that he is worthy of respect and dignity.
I bow to the divine light in you
I see things differently. Many common greetings have religious roots, including adios, or “a Dios”, to God, and goodbye – a contraction of “God be with you”.
The most indian religions agree that there is something divine in all individuals, be it a soul, called “atman” or “purusha” in Hinduism, or the capacity for enlightenment in Buddhism.
As I state in my forthcoming book, “The Ethics of Unity: Emerson, Whitman and the Bhagavad Gita“, this idea of bowing to the divine in others also resonates with a deep spiritual inclination in American culture.
Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, the influential philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, in dialogue with a number of other thinkers, invented a form of spiritual practice that encouraged Americans to actively address the divine soul. in others whenever they spoke.
Of particular note is that Emerson often used the metaphor of light to imagine this inner deity, probably due to his great admiration for the Quakers, whose Christian denomination maintains that God lives within us all under the form of an “inner light”.
The definition of namaste as “the divine light within me bows to the divine light within you” is very much in the spirit of Indian religions and traditions of 19th century American spirituality.
Namaste as an ethical commitment
in today global yoga culture, namaste is usually pronounced at the end of the course. If I understood correctly, for yogis, saying namaste is a moment of contemplation the virtues associated with yoga – including peace, compassion and gratitude and how to integrate them into daily life.
I asked Swami Tattwamayananda, the head of the Vedanta Society of Northern California in San Francisco and one of the world’s leading authorities on Hindu rituals and scriptures, what he thought of Americans like me saying namaste.
He replied, “It’s perfectly appropriate for everyone, including Westerners like you, to say namaste at the end of your yoga class.” He also reiterated that namaste means “I bow down to you” – in the sense that I bow down to the divine presence within you.[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]
You don’t have to be a Hindu, a Buddhist or a yoga teacher to say namaste. Namaste can be as religious or secular as the speaker wishes.
What matters most, I believe, is the intent behind the word namaste. When you bow to another, the question to consider is this: do you truly recognize them as a dignified human being, bound in shared suffering and a shared capacity for transcendence?
This recognition of our interdependence is what namaste is all about – and exactly what we need during the pandemic.