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Namaste: What It Really Means…

Namaste: What It Really Means…

You’ve probably seen the very funny video from “College Humor” showing what it might be like if Gandhi were to take a contemporary yoga class. The hilarious (and highly-accurate) skit shows his steadily-growing frustration with teacher and fellow students, until he finally loses all composure and departs with a (very non-Yogic) expletive. The unruffled students all lovingly respond with “Namaste,” at which point Gandhi yells back: “You don’t even know what that means…!”

This ending, in addition to being incredibly funny, is also highly relevant. The fact is, most students of yoga don’t fully understand the term and tend to use it in highly-Westernized way – one which actually goes against the true meaning of the expression. For these reasons, in today’s article at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’re going to clarify what namaste really means, so you can be confident that you are using this important expression in the correct way.

Etymology & Traditional Usage

To begin, as I’m sure you know, the term namaste is an ancient and integral part of Indian culture – in fact, it is one of five formal greetings that can be traced all the way back to the Vedas. It is a profound and deeply meaningful way of showing both respect and humility, particularly when combined, as it normally would be, with a bow and with the gesture of anjali mudra (palms together at the chest). These qualities of both respect and humbleness are cornerstones of Yoga philosophy and Indian culture as a whole, and must be fully understood if the expression is to hold any true meaning.

These principles of reverence and transcendence of ego are embodied in the etymology of the term. The word namaste (or the synonymous namaskar or namaskaram) comes from roots nama, which means: “I prostrate myself” and the, which means: “to you.” In the West, we often hear namaste translated as: “I salute the Divine in you,” but you’ll notice this is very different on a couple of levels. First, we are adding the word “Divine,” implying that there may be other parts that we are not saluting. Second, and far more important, by using the word “salute” we radically soften the concept. To salute someone conveys respect, but it obviously does not convey the equally important elements of self-censure or self-abnegation inherent in the act of prostration.

This is an understandable alteration, in so far as we in the West tend to resist supplication or bowing, thinking of them as a form of groveling or self-effacement. In fact, we typically denigrate cultures that include obeisance, accusing them of “bowing before their idols.” As is often the case, these traditions actually have an understanding which goes far deeper than our limited Western assumptions, and our (highly-mistaken) interpretation of them is a sign of our lack of awareness. As a result, when we alter a phrase like “Namaste” in order to meet our presumptions, we strip it of both its meaning and its power. To understand fully, let’s look at this a little more closely.

Why Humility Matters

To properly understand the symbolism of bowing, it’s important to realize that, for numerous cultures across the globe, it represents not a belittling of the self, but rather an acknowledgment the limitations and inferiority of the ego. When we bow, we are saying not only to others but equally importantly to ourselves: “I realize that the parts of me with which I normally identify, and of which I am typically proud, are minor compared to the Divine….”

You can see that this is an important reversal of how we normally think of ourselves. Normally, we are very attached to ego, constantly celebrating some parts of ourselves while seeking to minimize or hide those aspects of ourselves of which we are embarrassed. The Yogis, and again the founders of numerous other spiritual traditions, realized that this perspective not only tends to distort our vision of ourselves, but also prevents us from truly seeing and connecting with the people around us. In simplest terms, when we interact with others, we tend to do so through ego, focusing on the best in ourselves and the worst in them, which is hardly an approach that fosters healthy communication or connection.

Coming back to bowing, when we prostrate ourselves to someone, we are actively and expressly reversing this process. We acknowledge the fact that our baggage and pride keep us from truly connecting with others, and we take a moment to relinquish them. When we say “Namaste” to someone, we are letting go of our attachment to ego and sense of self, and we are honoring him or her exactly as he or she is – including both the divine and the human parts – instead of seeing and thinking of him or her through the lens of ego.

Etymology & Symbolism Revisited

This inherent humility in the expression namaste is emphasized, again, by the etymology. The root nama (once more, “to bow or prostrate”), is composed of the roots na, which means “not,” and ma, which means “mine/me.” In this way, when we bow – whether to a person, or to a symbol such as the Buddha or the Cross – we are acknowledging how the limitations of the ego or “small self” keep us from connecting with others or with the Divine, and we are (at least temporarily) letting go of that identity so that we can truly see and honor others as they are.

This humility inherent in namaste is, of course, amplified when we consider the bow with which it is usually accompanied, and also the symbolism of bringing the hands together at the chest (anjali mudra). In India, this gesture is understood as an abbreviated form of the full act, which is to bow to the ground, touch the feet of the other person, and then touch the top of one’s head This act is meant to symbolize the idea: “The lowest part of you is superior to the highest part of me” – again, an ego-emptying gesture it is hard for many in the West to fully comprehend or except, in spite of the fact that it parallels one of the more powerful symbolic acts of the New Testament, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

While our ego-based culture might balk at this gesture, it is clearly an elegant and powerful example of letting go of self-absorption and truly acknowledging and embracing another without the intervening veil of pride and vanity. When combined with the literal and metaphorical meaning of the word “Namaste,” you can see how this gesture becomes even more significant, both for the person who is expressing it and the person to whom it is expressed. Ultimately, “Namaste” is a gesture which both conveys and fosters a healthier attitude toward ourselves and the people around us.

The “Americanized” Understanding & Where It Goes Wrong…

At this point, it should be clear why the altered usages found here in the West falls quite short of the true meaning. For example, when we say (or think): “The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you,” we are adding implications that are absent from – and in many respects contradictory to – the original, while also omitting other key aspects of the ancient expression.

As mentioned before, when we change “bow” to “salute,” we maintain the idea of respecting others, but we completely lose the element of humility, the crucial element of consciously putting our pride in its proper place. This is a great example of the way in which our egos can distort our practices in order to maintain their place of power.

Second, as discussed earlier, when we alter “you” to “the divine in you,” we undo the element of deference, sliding the implications from unreserved respect to something closer to: “I might have trouble with parts of you, but I still respect the holy within you.” This not only undoes much of the idea of accepting and embracing others as they are, it is also clearly another way that our egos strive to maintain their supremacy and control.

Finally and most important, when we begin with the opening qualifier: “The divine in me,” we are adding a form of self-aggrandizement not only present in the original but antithetical to the entire spirit of the expression. Instead of humbling ourselves and acknowledging or limitation, we are actually bolstering our sense of pride by shifting our focus to the very best part of us. In this way, we actually transform an expression that is meant to be an emptying of ego into yet another form of self-validation.

Clearly, when we combine (again, whether in word or in intent) these three “Westernized” elements, we miss the entire spirit and purpose of the expression. Granted, when we say “Namaste” to someone, he or she usually replies in kind, but to presume this and “compress” it into our gesture is yet another example of the very egotism we are trying to overcome. Simply put, if we are so defensive about our own self-worth as to feel a need to add that clause, we are clearly not ready to even understand the expression, let alone use it, and would be better off using a different greeting.

In Conclusion…

In conclusion, when we use the word “Namaste,” we need to understand that an integral part of the term is a sincere effort to empty the ego and to embrace the other person in his or her entirety. Without that intention, we are not truly comprehending the term – or for that matter, one of the more essential truths of the Yogic path as a whole".