By Jeremy David Engels, Pennsylvania State University
Surrenders the heart in a prayer position. A small head arch. A gesture of respect. A recognition of our common humanity. And no touch.
As people all over the world drop handshakes and hugs for fear of contracting the coronavirus, Namaste becomes the perfect pandemic greeting.
As a scientist whose research focuses on the ethics of communication and as a yoga teacher, I am interested in how people use rituals and rhetoric to reinforce their bond with one another – and with the world.
Namaste is one such ritual.
I bow to you
Originally a Sanskrit word, namaste consists of two parts: “namas” means “bow before”, “bow before” or “honor before” and “te” means “before you”. Namaste means “I bow to you”. This meaning is often reinforced by a small arch of the head.
In Hindi and a number of other Sanskrit-derived languages, namaste is basically a respectful way to say hello and also to say goodbye. Today namaste was adopted into the English language along with other words from non-English sources. When many words are borrowed, they keep their spelling but take on new meanings. This is the case with Namaste – it has shifted from meaning “I bow to you” to “I bow to the divine within you”.
For many American yoga teachers who most likely started with Ram Dass in the 1960s and 1970s, Namaste means something like “the divine light in me bows before the divine light in you”. This is the definition of Namaste that I first learned and repeated many times to my students.
In the words of the popular American yoga teacher Shiva Rea, namaste is “the perfect Indian greeting”, a “holy hello”, which means “I bow to the divinity in you of the divinity in me”.
Deepak Chopra repeats a similar definition in 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 to another, you honor something sacred in them. When you bow to another, you recognize that they deserve respect and dignity.
I bow to the divine light in you
However, there are critics who say that global yogis have taken Namaste out of context. Some claim that the greeting has a religious meaning that does not exist in Indian culture.
I see things differently. Many common greetings have religious roots, including Adios or “a Dios” for God, and goodbye – an abbreviation for “God be with you”.
Most Indian religions agree that there is something divine in every individual, be it a soul, referred to as “Atman” or “Purusha” in Hinduism, or the ability to awaken in Buddhism.
As I argue 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 bias in American culture.
From 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 every time they spoke.
It is particularly noteworthy that Emerson often used the metaphor of light to visualize this inner divinity, probably because of his great admiration for the Quakers, whose Christian denomination states that God lives in us all in the form of an “inner light”.
The definition of Namaste as “the divine light in me bows before the divine light in you” largely corresponds to the Indian religions and the traditions of American spirituality in the 19th century.
Namaste as an ethical obligation
In today’s global yoga culture, Namaste is usually said at the end of the class. As I understand, it is a moment for yogis to ponder the virtues associated with yoga – including peacefulness, compassion, and gratitude – and how to bring them into daily life.
I asked Swami Tattwamayananda, the director of the Vedanta Society in Northern California in San Francisco and one of the world’s leading authorities on Hindu rituals and scriptures, how he felt about Americans like me who say Namaste.
He replied, “It is 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 to you” – in the sense that I stand before you bow to the divine presence in you.
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You don’t have to be a Hindu, Buddhist, or yoga teacher to say Namaste. Namaste can be as religious or secular as the speaker wishes.
What is most important in my opinion is the intent behind the word Namaste. In bowing to another, the question you must ask is: do you really acknowledge him or her as a worthy fellow human being, bound in common suffering and a common capacity for transcendence?
This realization of our interconnectedness is what Namaste is all about – and exactly what we need during the pandemic.
Jeremy David Engels, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Pennsylvania State University
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