Namaste or Should I Go Now?

I suspect most Americans have heard the Hindi word namaste by now. Members of the New Age community say it with such reverence.

At first they were defining it as, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Then the definitions proliferated:

  • The Divine in me recognizes and honors, the Divine in you.
  • The spirit within me bows to the spirit within you.
  • I greet that place where you and I are one.
  • I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of peace.

Then I saw something even longer. I don’t remember what it was, but if I had to guess it would be, “The divine in me grovels in humble supplication to the exalted divinity that is your true nature and expresses itself in you as you.” or some shit like that.

Have you seen people bow when saying namaste? They put their hands in the prayer gesture in front of their hearts. The prayer gesture is called by a couple of names in Hindi. The name anjali mudra means gesture of divine offering. The name namaskar mudra means bowing gesture. Namaste is another form of the word namaskar. Do you still think namaste means something about the divine?

That is because we Americans love to romanticize other cultures. Why do I say this? Because the word just means “I bow to you.” period. nothing else. That’s it.

The word is used as a greeting in India, particularly in the Hindi speaking areas. Children will say namaste as a greeting of respect to their elders. The elders will respond with something like, “God bless you.”

I’ve heard it said that yoga classes in India don’t begin and end with namaste. Ending a yoga class with namaste doesn’t make sense, because it is only a greeting, not a valediction.

Many Americans will close a letter with namaste. Not only is it not a valediction, it is only a verbal salutation, not a written one. Using it in written correspondence is like greeting someone on the street in Japan with, “Moshi moshi” (Moshi moshi is only used when answering the phone and is weird in other contexts).

If we are going to appropriate a word from another culture, shouldn’t we show that culture respect by first understanding what it is we are appropriating.

Namaste Abuse Alert: I was on a Japanese Buddhist website the other day and there was a commenter who went by the username Sangha. With a username like that you would think they might have some familiarity with Asian cultures. What did the commenter use as the closing salutation? Namaste.

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

Photo: Sadhu performing anjali mudra.

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