“I honor the place in you,
in which the entire universe dwells.
I honor the place in you,
which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace.
I honor the place in you where,
if you are in that place in you,
and I am in that place in me,
there is only one of us.”
Its beauty lies not in the enunciation or composition, but in the core meaning of the word itself. Derived from the “Sandhi” (or joining) of two individual Sanskrit words ‘Namah’ and ‘te’, Namaste literally means “I bow to you”. Breaking it up further, Na meaning ‘not’ and Mah meaning ‘mine’ come together as ‘Not mine.’ This in essence has to do with the acknowledgement of the fact that there is no ‘I’ or ‘Me’, but only eternal spirit. The actual meaning of the word (relatively unknown to the west), has to do with the divinity encased in a human form acknowledging another. It is often associated with a hand gesture wherein hands joined together with fingers pointing upwards are held close to the chest (heart chakra-the seat of human emotion) while the head is bowed slightly in reverence. The wordless gesture in itself means ‘namaste’ and does not necessarily have to be accompanied by the word. Either as a ‘Mantra’ (word) or ‘Mudra’ (gesture) or combined, it expresses the same thing-one of the highest forms of respect for the divinity contained and expressed in another human being.
Used commonly in most south Asian countries including Nepal, some parts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it is so extensively used in India that one can safely say that it is synonymous with Indian culture in more ways than one. In fact, I’d go a step further to say that Namaste is integral to the Indian way of life-which is expressed best in one concept- non attachment to the ego. Almost every Indian concept encapsulates this one core philosophy. A simple example would be the common Indian saying ‘Atithi Devo Bhavah’ – which literally means “Guest is God”. The importance attached to hospitality in every Indian household-is well known-irrespective of the race, religion, caste or creed of the host or the guest. A person standing on the threshold of an Indian door is ALWAYS welcomed in with complete reverence, without any thought of self comfort or convenience. When there is a guest to be attended to, all efforts converge into making him comfortable and providing him with everything he needs (sometimes even with things he doesn’t). The concept of the divine spark in everything living is so burned into an Indian’s existence, that relative non attachment to the ego is a natural consequence. Another prime example would be a Vedic saying which when translated to plain English, goes to say that “It is one’s duty only to perform the action to the best of one’s abilities and never to be attached to the action or the fruit of the action thereof.” It makes a lot of sense and in the long run, saves the person from a lot of high blood pressure issues, agony, grief, tension and heartache. ‘Love selflessly and divinely without expecting anything from the one you love’-another basic Indian tenet. This non-attachment to one self and supreme devotion/reverence for the ONE SELF is what a Namaste symbolizes. Explained simplistically, Namaste signifies ‘The spirit in me bows to the SAME spirit in you.’
There can be a number of other interpretations for Namaste-all of which are correct. In essence, it is symbolic of ONENESS. So it can be taken to mean the removal of all the duality that we see in creation-good, bad, right, wrong, light, dark, truth, falsehood, birth, death-everything. In many ways it represents the absence of “two” in the mighty Mayic cycle of creation and the presence of only “one” in absolute spirit. One aspect of such duality in particular is that of husband and wife complementing each other’s existence while they work together as one unit to reach the ultimate goal of self-realization. Marriage is supposed to be one of the holiest of institutions meant for combined spiritual progress between two entities possessing the male and female aspects of God. This “Oneness” may be another representation of Namaste. The gesture itself holds significant meaning, if one considers the five fingers of one hand to correspond to the five physical senses which drive the karmic cycle, while the other five signify the five organs of knowledge of the human SELF. Then Namaste would essentially mean, knowledge and karma coming together as One, which would mean the performance of action guided by right knowledge.
A synonym for Namaste is ‘Namaskar’ or ‘Namaskaram’-all of them always taken seriously when uttered with complete and absolute respect-even when spoken to a stranger. The gesture has become so idealized by the average Indian, that even a picture of a person with bowed head and folded hands is immediately attributed to India. Inevitably. Universally. And very much to my delight and pride.
In my work as a business correspondent, I come across different people from various countries and I revel in talking to them and gaining a better insight into the industry that I cover. However, when I speak to my Indian business contacts/friends (no matter where they are located in the world), I somehow always begin my sentences with an enthusiastic ‘Namaste’. And I immediately find myself smiling in spite of myself. The person at the other end of the line (or face to face), always responds with a Namaste-even if he/she is not a particularly amicable mood. And more often than not, the Namaste breaks the ice and enables a longer and friendlier conversation than I would expect to have, had I begun with a simple “Hello”. The fact that I am a fellow Indian shows itself clear as day with that first Namaste and it creates a kind of common ground for further talks/chats and general give and take of information. I once called a contact in Shanghai, who held a very senior position in an Indian iron ore mining company in Goa. When I spoke to him for the first time, after the regular Namaste, Kaise hai aap?(How are you?) The conversation went smoothly, and every call I made to him after that, the interaction between us became smoother and friendlier. When I was in Shanghai with my editor for a conference, we met up with the abovementioned friend from the mining company, who quickly got chatting with my editor. After a long hearty chat about Goan iron ore export prices to China, my editor concluded by thanking him for taking the time to talk to me whenever I called him. To my pleasant surprise, he turned to my editor and said, “Shreyasi always greets me with a warm Namaste whenever she calls me. As a fellow Indian, how can I refuse to help her?” Suffice it to say that my boss was satisfied that I was making good contacts as a warm loving human being, while I was upbeat the entire day owing to the one statement made by a business contact who has now become a good friend-thanks to the one “warm Namaste”.
That is what Namaste can do. It has the ability to bind, to create a sense of oneness and to invoke respect, humility and warmth in people (even apparent strangers) and the supreme divinity of the ONE intangible, yet ever present SPIRIT. That is why it was a part of ancient Indian culture and that is why it continues to be used by Indians today. Its timelessness is its virtue and in its simplicity lies its significance. That is the power of Namaste, the magic of India and the completeness of Spirit.