Namaste: Journey From The East To The West

9 min


The Oxford dictionary defines the term Namaste as “a respectful greeting said when giving a namaskar”. It acknowledges the word’s ties to Hindi as well as to the mother of all languages, ‘Sanskrit’, which also happens to have given roots to words in common English usage such as  ‘karma’ and ‘nirvana’. I guess, this means that it is safe to say that the popularity of this term, ‘Namaste’ which has south-east Asian origins isn’t groundbreaking. Indians, particularly, use both ‘Namaste’ and ‘Namaskar’ as almost universally applicable greetings. You could say that it is the western equivalent of a friendly handshake, but this traditional greeting needs to be supplemented with a long line of tradition and history associated with it.

Namaste Means

‘Namaste’ literally translates to “I bow to you”. Its meaning holds quite true as the greeting is generally accompanied by a bow from the greeter’s side. This gesture is fairly specific and requires a pressing of the hands in front of one’s chest with a light bow. Nowadays people often just fold their hands as a way of implying the greeting. However, this in no way takes away from the beauty of the tradition which it represents.

Where The Word Namaste Come From?

We already know the origins of the word, but how did it get popular in the west? You can understand this by just one word-‘Yoga’.

Yoga came to the west as ‘Hatha Yoga’ and immediately became popular due to icons such as Swami Vivekananda. The practice’s Indian origin is one of the prominent reasons why ‘Namaste’ started being used by those who were learning or were interested in learning the practice colloquially as well.

An elementary school in Georgia, USA had recently banned the use of ‘Namaste’ as many conservatives believed that it was a serious deviation from their predominant Christian faith. A negative precedent, but it couldn’t be further from the truth as the term’s spirituality is applicable to all humans, regardless of their religious beliefs. The gesture recognizes the divine within each individual and seeks to equalize this inherent part of human souls.

Many also trace it back to the chakra system which divides the body into seven wheels which are related to different parts of the body. ‘Namaste’, is said to have a direct link to the heart chakra which is responsible for a positive flow of energies. This does not come as a surprise to many of us as you can see people walk away smiling and radiating positively after the end of a yoga class.

It all has to do with the energy and positivity, which you emit from within. The divine inside all of us is meant to represent a self which is free from ego and arrogance. The aim is to strive for Godly love and treat all our fellows the same, and thus live in a cooperative society conducive to our own and other’s growth.

How to Distinguish Between Spirituality and Religion

Issues regarding the use of ‘Namaste’ arise out of divisions made based on communal identities. The term has its roots in Hinduism which might lead to Hindus claiming the term or other faiths objecting to and rejecting it in the fear that they are disrespecting or disowning their own. This religious paranoia is a direct outcome of a long history of subduing of cultures. Each one of us wishes to retain our roots which often blurs the line that we must draw in order to do so.

‘Cultural Appropriation’ is a term that we all may have come across during some point in our lives. It usually refers to instances when a group is hurt and caused offence to, due to the inappropriate use of their cultural practices and identity markers. However, a sensitive line must be drawn to determine what constitutes as an offense and what is simply an act of honoring or respecting another’s traditions. Breaking down cultural barriers, to borrow certain admirable aspects of another culture, for example ‘shaking hands’ now adopted all over the world is symbolic of a successful adoption of western practices by the rest of the world.

So does this answer the question of boundaries in terms of culture and religion when concerned with the term ‘Namaste’? Though it might not fulfil our requirement completely and context must be kept in mind while deciding the appropriateness of this traditional cultural exchange,we should just be proud that we have moved on from the dark ages of prejudice and racism to this globalised age of mutual respect and love where cultures are allowed to express themselves freely and share their roots amicably.

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