I often end my articles with “Namaste.” You may have heard the word here and there; for example, if you have ever taken a Yoga class, the instructor may have ended the class by saying “Namaste.” Still, many people do not really know what the term means. That’s too bad, because there really is a whole universe hidden in it. So I want to write a bit about that word, and explain why I like to use it.
When two Hindus meet, they often place their hands together in front of their hearts as if in prayer, bow their heads, and say “Namaste.” The Term itself literally means “I bow to you,” but in the West we often see things like “I bow to the divine in you,” or “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” That is quite a leap, going from “you” to “the divine.” How can that be? It turns out, if done correctly, and only then, “Namaste” is a mini-technique for a meeting of the minds, hearts, Spirits, and the Divine. Let’s find out.
When I googled for “true meaning of Namaste”, I quickly found translations like these:
- I bow to the divine in you.
- The divine in me bows to the divine in you.
- I am a reflection of your divine light.
- The light in me honors the light in you.
and so on.
I also found these two, which I think are especially beautiful, and I want to share them with you (alas, I could not identify the original authors):
- Namaste: My soul recognizes your soul. I honor the light, love, beauty, truth and kindness that is within you because it is also within me. In sharing these things there is no distance and no difference between us. We are one.
- Namaste: I honor the place in you where the whole universe resides. I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, 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, we are one.
And I mean: Wow?
How can we go from one word to all of that? From bowing, to you, to the Divine, and to seeing Oneness everywhere?
I personally heard “Namaste” described the first time along those lines some decades ago in the PBS Series “The power of myth,” featuring the esteemed Joseph Campbell. Joe eventually inspired one of my own books (The Steps of Essence). And if Joe says so, then there has to be some truth to it.
So I did some research and here is what I found.
The term Namaste was first used in ancient Hindu scriptures called the Vedas. It is a Sanskrit word, combining “nama” meaning “to bow”, and “te” meaning “you,” thus the original meaning of “I bow to you.” Nothing more, nothing less. Or so it appears upon first sight.
In its basic usage, it’s a respectful greeting. But it’s quite different than, say, two people shaking hands. That custom implies equality, and originated from days of old when during war the gesture of shaking hands proved that you are not holding any hidden arms.
But here in “Namaste” we have “bowing:” I bow to you. That is very different. When we bow, we usually do so before somebody we revere and hold higher than ourselves, such as a King or God. That notion of bowing shows deep reverence. It says that the highest part of me is less than the lowest part of you. Think about that for a moment.
In fact, in the Hindu tradition, the whole movement of Namaste with folded hands and bowed head is a simplified version of full exaltation: to bend down to the feet of the other, and after you stand up to hold your hands (as if in prayer) over your head. That is true honoring.
So when we bow, there is the sense of paying homage, obeisance, adoration, and prostration before somebody.
And there is this sense of great humility: I am lower than you. Appropriately, our word humility, or humble, actually means low or lowly (it is related to ‘humus’ or ground).
Now, that first part in Namaste, bowing or “nama,” can be further broken down into na- and -ma, meaning “not” and “me, myself” respectively. So the act of bowing, of submission, implies being not myself. What does that mean?
You see, the act of bowing is indeed not about my-self, or my ego. The ego always wants to take control, make my-self stand out, and hold my-self higher than others. The ego bows to no one but itself.
But bowing is about the other. When I bow, I am being humble and lower my ego, and through this momentarily being “not myself”, I am able to voluntarily submit my-self to another – and potentially merge with the other.
The access point to doing this is humility – that is the first key.
Now let’s look at the second part, I bow to you, the “te” in Namaste. To understand, we must see this in the historical context of Sanskrit, where the notion of “you” goes much deeper. It means all that you are, including that beyond your form. In Hindu Belief, there is the notion of Maya, a veil about what we perceive as reality that prevents us from seeing what truly is. What lies beyond our normal form, the Hindus say, is the Atman, for lack of better word let me call it the Soul or Spirit of an individual. And ultimately, the Atman is the same as Brahman, that which is in us, and out of which we come; for lack of a better word, let’s call this the Divine. So in Hindu belief, very loosely stated, we all are this one Divine, expressed through our Souls.
So we want to try to see the totality of a person. Now, when we look at a person without mentally categorizing him or her, without judging, and without accepting or rejection parts of him or her, then what we see is a complete wholeness: there is nothing missing. It is all perfect. And that is another definition of the Divine.
That’s where the connection to the Divine comes from.
So Namaste, in its truest sense, means something along the lines of “the non-ego bows to the totality that is you.” Note that I say the non-ego and not my non-ego, because that again is a sense of possession, something only an ego can do. And what exactly is a non-ego? If you are free from the ego, being not “your self”, what is left? It is that out of which you come: again, the Divine.
So you have the Divine on both sides. You could say “the Divine (in me) recognizes the Divine (in you).” But since there is only one Divine, we can drop the “in me” and “in you.” There is only Oneness. If you can see wholeness, without an ego to judge, what remains is the Divine recognizing and meeting itself.
That is where the notion of Oneness comes in.
It is expressed in the gesture of bringing the hands together (as if in prayer), which means a meeting and merging of the minds, and hearts, becoming One.
So it’s all here in that word “Namaste:” egoless humility, the Divine, and Oneness.
But as with all things powerful, there are some dangers. Let’s revisit some of the interpretations listed at the beginning of the article, and see how they can lead to a wrong impression.
Take “the Divine in me bows …”. This could imply something completely opposite of being humble and being ego-less. Somebody may say “Oh, I have something divine in me – how great am I?” Instead of lowering the ego, this may actually boost it, which would be to completely miss the point. Without humility you lose access.
Likewise, saying “… bows to the Divine in you” implies the danger of not seeing the whole person who stands in front of you, but only the Divine. It is as if that person would be invisible or not there. But he or she is there, and in fact, is the other access point.
So you see, the interpretations at the beginning of the article are both correct if understood, and wrong if misunderstood. You need to have the correct access points.
On the other hand, if you use “Namaste” properly, it is a wonderful tool to overcome the perceived separation between you and I. We live in a world that of separation, driven by the ego: I stand apart against him, and he against her, and she against that, and so on.
Yet our original being is Oneness. And Namaste can be an access point, a tool, to that Oneness.
- The first access point is to lower the ego through humility.
- The second access point is to regard the other person non-judgingly, and recognize the wholeness.
This is not unlike mediation: to still the mind and regard non-judging. As I explained in “The Steps of Essence” (page 61), that is the underlying meaning of “to mediate” in its spiritual context.
Namaste, if done right, is a mini technique that does the same. It is a meeting of the minds, hearts, Spirits, and the Divine.
So try it like this:
- Take a deep breath, and calm your thoughts -- just as you would in mediation.
- Once you reach a moment of silence, having calmed the ego chatter, behold the person you want to honor non-judgingly, be present to the totally of that person in front of you, and then expand and envision what lies beyond, call it a Soul, Spirit, God, the Divine.
- Hold that in the mind for just a moment. Smile. Bless.
- And then say “Namaste”.
A whole universe just unfolded.