Understanding “Namaste” and its contemporary significance

Date: 14 Jan 2022

Although in May 2021, the state of Alabama lifted the three-decade-long-ban on teaching of Yoga in schools, the word “namaste” and chanting of “om” is still barred in classrooms (See Guardian article of 21 May 2021). According to the article, Becky Gerritson, Director of Conservative Alabama Eagle, claimed that “Yoga is a very big part of the Hindu religion.” The aim of this article is to explain that besides its contemporary significance, Namaste is a multi-millennia Indian way of greeting that has no religious connotation whatsoever.

Today, the word “Namaste” and the hand gesture that goes with it have become, worldwide, pretty much synonymous with “India”. To understand this word and the history that goes with it, let us first dissect it. This word is a conjunction of either “namaH” or “namas” and “te”. The word “namaH” or “namas” stands for addressing someone respectfully. The word “te” is a Dative Singular (i.e., Chaturthi Vibhakti) or Genitive Singular (i.e., Shashthi Vibhakti) of the word “tvam” which stands for “you”. Thus, Namaste literally means “(Here is) your respectful salutation (from me)”. Thus, it aims to convey the state of mind wherein a person is addressing someone, or many people/things, respectfully and receptively.

Traditionally, the hand gesture that goes with it is referred to as “Pranjali Mudra”. The Pranjali Mudra has the following characteristics:

• The palms of two hands are brought together while maintaining a slight hollow between the palms – in most cases, only the fingertips, thenar eminence, and hypothenar region are pressed against each other lightly.
• The palms, joined together like so, are placed at the centre of the chest with the fingers pointing towards the sky.
• While addressing a divinity though, the palms, joined together like so, are placed at the front of the face with the thumb tips touching the middle of the eyebrows, which is the location of the Ajna Chakra.
• It is optional to bow the head while performing the Pranjali Mudra.
• Note: Pressing both the palms hard against each other in this position is the exact opposite of Namaste – it effectively says “enough!”

It is possible that some hard medical grounds justify why the Pranjali Mudra accompanies Namaste. In acupuncture and acupressure, as per the Chinese science of meridians, the fingertips are the activation points for the brain centres whereas the thenar/hypothenar region has the activation points for pancreas and spinal column. Thus, the Pranjali Mudra can help one get into an attentive and receptive frame of mind and body.

The oldest known reference on how the Pranjali Mudra should be made is possibly “Natya Shastra” (i.e., A Scientific Treatise on Drama) of Bharat Muni. It has defined the Pranjali Mudra in Ch 9, verse 127-128. This classic text was composed at least 1,800 years ago. The Pranjali Mudra can be observed in several sculptures found in the Indian subcontinent that date back to over 2,000 years ago. Carbon dating could be used to identify the earliest available evidence of the Pranjali Mudra in sculptures or paintings.

As far as the culture goes, Namaste is an integral part of the Indian psyche. This word features in important mantras from the Vedas and the Upanishads that are considered auspicious even today. For example, wind (i.e., “Vayu”) is saluted like so in the Shanti Mantra from Taittireeya Upanishad:

As per many researchers, the Vedas and the Upanishads date back to at least 2,000 BC. So, Namaste has been in vogue for at least 4,000 years now. Just like Vedas and the Upanishads continue to exert a stronghold in Indian philosophy, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata continue to exert a major stronghold on Indian art, Indian culture, and Indian psyche. These were composed well over 3,000 years back and possibly reached their final form nearly 2,000 years ago. The act of performing Namaste, viz., “Namaskrutya”, is mentioned in the very first verse of “Mahabharata” which has close to 100,000 verses. This verse says the following: “First perform Namaste to Nara (a surpassingly good human being), Narayana (the Lord Narayana), and Goddess Saraswati, and then begin the exposition of Jaya”. It should be noted that “Jaya” is the earlier classic text on which Mahabharata is built. The exact verse is as follows:

The act of performing a Pranjali Mudra is mentioned in the fourth verse of Mahabharata. This verse is about Lomaharshana’s son Ugrashrava, the creator of the final version of Mahabharata as we know it today, and his audience in what was possibly its first ever recital. The verse says the following: “Having been welcome by the sages in Naimisharanya (the forest Naimisha), Ugrashrava, in the Pranjali Mudra, greeted the sages and asked them whether their penances were progressing well”. The exact verse is as follows:

The act of performing a Pranjali Mudra is mentioned in the 24th verse of Ramayana. This verse concerns the sage Valmiki, who composed Ramayana, and Lord Bramha. Having composed a verse of astonishing merit, Valmiki had a surprise visit from Lord Bramha. This verse says the following: “At the sight of Lord Bramha, Valmiki got up immediately and, dumbfounded, stood silently with his hands in a Pranjali Mudra.” The exact verse is as follows:

As an aside, a variant of the western practice of shaking hands as a symbol of friendliness was prevalent in India in the days of Ramayana. For example, in verse 12 of vol. 5, Sugreeva says the following to Lord Rama: “If you would like to be friends with me, here is my arm extended towards you. Hold my hand with your hand to cement the bond of friendship.” The exact verse goes as follows:

Namaste greetings are also widely used in many countries including Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, etc, possibly owing to the significance influence of Indian culture historically. Interestingly, Namaste might have been used in the Western world as the paintings in Figure below illustrate. It is possible that the practice of greeting using the Pranjali mudra might have prevailed prior to the 15th century. However, it is not certain whether it was used as gesture to greet the divine or whether it was used to as common form of greeting one another.

(a) Sano di Pietro’s “The Virgin in Adoration of the Christ Child with Saints Bernard and Bernardino and Angels” (©Kress Collection Digital Archive: https://kress.nga.gov/Detail/objects/3411). (b) A painting in Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich, Germany (©Alte Pinakothek Museum, Munich, Germany).

Of course, the popularity of Yoga has served to make Namaste more mainstream across the globe as a means of friendly and welcoming greeting, Namaste has many benefits in today’s world. Unlike other modes of greetings such as handshake, hugs, and now touching the fists post-Covid-19 pandemic, Namaste does not require a bodily contact and is therefore is an effective way to prevent spreading of contagious diseases. As mentioned earlier, hard medical evidence exists on how/why using namaste help attain a receptive frame of mind and body. Whether someone wants to use “Namaste” greeting is a matter of personal choice, but the article shows that it is a multi-millennia beneficial Indian way of greeting that has no religious connotation whatsoever.