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Namaste: a Yogic Greeting

The gesture (or mudra) of namaste is a simple act made by bringing together both palms of the hands before the heart, and lightly bowing the head. In the simplest of terms it is accepted as a humble greeting straight from the heart and reciprocated accordingly.
The word Namaste is a composite of the two Sanskrit words, nama, and te. Te means you, and nama means to bow; together they point to a sense of submitting oneself to another with complete humility. The word nama can again be split into two, na, meaning negation and ma meaning mine. The meaning would then be 'not mine'. Namaste is thus the necessary rejection of 'I' with its associated phenomena of egotism. It is also said that ma in nama means death (spiritual), and when this is negated (na-ma), it signifies immortality.
The whole action of namaste unfolds itself at three levels: mental, physical, and verbal.
It starts with a mental submission. This submission is in the spirit of total surrender of the self. This is parallel to the devotion one expresses before a chosen deity, also known as bhakti. The devotee who thus venerates with complete self-surrender is believed to partake the merits or qualities of the person or deity before whom he performs this submission. Hence by performing namaste before an individual we recognise the divine spark in him. Further by facilitating our partaking of these divine qualities, namaste makes us aware of these very characteristics residing within our own selves. Simply put, namaste intimates the following:
'The God in me greets the God in you. The Spirit in me meets the same Spirit in you'
In other words, it recognises the equality of all, and pays honour to the sacredness of all.
Translated into a bodily act, namaste is deeply rich in symbolism. Firstly the proper performance of namaste requires that we blend the five fingers of the left hand exactly with the fingers of the right hand. The significance behind this simple act in fact governs the entire gamut of our active life. The five fingers of the left hand represent the five senses of karma, and those of the right hand the five organs of knowledge. Hence it signifies that our karma or action must be in harmony, and governed by rightful knowledge, prompting us to think and act correctly.
By combining the five fingers of each hand, a total of ten is achieved. The number ten is a symbol of perfection, and the mystical number of completion and unity. It is true for all ancient traditions. Ten is the number of the Commandments revealed to Moses by God. In the Pythagorean system, ten was a symbol of the whole of creation. Ancient Chinese thought also regarded ten as the perfectly balanced number.
By bringing together the two hands, namaste recognises the duality that has ever existed in this world and suggests an effort on our part to bring these two forces together, ultimately leading to a higher unity and non-dual state of Oneness. Some of these dual elements which the gesture of namaste marries together and unifies as one are:

  • God and Goddess
  • Man and Woman.
  • Heaven and Earth
  • Sun and Moon
  • Sulfur and Quicksilver (Alchemy)
  • Theory and Practice
  • Pleasure and Pain
  • Mind and body
  • Thought and Feeling
  • Right side of body (warm) and Left side (cool)

Finally, the gesture of namaste is unique also in the sense that its physical performance is accompanied by a verbal utterance of the word "namaste." This practice is equivalent to the chanting of a mantra. The sonority of the sacred sound 'namaste' is believed to have a quasi-magical value, corresponding to a creative energy change. This transformation is that of aligning oneself in harmony with the vibration of the cosmos itself.
At its most general namaste is a social transaction. It is usual for individuals to greet when they meet each other. It is not only a sign of recognition but also an expression of happiness at each other's sight. This initial conviviality sets the positive tone for the further development of a harmonious relationship. Namaste as a greeting thus is a mosaic of movements and words constituting an intimation of affirmative thoughts and sentiments. In human society it is an approach mechanism, brimming with social, emotional and spiritual significance. In fact it is said that in namaste the hands are put together like a knife so that people may cut through all differences that may exist, and immediately get to the shared ground that is common to all peoples of all cultures.
In this context, a comparison with the widely prevalent 'handshake' is interesting. Though shaking hands is an extremely intimate gesture, namaste can be regarded as being even more intimate. Unlike the handshake, namaste is a great equaliser. You do namaste with God (and not shake hands!). A king or president cannot shake hands with the large multitude they are addressing. But namaste serves the purpose. It is the same gesture one would have exchanged with a king when with him alone. So no incongruity arises. In the absence of namaste, those facing a large audience will have to make do with a wave of the hands, a much less congenial greeting, and indeed which does not state the essential equality of all people, but highlights the difference even more. But on a level of similarities, it has been conjectured that both the namaste and the handshake developed out of a desire on the part of both the parties to show themselves to be unarmed and devoid of malicious intention. The outstretched hand, and the palms joined together, both establish the proponents as disarmed and show that they have come in peace.
As much as yoga is an exercise to bring all levels of our existence, including the physical and intellectual, in complete harmony with the rhythms of nature, the gesture of namaste is a yoga in itself. Thus it is not surprising that any yogic activity begins with the performance of this deeply spiritual gesture.

Adapted from an article orginally published by  Exotic India