the true meaning of the word ‘namaste’

the word ‘namaste’ has been in my life a lot these past several years. it is a sanskrit word which when translated means, “i bow to you.” basically, the etymology behind it  breaks down to namah = ‘bow’ and te = ‘you.’

in modern-day asian culture, it is used basically as a form of both salutation and a way of parting. but even in the indian culture, there are some people who take it as a form of respect and even spiritual meaning.

in western yoga practice, it has become a most definitely spiritual meaning where yogis perform the bowing motion in conjunction of the word at the end of a yoga glass as a sign of respect, equality and a deliverance, so to speak, of spiritual well wishes to their fellow yogis.

why am i bringing this up?

about a year ago, i was having dinner with two of my girlfriends. one is east indian, growing up with hindu traditions. she does not speak her native language but she has been raised in her culture as both her parents were born in india.

i was talking about turning 40 and how i was musing over the idea of doing something to commemorate my rite of passage. i had, in the past, toyed around with the idea of getting a tattoo. alas, i told them, i have not found any type of symbol i could use which would have enough meaning for it to be a part of my body for life.

they asked me if i had any ideas at all. i did mention that it will most likely be something spiritual – and as yoga has become such an important part of me, it might have something to do with the practice of yoga. i mentioned a couple of ideas, one being the use of the sanskrit writing for ‘namaste.’

to this, my one indian friend scoffed and said, “you know that just means ‘hello,’ right?” then she went on a mini-rant about how westerners always do this – we glorify other cultures without truly understanding the meaning behind what we’re glorifying.

i said nothing to this. as the truth is, i was not sure if she was right or not. and regardless, she did have a point. we do do this.

and so, i’ve been doing my research on and off for a year. it’s been difficult to find out exactly whether or not us north american yogis have been lead down the wrong path to the word ‘namaste.’ until i was able to find some solid information, i have been using the words ‘om shanti’ (meaning not just ‘peace’ but especially from buddhist practice, it means ‘inner peace’) during my practice instead, though if my yoga instructor prefers using ‘namaste,’ i do repeat it back as a sign of respect to him or her.

after all, during the practice of yoga, there’s no room for debate on semantics.

as mentioned above, i have gotten as far as the true meaning of where the word was derived from. that i am quite sure is correct. it is not just ‘hello’ or ‘good-bye’ though it is used for the moment of greeting and parting. but it does mean ‘i bow to you’. no one can deny that such an act and statement obviously is showing a sign of respect. it is a peaceful gesture.

the popular meaning “the divine light in me shines to the divine light in you”, however, might very well have been populated by western interpretation. it’s more like a ‘step up’ from the etymology of ‘namaste.’

so the question still has not been answered – are we essentially adding a bit of pretentiousness to the true use of ‘namaste?’

honestly, when i hear my yoga instructors say it to me and others in class, i do not feel any sign of pretentiousness. i feel, actually, only peace and love – because regardless of whether or not the meaning of the word is being used properly or not, their intent is pure, all good, and yes, even divine. i even have one instructor who says this and  concludes the class with an additional, “i love you all!” and while this seemed so foreign to me at the time, i believe him when he says this. it is on that level of how he sees the good in all humans and that is the part of humanity he wishes to send his love. it is, therefore, where he concentrates his positive energy so that the good in us, in all of us, is fed and nurtured.

at the end of the day, i see nothing wrong with this.

perhaps i’m still leery of getting a tattoo that says ‘namaste’ as i prefer the word ‘shanti’ anyway, but i have decided that it’s okay to follow the concluding ‘namaste’ ritual at the end of one of my yoga classes, leaving my friend’s sarcastic comment at the door of the studio (i love my friend, but that doesn’t mean i always agree with her).

i also mentioned that should i get a sanskrit word as a tattoo, i would also consider a illustration of a lotus flower to tie in my chinese heritage and my connection to my buddhist traditions. she did add another sarcastic comment, “and that probably is just a flower to people in china.”

in reply, i smiled back and said, “no… it actually has a deeply rooted meaning for those who practice buddhism.”

what are your thoughts on how north american yogis use the word, ‘namaste?’

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2 thoughts on “the true meaning of the word ‘namaste’

    • i definitely won’t get one until i find something i can live with… forever! as this post proves, i’m no where near ready to make that commitment. chances are, i may never get one.

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