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19 March, 2014

In Indian Culture Why do we do namaste or greet each other?

In Indian Culture
Why do we do namaste?

       Indians greet each other with namaste.  The two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the word namaste.  This greeting is for all -- people younger than us, of our own age, those older than us, friends and even strangers.

       There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the shastras or scriptures of which namaskaram is one.  This is understood as prostration but it actually refers to paying homage as we do today when we greet each other with a namaste.

     Folding hands together with a smile to greet, Namaste is a common cultural practice in India.  Namaste or Namaskar or Namaskaram is a common verbal salutation in India.  It is a customary greeting when one meets or takes leave of others.

     While saying Namaste, one commonly does this by slight bow made with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, infront of the chest.  It can also be done without words and carries the same meaning.

      Each palm represents the separate individuality.  Each palm supports the five fingers.  Similarly, each personality has five sheaths called the five kosas.  The five different parts of the personality are called pancakosas, five sheaths.

       They are: [1] annamayakosa food sheath, [2] pranamayakosa vital-air sheath [3] manomayakosa mental sheath, [4] vijnanamayakosa intellectual sheath and [5] anandamayakosa bliss sheath.  These five sheaths are supported by the Atman, the supreme Self which is the eternal Reality.  The five sheaths are different from individual to individual but the Reality that supports them all is one and the same in all individualities.  This truth is declared when the Hindus greet each other with namaskara.  The two palms joined together as one indicates that the Reality or Atman in both is one and the same.  To this unifying Infinite Atman the Hindus bows in the reverence when he does namaskara.

Why do we do namaste?

       Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention or an act of worship.  However there is much more to it than meets the eye.

      Namaste is derived from Sanskrit word "namah + te = namaste".  Namah means 'bow', 'obeisance', 'reverential salutation' or 'adoration' and te means 'to you' (dative case of 'you').  It means -- I bow to you -- my greetings, salutations or prostration to you.  Namaha can also be literally interpreted as 'na ma' (not mine).    It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one's ego in the presence of another.

     The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds.  When we greet another, we do so with namaste, which means, "may our minds meet," indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest.  The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love and humility.

Spiritual meaning of Namaste

       The spiritual meaning is even deeper.  The life force, the divinity, the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all.  Recognising this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet.  That is why sometimes, we close our eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord - as if to look within.  The gesture is often accompanied by words like "Ram Ram", "Jai Shri Krishna", "Namo Narayana", "Jai Siya Ram", "Om Shanthi" etc. - indicating the recognition of this divinity.

       When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.

       Namaste is also a friendly greeting in written communication.  When the hand position is higher, it usually means reverence and / or worship.  The expression with hands placed on top of one's head is usually the sign of utmost reverence or respect.  The gesture Namaste represents and acknowledges the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us.  Hence, Namaste means, 'I bow to you' or 'the divine within me greets the divine in you'.  The gesture is widely used throughout Asia and beyond.  It appears in c.4000 years ago on the clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.

     There are different ways of doing namasste or greeting each other in other langues prevalent in India.


     In Telugu, the gesture is known as Namaskaramulu or simply Namaskaram.


     In Tamil, it is known as kumbidu, கும்பிடு which is composed of kumbu meaning 'to cup hands' and idu, 'to do'.  Vanakkam, வணக்கம் in Tamil too,  means the same.  


     In Kannada, the gesture is known as Namaskara.  


     In Japan, the Namaste hand gesture is used in prayer and healing sessions and is called Gassho.

Sri Lanka

     Namaste is also in vogue in Sri Lanka and Nepalese cultures.  


     Sikhs also fold their hand as in Namaste, but their greeting is Sat Sri Akal.

Another way of Greeting

      Another way of greeting common in India is pranam or charana-sparsh, the touching of elder's feet.  It is an act of showing respect.  When greeting, children touch the feet of their elders in the family while people of all ages will bend to touch the feet of a great guru, murti or icon of a God or goddess.

Pranam in the way of Ashtanga

     One can do Pranam in the way of Ashtanga (touching the ground with knees, belly, chest, hands, elbows, chin, nose, temple) or Bhumishtha (bowing forehead down and touching the ground.  There are, however, many variations in offering pranam depending upon one's health, availability of time and other factors.

1] Excerpts from the book on "In Indian Culture Why do we.." written by Swamini Vimalananda and Radhika Krishnakumar.
2] Excerpts from the book on "Indian Culture" published by Sri Ramakrishna Math.
3] The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals by Swami A.Parthasarathy

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