I didn’t grow up with a namaste greeting tradition. It wasn’t for any disrespect – it just wasn’t a form of our cultural practices. It wasn’t because we were NRIs but possibly because within the community, we largely socialized with the Catholic Mangalorean folks and as friends, there was an open blend of Indians from different states and even people from other countries. There was absolutely no derision towards the practice, but there was also no compulsion or education to apply this – except for greeting the Hindi teacher when she entered the class room in school (I studied in a CBSE convent school).
So, growing up, we really didn’t know the significance of namaste apart from understanding that it was an Indian cultural practice and we were familiar enough with it from Indian movies and our national and cultural events at the Indian embassy.
Well, truth be told, not many urban Indians, both local Indian residents as well as NRIs, really know the relevance of this gesture today. I know this to be true from the many yoga practitioners & workshop participants I meet at my various talks and events. So I stopped giving myself a hard time over my cultural ignorance around it a long while ago.
That didn’t mean I stopped the process of learning more about it.
The yoga journey gives us ample opportunity to bow down into namaste. The expected culture of a yoga class often begins and ends with a namaskar mudra, but except for a few schools, not many taught about the significance of this gesture.
Let me begin by speaking for myself. I don’t greet my own teacher with a namaste and this is someone I respect immensely and look up to as a mentor, friend and guide. I am respectful and courteous (when I’m not cracking up about something and being my usual firecracker self), but I’ve not greeted him with a namaste. I will make it a point to greet him with a namaste the next time and see what our reactions are.
Not many of us greet our teachers with a Namaste either – definitely not if they are contemporary, urban yoga teachers…. and well, the teachers don’t always ask for it or greet in that fashion either.
The divinity within me bows down to the divinity within you.
So without going into the specifics and etymology of the word, very simply put, the language of Sanskrit and culture of the ancient vedas and yoga have infused a lot of significance into namaste. Unfortunately, not many people really feel that spiritual connection when saying namaste, and the greeting itself is often said in such casual and colloquial intonation and inflection that one is left wondering, if it is of any relevance at all.
My fellow desis would know of numerous other traditional gestures that are now practices with hilarious insignificance, and sometimes irreverence too – the ‘touching elders feet‘ practice, for example, where many people barely bend enough to reach the elder’s kneecap – but well…
Here’s why I’m writing about it despite it not being my culture or tradition by birth.
When I moved to India, there were a number of senior people taking their morning and evening walks in my residential complex. I didn’t know these people, but we would often make eye contact and soon progressed to exchanging smiles. With some women who didn’t speak English or Hindi, we moved on to a generally comprehensible, “Good morning, aunty” and for the rest, a polite nod of acknowledgement as I went on my way to drop the kids to the gate for school or on my way back home from the supermarket.
With some people, however, there was a different energy to the interaction. I couldn’t pinpoint it and the instinctive greeting that was evoked was the humble namaste.
I didn’t do anything dramatic with it. Like I didn’t, you know, join my palms or anything as I said it, but I just smiled and said, ‘Namaste‘. I’m guessing there was a slight bow to my head, and my eyes probably softened or something and my tone must have been softer.
I said namaste… and there was absolutely no discomfort in it.
Gradually, I stopped noticing it, but just for long enough to realize that I only greeted certain people with a namaste…. so I assumed it was the vibe I experienced around them – or that I only spoke to them in Hindi and perhaps that was why a ‘Good morning/ Good evening’ didn’t seem appropriate or in context – but that was odd because that was what I did with some others.
So it got me thinking a bit and made me smile… because I liked to experience namaste in my life that way, although I couldn’t really understand what that experience exactly was.
Then last month happened.
It happened at the next door supermarket where I make my daily pilgrimage to. I enjoy making small talk with the cashiers and the shelf staff, so I know them fairly well. I was standing with my daughter peering at the shelf for some Haldiram snacks when suddenly one of the staff passed by, but not before pausing to look at me and say, “Namaste, Madam ji!“
I can’t quite explain how deeply touched I was at his gesture. He didn’t join his palms in a namaskar or anything; his hands were full with 2 shopping baskets he was probably going to home-deliver, but he stopped to greet me. I was full of an unexplained emotion that I am feeling even now as I type these words remembering and reliving that moment. (That was when I knew this blog was on its way.)
And then sometime last week something else happened.
There is this little stall outside the supermarket (the same daily pilgrimage site) where an elderly Sikh gentleman sells kathi rolls and momos as an extension of his son’s restaurant further down the street. The family knew us in passing – regular supermarket customers, etc. and his momos are delicious! It was the day that I went up to him for a plate of momos and this very composed gentleman stood up, smiled at me, joined his palms and said, “Namaste, ji“
Again, there was deep sense of something that words couldn’t quite explain.
Over the days, I was warmed by these exchanges of namastes that never demanded anything beyond it, but still made me feel special enough to receive them in the midst of other shoppers, or sometimes when the Silk gentleman would pause in the doorway as we passed each other to join his hands and say, ‘namaste‘.
I grew used to it although I couldn’t explain it then. Today I think I recognize it – a little – although it is still largely incomplete in expression – but maybe enough to share the feeling in its incompleteness?
It was a sense of presence, a powerful sense of belonging of sorts. These people were not family, I don’t even know their names (well, I’m guessing one of them must be a Mr. Singh), but the greeting fostered a sense of connection – a grounded sense of respect. What was it that I felt? A sense of support. I still don’t know where this is coming from, honestly, but it was comforting feeling of family and trust.
Perhaps this came from the time when Mr. Singh told me that I could Paytm him later for my 3 plates of momos as my phone was left charging at home and I didn’t carry cash. Or maybe it was his smiling customer relationship skills of telling me I really didn’t need to worry about payment. Or was it the time he brought in a plate of special biryani that his wife made and packed a takeout for us to taste knowing he would meet us in the evening? Or perhaps it was that time when we didn’t take our grocery bag and that store staff told me to leave it behind and he would get it delivered at home?
Or was it the sheer presence of goodness and goodwill that was present in the humble namaste? A power that has the ability to reach beyond the confines of what is proper and what isn’t and connect us to the deeper fabric of life – and deeper still to the underlying essence of what it means to be a spirit taking a human form?
Whatever it is…. it just is.
तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि
Tat tvam asi
That art thou….You are that