If you visit India, you might feel inclined to greet everyone with ‘namaste,’ a traditional Hindu greeting that shows your respect. But you might not hear the same thing in reply. In this blog post, we explore the origins of the word ‘namaste,’ how it is used in India today, and the impact of its use in English-speaking western countries, particularly when it comes to yoga practice.
Namaste! Chances are, you’ve probably seen this greeting somewhere before. It’s plastered all over modern yoga wear, with phrases like ‘Namastay in bed’ or ‘Namaslay’ but, more importantly, it is a traditional Hindu greeting, intended to show deep respect for the person you’re talking to.
What does ‘namaste’ mean?
The word namaste is derived from Sanskrit, a language of ancient India. Sanskrit itself is around 3,500 years old and has gone through periods of drought and revival, with some scholars claiming it was a dead language by the first millennium. However, it was still studied extensively throughout this time and used in religious practices such as daily chants and ceremonial recitations. Classical Sanskrit is also still spoken today, with around two million total speakers; the majority of native speakers live in India.
Namaste is a combination of the word namaḥ, which means ‘bow’ or ‘obeisance’ and te, a form of the word ‘you’. When they come together, namaḥ takes the form namas, so the Sanskrit word becomes namaste and means ‘bowing to you.’
In Hinduism, there is a spiritual element attached and it might also be translated as ‘I bow to the divine in you’ or ‘the sacred in me recognises the sacred in you.’ This is generally how namaste might be used today; it is normal to hear but for a lot of people in India, it is something they say when going to religious services, more than their day-to-day greeting.
How has it spread across India?
Sanskrit is considered to be the mother language of many languages that exist in India today, including Hindi, which has been heavily influenced by Sanskrit, Gujarati, and Bengali. It makes sense, then, that this greeting would pass through to all of these languages.
Also, with Hinduism being the most widely professed faith in India, and namaste being a traditional greeting associated with the religion, the word has spread across languages. As we’ve said above, it is used less often now in day-to-day life, but namaste exists as a greeting across the Hindi belt of India, and especially in more rural areas that are more traditionally religious.
What does it have to do with yoga?
Traditionally, not all that much. Namaste is a greeting but it is often used by yoga teachers to end their classes—though it has no particular connection to the practice. Yoga, while a spiritual exercise in India, is very different in places like the US and the UK where it is almost exclusively a chance to work out and there is little spiritual practice involved.
Yoga most likely developed around the fifth or sixth century BCE, with concepts appearing in texts around 500-200 BCE. These mentions were in Early Buddhist texts but it is difficult to pin down precisely when it all came together as a practice. By the Middle Ages, there were lots of different yoga traditions in India but these didn’t come to the attention of the western public until the mid-19th century.
Up until this point, the main goal of most forms of yoga was to achieve the state of ‘Samadhi,’ or meditative consciousness. In Hinduism, this is considered the highest state of mental concentration a person can achieve while still bound to their body and unites them with the highest reality. The physical practice was not really as important, though it had developed around the 11th century in Hatha yoga, which incorporated the full body ‘postures’ that tend to be used in yoga today.
Today in the west, most people know yoga as a physical activity, which developed mainly out of the asanas (traditionally, a general term for a sitting meditation pose) and postures used in Hatha yoga. The number of asanas used has increased from 84 in 1930 to over 900 in 1984 and most of the spiritual goals are ignored in modern yoga practice—there is no intention of spiritual liberation and many other spiritual practices have been instead replaced by the goals of fitness and relaxation. Yoga is now a worldwide multi-billion dollar business, with some asanas, such as the cross-legged lotus pose (Padmasana), being immediately identifiable with the practice.
So, what does this have to do with namaste?
Well, increasingly, there is a lot of discussion about whether the way in which yoga is practised and packaged in the west is an example of cultural appropriation. Workout clothes that say things like ‘slay all day then namaste’ are seen as not taking the importance of a word often associated with religion seriously—and if we add that to the fact that most of the spiritual elements of yoga have been removed in modern, western practice, then it seems as though this is cultural appropriation in its purest form; choosing parts of a cultural practice that seem fun or interesting ‘without learning and acknowledging its complex history.’
Hatha yoga—the term—has also undergone a particular change. It has been stripped of the connotations of its spiritual components and instead tends to refer to a gentle, unbranded yoga practice that is independent of the major yoga schools and, often, mainly for women.
How do we deal with cultural appropriation?
Understanding what it is and where it comes from is a good place to start. When it comes specifically to something like yoga, no one is saying you shouldn’t practice it; just that it is a good idea to be aware of the tradition behind it, so that you have a deeper understanding of both your practice and another culture.
For language learners, this is especially important as language is all about communication and cultural exchange—we should be striving to share with other people and be respectful of their cultures. People who are taking the time to learn Hindi or Gujarati or Sanskrit (or any other language!) should be—and most often, of course, are—also aware of cultural contexts that surround what they’re learning.
But whether you’re a language learner or a yoga practitioner, hopefully you now have a broader understanding of namaste and its relation to Indian tradition and spirituality. And if you want to learn more (about the language, at least) you know where to find us!