BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 30, 2020 (modified January 2, 2023)
The Hindu origins of the word namaste sparks concerns about state-religion separation for some. The underlying meaning, however, is unifying.
Several years ago, I took a yoga certification course. It was a turbulent time so the three days away were rejuvenating. Ultimately, I incorporated yoga poses into my fitness bootcamps. I wittingly referred to my brand of yoga as ‘Troyoga.’ I stripped yoga of spirituality and tradition, leaving only the challenging poses infused with more traditional body weight exercises. 'Troyoga' was a hit. All exercise; no ritual.
I ran across an article reporting that Alabama recently rescinded a decades old law prohibiting yoga in public schools. California rescinded similar prohibitions in 2013. Many still, however, continue to voice concern over the use of the word “namaste” during yoga routines because of (non-Christian) religious implications. The article piqued my interest.
What Does Namaste Mean?
Namaste, like countless English phrases and gestures, does have religious beginnings. In Sanskrit, namaste is formed by combining the words namah and te, meaning “I bow to you,” or “my greetings and salutations to you.” Namah is literally translated ‘na-ma’ or ‘not me,’ suggesting “I have no ego before you” (Singh, 2015).
In egoless interactions, we soften the presence of "I" and communicate with a respectful underlying “we.” Our communications often are burdened with ego protections. Defensive laden communication dances to ego-pounding themes. Subsequently, our communication is broken and self-centered, far from the 'na-ma' perspective.
Perhaps, a practice that acknowledges the presence of the ego would be helpful. Of course, we don’t need a word to enjoy ego-less transactions; nor does saying namaste magically transform practitioners into compassionate givers. Many yoga students are as snooty as others. Non-judgmental yoga attracts many judgmental students.
The Hindu Origins of Namaste
Namaste has Hindu beginnings. Perhaps, this is the part that some lawmakers find objectionable. The Hindu namaste couples the word with a slight bow and clasping the hands in front of the heart. The greeting recognizes the divine residing in you and me.
I’m not a religious sentimentalist. Please forgive me. I don’t fear a phrase or a gesture because of its origin. However, I greatly fear group mentality that justifies bias and violence, exhibiting some xenophobic reaction to a gesture of placing the hands together over the heart. Our history is blotted with horrific examples of religious mob mentality—large and small, here at home and abroad.
Shared Sacredness of Different Cultures
We should focus less on differences and appreciate shared sacredness. We bicker over dogma but desecrate the wonderous gift of life. We are quarrelsome and divisive. We spit revulsive condemnations, littering our purity of speech with vulgarisms; and yet, fear namaste because of the Hindu origins.
We need to unite, recognizing a shared spark of divinity—the miracle of life burning inside each of us. Whether a word such as namaste is appropriate for the classroom isn’t the point. It’s the concept. It’s the underlying fear of foreign infiltration. We can discuss differences in clarity and without fear only when we drop the ego, empathetically accept others, and humbly work through differences.
Namaste, my friends.
Singh, K.V. (2015). Hindu Rites and Rituals: Where They Come from and What They Mean