The Meaning of Namaste
For a long time, I said namaste after class when a teacher said it, even though I didn’t really know what it meant.
Then, I stopped saying it. My inner 5-year-old was rebelling, wanting to know the reason why for everything. Why do we do this, why do we say that? What does namaste mean?
Grammar To Make You [Sic]
First, we have the verbal root nam (pronounced like “numb” but without the b) in Sanskrit meaning to bow, to bend, to submit. (You can see more definitions at the Sanskrit-English dictionary)
Te is the fourth conjugation of tvad and yuṣmad, meaning “you” (I’m still not clear on the composition of tvad and yuṣmad, I’ll have to get back to you on that one). If you’re so inclined, you can check out all the different conjugations in Sanskrit Grammar – Chapter VII: Pronouns. Te is a singular gender-neutral pronoun, a concept we don’t quite have in English, but common elsewhere in the world.
Okay, back to nam. So námah is always used with the fourth conjugation, in this case te, similar to how we might conjugate, for example, in French: je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont.
Still with me? We now have námah + te, so how did namaste come about?
In Sanskrit grammar, there’s a concept of sandhi (saṃdhi), which is when we have a conjunction or transition between words. There is a sandhi here where námah becomes námas to go with te.
Try it, saying namaste is much easier than namahte, right? It’s like in elision or liaison in French, where de + ou = d’ou (where from) or parle + on = parle-t-on.
Okay, enough grammatical digression, let’s go to the definition.
The Significance of Namaste
Side note: namaste is not only used in yoga, but in other social contexts as well. For now though, I’ll focus on its meaning in yoga, and to me.
Surely you have heard various interpretation of it, like, “The divine in me salutes to the divine in you”, or, “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.” (Phew, that one is quite a mouthful, eh?)
The Cliff Notes version of namaste literally translates to “I salute you”, but it also implies “I salute all”. Yes, te means you, but because it is an equal opportunity employer, it recognizes the sacredness in all, and that also means you *and* me.
Personally, when I say namaste or when I put my hands together and bow, I’m doing two things: one, I am grateful, extremely grateful to be able to receive and transmit the teaching of yoga, I bow to my teachers and students.
Two, [ahem]… hope you have some wine or crackers on hand, because we’re getting into cheesy territory here. Two, I surrender to something bigger, much bigger, The Force, if you will. In other words, when I put my hands together, I’m enormously grateful for Life.
Now, to the practicality of it, do you say it? Or do you do it? I asked this very question to my teacher Kathryn Payne one night after apprenticing with her. After deconstructing and reconstructing the word itself, she said, “Whether you do it or say it or don’t say it, the meaning is an experience from within.”
Anyway, I randomly found this on YouTube, and this is where Namaste can be found elsewhere, outside of a yoga class, outside of India, outside of Hinduism, which speaks to its meaning independent of tradition, no?
“Many of our boys don’t have any respect for life, that’s why it’s so easy to kill… We have not been taught to respect each other… And maybe that’s why we have been mistreating each other for much too long.” -Pastor Eddie D. Smith Sr. on The Meaning of Namaste
*Credit where credit is due:
I did not figure all of this out by myself. I am a beginning Sanskrit student with Kathryn Payne, who’s an American Sanskrit Institute teacher. While searching the vast web of the Internet via Google, I stumbled upon a blog by Subhash Mittal, who, after working in the Telecom Industry for 40 years, left to study and teach yoga. Subhash also recently blogged about the meaning of Namaste, and gave me some tips on which mystery of Sanskrit to unravel.
Well, what can I say here, but Namaste?