Chir - Harana
(The Stealing of the Garments of the Gopis)
In a well-known episode it so transpired that the great lover god
Krishna made away with the clothes of unmarried maidens, fourteen to
seventeen years of age, bathing in the river Yamuna. Their fervent
entreaties to him proved of no avail. It was only after they performed
before him the eternal gesture of namaste was he satisfied, and agreed
to hand back their garments so that they could recover their modesty.
The gesture (or mudra) of namaste is a simple act made by bringing
together both palms of the hands before the heart, and lightly bowing
the head. In the simplest of terms it is accepted as a humble greeting
straight from the heart and reciprocated accordingly.
Namaste is a composite of the two Sanskrit words, nama, and te. Te means
you, and nama has the following connotations:
All these suggestions point to a sense of submitting oneself to another,
with complete humility. Significantly the word 'nama' has parallels in
other ancient languages also. It is cognate with the Greek nemo, nemos
and nosmos; to the Latin nemus, the Old Saxon niman, and the German
neman and nehman. All these expressions have the general sense of
obeisance, homage and veneration. Also important here is to note that
the root 'nama' is a neuter one, the significance of which will be
elaborated upon later.
The word nama is split into two, na and ma. Na signifies negation and ma
represents mine. The meaning would then be 'not mine'. The import being
that the individual soul belongs entirely to the Supreme soul, which is
identified as residing in the individual towards whom the namaste is
directed. Indeed there is nothing that the soul can claim as its own.
Namaste is thus the necessary rejection of 'I' and the associated
phenomena of egotism. It is said that 'ma' in nama means death
(spiritual), and when this is negated (na-ma), it signifies immortality.
The whole action of namaste unfolds itself at three levels: mental,
physical, and verbal.
It starts with a mental submission. This submission is in the spirit of
total surrender of the self. This is parallel to the devotion one
expresses before a chosen deity, also known as bhakti. The devotee who
thus venerates with complete self-surrender is believed to partake the
merits or qualities of the person or deity before whom he performs this
submission. There is a prescription in the ancient texts known as Agamas
that the worshipper of a deity must first become divine himself, for
otherwise worship as a transaction would become invalid. A transaction
can only be between equals, between individuals who share some details
in common. Hence by performing namaste before an individual we recognize
the divine spark in him. Further by facilitating our partaking of these
divine qualities, namaste makes us aware of these very characteristics
residing within our own selves. Simply put, namaste intimates the
'The God in me greets the God in you
The Spirit in me meets the same Spirit in you'
In other words, it recognizes the equality of all, and pays honor to the
sacredness of all.
Translated into a bodily act, namaste is deeply rich in symbolism.
Firstly the proper performance of namaste requires that we blend the
five fingers of the left hand exactly with the fingers of the right
hand. The significance behind this simple act in fact governs the entire
gamut of our active life. The five fingers of the left hand represent
the five senses of karma, and those of the right hand the five organs of
knowledge. Hence it signifies that our karma or action must be in
harmony, and governed by rightful knowledge, prompting us to think and
By combining the five fingers of each hand, a total of ten is achieved.
The number ten is a symbol of perfection, and the mystical number of
completion and unity. It is true for all ancient traditions. Ten is the
number of the Commandments revealed to Moses by God. In the Pythagorean
system, ten was a symbol of the whole of creation. Ancient Chinese
thought too thought of ten as the perfectly balanced number.
Another significant identification of namaste is with the institution of
marriage, which represents a new beginning, and the conjoining of the
male and female elements in nature. Marriage is a semi-divine state of
wholeness - a union between the opposite principles of male and female
necessary to crate and protect new life. The idea of human divine
association was often expressed in terms of marriage, as in the
description of nuns as "brides of Christ". Thus in the exhaustive
marriage rituals of India, after the elaborate ceremonies have been
completed, the new husband and wife team perform namaste to each other.
Wedding customs, full of symbolic meanings, attempt to ensure that
marriages are binding, hence fruitful and happy. Namaste is one such
binding symbolic ritual. The reconciliation, interaction and union of
opposites is amply reflected in this spiritual gesture. It is hoped that
the husband and wife team too would remain united, as are the hands
joined in namaste. By physically bringing together the two hands,
namaste is metaphorically reconciling the duality inherent in nature and
of which the marriage of two humans is an earthly manifestation, a
harmonious resolution of conflicting tensions. Thus namaste, which
symbolizes the secret of this unity, holds the key to maintaining the
equilibrium of life and entering the area where health, harmony, peace
and happiness are available in plenty.
In this context, namaste is equated with the image of Ardhanarishvara,
the hermaphrodite form symbolizing the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, or
the coming together of the parents of the universe, for the purpose of
creation. In this form Shiva has his beloved spouse engrafted in his
body. It is conjectured that by wresting from her husband one half of
his body as her own, and herself commingling in his physical frame,
Parvati has obtained an ideal, archetypal union with her husband. Indeed
which couple could be more devoted than the one which finds completion
only by merging into each other? By merging her creative aspect with
him, Parvati balances Shiva's destructive urge. Similarly when
Ardhanarishvara dances, the dance step is itself believed to be a
combination of two principal and antagonistic styles of dance. 'Tandava',
the fierce, violent dance, fired by an explosive, sweeping energy, is a
delirious outburst, precipitating havoc. On the other hand is 'lasya',
the gentle, lyrical dance, full of sweetness, and representing the
emotions of tenderness and love. It is in the lasya of the goddess that
death is annihilated and turned into transformation and rejuvenation,
rebirth and creation. The image of Ardhanarishvara is thus the perfect
master of the two contrary elements in the manifested universe. Such an
ideal, perfect marriage is the message of namaste. Thus is 'nama', the
root of namaste, of neuter gender, as is Ardhanarishvara, the androgyne.
Namaste recognizes the duality that has ever existed in this world and
suggests an effort on our part to bring these two forces together,
ultimately leading to a higher unity and non-dual state of Oneness. Some
of these dual elements which the gesture of namaste marries together and
unifies as one are:
God and Goddess
Priest and Priestess
King and Queen
Man and Woman
Heaven and Earth
Sun and Moon
Solar bull and Lunar cow
Sulfur and Quicksilver (Alchemy)
Theory and Practice
Wisdom and Method
Pleasure and Pain
Astral body (consciousness) and Etheric body (sensation)
Mind and body
Pneuma (spirit) and Psyche (mind)
Hun (spiritual soul) and p'o (material soul) (Chinese)
Conscious and Unconscious
Animus (unconscious male element in woman) and Anima (unconscious female
element in man) (Jung)
Objectivity and Subjectivity
Extraversion and Introversion
Intellect and Instinct
Reason and Emotion
Thought and Feeling
Inference and Intuition
Argument and Experience
Talent and Genius
Silence and Cacophony
Word and Meaning
Schizophrenia and Epilepsy
Depression and Mania
Sexuality and Anxiety
Katabolism (breaking up) and Anabolism (building up)
Ontogeny (individual evolution) and Phylogeny (race evolution)
Right side of body (warm) and Left side (cool)
Front side of body (positive) and Rear side of body (negative)
Brain and Heart
Sahasara Chakra and Kundalini
Insulin and Adrenalin
Pingala (yellow solar channel in body) and Ida (white
Hot breath and Cold breath (Yoga)
Exhalation and Inhalation (Yoga)
Linga and Yoni
There is indeed no sphere of our existence untouched by the symbolic
significance of namaste.
Finally, the gesture of namaste is unique also in the sense that its
physical performance is accompanied by a verbal utterance of the word
"namaste." This practice is equivalent to the chanting of a mantra. The
sonority of the sacred sound 'namaste' is believed to have a
quasi-magical value, corresponding to a creative energy change. This
transformation is that of aligning oneself in harmony with the vibration
of the cosmos itself.
At its most general namaste is a social transaction. It is usual for
individuals to greet when they meet each other. It is not only a sign of
recognition but also an expression of happiness at each other's sight.
This initial conviviality sets the positive tone for the further
development of a harmonious relationship. Namaste as a greeting thus is
a mosaic of movements and words constituting an intimation of
affirmative thoughts and sentiments. In human society it is an approach
mechanism, brimming with social, emotional and spiritual significance.
In fact it is said that in namaste the hands are put together like a
knife so that people may cut through all differences that may exist, and
immediately get to the shared ground that is common to all peoples of
In this context, a comparison with the widely prevalent 'handshake' is
inevitable. Though shaking hands is an extremely intimate gesture,
namaste scores over it in some ways. Primarily is the one that namaste
is a great equalizer. You do namaste with God (and not shake hands!). A
king or president cannot shake hands with the large multitude they are
addressing. But namaste serves the purpose. It is the same gesture one
would have exchanged with a king when with him alone. So no incongruity
arises. In the absence of namaste, those facing a large audience will
have to make do with a wave of the hands, a much less congenial
greeting, and indeed which does not state the essential equality of all
people, but highlights the difference even more. But on a parallel level
it has been conjectured that both the namaste and the handshake
developed out of a desire on the part of both the parties to show
themselves to be unarmed and devoid of malicious intention. The
outstretched hand, and the palms joined together, both establish the
proponents as disarmed and show that they come in peace.
Thousand Armed Avalokiteshwara
As much as yoga is an exercise to bring all levels of our existence,
including the physical and intellectual, in complete harmony with the
rhythms of nature, the gesture of namaste is an yoga in itself. Thus it
is not surprising that any yogic activity begins with the performance of
this deeply spiritual gesture. The Buddhists went further and gave it
the status of a mudra, that is, a gesture displayed by deities, where it
was known as the Anjali mudra. The word Anjali itself is derived from
the root Anj, meaning "to adorn, honor, celebrate or anoint."
According to Indologist Renov "Meditation depends upon the relationship
between the hands (mudras), the mouth (mantras) and the mind (yoga)".
The performance of namaste is comprised of all these three activities.
Thus namaste is in essence equivalent to meditation, which is the
language of our spirit in conversation with god, and the perfect vehicle
for bathing us in the rivers of divine pleasure.
References and Further Reading
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London,
Nambiar, A.K. Krishna. Namaste; It's Philosophy and Significance in
Indian Culture: New Delhi, 1979.
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Krishna The Supreme Personality of
Godhead: Mumbai, 1996.
Rao, S.K. Ramachandra. Bharatiya Pranama Paddhati (Respectful
Salutations in India): Bangalore, 1997.
Sivaramamurti, C. Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature: New Delhi,
Sudhi, Padma. Symbols of Art, Religion and Philosophy: New Delhi, 1988.
Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
Walker, Benjamin. Encyclopedia of Esoteric Man: London, 1977