Namaste, Namaskar, Namaskaram

Do you have a favorite word?

I do. It's Namaste. You may or may not have heard of it. You may use it regularly.

Also, did you know that this traditional Hindu greeting actually is one of several forms of the same word, all rooted in Sanskrit? Now, I once heard or read that Sanskrit is a dead language, meaning not in use today. I promise you that is NOT the case.

Sanskrit is alive and well and filled with depth and beauty.

Let's start with Namaste: In Sanskrit the words namah + te = namaste which means “I bow to you - my greetings, salutations or prostration to you." It's a sign of respect practiced by Hindus and people of many other religions. In fact, its simple gesture is the same as what I was taught- to fold my hands together, palms facing each other at the level of the chest - in prayer as a child during my Catholic upbringing. I love how I use it now in my ecumenical and Catholic practices. And in my encounters with Hindus.

A true Namaste greeting also includes a slight bow of the head, to convey respect for the intention behind the word, and to the person being greeted… or being said good bye to. Because it's one of those hello and good-bye multi purpose words.

I first learned Namaste here in the Midwest USA. Awkward at first, the more I've learned about it, the more I've grown quite comfortable, offering it freely and with deep intention and love from my heart and soul.

As I understand, Namaste possesses several levels of meaning:

  • "I bow to you, I salute you." The literal translation above.

  • "May our minds meet." More like a prayer, the bowing down of the head at this level is a gracious form of extending friendship in love, respect, and humility.

  • "I honor the divine in you." This recognizes the belief that God is present in all forms of life, human and otherwise, and conveys the deepest spirituality.

So what about the other versions? Not having any scholastic knowledge behind me, I will simply share what I have learned from my friends and encounters with many others.

  • The further north in India you are (or the person with whom you are speaking is from), Namaste is the commonly used word. This is what we spoke in Delhi and further north in the Himalayan Hill Mountains. This also applied in Nepal. Oh, Nepal! The children! This is a MUST SEE video.

  • As you travel south in India, Namaskar becomes more common.

  • In southernmost India, Namaskaram is more common, and there are other versions. 

I'm not sure if the differences are because Hindi is more common in the north and Tamil in the south.

What do you think? What kind of experiences have you had with these greetings?

On a respectful side note, while living in the Middle East, I learned from an Indian Muslim gentleman that just because he was Indian did not mean that Namaste was an acceptable greeting for him. He went on to explain that because Islam's core belief is "There is one God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet" it would be inappropriate to acknowledge that God is in another person. He was quite passionate about this, and I found myself wondering how other Muslims feel.

At any rate, I began to recognize names as being either Muslim or Hindu, and adapted my greeting accordingly, offering As-salam alaykum, meaning "Peace be upon you" to Muslims, and the appropriate version of Namaste to Hindus.

Yesterday as I was paying for a soda in a convenience store, I could tell the cashier was from Nepal or India, so I asked him. Learning he was from southern India and not yet knowing his name, I took a chance and offered Namaskar! Oh, how his smile lit up his eyes, his whole face, as he brought his hands together and replied with a heartfelt Namaskar!

What a small world it is.

Wouldn't it be incredible if all people greeted and really treated each other with such words and intention of love and respect?

Namaste, Namaskar, Namaskaram.