Here is a topic that has been on my mind for years and years, and back in 2008 or so I wrote this basic idea on the old Yoga Journal community site (no longer in existence). More recently, during our monthly Sanskrit / Samskrta Challenge, and even before then, a student asked me about the difference between namaste and namaskar. And I took her query as an opportunity to address the issue in a larger and grander manner, i.e. aimed at the contemporary yoga movement on the whole.
The Namaste Dogma & Bowing
One of the most recognizable terms in the contemporary yoga movement is namaste. Nearly each and every class concludes with both teacher and students reciting, “Namaste”. Verily, even non-practitioners say namaste when they meet a yoga enthusiast. That is the great extent to which the term namaste has become synonymous with yoga nowadays. And while there is certainly a place for the namaste address in yogic life, its current use is misdirected. A closer, more in-depth examination sheds light on how the term should be used, as well as what should be the proper address between yoga practitioners.
Namaskar vs Namaste
Actually, there are two terms that need review: (a) namaskár and (b) namaste.
The word namaskar comes from the original Sanskrit namah (salutations) karomi (I do), meaning “I greet, I pay salutations”. And it is understood that you are not greeting that individual per se, but rather the Supreme Consciousness that lies within each and every being and unites us all. So when we say namaskar and perform the accompanying mudra, which is explained in greater detail below, the meaning is: “With all the divine charms of my mind and with all the love and cordiality of my heart, I pay salutations to that Supreme Consciousness which resides within you.” In short, we are recognizing the existence of the Supreme within that person, viewing that person as a spiritual being, as an expression of the Supreme, but not as the Supreme Entity Itself. Hence, it is highly appropriate to use namaskar as a greeting between two people.
In contrast, the term namaste is critically different. This word contains the suffix “tubhyam” or “te” which means you. And when combined with the root to form the word namaste, that “you” is “You” with a capital “Y”, meaning the Supreme Entity. So namaste is a greeting aimed directly towards the Supreme Entity. It means: “I pay my salutations to You the Supreme Entity.” That is why it is not appropriate to use the term namaste between two human beings or unit entities.
This distinction is not one of mere syntax, semantics, or any sort of linguistic gymnastics. Nor is it a question of personal choice. This stark distinction sits squarely upon the practical foundation of the yogic ideal.
Yoga: Unification with the Supreme
Yoga by definition is theistic in nature. Yoga means union, specifically the unification of unit consciousness and Cosmic consciousness, jiivatman and Paramatman. That is the definition of yoga:
Saḿyogo yoga ityukto jiivátmá Paramátmanah.
To unify jiivátmá (unit consciousness) with Paramátmá (Supreme Consciousness) is what is known as yoga.
Thus, in the yogic ideal, there is a clear distinction between a unit being and the Cosmic Entity. And each is addressed accordingly: namaskár for unit beings, and namaste for the Cosmic Entity.
Yoga is for All
Everyone is welcome to come to the mat and practice, and essentially engage with yogic teachings according to their level of interest and understanding. Some might join a class to alleviate back pain; some may be in need of stress-relief and relaxation; others may be interested in the yogic lifestyle; and, some may be keen to learn about spirituality. Whatever the level and degree of interest one has, that is all fine and well. What crosses the line is doing things in the name of yoga that inherently transgress the ideals, values, or ethics of yoga.
For instance, one need not be a vegetarian or a non-smoker to learn meditation and practice yoga. Yet at the same time, one may not declare that eating meat and smoking cigarettes are consistent with yogic teachings. Similarly, one need not be a theist in order to learn the practice of yoga; yet, at the same time, one may not declare that atheism is an inherent principle of yoga.
So while yoga is a practice that welcomes one and all, one may not do or say things in the name of yoga that are actually antithetical to the core values of yoga. And one of the main tenets of yoga is the clear-cut distinction between unit consciousness and Cosmic Consciousness. Verily, the practice of yoga means coming onto the path with all of one’s unit limitations and blossoming into a great reflection of the Supreme, ultimately realizing your inherent nature wherein the unit mind merges with Cosmic Mind.
Here the key point is that the distinction between unit and Cosmic needs to be upheld, with due reverence and respect. Along those lines, the unique term for addressing Cosmic Mind is namaste, with the suffix te meaning You the Cosmic Entity, whereas the term namaskar is properly suited as a greeting between unit beings. To use the term namaste towards another human being is inherently against the ideal of yoga. Yet it is this greeting of namaste which has so pervasively spread across the contemporary yoga landscape in order to address teacher and student etc. But this is totally wrong; it is a dogma – full stop. And it is incumbent upon teachers and advocates of yoga to understand this distinction and educate their students and followers about this. Verily, there needs to be a wholesale shift.
How Could This Be Wrong?
No doubt, some may question, “How could namaste be wrong when that is what everyone says after class?” And the answer is very simple: Human life is the journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to realization, and in this present era of dialectical materialism countless wrongs have been embraced as customs or social norms. Yet, just because they have been widely accepted does not make them just or right. For instance, kindly consider the following.
(a) For decades and decades women were not granted suffrage – and in some regions and lands still women are forbidden from voting.
(b) Nowadays, there is a pay gap between genders, even when performing the same grade of work.
(c) The medical establishment (and the society at-large) long refused to acknowledge the harmful effects of smoking, just as it has failed to categorically acknowledge that eating meat is deleterious to one’s health.
(d) Around the globe, a particular caste or race is deemed superior to others, leading to gross and rampant exploitation and injustices.
Here the point is that simply because something is pervasively done, such as women not being allowed to vote, that in itself does not make it just or right. Rather, as a humanity, we are constantly struggling and striving to overcome these ills, defects, and injustices. And those who lead the charge and face the backlash are looked upon as great seers and sages. They lead the society forward into a new era of awareness.
So just because the namaste term has been widely used in a particular manner, that does not mean that it is therefore correct and proper. Rather, upon further review, it is seen that it has been misused on a grand scale, and now is the time to bring this dogma to light, embrace the correct approach, and right that wrong– just as people took up the cause of universal suffrage when laws mandated that women could not vote. Where there is a wrong, it should be analyzed with an open mind and made proper, regardless of the popularity or high level of acceptance of that misnomer or dogma.
Bowing Is Not Done in Yoga
Here we come to the next step in this sequence. Because the problem is not just that the wrong term (i.e. namaste) has been used to address or greet unit beings; the wrong mudra or gesture is also applied. Specifically, people are wrongly taught to bow down when reciting namaste.
But this gesture of bowing down is another dogma that grossly contravenes the yogic idea.
Each and every person is an expression or reflection of Cosmic Mind. We all come from the same Entity. That means that existentially there is no high and low; all have the same inherent value. No one is subservient to or lesser than everyone else as all stem from the same Cosmic Source. Hence bowing is not recognised as a proper gesture within yogic culture. Because bowing itself presupposes one being higher or lower than another. That is why the gesture of bowing is not done or accepted in the field of yoga. However, nowadays, at the end of class people say namaste and often bow down to the teacher. This concluding moment of class is hence a double wrong, or a double dogma. The wrong term is used, and the wrong gesture is done.
So then what is the correct mudra (body / hand positioning) when saying namaskar to another human being or at the end of class? One should sit erect or upright, bring the palms together, and touch the thumbs at the trikuti (mid-point between the eyebrows), concentrating all strength and goodwill at that focal point, and then draw the palms down to the anahata chakra, summoning all the love and cordiality of the heart. Throughout this mudra the eyes remain closed so one can best ideate, the spine remains erect, and the chin stays neutral. This gesture ensures that all are meeting and greeting one another on the same level, with each given due respect and equal standing. And again the overall meaning of namaskar when done with the proper mudra is: “With all the divine charms of my mind and with all the love and cordiality of my heart, I pay salutations to that Supreme Consciousness which resides within you.”
Materialism has run rampant across this earth, and the values, practices, and teachings of yoga stand diametrically opposite to those of materialism. It should come as no surprise that such a drastic shift, from one long embedded paradigm to the introduction of a new practice, has not been flawlessly executed, especially on the collective level. There are bound to be missteps along the way. The key is to have the presence and flexibility of mind to recognize those missteps and correct them as they are pointed out to us, rather than rigidly cling to those wrongs and irrational ideas because we became attached to them. As a yoga community, we should wholly embrace the term namaskar along with the corresponding mudra when we meet, greet, and address one another, and the final moment of our yoga classes should reflect this change.