To many Buddhists, “Namaste” is more than a commonly spoken greeting. It is not just a salutation, it’s a sign of genuine respect and good will. More importantly, bowing to another helps us overcome the obstacle of pride, a major obstacle to Buddhist practice. The mudra Anjali, which is associated with “Namaste”—the hands clasped in front of the heart, fingers pressed (see below)—is ubiquitous to nearly all schools of Buddhism, and has it’s root in Hindu practice, and the greeting “Namaste.”
(Please note, a counter-point feature in Buddha Weekly, Anjali Mudra is a Universal Buddhist Greeting —— Not “Namaste”, is found here>>)
Used Everywhere: Not Just a Spiritual Greeting
Namaste is not a Buddhist-specific greeting, and it has its origins in Hindu practice. In India it is an polite greeting. In Buddhism, it is typically a sign of great respect when used together with the hands pressed in front of the heart, symbolic of the bow.
Variations on the spoken greeting is Namaskar, Namaskaram or Vanakkam. Yet, many Buddhists, regardless of their home language, use “Namaste” as their standard greeting—not because of cultural roots, but due to the many layers of meaning behind the simple word. It means much more than “Hi” or even “Bless you”, and literally could be translated as “I bow to you.” Actually, it implies, “I bow to the Divine in you” as both Hindu and Buddhist traditions teach that all beings have Divine (or Buddha Nature, as it’s called in Buddhism). From India, the greeting expanded to many parts of Asia—and in a spiritual context, particularly in Buddhism—around the world. Namaste replaces “hello” as greeting where deep respect is offered.
Namaste is used as both a spoken and written greeting for welcoming guests, relatives, strangers. It is also a parting good-bye. In the Buddhist context, when spoken, it is nearly always accompanied by a bow, usually with hands pressed together in front of the chest. For those who practice with Mudras, this is known as Anjali. If Anjali mudra is performed without words — for example, a greeting at a distance — the word “Namaste” is conveyed regardless.
Namaste is Sanskrit: Not Just a Word, but Stimulates Recall
Of course, Namaste is rooted in Sanskrit, the mother of languages, a language much older than even Latin. The word Namaste is the combination of “namah” — to bow — and “te” — to you. Namaste literally means “bow to you.”
In some traditions, rooted in Hinduism, which carries over to Buddhism, the Anjali mudra used for Namaste is said to activate pressure points — think in terms of Acupuncture — which activate the pressure points in eyes, ear, mind. To press them together activates these pressure points, helping us to remember the person we are greeting: their face (eyes), name (ears) and personality (mind).
In Buddhism, to Bow is a “Cure”
Buddhists typically bow as a cure for negative attachment to ego and vanity, which binds one to samsara. Often, non-Buddhists see the action of bowing as “worship”. However, to bow to an elder, friend, guru, statue of the Buddha, or even a stranger is a sign of respect rather than devotion. The bow of respect contributes tangibly to the path away from attachment. The attachment to ego is literally crushed. And, it’s polite!
How low we bow is generally an indication of our degree of respect. To a Buddha statue or relic (or representation of the three Jewels), we might do full body prostrations, fully prone, and multiple times (usually a minimum of three.) To a guru, we might hold our hands higher and bow lower (or do full prostration) as a sign of reverence to the teacher and the dharma teachings he brings. To an elder, we might bow a little lower than to a good friend. To parents, in some parts of Asia, such as Korea, it is often traditional to fully bow to the floor when formally greeting parents or in-laws during special occasions such as engagements, weddings, and death anniversaries. The key, however, is we are helping ourselves by subduing our ego — while at the same time being polite and respectful.
Even in Business we “Namaste”
Major airlines, service industries, waiters, salespeople, VPs and presidents of companies use “Namaste” to greet their customers—out of an abundance of respect and thanks.
In a more “spiritual” sense, “Namaste” is also non-verbally saying “I honor the place you occupy in the Universe. I honor you with love, wisdom and peace.”
A Guest Contributor makes the counter point that Anjali Mudra (the hand gesture) and a greeting is the proper form, not the word “Namaste”: