How to Namaste the Spiritual Way

Posted on in On Our Radar by Sridevi Ramanathan


Who hasn’t heard the term Namaste these days? As yoga has become a household term, so too has Namaste. Namaste is both a greeting and a gesture and is regularly used to open and close yoga classes. In the studios, teachers explain that Namaste means, “the Divine in me bows to or pays respect to the Divine in you.” While Namaste is the commonly used word, another term used interchangeably is Namaskar. Namaste. Namaskar. Both are derived from Sanskrit and are used as a greeting. Both are accompanied by the same gesture. Furthermore, both mean, “the Divine in me bows to the Divine in you.”

So what’s the difference?

To explain that, we must pan out and look at the larger religious context of Hinduism. One of the core philosophies is that there is a Universal Truth and an Individual Truth. The Universal Truth is referred to as Brahman. Each of us is born from Brahman and contain Brahman. The individuated Brahman within us—the Individual Truth—is called Atman. The goal in life for a Hindu is to live cognizant of the essential sacred Oneness of Brahman and Atman, and eventually, perhaps over multiple lifetimes, merge the two.

Now returning to our question, what is the difference between Namaste and Namaskar?

The difference is miniscule, a matter of semantics. Namaste means, “I pay respect or bow to you.” Namaskar means, “I bow to the form of the Divine as you.” In the Hindu view, you is understood to be “the incarnate of the Universal Truth in the form of you” (Atman), anyway. So essentially, Namaste and Namaskar mean the same thing. Neither term is more correct. Both are accurate. But if we really want to do Namaste or Namaskar “correctly”—or rather, as intended—we must do it with spiritual intention, with bhava.

In Hindu philosophy, spirituality is the foundation upon which everything sits. Bringing light to darkness is a metaphor for bringing wisdom where there is ignorance. Bringing spiritual wisdom is what we constantly work on within ourselves, in our thoughts, in our actions, and in our decisions. Namaskar, in its spiritual use, is a humble gesture and humbling experience.

“I bow to the Divine in you, the Divine as you, the Divine.”

To ground this concept mentally and physically, Namaste includes a mudra, or hand gesture. The Namaste mudra is formed by bringing both palms together, pointing fingers upward, touching thumbs to the center of the chest, closing the eyes and tilting the head downward. It is a symbol that speaks to our unconscious minds and our spiritual selves.

In Hinduism, the elements of nature are part of the weave of spiritual and philosophical thought. These elements are earth (bhumi), air (vayu), fire (agni), water (jala), and ether (akasa). The Namaskar gesture is considered an earth element gesture. It’s about grounding ourselves, centering instead of being swept away by the distractions of our external lives. The Namaste gesture is very intuitive. If asked to physically illustrate the idea of “centering” or “coming into oneself,” many of us would likely bring our hands and our gaze to our chest. Namaste is a natural centering asana, or posture.

Further, it’s a gesture of humility, providing an opportunity to detach from our human arrogance. Namaskar tells us again that there is something greater than we are. The bringing together of the palms acknowledges the Oneness of the Atman and Brahman within ourselves. It brings our feminine and masculine sides together into wholeness.

Namaskar is a reminder that every one of us is a part of Brahman. While our forms are diverse—there’s you, me, her, and him—ultimately, we are One. Because Namaste acknowledges the spiritual sphere, it can promote an intimacy between people beyond a simple hello. It can foster deeper connections by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Closing the eyes and bowing the head while doing Namaskar is another spiritual opportunity. It allows us to cut off from circumstances and unite with the Divine. Whether we take that moment to align through a visual image, a feeling, a sensation, or a mantra (a word or phrase repeated to oneself), Namaste prompts us to acknowledge the Sacred. Namaskar is a cue to connect within ourselves.

Namaste is a pervasive gesture used to greet people of all ages, genders, and races. Nowadays, it is regularly used outside of a Hindu context. So the next time we have a chance to Namaste, perhaps in the next yoga class, let’s Namaste the spiritual way. Let’s say and do Namaste while centering within our individual selves and connecting with the Oneness of humanity and the Divine.


Sridevi Ramanathan is currently pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and religion. She is founder of Story Digs.

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