The Meaning and Significance of Namaskar or Namaste

Namaskar, the Salutation

by Jayaram V

Summary: Find here the meaning and symbolic significance of Namaskaram, the common form of salutation in Hinduism


Namaskar, Namaskaram or namaste is the commonest form of salutation in Hinduism. People use it to pay respects to others and to declare their devotion and reverence to gods. The most popular form of namaskar is to join both the hands in the presence of a person or a deity with reverential attitude. In doing so the person who is making the gesture may lower his head and bend his upper body to bow in submission.

In general usage, it is usually offered to elders, teachers, seers and sages, priests, scholars, guests, and people of eminence and authority as a courtesy because of genuine respect and admiration or fear and submission. When it is done habitually or mechanically without any emotion or feeling, it becomes a mere social custom or ritual, which is not uncommon.

The practice is very ancient and dates back to Vedic times. It is not only associated with ritual worship but also with spiritual practices such as Dhyana or meditation. People may also practice namaskaram while circumambulating temples, listening to discourses, praying, visiting sacred places or while waiting for a glimpse of the deity in the sanctum. From the perspective of hygiene, namaskaram is an appropriate form of salutation, since it does not involve any direct physical contact.

However, Hindus also touch the feet of elders, teachers, spiritual people and deities as a mark of respect and reverence. Its purpose the same, but it is not considered the traditional namaskaram. In the presence of a deity or in a temple, they may practice all these according to their faith and devotion to earn his mercy and approval.

A more intense form of salutation, known as Sashtanga Namaskar, is done with eight organs in the body, which involves prostrating before the deity with the whole body, with the head turned towards the floor, and stretching one’s hands towards the object of veneration in total submission. It is used to express not only reverence but also surrender and allegiance. It is commonly practiced during ritual worship at homes and in temples.

Namas means a bow, salutation, obeisance, and akar means giving shape or expression. Thus, Namaskar is a physical expression of reverential love and devotion. The word "pranam" also used in Sanskrit to denote the same. It means reverential salutation, bowing, stooping, etc. It was probably used in ancient times as a declaration or oath of loyalty to a king, divinity or an eminent person, meaning, "I am offering my prana (breath) or life to you."

Symbolism

Namaskar has a deeper symbolic significance in Hinduism. The two hands, joined together in reverence, serve as the meeting point between the subject and object, God and his devotee, and reality and illusion. The two hands represent the duality, or the pairs of opposites, which are common to our world. By joining them, you join your mind and body, you body and soul, your soul and God, Nature and Self, attraction and aversion, and all the dualities of your mind as an offering to God.

On the other side of your hands, towards the deity, is the transcendental reality (para) or the divinity, and this side, towards yourself, is the physical reality (apara), your body or the field of Nature. In between the two, bridging them, is your devotional offering, your salutation and declaration of faith. By putting the hands together before God, you unite the God (Brahman) in front of you with the deity (Atman) in your heart. At the same time, with those joined hands you are not only saluting the Supreme Being in front of you, but also the deity (Self), who is situated in you.

Thus, namaskaram is not a mere salutation. It is also a sacred gesture (mudra), which is used not only in religious practice but in many art forms also, including dance dramas such as Kathakali and classical Indian dance forms such as Odissi and Bharatnatyam.  It serves as the meeting point between the heaven and the earth, God and his devotee, and the immanent and the transcendental.

You may also consider it a yogic posture (asana) and a meditative practice of the offering of your heart and soul, your ego, your being and your life breath itself as a sacrifice to God, and as a declaration of surrender, faith, love and devotion. By that simple gesture, you prepare the ground (Kurukshetra) for a spiritual dialogue with God, seeking his love, guidance, help and forgiveness.

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