If you’ve ever taken a yoga postures class, the word namaste is already familiar to you. Teachers often begin or end their classes with a simple gesture of placing their hands together and saying, “Namaste.” It makes us feel good: yes, indeed, I’m doing yoga now.
But what is the meaning of namaste?
Namaste: Translation and Common Meaning
Sanskrit is like most other languages—many words offer complex layers of meanings. As our knowledge increases, we can appreciate the deeper meanings.
Namaste is derived from two words: Namas (pronounced NUM-US) means “to bow.” Te (prounced TAY) means “to you.” Therefore, namaste literally means “bowing to you.”
Namaste is often spoken with a slight bow. The hands are pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, with thumbs close to the chest. It’s a respectful form of greeting, acknowledging a friend, relative, guest, or stranger. Namaste may also be used to express gratitude.
Namaste: A Deeper Meaning
Between yogis and others on the spiritual path, the meaning of namaste becomes deeper. In this context, it can be translated to “I bow to the Divine in you.” It affirms the belief that the Divine, the Self, the Atman, is the same in you and me.
In the Katha Upanishad we read:
“The inner Self is smaller than the small, and greater than the great. It is hidden in the hearts of all living creatures.”
Understanding the Meaning of Self
When yogis discuss the Self, they are referring to Infinite Consciousness—God. The names used to describe the Self are many, and this can be confusing. It’s important for you, as a sincere seeker, to decide what name you want to use for the Self. There are no strict rules about names for the Self. In my mind, I often use the word God. This is simple and comfortable to me because of my Western upbringing.
Within Eastern texts, the Self’s qualities are described as perfect bliss, love, and peace. What’s most important for us to know is that, as the mentioned Upanishad verse states, the Self is an integral part of every creature—including you and me. It follows that if the Self is in you, then its attributes of bliss, love, and peace are also in you.
Remembering this principle is vital to living your spiritual path. The more you remember that you are the Self, made of perfect bliss, love, and peace, the more you will experience it.
The term often used for the unbroken experience of the Self is Self-Realization—spiritual enlightenment. Knowing this, you can understand the value of remembering the inner Self.
Help from Common Analogies
Facts—like definitions and history—are useless without understanding their context, background, and application.
Stories and parables are helpful when we’re faced with the more difficult principles of a spiritual path. That’s why master teachers like Jesus and Śri Ramakrishna used parables. Yogic texts and the writings of these masters are enriched with colorful analogies.
Here are three common analogies that demonstrate the meaning of the inner Self:
Wave and Ocean
The ocean is water; the waves are water; and when these waves play upon the surface of the ocean, ripples are formed. Even so with the universe. Even as the ocean might look upon and recognize the individuality of the ripples, the Consciousness thinks of the individuals as independent. All this is the wonderful play of the mysterious power of Consciousness—and that alone is called the universe.
Gold and Jewelry
As bangles, bracelets, earrings, pins,
And countless other ornaments
Are fashioned from one bar of gold,
This world is naught but God alone.
Paint and Image
An artist paints a variety of images on one canvas. He uses one brush, one palette of colors, and one idea. In the same way, the One appears in the multitude of colors and forms in the universe. Unity underlies the diversity of all creation.
The Meaning of Namaste: Putting it into Practice
One of the most important and satisfying aspects of living the spiritual life is to realize the unity underlying all the diversity of our world. When we use the Sanskrit term namaste we affirm that all-important principle.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we actually felt connected, on the deepest level, to our fellow beings? In that connection, we would fully understand each other. We wouldn’t experience fear, jealousy, or any other negative emotions toward one another.
As spiritual seekers we continually practice our principles in one way or another. Integrate the simple practice of looking for goodness in others. When you do this regularly and often it will become a part of your nature. You won’t even need to think about it—you will not forget the ever-present bliss, love, and peace.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.