This non-touch method of saying hello and goodbye is something you should continue even after it’s deemed okay to hug again.
As we move closer to the end of the pandemic, uncertain but hopeful for the future, many of us are reflecting on how things will be different when the social distancing, mask-wearing, and isolation end. What lessons are we learning? What habits are we changing? What resolutions and promises are we making?
One change worth maintaining after the pandemic is the way we greet one another and bid adieu. To replace handshakes and hugs, many people, both on Zoom calls and in person, have adopted the Indian custom of bringing their palms together at the chest and bowing. Whether or not we keep this up after we start touching again might seem trivial, but we stand to benefit from it more profoundly than we can imagine.
One reason to greet one another Indian style, of course, is to prevent the spread of disease. Hand hygiene has been ignored by us grabbers and shakers, but historians say that Eastern cultures have understood its importance for eons. Frequent handwashing—with ash, mud, or soil in the days before soap— has always been a cultural norm, especially before eating, performing religious rituals, and engaging in risky activities like caring for wounds. The non-touch method of saying hello and goodbye is also seen as part of an overall emphasis on cleanliness and communal safety.
But there is more to it.
I discover this anew every time I go to India and share the traditional gesture with people of all stripes, from merchants and bus drivers to VIPs and gurus. It invariably feeds my soul.
Thanks to the popularity of yoga, the presence of gurus and swamis, increased travel to India, and the assimilation of citizens of Indian descent, Americans have learned
that the hands-at-chest greeting is traditionally accompanied by the word namaste. The term has become so familiar that it’s tossed about routinely in some circles and advertisers and brands have picked up on it.
I hope that such cavalier appropriation does not dilute the powerful spiritual teaching in the term’s customary meaning. That meaning, of course, is “I honor the divinity within you” (alternatively, “I salute,” “I recognize,” or “I bow to”).
It’s an everyday acknowledgment that we all share the same divine essence at the core of our being, a key Vedantic principle distilled in the mahavakyas (great utterances) of the Upanishads. In short, my essential nature is infinite, eternal Spirit, and so is yours, and so is everyone else’s.
Namaste tells us in three syllables that we are more than just connected to one another in a sacred web of interlocking existence—we are one another. At the core of our being, we are One. What message could be more important in this era of dangerous tribal animosity than one that reveals the divine unity that undergirds and pervades our endless diversity?
Sure, the gesture can be routine, and the profound implication of Oneness—that we should treat others as ourselves—is easily forgotten or ignored. But if we remember the meaning of namaste when we say it— and especially if we add the customary bow with hands held prayerfully at the chest—we are likely to feel an extra measure of empathy, compassion, and reverence, and subsequently act with kindness and generosity.
Namaste enriches both the one who offers it and the one who receives it. I discover this anew every time I go to India and share the traditional gesture with people of all stripes, from merchants and bus drivers to VIPs and gurus. It invariably feeds my soul.
And here’s a bonus. When I was researching my recent book, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times, I learned from another book—Elevate by Joseph Deitch—that we can benefit from expressing namaste even when we don’t speak it aloud and even when no one knows we’re doing it. Here’s what I wrote:
“Simply intone namaste mentally while looking at another person, who needn’t have any inkling of what you’re doing. First, sense the divinity within yourself. Then feel or imagine that same sacred Essence within the other person. And allow the two divine sparks to connect energetically and become One.”
The pandemic is a perfect testing ground for the practice. It can be done inconspicuously not only when you’re acknowledging someone, but when passing a stranger on the street or a hiking trail, or when standing in a socially distanced line, or anywhere else you spot another human. If you hold in your heart the intent and spirit baked into the meaning of namaste, the silent practice can be transformative.
When we feel a sense of kinship with other human beings, the expression of care, sympathy, and loving-kindness is natural and effortless. As our circle of kinship spreads beyond our families and close associates, we get closer to the saints who know in their bones that we are, at the deepest level, separate from nothing and no one.
No single word captures the spirit of that realization as well as namaste. Let’s all use it.
After the pandemic we can say namaste and then hug like we’ve never hugged before.