What Does "Namaste" Mean?

The Real Meaning and Significance of "Namaste"

The Hindu Salutation 'Namaste' means “I bow to you”. uniquely india / Getty Images

‘Namaste’ or ‘namaskar’ is the Indian way of greeting one another.  Wherever they are--on the street, in the house, in public transport, on vacation or on the phone--when Hindus meet people they know or strangers with whom they want to initiate a conversation, "namaste" is the customary courtesy greeting with which to begin a conversation, and often the salutation with which to end an encounter. It is not a superficial gesture or a mere word, and it is used with all people one meets--young and old, friends and strangers.

Namaste According to the Scriptures

"Namaste" and its common variants "namaskar," "namaskaara" or "namaskaram," is one of the various forms of formal traditional greeting mentioned in the Vedas. Although this is normally understood to mean prostration, it actually is the means of paying homage or showing respect to one another, much as is the practice today when we greet each other.

The Meaning of Namaste

In Sanskrit the word is namah + te = namaste, which means “I bow to you”--in other words "greetings, salutations or prostration to you." The word ‘namaha’ can also be literally interpreted as "na ma" (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one's ego in the presence of another. 

In Kannada, the same greeting is Namaskara and Namaskaragalu; in Tamil, Kumpiṭu; in Telugu, Dandamu, Dandaalu, Namaskaralu and Pranamamu; in Bengali, Nōmōshkar and Prōnäm; and in Assamese, Nômôskar.

How and Why to Use "Namaste"

  • Bend the arms from the elbow upwards and face the two palms of the hands.
  • Place the two palms together and keep the folded palms in front of the chest.
  • Utter the word namaste and while saying the word bow the head slightly.

Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention or an act of worship.

However, there is much more to it than meets the eye. The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When we greet one another with namaste, it means, ‘may our minds meet,' indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love, respect and humility.

Spiritual Significance of "Namaste"

The reason why we use namaste has a deeper spiritual significance. It recognizes the belief that the life force, the divinity, the Self or the God in me is the same in all. Acknowledging this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we honor the god in the person we meet.

During prayers, Hindus not only do namaste but also bow and close their eyes, in effect to look into the inner spirit. This physical gesture is sometimes accompanied by names of gods such as ‘Ram Ram’, ‘Jai Shri Krishna,' ‘Namo Narayana,' ‘Jai Siya Ram’ or just ‘Om Shanti’--the common refrain in Hindu chants. This is also quite common when two devout Hindus meet, indicating the recognition of the divinity within ourselves and extending a warm welcome to each other.

Difference Between "Namaskar" and "Pranama"

Pranama (Sanskrit 'Pra' + 'Anama') is a respectful salutation for Hindus which literally means "bowing forward" in reverence for a deity or an elder.

Namaskar is one of the six types of Pranamas:

  • Ashtanga (Ashta=eight; Anga=body parts), which involves touching the ground with knees, belly, chest, hands, elbows, chin, nose and temple.
  • Shastanga (Shashta=six; Anga=body parts), which involves touching the ground with toes, knees, hands, chin, nose and temple.
  • Panchanga (Pancha=five; Anga=body parts), which involves touching the ground with knees, chest, chin, temple and forehead.
  • Dandavat (Dand=stick), which involves bowing the forehead down and touching the ground.
  • Abhinandana (Congratulations to you), which involves bending forward with folded hands touching the chest.
  • Namaskar (Bowing to you), which is the same as doing a Namaste with folded hands and touching the forehead.