The word Namaste has become ubiquitous in English and throughout the world. It’s the basis for yoga studios, puns, and business names. But what does Namaste actually mean? You might be surprised to know that it does NOT mean hello.
In order to understand the meaning, first understand that there are 3 things:
Translation: Namaste is a combination of two Sanskrit words: namah and te. Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-European language from which Hindi and most north Indian languages are derived from.
Namah means “to bend”
Te means “to you”
Meaning: I bow to you. Which in turn means I acknowledge and respect you.
Use: a greeting
Thus, namaste does not mean hello. It’s how Hindi speakers say hello.
Namaste Is A Greeting In North India
Notice I specified Namaste is how Hindi speakers say hello. Hindi is the national language of India but it is spoken primarily in the northern part of the country.
India is a big country, with 28 states and 8 union territories. There are a whopping 22 official languages and hundreds and hundreds of dialects. Within India there is tremendous diversity.
Each state has a unique culture that encompasses language, religion, food, and clothing. For example in Gujarat, the language is Gujarati and there’s distinct Gujarati food and clothing, in Punjab people speak Punjabi and eat Punjabi food and wear Punjabi style clothes and in Maharasthra the language is Marathi with its own unique cuisine and clothing styles.
In the images below this woman is wearing a sari, draped in a distinct Gujarati style. And dandiya, a genre of dance that involves dancing with sticks, comes from the state of Gujarat.
Here we see a Punjabi woman wearing a traditional Punjabi dress and the dance is called Bhangra.
There is a lot of misconception that Namaste is a universal Indian greeting. It’s not. Namaste is common amongst north Indians and in big cities such as Mumbai and Pune.
Regional and Religious Affiliations
Not only is Namaste a regional word but it’s used within certain religions, namely amongst Hindus, but Jains and to a lesser extent Sikhs. It is not a greeting used amongst Muslims.
Let me be clear. This is not to say that Jains, Sikhs and Muslims cannot or would not say Namaste. For example if I went to buy Indian clothes and there was an older Jain, Sikh or Muslim man or woman working there, I would absolutely greet them with a cheerful Namaste and they would respond in kind.
What I mean is that within a Jain, Sikh, Muslim community Namaste is not a greeting that is used. For example in Jainism (I am Jain), our greeting is Jai Jinendra. When I greet my Uncles and Aunts – I don’t say Namaste. I greet them with Jai Jinendra.
But when I greet my parents’ Indian friends, who are not necessarily Jain and are from all different parts of India, I always say Namaste.
In Sikh families the greeting is Sat Sri Akal and in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu the greeting is Vanakam. Each region and religion has its greeting.
Namaste has become popular because of yoga and Bollywood but it is not a universal Indian greeting as illustrated in the video below.
Do You Literally Bow When Saying Namaste?
Indian culture, like many Eastern cultures, is family and community oriented. Thus letting go of one’s ego is an integral part of the culture. Bowing to someone is an act of abandoning ones ego to the other person as well as a way to seek their blessings.
So does one literally bow? Yes and no. Situational awareness is key. For example, when I’m greeting my in-laws for the first time on a visit, not only do I bow, but I bow all the way to touch their feet. And I do this when departing as well. But I would not do it on the days in the middle of the trip.
How often varies based on each person’s upbringing, personal values and beliefs and the relationship with the other person.
Again, touching the feet of elders and respected people is a common tradition in north India and symbolizes completely letting go of one’s ego to acknowledge the other person’s wisdom and to seek their blessings.
And there are degrees of bowing. In the video below you can see the boy got on his hands and knees to bow to his teacher. Other ways to bow are to stay standing and just bend forward or just bow the head.
Whether or not to bow as well as to what degree varies based on the person, the age difference and one’s relationship with that person.
How To Pronounce Namaste
The pronunciation most yoga studios teach is cringe worthy. It is not pronounced:
The “t” is soft and pronounced “th” such as the words:
Perhaps this spelling will make it easier to understand: namasthay. The correct pronunciation is:
I have been namast’ed many times by random people. Though I always try to be nice I must admit there are times when it’s weird and annoying. I can only imagine how Indians and other South Asians who did not grow up using that word feel when it happens to them.
Summary: What Does Namaste Mean?
Recently in my travels I met a German man who literally thought Namaste was a yoga word – as in a word associated only with yoga. He was surprised when I shared its actual meaning.
In this post we learned what Namaste actually means. Contrary to popular belief it does not mean “hello”. It means “I bow to you” and it’s a greeting most commonly used amongst Hindi speakers.
The article also covered how to pronounce Namaste as well as the background on bowing
Want To Learn Conversational Hindi?
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About Samta Aunty
I try to be like the quintessential cool Masi, to all of my students. Smiling, loving, and ALWAYS trying to make them laugh.
Welcome and thank you for joining me today! I set out to create an educational platform for desi children to learn conversational Hindi (no reading, no wriring) and their culture in a fun, no stress, and convenient way. Students across the globe take our classes right from the convenience of their living room!
I learned Hindi at home while growing up in southern California. My parents were amongst the first Indian and South Asian immigrants to this country and I appreciated their efforts and those of the Uncles and Aunty’s that worked hard to foster cultural and religious awareness for us first generation American-born desi kids. Especially when they themselves were establishing their lives in a new country.
And now I’m in a position to continue their work. Language connects people. And for the children I teach I’m helping them connect to their grandparents and other loved ones.