Have you observed a recent trend among some celebrities, politicians, artists and Evangelists using a new type of greeting? Instead of the traditional western handshake, salute, hug or waving of hands, they now hold both hands together with thumbs touching the chin and rest of the fingers pointing forward, combined with a slight bow of respect. Amazing! Isn’t this a typical four thousand (some estimate it between 4000-5000) years old Indian greeting? How did this come to pass? Here are my thoughts:
First, a little bit of history. Any custom which is so ancient – whether social, political or religious – must capture one’s curiosity. It did mine. Indians, by and large, did not shake hands prior to the coming of traders from West later turned colonizers and one even turned to be the ruler for years. Besides, there were also refugees to India from the middle east like Persia, or Armenia etc, not forgetting the earliest “boat people”, the Jews, after the shameful “Inquisition” in Europe. India has definitely assimilated some cultural benefits but none of the above influenced a change to their old way of greeting. There must be a reason for it. Many in the East or Far East did not generally touch each other while greeting, definitely not the opposite sex. Things have changed, somewhat. This greeting has two components: (a) the folded hands with the bow as mentioned above and (b) they will also say at the same time to each other “Namaste” (in the northern provinces and “namaskar” in the south). This is unique.
Second, a brief explanation of this greeting. Namaste is an ancient Sanskrit word with a dual meaning: “Namah” means “I bow”. “Te” means “you”. Put together it implies “I bow to the divine in you”. Quite a greeting, eh? Some have set it aside calling it a pagan tradition. The fact remains, this ancient greeting has a very lofty spiritual concept, perhaps a whole lot more than we ascribe to it or acknowledge. How did the old Rishies know it: fully, vaguely or like a shadow or a mystery? Whatever the case, it really is a polite, graceful, and pleasant form of greeting, welcoming or wishing good-bye. Today, more than a billion people in the East, Far East and a large diaspora to the west practice this form of greeting.
Here is my third and main point. The Bible has a lot to say about this divine in you. I have selected just three morsels:
- The very idea of the divine in you is Biblical, though at times, as in the OT, it might have appeared like a “Shadow.” However, this mystery was elucidated once and for all when Jesus came historically more than 2000 years ago. As to its timing, the Bible calls it “when the fulness of time was come, God sent his son (Galatians 4:4-7).
- The Bible goes further. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, we read: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
- St. Paul defined this mystery to the early Believers, when he wrote “To whom God would make known …….this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians, 1:27). No ambiguity there!
Finally, there is a secondary lesson to learn how St. Paul handled the Greek philosophers and thinkers at the Areopagus, the Cultural centre at Athens (charming place to visit!). St. Paul did not use berating or condescending words but appealed wisely and respectfully. He actually praised them first for their religious convictions: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are religious. For I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘to the unknown God’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23). What an admonition for us as lay-people, clergy, missionaries, or evangelists when dealing with genuine seekers of Jesus to be prepared, and study about their culture, background and their books, etc.
Thinking of books, I admire men like William Carey, the pioneer missionary to India. Soon after his landing, he hired a local teacher to learn Indian languages. With that head start he ended up translating Bibles into 39 Indian languages. Now get this, he even translated the Hindu Epic/holy book Ramayana!!! Wow!
To all my friends – Namaste.
PS: I wish to take this opportunity to wish all my friends, a Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.