In the latest issue of Hinduism Today, our editor-in-chief reprises his insights into the Hindu greeting of Namaste, which is becoming something of a global greeting these days, seen on the stages of Lady Gaga and Madonna and in TV episodes here and there. He explores various cultural forms of greeting, then hones in on the differences between the handshake and greeting others with hands pressed together. Some excerpts:
"Shake hands and come out fighting." it's the referee's final counsel to two pugilists about to beat each other's brains out with clenched fists. Even outside the ring, a handshake can be a little off-putting. When one returns to the West from an extended sojourn in India or elsewhere in Asia, the hand suddenly thrust forward can seem more ominous than friendly, especially if the hand offered is that of a stranger.
This moment of intimidation has a history. According to some anthropologists, one early manifestation of the handshake in the West arose in medieval Europe. More than a few men approached others on the byways with daggers drawn for self-defense. To fend off the fear of a foe's foul foil, weapons would be sheathed, and men would offer to each other open, visibly empty hands. It was a kind of surety, a gesture of trust which said, "See, I am unarmed. So you may safely let me approach." Soon the gesture itself took on broad meaning, and less lethal men on the street adopted the handshake as the proper way to greet others...
As a test of how these two greetings differ, imagine you are magically confronted with the Divine. God walks up to you on the street, like George Burns in the movie "O God!" What do you do? Reach out to shake His/Her hand? Probably not. Though suitable between man and man, it's an unseemly expression between man and God. We never shake hands with God. I mean, what if your palms are sweating? So, you namaste instead. The reason it feels natural to namaste before God is that it is, in its very essence, a spiritual gesture, not a worldly one. By a handshake we acknowledge our equality with others. We reveal our humanity. We convey how strong we are, how nervous, how aggressive or passive. There is a bold physicality to it. For these and other reasons, Popes never shake hands. Kings never shake hands. Even mothers don't shake hands with their own children.
Namaste is cosmically different. Kings do namaste. Satgurus namaste and mothers namaste to their own family. We all namaste before God, a holy man or holy place. The namaste gesture bespeaks our inner valuing of the sacredness of all. It betokens our intuition that all souls are divine. It reminds us in quite a graphic manner, and with insistent repetition, that we can see God everywhere and in every human being we meet. It is saying, silently, "I see the Deity in us both, and bow before It. I acknowledge the holiness of even this mundane meeting. I cannot separate that which is spiritual in us from that which is human and ordinary."
Hindus believe in each individual as a soul, a divine being who is inherently good. We all have a threefold nature: instinctive, intellectual, intuitive. Develop the intuitive/spiritual/soul nature with compassion, devotion, penance. Use the intellect to help subdue the instinctive mind. Guilt is not a part of Hinduism. There is no eternal hell. You have a continuity of consciousness when you transition to the inner worlds. There is no devil, but there are mischievous "asuras."