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19 March, 2014

In Indian Culture Why do we do namaste or greet each other?

In Indian Culture
Why do we do namaste?

       Indians greet each other with namaste.  The two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the word namaste.  This greeting is for all -- people younger than us, of our own age, those older than us, friends and even strangers.

       There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the shastras or scriptures of which namaskaram is one.  This is understood as prostration but it actually refers to paying homage as we do today when we greet each other with a namaste.

     Folding hands together with a smile to greet, Namaste is a common cultural practice in India.  Namaste or Namaskar or Namaskaram is a common verbal salutation in India.  It is a customary greeting when one meets or takes leave of others.

     While saying Namaste, one commonly does this by slight bow made with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, infront of the chest.  It can also be done without words and carries the same meaning.

      Each palm represents the separate individuality.  Each palm supports the five fingers.  Similarly, each personality has five sheaths called the five kosas.  The five different parts of the personality are called pancakosas, five sheaths.

       They are: [1] annamayakosa food sheath, [2] pranamayakosa vital-air sheath [3] manomayakosa mental sheath, [4] vijnanamayakosa intellectual sheath and [5] anandamayakosa bliss sheath.  These five sheaths are supported by the Atman, the supreme Self which is the eternal Reality.  The five sheaths are different from individual to individual but the Reality that supports them all is one and the same in all individualities.  This truth is declared when the Hindus greet each other with namaskara.  The two palms joined together as one indicates that the Reality or Atman in both is one and the same.  To this unifying Infinite Atman the Hindus bows in the reverence when he does namaskara.

Why do we do namaste?

       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.

      Namaste is derived from Sanskrit word "namah + te = namaste".  Namah means 'bow', 'obeisance', 'reverential salutation' or 'adoration' and te means 'to you' (dative case of 'you').  It means -- I bow to you -- my greetings, salutations or prostration to you.  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.

     The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds.  When we greet another, we do so with namaste, which 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 and humility.

Spiritual meaning of Namaste

       The spiritual meaning is even deeper.  The life force, the divinity, the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all.  Recognising this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet.  That is why sometimes, we close our eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord - as if to look within.  The gesture is often accompanied by words like "Ram Ram", "Jai Shri Krishna", "Namo Narayana", "Jai Siya Ram", "Om Shanthi" etc. - indicating the recognition of this divinity.

       When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.

       Namaste is also a friendly greeting in written communication.  When the hand position is higher, it usually means reverence and / or worship.  The expression with hands placed on top of one's head is usually the sign of utmost reverence or respect.  The gesture Namaste represents and acknowledges the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us.  Hence, Namaste means, 'I bow to you' or 'the divine within me greets the divine in you'.  The gesture is widely used throughout Asia and beyond.  It appears in c.4000 years ago on the clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.

     There are different ways of doing namasste or greeting each other in other langues prevalent in India.


     In Telugu, the gesture is known as Namaskaramulu or simply Namaskaram.


     In Tamil, it is known as kumbidu, கும்பிடு which is composed of kumbu meaning 'to cup hands' and idu, 'to do'.  Vanakkam, வணக்கம் in Tamil too,  means the same.  


     In Kannada, the gesture is known as Namaskara.  


     In Japan, the Namaste hand gesture is used in prayer and healing sessions and is called Gassho.

Sri Lanka

     Namaste is also in vogue in Sri Lanka and Nepalese cultures.  


     Sikhs also fold their hand as in Namaste, but their greeting is Sat Sri Akal.

Another way of Greeting

      Another way of greeting common in India is pranam or charana-sparsh, the touching of elder's feet.  It is an act of showing respect.  When greeting, children touch the feet of their elders in the family while people of all ages will bend to touch the feet of a great guru, murti or icon of a God or goddess.

Pranam in the way of Ashtanga

     One can do Pranam in the way of Ashtanga (touching the ground with knees, belly, chest, hands, elbows, chin, nose, temple) or Bhumishtha (bowing forehead down and touching the ground.  There are, however, many variations in offering pranam depending upon one's health, availability of time and other factors.

1] Excerpts from the book on "In Indian Culture Why do we.." written by Swamini Vimalananda and Radhika Krishnakumar.
2] Excerpts from the book on "Indian Culture" published by Sri Ramakrishna Math.
3] The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals by Swami A.Parthasarathy

06 March, 2014

Ahimsa - अहिंसा - Harmlessness


      Practice of Ahimsa develops love.  Ahimsa is another name for truth or love.  Ahimsa is universal love.  It is pure love.  It is divine prem.  Where there is love, there you will find Ahimsa.  When there is Ahimsa, there you will find love and selfless service.  They all go together.

     The one message of all saints and prophets of all times and climes, is the message of love, of Ahimsa, of selfless service.  Ahimsa is the noblest and best of traits that are found expressed in the daily life and activities of perfected souls.  Ahimsa is the one means, not only to attain Salvation, but also to enjoy uninterrupted peace and bliss.  Man attains peace by injuring no living creature.

     There is one religion - the religion of love, of peace.  There is one message, the message of Ahimsa.  Ahimsa is supreme duty of man.

Meaning of Ahimsa - अहिंसा - Harmlessness

       Ahimsa - अहिंसा comes from the Sanskrit verb hims -  हिंस - which  means 'to hurt, injure or cause harm.'  Ahimsa - अहिंसाwhich means 'non-injury or harmlessness,' reflects my inherent desire to live free from hurt or pain or threat of any sort.  Event thoughts can cause pain.  If I know that someone holds hurtful thoughts about me, although these thoughts are not expressed in deeds or words, I am hurt.  Ahimsa - अहिंसा - means not causing harm by any means: by deeds, by words and by thoughts.

Why should I not hurt other beings?

       Because I do not want to be hurt.  Common sense ethics dictate that I cannot do to another what I do not want to be done to me.  So ahimsaअहिंसा - non-injury, becomes a value for me.  Ahimsa is simple common sense dharma, confirmed by the Vedas and by all scriptures but subject to interpretation.  If an act literally injurious is meant for the benefit of another, such as the cut of the surgeon's knife, it is not himsa -हिंसा. 

Vegetarianism:  Expression of Ahimsa

       Vegetarianism is an example of the application of the value for ahimsa.  Many arguments in favour of vegetarian diet can be made, but the basic argument supporting non-flesh eating is simply ahimsa.  In India, where there are more vegetarians than anywhere else in the world, vegetarianism is squarely based on the the Vedic mandate:

Himsam na kuryat:  Do not do harm!

       Why is more himsa - हिंसा involved in eating an egg than an egg plant?  or a steak than a pumpkin?  Every life-form requires food of some kind.  One life-form feeds upon another.  What is tragedy to the bird is dinner to the cat.  This being the case, why should not human being also eat meat?  Because the human being is not in the same choiceless category as the canary-eating cat, he cannot use the cat's example for his justification.  For the cat and other non human life-forms, choosing what to have for dinner is no problem.  They select their proper food by instinct.  They come pre-programmed, knowing their proper menu; they need only locate it.  This is not so with the human being whose self-consciousness brings into play a will free to choose many means to achieve life's ends, including the basic need, food.  Being not pre-programmed, the human must choose the kind of food he eats.

Some arguments

      Several arguments other than ahimsa - हिंसा are offered to support the position that vegetarianism is a better diet than meat-eating.  There is evidence that human dental and digestive systems are more suitable for a fruit-grain vegetable diet than for meat.  There is statistical evidence that vegetarians, such as the Seventh Day, Adventists, have fewer degenerative diseases and live longer, enjoying a more vigorous old age, than do their meat-eating neighbours.  However, persuasive these arguments may be, the fundamental argument in favour of vegetarianism still is found in the value for ahimsa.

All creatures seek to live harm-free

       It is plain to see that all living beings have a value for life.  Anything alive tries to stay alive, plants and very simple life forms included.  However, it is also plain that all beings do not seem to have the same relative level of awareness of life, the same conscious ability to perceive threats to life or struggle to preserve life.  Creatures in the animal kingdom are closer than plants to the human being in awareness of threats to life and in their struggle to stay alive.  Animals, birds, fish -- all mobile creatures--run away from me when they know I am trying to catch them for the stew pot.  When I do catch them, they struggle and cry.  Therefore, I cannot but know that they do not want to be hurt, that they want to live.  No mobile creature wants to be my dinner.

Plant Food:  The Relational/Ethical choice for Human diet

     In view of the research indicating that a balanced vegetarian diet is a complete and healthful, the use of meat in my diet cannot be justified on the basis of nutritional need.  If I choose to eat meat, that choice must be put simply on the grounds of a preference on my part.  To fulfill a preference is a fine, if there is no overriding ethical reason for not fulfilling it.  In the case of meat-eating there is a strong common sense ethical reason for not fulfiling such a preference, if it exists.

     Since I do not want to be an animal's dinner, I should not make an animal my dinner.  Plant food, rather than meat, is the choice because: many plants seem designed to give up their produce as food for other life-forms without surrendering their own lives, and even when the usage does destroy the plant, plants would appear to have less conscious appreciation of the threat or fact of harm to themselves than do animals.

       If I insist upon including meat in my diet, to raise such a decision to ethical status, I would have to put myself on the same basis as other carnivorous animals.  To be on the same basis I should hunt and kill my prey bare handed without the assistance of weapons, thus exposing myself to the responsibility of being 'someone's dinner while seeking other creatures for my dinner, if I am not willing to do this, use animals for food will be unethical, conflicting with my half-value for non-injury.  That I have such a half value is revealed by my failure to risk the possibility of suffering the same result.

Ahimsa requires Sensitivity and Alertness

      The value for ahimsa non-injury requires daily alertness and sensitivity in all areas of my life.  It is a value that finds expression in my attitude towards plants as well as towards human beings and animals.  Wanton destruction of plant life indicates a lack of sensitivity for the value of ahimsa.  Ahimsa is a value for non-destruction or damage to any part of creation--a creation of which I, too, am a part.  Plant I do not casually crush, strip, uproot, or cut down.  With regard to my fellow human beings, I watch for those words or acts or even thoughts which may be hurtful.  I develop a finer appreciation for the feelings of others.  I come to see beyond my own needs to the needs of those around me.  I treat all things and beings with sensitivity and appreciation of their common existence with me.

     With such an attitude I become an alert, observant person with a sensitive saintly mind which is ready to hear and appreciate the truth of Vedanta.  Ahimsa is an important value among the values that constitute the jnanam for gaining Self-knowledge.

Avoiding meat eating

       Avoid non-vegetarian food leads to 'Ahimsa'अहिंसा.  Killing animal bodies in order to grow our human body becomes 'Himsa' - हिंसा.  We might get a doubt at this stage.  "Even, when one takes vegetarian food, the bodies of trees, creepers, vegetables, and fruits being destroyed.  Plants are also living beings.  In this case also killing of living beings is not being avoided.  Such being the case, how does killing of animal bodies alone tantamount to 'Himsa' - हिंसा ?

In our life situations arise, at times, when we have to perforce select one among two difficult alternatives. And we too select the alternative that results in lesser damage or difficulty. For example, when we are affected by sickness, we have the situation of having to take some medicines and get cured. If we don’t take the medicine, the effect would be major. But, when we take the medicine, we are affected by the side effects. Between these alternatives, we opt for the alternativof taking the medicines, despite having to experience the side effects. Otherwise, we would be affected to a greater extent.

In a similar manner, the 'Himsa' - हिंसा, caused to the plants when we take vegetarian food is of a lesser degree than the 'Himsa', caused to animals if we were to take non-vegetarian food.  When we kill the animals, they feel great pain and sorrow.  Plants, whose organs are less developed, do not experience and express such paint.  Thereby, opting for lesser for a lesser 'Himsa' between the two unavoidable 'Himsa' becomes 'Ahimsa'.  We are able to perceive the sorrow and pain of animals.  Plants do not experience pain and sorrow to that extent.  

       Like humans, animals have five sensory organs, namely, body [touch], mouth [taste], eyes [sight], nose [smell] and ears [sound].  Beings such as snake have four senses.  Certain other living beings have three or two senses.  Plants have only single sense.  As the number of senses increase, the experience of pleasure and pain increases.  When we use plants that have only a single sense as our food, the inflicted pain and sorrow is lower.  If we were to take the bodies of animals, which have five senses like us, as our food the sorrow and pain which are inflicted are maximum.

Moreover, human body could survive and live well with just vegetarian food.  When the possibility to be able to live with just vegetarian food is available, utilising such an opportunity is 'Ahimsa'.  Animals such as the lion and the tiger have not been given the opportunity or choice of surviving with vegetarian food.  Such mild animals do not acquire sin or papam by their taking meat. 

Animals such as goats and cows are created such that they could take only vegetarian food.  They do not opt for vegetarian food by their choice.  Thereby, they do not require 'punyam' or meritorious deeds by taking vegetarian food.  But man, has been given the choice of freewill to do either 'punyam' or sin 'papam'.  Avoiding sin 'papam' is indeed 'Ahimsa'.

Thus, avoiding non-vegetarian food is pursuing 'Ahimsa'.

Subtle forms of Himsa - हिंसा   

       Only the ordinary people think that Ahimsaअहिंसा is not to hurt any living being physically.  This is but the gross form of Ahimsa.  All harsh and rude speech is Himsaहिंसा (violence or injury).  Using harsh words to beggars, servants or inferiors is Himsa.  Wounding the feelings of others by gesture, expression, tone of voice and unkind words is also Himsa.  It is the sin of omission.  Avoid strictly all forms of harshness, direct or indirect, positive or negative, immediate or delayed.  Practice of Ahimsa in its purest form and become divine.  Ahimsa and Divinity are one.

Ahimsa, a quality of the Strong  

       If you practice Ahimsa, you should put up with insults, rebukes, criticisms and assaults also.  You should never retaliate nor wish to offend anybody even under extreme provocation.  You should not entertain any evil thought against anybody.  You should not harbour anger.  You should not curse.  You should be prepared to lose joyfully even your life in the cause of Truth.  The ultimate truth can be attained only through Ahimsa.

       Ahimsa is the acme of bravery.  Ahimsa is not possible without fearlessness.  Non-violence cannot be practised by weak persons.  Ahimsa cannot be practiced by a man who is terribly afraid of death and has no power of resistance and endurance.  It is a shield, not of the eliminate, but of the potent.  Ahimsa is a quality of the strong.  It is a weapon of the strong.   

Gradational practice of Ahimsa

     When thoughts of revenge and hatred arise in the mind, try to control the physical body and speech first.  Do not utter evil and harsh words.  Do not censure.  Do not try to injure others.  If you succeed in this by practice for some months, the negative thoughts of revenge, having no scope for manifesting outside, will die by themselves.  It extremely difficult to control such thought from the very beginning without having recourse to control of the body and speech first.

First control your physical body

       When a man beats you, keep quiet.  Suppress your feelings.  Follow the instructions of Jesus Christ in his Sermon On the Mount:  "If a man beats you on one cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.  If a man takes away your coat, give him your shirt also."  This is very difficult in the beginning.  The old Samskaras (impressions) of revenge, of "a tooth for a tooth", "tit for tat", "an eye for an eye", and "paying in the same coin" will all force you to retaliate.  But you will have to wait coolly.  Reflect and meditate.  Do vichara or right enquiry.  The mind will become calm.  The opponent who was very furious will also become calm, because he does not get any opposition from your side.  He gets astonished and terrified also, because you stand like a sage.  By and by, you will gain immense strength.  Keep the ideal before you.  Try to get at it, though with faltering steps at first.  Have a clear-cut mental image of Ahimsa and its immeasurable advantage.  

Secondly control your speech

      After controlling the body, control your speech.  Make a strong determination, "I will not speak any harsh word to anybody from today."  You may fail a hundred times.  When does it matter?  You will slowly gain strength.  Check the impulse of speech.  Observe Mouna (silence).  Practice kshama or forgiveness.  Say within yourself:  "He is a baby-soul.  He is ignorant, that is why he has done it.  Let me excuse him this time.  What do I gain by abusing him in return."  Slowly give up Abhimana (ego-centered attachment).  Abhimana is the root cause of human sufferings.

Thirdly check your thought

     Finally go to the thoughts and check the thought of injuring.  Never even think of injuring anyone.  One Self dwells in all.  All are manifestations of One God.  By injuring another, you injure your own Self.  By serving another, you serve your own Self.  Love all.  Serve all.  Hate none.  Insult none.  Injure none in thought, word and deed.  Try to behold your own Self in all beings.  This will promote Ahimsa.

Benefits of the practice of Ahimsa

     If you are established in Ahimsa, you have attained all virtues.  Ahimsa is the pivot.  All virtues revolve around Ahimsa.  Just as all footprints are accommodated in those of the elephant, so also do all religions and ethical rules rules become merged in the great vow of Ahimsa.

      Ahimsa is a soul-force.  Hate melts in the presence of love.  Hate dissolves in the presence of Ahimsa.  There is no power greater than Ahimsa.  The practice of Ahimsa develops will-power to a considerable degree.  The practice of Ahimsa will make you fearless.  He who practices Ahimsa with real faith, can move the whole world, can tame wild animals, can win the hearts of all, and can subdue his enemies.  He can do and undo things.  The power of Ahimsa is infinitely more wonderful and subtler than electricity or magnetism.

       The law of Ahimsa is as much exact and precise as the law of gravitation or cohesion.  You must know the correct way to apply it intelligently and with scientific accuracy.  If you are able to apply it with exactitude and precision, you can work wonders.  You can command the elements and nature also.

The Power of Ahimsa

     The power of Ahimsa is greater than the power of the intellect.  It is easy to develop the intellect, but it is difficult to purify and develop the heart.  The practice of Ahimsa develops the heart in a wonderful manner.

      He who practices Ahimsa develops strong will-power.  In his presence, enmity ceases.  In his presence, cobra and frog, cow and tiger, cat and rat, wolf and lamb, will all live together in terms of intimate friendship.  In his presence, all hostilities are given-up.  The term 'hostilities are given up' means that all beings - men, animals, birds and poisonous creatures will approach the practitioner without fear and do not harm to him.  Their hostile nature disappears in them in his presence.  The rat and cat, the snake and the mongoose and other beings that are enemies of each other by nature, give up their hostile feelings in the presence of the Yogi who is established in Ahimsa.  Lions and tigers can never do any harm to such a Yogi.  Such a Yogi can give definite orders to lion and tigers.  They will obey.  This is Bhuta-Siddhi (mastery over the elements) obtainable by the practice of Ahimsa.  The practice of Ahimsa will eventually culminate in the realization of unity and oneness of life, or Advaitic (non-dual) consciousness.  The Yogi then enjoys the highest peace, bliss and immorality.

Limitation to the practice of Ahimsa 

       Absolute Ahimsa is impossible.  It is not possible to the most conscientious Sanyyasin or monk.  To practice that, you must avoid killing countless creatures while walking, sitting, eating, breathing, sleeping and drinking.  You cannot find a single non-injurer in the world.  You have to destroy life in order to live.  It is physically impossible for you to obey the law of non-destruction of life, because phagocytes of your blood also are destroying millions of dangerous intrusive spirilla, bacteria and germs.

      According to one school of thought, if by the murder of a decoit many lives are saved, it is not considered as Himsa.  Ahimsa and Himsa are relative terms.  Some say that one can defend oneself with instruments and use a little violence also when one is in danger; this is not considered to be Himsa.  Westeners generally destroy their dear horses and dogs when they are in acute agony and when there is no way of relieving their sufferings.  They wish that the soul should be immediately freed from the physical body.  Motive is the chief factor that underlies everything.

A Universal Vow

      Ahimsa is a Mahavratam or "great universal vow".  It should be practiced by all people of all countries.  It does not concern the Hindus or Indians alone.  Whoever wishes to realize the Truth must practice Ahimsa.  You may encounter any amount of difficulties; you may sustain any amount of losses, but you must not give up the practice of Ahimsa.  Trial and difficulties are bound to come in your way to test your strength.  You should stand adamant.  Then alone will your efforts be crowned with sanguine success.

1] Excerpts from the book on "THE VALUE OF VALUES" by Swami Dayananda 
2] Excerpts from the book on VALUES (ETHICS) by Swami Guruparananda
3] An article by Swami Sivananda