What is Namaskara?
Posted March 22, 2014on:
What is Namaskara?
NAMASKĀRA is an ancient Hindu custom of greeting and paying respectful salutation that is still prevalent. An action of respect, Namaskāra denotes Greeting, Salutation, and Worship or Surrender. Namaskāra can be done to deities, images of gods, elders, fellow citizens and to all sacred objects including natural elements.
Namaskāra can be done in a variety of ways: by folding one’s hands in the shape of she-goat’s ears and joining palms, bowing down with folded hands, prostrating with the entire body on the ground or part of the body on the ground, touching another’s feet with the head or clasping another’s feet while kneeling down and circumambulating an image or object or a person from left to right with folded hands.
Namaskāra, Praṇāma and Abhivādana are various Hindu customs of greeting and salutations. Of these, Abhivādana is a formal salutation done to Guru, elders and certain other respected people.
While Namaskāra as a greeting and a mark of respect can be performed in both private and public, Abhivādana is not normally done in public though there are occasions where it is done at a public place as well (Smṛti Candrikā I. 38). In Northern India, Abhivādana is not considered as part of Sandhyā Vandanam, a daily ritual, whereas in places like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala it is done as part of the daily rituals.
Why should respect be given in this way to elders? Won’t mere nodding of head or a smile would do, as practiced in many countries?
Hindu scriptures provide very interesting information in this regard, something that is not found in other cultures or religions [barring religions derived from Hinduism].
Honor or respecting one consists in saluting a person, rising to welcome him/her, allowing the respected person to walk in front, garlanding a person, etc. The grounds on which a person has to be respected or honored are knowledge, performance of religious rites, age, relationship and wealth. The order of these grounds varies in different texts.
So, when a person who is highly knowledgeable or older or wealthier or whose relationship demands respect approaches another, then the latter should rise and show respect to the former in the manner given in the scriptures.
For, Manu says, the prānas or vital breaths of a person mount upwards when a person who is superior in any of the grounds mentioned above approaches; but by rising and respecting such a superior person, one recovers and subsides the prāṇa (II.120, 121). Further, he says, a person who has the habit of constantly saluting the superior persons properly gains increase in length of life, knowledge, fame and strength; as such a person’s body and mind will be well tuned all the time and will be put to optimum use.
Hindu medicinal systems recognize three basic principles, Vāta, Pitta and Kapha and any disturbance of pranic movement results in the disturbance in the equilibrium of these three principles putting body and mind ill at ease. Ill at ease or disease affects both the body and mind equally.
Keeping this in mind, the parents should make children pay respect to elders from the young age. Since children will be more comfortable with the parents than others, they should make children do namaskaram to the parents at least twice a day – on getting up from and on going to bed. This will help children having a healthy body and serene mind to a great extent.
Procedure, Manner and Forms of Salutation
Though Hindu scriptures have definitely delineated certain forms of salutation and worship, numerous others have crept into practice through centuries of practice across India. So, at present there are numerous forms of salutations and giving respect. Some of the important ones are given below along with the procedure of doing them.
Pratyutthāna is rising from one’s seat to receive a person. Pratyutthāna is must for everyone and it does not matter whether the person who is approaching is knowledgeable or ignorant, rich or poor, pure or impure and is in good physical condition or diseased. One should mandatorily rise to welcome everyone. One should not salute and receive the salutations while sitting. After getting up one should fold one’s hands and do namaskāra uttering at least ‘Namaste’ or ‘Praṇām’, give the visitor a chair to sit and offer that person at least a cup of water. However, one need not get up to those who are in an inebriated state, who has committed grievous sins, who are known thieves and the like. One need not get up and receive someone who is younger to oneself, if he / she do not qualify for respectful salutations on the five grounds listed above.
Namaskāra as a form of greeting and salutation is a very ancient one. The root ‘namaḥ’ occurs in the earliest of Vedic literature (Rg. X. 15.2). It is a simple way of paying respect.
It is done in three ways, standing and folding one’s hand in greeting others, bowing with folded hands and complete prostration. It is done, respectively, to greet everyone, to salute and get the blessings of one’s guru and elders and in prostration expressing one’s surrender to a guru or God.
Namaskāra as a form of Greeting
In greeting everyone, one has to stand up, vertically fold one’s hands, join one’s palms (so that one’s hands resemble she goat’s ears from the sides) and say ‘Praṇāms’ or ‘Namaste’ or any other Hindu greeting such as ‘Rām Rām’.
The principle and spiritual significance of this way of greeting others is that the Life Force or Divine is same in everyone and one salutes actually the God inside the person that is being greeted. So, one should not superficially greet another, however hurried one is, and should pause for a second remember the oneness of self and salute before proceeding.
Namaskāra as a Salutation to Elders
While saluting the elders, one’s teacher and other respected people of the society, it is impolite to merely stand and say Namaskāra while folding one’s hands.
If the situation is not proper for complete prostration before the elders, then one should reverentially bow down while maintaining the Namaskāra posture. Even so, one should announce merely one’s name if it is in a public place or in front of group of people and should say ‘I salute.’
This way of reverential salutation is done to get the elders’ blessings. Hindus believe in the positive impact of good thoughts and auspicious words uttered by the elders on the recipient’s body and mind. Manu says (similar sentiment but in different context and with different terms occurs in Āpastamba and Baudhāyana as well) that the more one salutes the elders, teachers and other aged and learned persons, one’s life span, knowledge, fame and strength will also improve.
Namaskāra should not be done with shoes on, while wearing a turban on the head and with one’s hands full.
Namaskāra as a Prostration to God and Guru
Complete prostration is done to one’s parents, respected elders, one’s teacher, guru and in front of the images of God. Namaskāra as prostration can be either Aṣtāṅga or Pañcāṅga Namaskāra.
Aṣtāṅga or eight limbed prostration is where a person prostrates completely with palms, stretched hands, forehead, chest, stomach, thighs, knees and feet firmly in contact with the ground. In Aṣtāṅga Namaskāra, if done to guru and elders, one should clasp the feet of the elders and guru and place one’s head on their feet. In Pañcāṅga Namaskāra a person first kneels down and then five places of the body comes into contact with the ground.
Prostration is the acknowledgement of the superiority of and complete surrender to God or Guru. While prostrating one should focus one’s mind on the feet of God or Guru fervently so that one’s mind or ego should be completely absent, even if temporarily.
Prostration to elders and guru should not be done on the road, in the house where death has taken place, when the person is grieving and to those who are unclean.
Namaskāra to Natural objects and elements
In addition to human beings and gods, Hindus also salute and worship natural objects, elements, certain animals and even natural produce. Unlike the forms of salutation mentioned above, in this category of salutation, people do Pradakṣiṇā or circumambulation of these in addition to prostration and simple namaskāra.
It is widely accepted that Namaskāra and Pradakṣiṇā form part of one and the same upacāra or item of worship. It is not uncommon to see devout Hindus doing namaskāra and circumambulation to cows, bulls, mountains, cow pens, certain trees, snakes, learned Brahmins, ghee, honey and certain types of sacred fire kept in special places called yajñaśālas where oblations take place.
People also do namaskāra to the rivers, certain stars, the moon and the sun. Sūrya Namaskāra is very popular and people do namaskāra twelve times or in multiples of twelve in a particular sequence repeating the following twelve names of sun or sūrya sandwiched between Om and namaḥ: Mitra, Ravi, Sūrya, Bhānu, Khaga, Pūṣan, Hiraṇyagarbha, Marici, Āditya, Savitṛ, Arka and Bhāskara.
However, there is also another method of namaskāra called Tṛeākalpa namaskāras in which Om is followed by certain mystic syllables in combination of twos and fours are repeated with twelve names (Kane, II.735). To cite an example: ‘Om Ravaye namaḥ’ becomes ‘Om heem aarohannutharaam divam heem om ravaye namaḥ’.
Namaskāra as a Mudrā
It is a common knowledge that the gesture of Namaskāra is considered as one of the Mudrās. Mudrā is an auspicious symbol or gesture valued very highly in Hindu traditions. Mudrās are long seen as imparting certain types of energy in the atmosphere and also on the body of a person who performs a gesture.
Nityācarapaddhati (533) derives the word ‘Mudrā’ from the root words ‘mud’ meaning ‘joy’ and ‘rā’ meaning ‘to give’ thereby implying ‘to give joy.’ All Mudrās are supposed to give delight to gods and chase away evil beings and spirits (Śāradatilaka, 23. 106). Gesture of Namaskāra is considered one of the most auspicious gestures. Namaskāra Mudrā is part and parcel of all pūja paddhatis or procedures of worship. It has been reasoned long that since it emanates positive, beneficial and auspicious vibrations, the gesture of Namaskāra should be done immediately and without hesitation.
However, there is a verse in Smṛti Candrikā (I.148) saying that Mudrās should not be done in public and among group of people and if done, gods become angry and a person may not accrue the complete benefits of an auspicious gesture. Then there are numerous instances from Epics onwards at least, if not earlier, in support of Namaskāra as a form of greeting even in public places.
Namaskāra should not be done to the following persons: a heretic, a person who is guilty of grievous sins, gamblers, thieves, ungrateful persons and drunkards. Some texts also add atheists and the like to the list.
The word ‘Śri’ has to be prefixed when referring by name a deity, the teacher, the place of the teacher, any holy place, the presiding deity of the holy place, a person who has attained yogic siddhis, agnihotris, and all learned and respected men of the society. All the married women of the respected families should be addressed with a suffix ‘devi’ while being addressed by name.
Namaskāra – Variations
Apart from the benefits and reasons explained below, Hindus also believe that all the human beings are endowed with certain unseen spiritual potential. By virtue of this, they leave certain impressions that are material but in a subtle form. In the case of great souls or enlightened beings, the impressions that are cast are most beneficial to everyone. Even in the case of ordinary human beings, everyone visits the temples with a single purpose of communication with the Divine. This produces positive impressions in the atmosphere in and around the temples. Further the sanctum sanctorum and the gateways are sanctified with certain set of sacraments and mystic sounds. To partake in these spiritually beneficial impressions, people visit saints, touch the gateways on the ground while entering the temples and also do Namaskāra to the gopurams or temple towers. These and other related beliefs have produced numerous and varied practices of salutations across India.
The most popular of those practices is Sarvāṅga Pradakṣiṇa or rolling around the sanctum sanctorum of a temple or around the temple or a mountain or any sacred object, circularly and in a clockwise direction. In this, a devotee first prostrates in front of the object of circumambulation, and then rolls the whole body sideways around the object, with hands stretched above the head and palms joined. There are also people who undertake this way of worship from one’s home town to a pilgrimage centre covering hundreds of kilometers in several months. Sarvāṅga Pradakṣiṇa is undertaken as a vow, penance, as an expression of devotion and also as an act of following traditions. There are thousands of families in India who have undertaken this mode of worship for centuries without a break.
Another practice that is very similar to Sarvanga Pradakshina is Saṣtāṅga Pradakṣiṇa. In this, a devotee prostrates completely or does an Aṣtāṅga Namaskāra, gets up stretches his hands above the head with the palms joined facing the object of circumambulation, utters a sacred syllable, then repeats this cycle till he completes the circumambulation.
Then there is a Pradakṣiṇa that is called as Aḍi Pradakṣiṇa in Tamil Nadu. In this, the devotee circumambulates the sacred object by covering for each pace, the length of his/her own foot with hands folded in the namaskāra posture. This is normally done inside the temples but also observed in the practice of circumambulating sacred hills.
It is a common practice across India for people to do namaskāra at each step of the temple in case there are stairs or each gateway in case there are no stairs in the temple. People do namaskāra at each step or gate way, bend down, touch the ground with both the hands and then place the hands on their head or eyes before proceeding.
Upasaṁgrahaṇa is clasping the feet of the elders, one’s teacher and a guru. It is more akin to Abhivādana, a formal salutation to one’s guru and teacher. While doing a namaskāra in the form of prostration one should say ‘I salute’ and also one’s name and gotra and while doing prostration; that person should also clasp the feet of the teacher or guru or elders.
While so clasping, one should place one’s head on the feet of those who are being saluted. The modern practice of slightly bending and touching the feet or knee of the elder is not recommended by Hindu scriptures. All the more a highly irreverent practice of touching the feet with the left hand.
To the guru and the teacher, Upasaṁgrahaṇa should be performed once daily. There are divergent views on whether this form of showing respect should be done multiple times.
The clasping should be done with the crossed hands. That is, guru’s right foot should be grasped by right hand of the disciple and left foot by left hand. There is also a tradition where both the ankle and the foot are grasped by the person who is saluting.
One should not fall down and clasp the feet while the person who is being saluted is seated or walking on the road or sleeping or injured or engaged in any work or is not clean.
Among the persons to whom Upasaṁgrahaṇa should be done, apart from the guru and the teacher, are one’s parents, maternal and paternal uncles, elder brother and those persons who are venerated by the guru.
(Please note that exact Abhivādana and Pratyabhivāda are not given here. They vary from tradition to tradition. Those who are interested in knowing what is applicable for oneself should learn from the elders of the tradition)
Abhivādana is the most formal salutation extended to one’s guru, upādhyāya or teacher or a very aged and learned Brahmin.
Abhivādana is done by stretching one’s vertically folded hands to the level of one’s ears, then declaring one’s name, gotra, the recenssion to which he belongs and finally by bending and touching the feet of the guru or upādhyāya with crossed hands.
There are highly divergent views on the procedure of Abhivādana. There is a tradition where one takes only one’s right hand to the right ear and not both the hands. Also there are traditions that advocate only touching the ground with crossed hands while yet others that indicate touching of one’s own feet. Traditions of northern parts of India do not support the existence of Abhivādana as part of Sandhyā worship while those in the south establish it as an essential part of Sandhyā worship. The argument for the former is that there is a rule that Abhivādana should not be done to God while Sandhyā worship is essentially a worship of Lord Sūrya Nārāyaṇa.
Abhivādana is of three kinds, nitya or daily, naimittika or on certain occasions and kāmya or done with the desire to obtain something.
Nitya Abhivādana or daily salutation should be done to guru or teacher early in the morning before sunrise.
Naimittika Abhivādana is done on certain occasions like return from the journey.
Kāmya Abhivādana or one done with the desire for a particular end can be performed any number of times. For instance those who desire a long life can do Abhivādana any number of times whenever they see an elderly, respected and learned Brahmin.
Abhivādana should not be done in public or in assembly. It should not be done to Saṁnyāsins and women. One should not be seated or wear shoes and do abhivādana. One who is being saluted also should not be seated or be wearing shoes when one does abhivādana.
There is an interesting observation and debate in the śāstras, that has got relevance to modern times, regarding doing Abhivādana to those who do not know how to return the salute, women, and certain other classes of people. In such cases one should merely utter ‘abhivādaye aham’ (Kane, II. I. 336-343; Manu II.123 & 126; Vas.Dh.Su. 13.45; Ap.Dh.Su. I.4.14.20). There is also a tradition of keeping one’s hands on the thighs while so uttering.
In the modern lifestyle, it is inevitable that one would come across people who are superior to us in any one of the criteria mentioned above. So, at such times, it would be beneficial for one to merely to utter or whisper ‘abhivādaye aham’ so that one would not be guilty of either doing abhivādana in public or not saluting the superior person properly.
Salutation to Women
One of the topics that has attracted lot of attention in both India and abroad is the respect given to women in a Hindu society.
Śāstras are very clear on this. All women who are elder should be respected and saluted. However, all married women, irrespective of the age of a woman (who may be younger to oneself) should be respected and saluted.
Rishi Devala says “the mother, mother’s mother, teacher’s wife and the full brothers and sisters of one’s parents, paternal grand-mother, mother-in-law, elder sister and the foster mother are women who are to be honored like gurus.”
There are minor variations in the mode of salutation done to women. There are texts that say that elder sisters, teacher’s wife and the like should be merely saluted and their feet should not be clasped. One may clasp the feet of the elder sister and the like on returning from a journey but not at other times. However, Abhivadana should not be done to women.
Benefits of Namaskāra
Benefit of Namaskāra over handshaking and hugging
Namaskāra, as a mode of greeting, promotes good health and preserves mental balance of a person. While greeting a person, handshake and hugging are discouraged and instead a person is encouraged to greet another with hands folded and palms joined.
In Hindu philosophy, it is believed that any physical contact with another creates a series of sense impressions that in turn lead to the disturbance in the equilibrium of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas – three gunas or qualities that each person possesses and the ones that provide basic structure for a personality of a human being. Avoidance of disturbance to this equilibrium preserves mental balance of the human beings.
So, the performance of Namaskāra (greeting with folded hands) is viewed as a beneficial mode of greeting while hand shake and hugging are seen as inferior. In Hindu traditions, touching a person who is above twelve years of age is generally avoided.
Though āliṅgana or hugging is part of certain Bhakti traditions and the case of Lord Rāma hugging Guha and Hanumān is cited as example of existence of hugging in Hindu traditions, it is generally accepted that Hindu traditions discourage unnecessary physical contact between two persons.
Personal hygienic principles such as avoidance of catching up unnecessary infections and certain rigorous socio-religious principles such as avoidance of contact with unclean persons or persons who carried out unclean professions are seen as the basis for widespread acceptance and practice of this deterrent principle.
Benefit of doing Namaskāram to Guru’s feet
From ancient times Hindus believe that worship of Guru’s feet brings Grace in abundance and also destroys one’s sins. The scriptures eulogize the feet of a realized person as exuding God’s Grace.
All prayers, all religious and spiritual practices have one single aim – of being in communication with the Divine or Ultimate. Touching or placing one’s head at the feet of the Guru is the most physical expression of that aim. Washing and worshipping Guru’s feet is spoken of as more beneficial than hundreds of years of austerity and spiritual practice.
One namaskāram to Guru’s feet is capable of destroying and removing densest of ignorance and darkness. For, “…the totality of the satguru is contained within his feet. All nerve currents terminate there. The vital points of every organ of his bodies – inner astral, inner mental and soul – are there. Touch the feet and we touch the spiritual master. … big toe on the left foot exudes the most grace. The left leg is the revealing grace, and the big toe of that leg connects to the guru’s pituitary gland, the entrance to the door of Brahman [sic], deep within the sahasrāra cakra where, in contemplation, he merges with Śiva.”
By doing namaskāra or bowing down to the holy feet with head touching the left foot, “Devotees worship the feet of the guru as the feet of God Śiva, the attainable attainment, seeking to partake of, absorb into themselves, the vibration of their guru, ultimately to become like their guru, who has realized his oneness with God Śiva.” (What is Hinduism, 151).
So, namaskāra to the Holy feet of Guru is not only the gesture of surrender but also an important part of the spiritual sādhana or practice where such worship leads to liberation.
Benefit of prostrating in front of an image of God
Prostration on the ground is done in front of elders, respected people, guru and the images of deities and God.
When done to God or Guru, it is the external manifestation of complete surrender that one makes. It is a physical action expressing the recognition that Guru or God to whom one is surrendering is superior to oneself in all qualities and in every way. It is also viewed as an act of sacrifice on the part of devotee.
But why should anyone prostrate in this manner at all and what is it that he/she is sacrificing?
Absolute prostration in front of a Guru or God is one of the most important spiritual practices. “… prostrating before God, Gods and guru, full body, face down, arms and hands outstretched, and in that act, total giving up, giving up, giving up, giving up. What are these devoted ones giving up? By this act they are giving the lower energies to the higher energies. It is a merger, a blending.”
“It is transmuting, changing the form of, the base energies which breed conflict and resistance, ‘mine and yours’ and ‘you and me’ division, insecurity and separateness, into the spiritual energies of ‘us and we,’ amalgamation, security, togetherness. Once the giving up of the lower is total – body and face on the ground, hands outstretched before the image of God, Gods or guru – those energies are surrendered into the higher chakras within the devotee, and it is a blissful moment, into the consciousness of ‘us and ours’, ‘we and oneness’ and inseparable love, thus claiming their individuality, not as a separate thing, but as a shared oneness with all. Thereafter, these devoted ones, having been transformed, are able to uplift others, to harmonize forces around them that they work with day after day after day, year after year after year.” (What is Hinduism, 151-152). Thus prostration, when properly understood and performed with devotion, transforms the individual.
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