Not, apparently, what Nanna thought. To an Indian child it’s a polite version of ‘yo, fossil’ – hello, with a dollop of deference for age.
According to an article on npr.org, writer Deepak Singh says namaste is not a special occasion greeting like it has become in western yoga classes. Not “a Hindu mantra, a divine chant, a yoga salutation”. Singh said he used it a LOT as a child because “in India, it is common to refer to neighbors who are your parents’ age as uncles and aunts. The entire neighborhood was filled with uncles and aunts. Thousands of them. Living around so many namaste-worthy people, I remember saying namaste nonstop. Namaste! Namaste! Namaste!”
I have heard a range of translations of namaste by Western yoga teachers over the years. ‘My soul bows to your soul’. ‘My soul recognizes the divinity within you.’ ‘The light in me acknowledges the light in you’.
My favorite is ‘the spark of the divine within me, honors the spark of the divine in you’. Sure, it’s long-winded, but it can expand to a whole practice: I’m standing in a queue being held up by some extraordinarily irritating person with an axe to grind/nothing but small change/an inability to shut up – you know the sort – and I remind myself of that spark of the divine within them. I watch Donald Trump treat the presidential nomination race as an endless publicity stunt and try to remember his spark of the divine. I’m cut off in traffic or treated with surly indifference or completely ignored by yet other spark of the divine, and I try to remember to keep breathing, deeply, consciously. It’s useful. And it doesn’t always work. But whenever I get those “why you %&$#@” feelings I try to remember the mantra, ‘spark of the divine’, ‘spark of the divine’. It keeps me calm. Mostly.
So, even if namaste means nothing more than “gidday grey-beard”, I’ll keep working on my personal little namaste practice. It keeps me from slapping someone. Which would be very poor form, particularly for Nanna. After all, there’s no debate about the meaning of ahimsa, the first of yoga’s five yamas or restraints, and Ghandi’s constant quest: non-violence.