Namaste, Not me, All in our Hands & Fingers
“Karagre vasate Lamsmih
Karamadhye tu Govindah
LAKSHMI resides in the fingertips, Sarasvati in the base of fingers and Vishnu at the center of the palm. Therefore look at your hands first thing in the morning.”
It struck me recently that here in India, we greet God and each other pretty much the same way. With a namaste, a namaskara, namaskar, namashkar or namaskaram, depending on which part of the country we are from.
This thought crossed my mind when I saw two Western celebrities doing namaste – Goldie Hawn in a chat show and poor, beleaguered Michael Jackson as he walked out of the courtroom. In both cases, the gesture was awkward, stilted, the way a sari looks on Western women, even when draped on one as gorgeous as Elizabeth Hurley. And so I wondered: what is the significance of a gesture that is almost second nature to most of us and is used elsewhere in the world only while praying?
“ I BOW TO YOU”
Actually, we don’t really have to loom very far for the meaning because it’s all there in that one word; namaste or namaskara. And it is the first part of the word that is the most important. Nama, which is the same as namah, as used in so many mantras including the panchashara – “OM NAMASHIVYA”, the larger, broader meaning of nama or namah is taken to be “I bow down to”, ‘I pay homage to” or “I venerate”.
But this comes from the fact that nama is the coming together of two words – “Na” which means “that which is not”, and “ma” which means “mine” or ‘I’. So the literal meaning of nama would be “not I” or “not mine”. By saying nama, the implication is that by negating myself, by that I am nothing I am acknowledging that you are of prime importance. And thus, I pay homage to you, bow down to you, revere you.
When we say it to God, it also means I worship you. (“Te” in namaste means “you”) and “kara’ in namaskara means ‘doing’).
Can you think of a more beautiful way of greeting another human being? Firstly, it is the ultimate gesture of humility, the keeping aside of ego and arrogance that comes in the way of so many of our interaction. Then it recognizes and honours the fact that in each one of us, there is something good, something worthy of respect, even something divine. All said in one simple gesture and one word.
But why do we fold the hands together?
Before answering that question, a small voyage to reacquaint ourselves with our hands. Human civilization would not be what it is without them. In Ayurveda, the hands are classified as one of five organs of action. And they are – stunning, complex organs with which not only de we build and create but also express ourselves. (by the way, one of the main differences between us and apes and chimpanzees is that we do not use our hands for locomotion.) Our hands move and form into a million different gestures to show love and power and anger and despair and defiance and failure and triumph. We make love and war, cook and eat, mock and insult, applaud and bless, even kill with our hands. The New York Stock Exchange could not function with out them. Music, art and literature would not have been possible with out them. And the delicate, intricate swirls and whorls of lines on each of our fingertips make every single one of us unique and like no other human being on this planet. Think about it – right at this very minute, there are at least six billion sets of fingerprints, every one of them different from all the other 5,999,999,999!
But perhaps the most spectacular avatar of our hands is as an organ of touch. The human hand contains about 100,000 nerves of at least 20different kinds – eight related to movement, carrying commands from the spine, and 12 to receive various touch sensations. Each of our fingertips have about 3,000 nerve receptors, just under the surface of the skin. Our trunks have about the same as one fingertip! (Source: A Primer on touch by Elise Hancock). They are divided into specialist functions to tell us fire from ice, a baby’s cheek from sandpaper, granite from cotton wool, rain from dry sand.
Collaborating with the brain to make our fingers so magically dexterous, so sensitive, so intelligent that they can weave fabric fine enough to pass through a ring, make the flute imitate the rippling of mountain stream, a drum talk the language of raindrops, reattach nerves finger than a human hair, transplant sunlight shimmering on water on to a canvas. And make a deaf person hear, a mute speak and a blind see..
And so it is only expected that our ancients designed an entire system of healing of the mind, body and spirit, using the hands, especially the fingers to form mudras.
THE DE-STRESS MUDRA
The word mudra means gesture, but it also means “seal”, especially in Yoga.
Swami Satyananda Saraswathi of the Bihar school of Yoga says: “the mudra to the root mudh meaning to delight or pleasure, and drava which means to draw forth”.
Mudras, ‘by creating barriers within the body, redirect the energy which is normally dissipated outwards” inwards. And the anjali mudra is no different. It is also known as the namaskara mudra. Because that is exactly how the hands are placed – folded together in a namaskara and placed in the center of the chest, with both the thumbs gently pressing against the sternum. It is said that when we thus join our hands, we close or complete (seal) an energy circuit between the hands and the brain, creating a deeply meditative state. Which is why the anjali mudra is considered a relaxing mudra reducing stress and anxiety and calming you down.
But don’t take my word for it. Try this. Sit in a comfortable position and relax completely, shutting your eyes and focusing on your breathing. Then just slowly bring your hands together in a namaste, pressing them firmly but gently against each other, making sure the fingers are matched and there is no gap between them. You need not place your hands in the center of your chest, and this is not the actual mudra, but you will immediately feel a sense of calming down, of something releasing within you.
Which leaves us with the unanswered question. Why do we fold our hands the way we do in a namaste? To tell you the truth, I did not find a really satisfactory answer in all the research that I did. So, I will offer my own theory. In ancient Indian wisdom, each finger has a symbolic meaning. For example, in Ayurveda, each of the five elements – the angusha or thumb for space, the forefinger or tarjari for air, the middle finger or madhayama for fire, the ring finger or anamika for water, and the little finger or kanishta for earth. In Yoga, according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, ‘the small, middle and ring finger respectively represent the three gunas – tamas (inertia), rajas (action and creativity) and sattwa (luminosity and harmony). In order for consciousness to pass from ignorance to knowledge, these three states must be transcended. The indeed finger represents the individual consciousness or jivatama, while the thumb symbolizes the supreme consciousness”. Our hands are our lifeline – our means of survival, expression and the conduit through which we experience the world around us. Our hands also are our identity care – you can change your name, but your fingerprints are as indelible and unique as your DNA.
So you could say that in our hands is contained the universe, the sum and substances of what we are. Therefore, when we join our hands together in a namaskara we not only say, I bow down to you, but that ‘along with my ego, I submit to you all that I am and have”.