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What do you see when you hear “namaste”? What do you think it means?
Namaste is not a word, but rather a complete sentence in Sanskrit – “I bow to you”. Across India, a related phrase one might hear more often in social settings is “namaskar” or “namaskaram”.
Today, however, namaste appears as a way to signal the conclusion of a yoga session. So how did this happen? How did namaste become tethered to what we call yoga?
Namaste arrived in the Anglophone world by way of imperialism. Through British colonial contact, certain embodied phrases, like namaste, became what colonial administrators considered representative of Indian culture.
For example, in the 19th century, namaste denoted a “Brahmin Hindu gesture” for British sociologists and anthropologists. In survey records, they describe namaste as a “bowing posture” with “hands pressed together”. Namaste and its associated body language represented, both sonically and visually, that which made Hindus culturally different from both their Muslim and Christian counterparts. Because of this, namaste operated as a kind of sign – a way for those who considered themselves race scientists to identify, categorise and study what they believed were uniquely Hindu social behaviours.
In these colonial records, the written term namaste, related to but separable from the bowing posture and hand gesture, appears as a marker of the authentic Hindu, that is, an upper-caste, Brahmin man. And it is this colonial etymology many scholars of Hinduism and of India use to trace the history and the meaning of namaste.
In the 20th century, namaste emerged as a signpost of Hindus specifically and of India more generally. Today, in the global and capitalist racial imagination, namaste, as a phrase, not only operates as a signpost, but its gesture has also come to signify related ideas of spirituality, exoticism, authenticity, and of course, yoga.
About the speaker
Rumya S Putcha
Rumya S Putcha is an assistant professor in the Institute for Women’s Studies, as well as in the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on colonial and anticolonial thought, particularly around issues such as citizenship, race, gender, sexuality, the body and the law. After years of ethnographic research on dance and yoga in both India and the United States, she started the research blog ‘Namaste Nation: Orientalism and Yoga in the 21st Century’, on how yoga cultures reveal racialised ideas of the body and health. Professor Putcha’s current book projects include ‘Mythical Courtesan | Modern Wife: Womanhood, Performance, and Feminist Praxis in Transnational India’ and ‘Namaste Nation: Wellness Cultures and Orientalism in the 21st Century’.