Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her ethnographic work focuses on religion, pilgrimage, and politics in the Nepal Himalayas. Her research also addresses material culture, divine personhood, and ritual practice throughout South Asia. Drawing on theoretical frameworks in religion, psychological, and linguistic anthropology, her current work focuses on the roles of sacred landscapes and digital/online religious revival in the relationships between Hindus, Buddhists, and Bonpos who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Her recent published work on this topic is a book titled Shaligram Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas (Amsterdam University Press, 2020). Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. You can follow Holly on her blog, Peregrination and on Twitter at @Manigarm.
For most Americans, their first introduction to “namasté” comes in a yoga studio or from any number of well-meaning wellness “gurus” whose style and merchandise can be reliably described as flamboyant but unstructured. Or rather, the material equivalent of spiritual but not religious. This includes the perennial t-shirts, socks, and shorts ensembles that read “Namaste in bed,” “Namaste up all night,” and my personal favorite, an infant’s onesie printed with a lotus outline and “Namaste with mom.”
The problem is, that all of these phrases depend on an Anglicized mispronunciation of a word that in most common Indian and Nepali usages just means hello (or “greetings to you” if you want to get pedantic). This widespread mispronunciation is largely due, however, to a particular disconnect that happens when transliterating Sanskrit-derived writing systems (like Devanagari) into English alphabets, and then the ways in which English-speaking people habitually enunciate their letters when presented with unfamiliar words.
How Do You Say Namasté?
Namasté is spelled नमस्ते.
A direct transliteration of this spelling would look something like: n m st ĕ. This is because Devanagari script is not an alphabet but an alphasyllabary that includes an assumed basic vowel embedded within all of its consonants; which is a short a-sound (/ə/) like “uh.” That is, unless the vowel is marked, as is the case here with the last diacritic symbol above the line, which would be pronounced as a short e-sound like “eh.” As a result, the actual pronunciation of namasté is more like “nuh-muh-steh” or “numuh-steh” with stress on the first syllables and not the last. In short, it doesn’t rhyme with play or day.
For European and American English speakers though, English words cannot accommodate extended strings of consonants without including written vowels. And so, English typically transliterates all of the implied vowels of Devanagari consonants simply as “a.” Hence, namasté. It’s also why so many Hindi and Nepali words look the way they do in English printing despite the fact that the “a” symbol in the English alphabet can stand in for a variety of actual sounds. This attempt at standardization is not without its detractors of course, and many scholars continue to argue as to whether or not more complex diacritics should be used in place of the all-encompassing Roman “a” so that readers have a better sense of how words should be pronounced. But for now, the unmarked “a” remains the most common method.
Unfortunately, this also means that long a-sounds and short a-sounds that are obvious in South Asian scripts (because they have different symbols) are not differentiated in their English counterparts. In the end, a native English speaker would therefore tend to read “namaste” using the unconscious lexical rules of English long vowels: If the long a-sound is at the beginning or middle of the word, it will usually be pronounced as “ai” or “a-e” and if the long a-sound is at the end of the word it becomes “ay.” (Side note: the “ay” sound in Devanagari would be represented with the independent symbol ऐ or with the double diacritic above the consonant as shown here in the sound “pay” पै).
And it is exactly this linguistic misstep that appears time and time again on yoga websites and holistic healing platforms.
But Kumari Devarajan wasn’t kidding when she said that namasté has since taken on a life of its own. Her article, How ‘Namaste’ Flew Away From Us, takes particular note of the frustrations that many South Asians in the Diaspora have in regards to constantly hearing the word mispronounced, but what I find even more interesting and concerning about her commentary is where she discusses the ways in which namasté, now divorced from its South Asian cultural and linguistic contexts, has come to stand in for a particular kind of “faux gravity” linked to white alternative spirituality. In the Tweet below, for example, Elon Musk defaults to namasté (along with an emoji of the Añjali Mudrā) to imply a kind of transcendental spiritual beneficence on his part as he bestows a “sacred” blue checkmark to an incredulous Stephen King.
Devarajan then continues by drawing connections between the commercialization of the yoga industry and the use of exaggerated interpretations that claim that the word means something along the lines of “the divine light in me bows to the divine light in you.” It doesn’t, by the way. At least, not any more than “goodbye” means “God be with ye” every time Americans thank their bank tellers or leave the grocery store. But then she states that “sporting ‘namaste’ on a water bottle or tote bag lets people present an essence and a persona that they believe is a part of an “exotic” culture simply by … buying a tote bag.” And here is where I think it becomes especially important for us to take note. Namasté is no longer just a pleasant Hindi greeting, but an English lexeme; a unit of language in the form of a word or phrase that has become an abstract representation of something other than its literal meaning. In this case, indexing a kind of white piousness that explicitly exoticizes and homogenizes South Asia into a caricature of disembodied Sanskrit words (like Ayurveda and Tantra), yoga poses, and “more authentic” religion all the while making unsubtle nods to imagined noble savagery and imitative ancient wisdom. What Devarajan calls “getting namaste’ed.”
As it happens, I have my own relationship to namasté. In Nepal, where I conducted my ethnographic fieldwork, there were always two versions. Any tourist, trekker, or foreigner to Mustang (in the high Himalayas, where British and Australian yoga retreats are common) was always greeted by the local people with a pronounced “Nah-mah-stay.” This was often met with a fair amount of delight on the tourist’s part but also meant that the ensuing conversation was then going to be conducted in English (or Trekker’s Hinglish depending on the fluency of the parties involved) and that the topic was almost certainly going to be yoga, ritual performance, or directions to the nearest temple site. In short, the Anglicized pronunciation of namasté in Nepal has become a kind of service industry short-hand for “Hello foreigner who is here to consume tourist-religion” and is often treated as if it is a part of English.
Pronouncing namasté correctly however, was a marker of insider knowledge and would generally be met by an expectation that the speaker would continue the conversation in Nepali or in Hindi exclusively. Even if everything didn’t necessarily go perfectly though, it acted as a demonstration that the individuals involved were versed in some form of South Asian language and culture beyond the representations embedded in Euro-American Wellness conventions. Or that the discussion would be related to local concerns and that the current visit wasn’t likely to be the first or only time the visitor would be passing through.
When I returned to the United States a couple of years later, I occasionally encountered a similar split. I would, for example, get namaste’ed by white acquaintances or by people attending my public Shaligram talks because those same prevailing assumptions about South Asian cultures have continued to inform many Euro-American understandings of me and my work. If I mentioned that I had spent time in India or had lived in Nepal, I would be immediately asked about my religious conversion to Hinduism or Buddhism (I am not a convert) or about my transcendent experience with “real yoga” (I don’t do yoga). And this was virtually always initiated with a slight bow and a nah-mass-tay. Audience members of the South Asian Diaspora though would often ask their questions in Hindi. But even if they didn’t, our interactions would start and end with namasté.
101 Ways to Namasté
Namasté (again, in this most recognizable transliteration) currently occupies a very contentious space. In many Western contexts, Hinduism, Buddhism, and their ritual practices are treated as quintessentially ancient, mystical, and magic. A stereotype that too often ignores the fact that South Asian religions are active, living, contemporary traditions practiced by millions of people today. It also occupies a space of “exotic” cultures that have been exported mainly for American and Western European consumption by being made palatable to white audiences ever since Paramahansa Yogananda intentionally spread yoga and meditation as a methods of conversion to Hinduism (or, more specifically, to foment religious unity between Vaishnava Hinduism and Protestant Christianity) in the United States in the 1920s. Beyond that, it acts as a divisive point of tension between those who view yoga (and other aspects of South Asian religion) as practices to be freely taken up and incorporated through global exchanges versus those who maintain it as a unique part of their cultural and historical identity. Namasté is thus a lexeme that drags a painful and uneven line through what has been integrated, what has been assimilated, and what has been appropriated.
As globalization speeds up and post-colonial and decolonial discourses continue to fragment, namasté (nah-mah-stay) becomes further layered by taking on new meanings through re-importation back to South Asia; as a greeting to acknowledge foreignness and as a way to audibly mark an outsider. Or, as the case may be, simply because Indians and Nepalis are well aware that a lot of people know the word but just don’t know how to say it correctly. As such, whether it is being used, misused, or abused then largely depends on the context in the moment. A word that is simultaneously never, always, and sometimes alright to use.
Ultimately, namasté is a singular word that simultaneously means very little and also means so very much. It has become a unique flashpoint in a world where cultures naturally bind and blend but also do so for reasons that have to do with proximity, opportunity, extraction, and power. It now has multiple pronunciations in multiple languages, each of which mark it with complicated local and international significance. So, if nothing else, think very carefully about what exactly it is you want to say, the next time you namasté.
[Images in this blog courtesy of the author.]