THE POLITICS OF NAMASTE AND WAYS TO HONOR THE MILLION FACES OF INDIA

The Politics of Namaste

Blessings to all,

I’ve given much thought to writing this – as honestly, it is a sensitive subject – one that draws upon thousands of years of ideological and other forms of violence, suppression and grandstanding between two different religious and spiritual traditions in India: The Aryan (North) and the Dravidian (South). It‘s honestly a lot more nuanced than that, but there is that invisible line that is drawn across the Indian subcontinent that marks profound differences.

Whilst I love my Southern-Tamil culture and identity, I feel there is so much more to it than asserting whether it is the ‘best’ or the ‘oldest’ – but at the same time I feel deeply uncomfortable when someone does try to put down my identity by claiming cultural-linguistic-ethnic- and other forms of superiority. There is powerful linguistic evidence on both sides, which have equally been used to make such a case – and I honestly find that debate counterproductive.

I worship and integrate different aspects of both traditions, deities and divinities – placing them on par with one another. For those of you who have been following my work, you know that I do the same thing with religions and belief systems for we are all Equals in the Circle.

But what does all this have to do with Namaste?

Namaste is a specific term of – recognizing the divinity within others – that is from the Sanskritic linguistic root – strongly associated with the Hindi language.

Contrary to the kinds of cultural stereotyping that India is often subjected to (that everyone speaks Hindi, or is a Hindu, or loves Bollywood) – not every part of India uses this terminology – even in spiritual contexts.

I’m writing this as I realize that my Indian identity often makes others feel as though they are honoring that identity by saying ‘Namaste’.

I don’t blame anyone for/about it – and I see that the intention is pure.

It’s just that this discussion, or this distinction hasn’t been made in many New Age and spiritual circles. People assume that India is more homogeneous that it actually is, unless information to the contrary is given.

Simply put, it does not mean the same thing for all those who are of Indian origin. Nor do all people of Indian origin use it, even in temples.

Here are other ways that different Indian identities express a similar concept:
Vanakam – Tamil (some Tamil Brahmins use Namaskaram)
Vandanam/Namaskaram – Telugu
Swagatham/Namaskaram – Malayalam
Assamulaikum – Muslim-Indians

There are a lot of other ways that different states/regions and ethnicities express this concept. This list is but a start.

As has been shown in India’s history and politics – Language is key to one’s sense of identity. Words say a lot about who you are, where you come from, where you will go. And not having the right to express one’s self in their mother tongue was seen in India’s history as a severe limitation upon individual freedoms.

That is the reason why India recognizes more than 20 different official languages and provides for simultaneous interpretative services in its Parliament – and why MPs use English if not their mother tongue to speak with others.

The idea of a single identity, be it defined in terms of a language, a region, a belief system, could not take root – as it is a such rich land with a diversity of cultural traditions and ethnicities. Plurality and diversity were favored over imposing a common language – because that would have meant much more than ‘mere words’ to the people of India.

A friend of mine asked me (and he respects both traditions) – well, what is your point as ‘Hindi is the face of India’ (quoted with permission).

My response: Well, it is – and it isn’t.

India has a million faces, and each deserve equal recognition.

Here’s to honoring them all, and staying true to one’s roots. Tolerance and Plurality.

Vanakam,
Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
www.bairaveebalasubramaniam.com

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