Namaste and Bowing


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to fly on Japan Airlines when I returned from three months in the Philippines. As I sat at the gate waiting for my flight, I observed the flight crew and the gate personnel arrive one by one. As they arrived, they each bowed toward the plane and then turned to their customers at the gate and bowed to us. I remember thinking what a beautiful thing to see. I'm certain there are stressful moments at JA's gate as with any airline. However, I appreciated their heartfelt attempt to take a breath and acknowledge the moment with a show of peace and respect.


Probably the world's most recognizable regular bower is H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyato. He has said that when he greets other human beings, whether he has met them before or not, that he bows as a signal of friendship and compassion.

The western conception of bowing often relates to political or social status and has fallen out of favor in an era marked by, at least on the surface, democracy and egalitarianism. For this reason, the practice of bowing in cultures of India eastward confuses westerners and can even feel a little uncomfortable. Clarification on the reasons behind bowing in these cultures can help in both understanding and may provide insight for all of us.

First, let's say this is a big topic and we are generalizing about the many reasons people in Asian cultures bow. It can be said, as a generalization, that the genesis of the practice flows from the two traditional and related spiritual traditions - Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhism, born in India as a kind of Hindu reformation, spread throughout Asia all the way to Japan and became the dominant spiritual force there to this day. Hinduism, the mother tradition of India, spread across the Indian Ocean as far as Indonesia. 

Indian Prime Minister Modhi bowing to Congress before speaking.

Indian Prime Minister Modhi bowing to Congress before speaking.

The word Namaste is bandied about often in western culture these days; especially, it seems, around Yoga studios. However, there is a deeper spiritual meaning to the word. The word is Hindi "namas" is blowing and "te" is to you. Namaste is bowing to you.

This is not a bowing of social or political status, though India is still emerging from its ancient caste system. Rather it is a recognition of the presence of divinity within every other person we meet. This traces its roots back to the Avaita Vendanta doctrine of Hinduism. This teaching holds that ātman  (soul/individual reality) and Bráhman  (God/absolute reality) are one. The idea is that all atman flow from Atman (universal or eternal soul).

In Hinduism, God is the source and the destination of all beings. Enlightenment is realization and expression of this truth. However, the divine spark lives even within the unenlightened person whether they have attained that realization or not. The bowing and the speaking of the word Namaste is a recognition by one person that he or she sees the divine spark within the other. It should be noted that due to the belief in transmigration across species and even from the inanimate to the animate that this divine spark, for the fully realized student, is seen in everything manifest in the world. Bráhman is present in all beings and really all things.


Buddha's insight took a much more humanist line on attaining moksha (release or liberation) from what both traditions view as samsara - the wheel of life, death, and rebirth that we all find ourselves on. Buddha rejected the premise of atman and saw the gods a superfluous to the question of human enlightenment and release. In fact, to the extent he addressed the gods at all, Buddha regarded them as caught in the same samsaric trap as all other beings. He viewed their power and hubris as impediments to their own liberation. Siddhartha taught that being human was the best form in which to achieve Nirvana because we had high enough intelligence without all the traps the gods were subject to.

There, I just summarized two of the world's great spiritual traditions in a couple paragraphs. I'm certain I ddi neither of them justice. However, the distinction was necessary to differentiate the reason for bowing in traditional Buddhist countries with those in the Hindu Indian sphere.

Because of the difference, Buddhists are not bowing to the divinity in the other. However, some Buddhist commentators, for instance Nichidatsu Fujii, have adopted the Namaste approach to bowing by replacing divinity with Buddha. He wrote a book titled I Bow to the Buddha in You.  The idea being that we are all "Buddhas in process" and we should bow to each other with a recognition of that fact. It serves as a reminder both to the bower and the person being bowed to.

Zen Buddhist priest and psychologist Seth Zuiho Segall has written about a slightly different approach. He identifies four reasons Buddhists bow.

  1. Gratitude to the historic Buddha for his teachings.
  2. Gratitude for the teachings themselves.
  3. Respect for our capacity for awakening.
  4. Acknowledgement of the oneness of all Being.

He notes a quote from the Thai Buddhist nun (Bhikkhuni) Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni.

"It is important to understand the significance of this humble gesture. When we bow down before a Buddha image it means we are able to let go of the importance of the self. We bring our head below our heart. We bow with body, heart and mind and by so doing we gain merit. When a student bows before a teacher, it is the student who gains merit because she/he is able to let go of the self; the teacher gains nothing at all."

As you can see, there's nothing social, political, or economic in the bowing in these cultures. In both instances, it's a moment to remember that the bower and the person being bowed to are both far more than the appearance of the moment might indicate. Indeed, we are not disparate and separated but ONE. All of us are bound in a communion far deeper than one of atoms and DNA. As westerners, it couldn't hurt us to find ways to remember that too.

Ray Davis
for 6 Sense Media