I’ve noticed a recent news story making the rounds on Facebook, detailing how an American school has banned the saying of “namaste” on the grounds that it is a religious statement.
The phrase, “namaste”, can be incorrectly taken as a religious statement, just like “My name is Ishu” can be incorrectly taken as a religious statement by someone willing enough to go to the trouble of interpreting it as such.
This sort of over-eager attitude to interpret anything foreign sounding and vaguely understood as “religious” sets a dangerous precedent when we consider that many religious people the world over want evolutionary theory and other forms of demonstrable, evidence based scientific theory considered as religious beliefs, along with agnosticism and atheism as a whole.
Yoga itself, along with meditation and in fact the entire Buddhist and Hindu canonical texts, can be taken atheistically or agnostically with no serious detriment to the coherence of the canon, and in many sects this is in fact encouraged to avoid the pointlessness of idolatry and the holding dear of abstract images of the divine.
It’s also worth considering that no secular tradition has anything close in terms of depth, breath and sophistication to the practices of internal exploration and analysis offered by Buddhism in particular and Hinduism more broadly, and that if we cut these traditions out of our educational institutions for fear of introducing religion into schools, we may be doing future generations an enormous disservice by making it more difficult still for them to understand and work with the psychological difficulties of life.
The divine in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy is not a deity, it is formlessness, void, nothing, and/or emptiness. It refers to the deep down whatever-there-is, not to a personified being or God. More specifically, the Hindus refer to Brahman, or the great self, who becomes empty, forgets itself and becomes lost in the many forms of existence, playing at being not-God.
So, understood on it’s own terms, we may state the phrase more clearly as, “I bow to the deepest, inmost aspect of who you are”, and in that sense it is not a theistic statement by any reasonable definition of the word “theism”, as it includes no reference to a deity or god of any kind.
The saying of namaste is not some abstract reification of the concept of an inmost aspect or void, it is a relaxation of that process of abstraction to come to an experience of what the phrase is pointing to.
It is not an act of worship but of recognition. Another very common translation is, “I see you”.
I maintain that we cannot sensibly or honestly compare the religions of Asia in form, aesthetic, or content to the monotheisms of the Middle East, namely Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
There is not a great deal of structural similarity between them, and to conflate them without attention to detail of this kind is to fall into generalisation. We would perhaps be better served by heeding the advice of William Blake, who urges us to “pay attention to minute particulars. Take care of the little ones. Generalization and abstraction are the plea of the hypocrite, scoundrel, and knave”
A notable example particular to the topic at hand is the discussion of religion in the opening chapters of Swami Vivekenanda’s commentary on Raja yoga.
“If there is a God we must see Him, if there is a soul we must perceive it; otherwise it is better not to believe. It is better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite.”
He goes on to discuss the differences between experiential and inferential knowledge and how that relates to the differences between the philosophies or ‘religions’ of Asia and the religions of the West.
If you’re looking to gain a broader understanding of the topic, and I would recommend it considering how novel these philosophies actually are, you can find the text here: