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US News: Why the Indian Namaste Is Going Viral

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Prince Charles extended his hand to greet Sir Kenneth Olisa, the lord lieutenant and Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Greater London, earlier this month — but then quickly withdrew it. Instead, he folded his hands, pressing the palms together in an intrinsically Indian way — also known as the “namaste” gesture.

The heir to the British crown isn’t alone. As the outbreak of the coronavirus, which experts say spreads through physical contact and has so far infected more than 336,000 people in 173 countries, the centuries-old Indian form of greeting is slowly sweeping the world, especially diplomacy. 

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LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales uses the Namaste gesture to greet television presenters Ant McPartlin (L) and Declan Donnelly as he attends the Prince's Trust And TK Maxx & Homesense Awards at London Palladium on March 11, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images) © 2020 WPA Pool LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales uses the Namaste gesture to greet television presenters Ant McPartlin (L) and Declan Donnelly as he attends the Prince's Trust And TK Maxx & Homesense Awards at London Palladium on March 11, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

And while it didn’t help Charles — who tested positive last week — the namaste is fast emerging as the new handshake in foreign relations. At a time diplomatic visits and global summits are being postponed or canceled because of the crisis, the greeting is allowing world leaders to at least hold the most essential meetings. The namaste gesture does not involve skin contact and lets people maintain a distance — without compromising on politeness.

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During their meeting in Washington on March 13, American President Donald Trump and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar folded their hands together in the namaste posture to greet each other. After the meeting, Trump, who visited India in February, said: “We didn’t shake hands today, and we looked at each other and said, What are we going to do? Sort of a weird feeling. We did this [joined hands]. I just got back from India, and I didn’t shake any hands there. It was easy.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and US President Donald Trump greeting each other with a Namaste gesture in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington DC during the Taoiseach's visit to the US. (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and US President Donald Trump greeting each other with a Namaste gesture in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington DC during the Taoiseach's visit to the US. (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

A day earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron joined his palms in a namaste while greeting Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia at the Élysée Palace in Paris. Emmanuel Lenain, the French ambassador to New Delhi, tweeted out in excitement how Macron had “retained” the greeting gesture from his India visit in 2018.

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[Namaste] has become a necessity.

TP Sreenivasan, former Indian diplomat

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too has been advocating the use of namaste as a way of greeting. He has asked his fellow citizens to greet people with the quintessentially Indian gesture, and, during a press conference, said that “small steps such as adopting the Indian namaste could help in controlling the spread of the virus.” 

In photos: Creative greetings amid Coronavirus outbreak (Picture Services)

The decision by these world leaders to pick up the Indian gesture in diplomatic settings where the handshake was the norm represents a new reality, suggests TP Sreenivasan, India’s former permanent representative to the U.N in Vienna. 

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“[Namaste] has become a necessity — it is not because they [world leaders] found it admirable,” he says. “And of course, Trump’s words in the encouragement of the gesture also had an impact — people are curious about that.”

Namaste! Portrait of happy Indian girl in desert village, India © Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY Namaste! Portrait of happy Indian girl in desert village, India

A combination of two Sanskrit words, namaste translates to “we bow to you,” says historian Wendy Doniger, one of the world’s best-known Indologists and a professor of South Asian languages and civilization at the University of Chicago. 

The original gesture, she explains, involved stooping down and gathering dust from the feet of the person one wanted to honor using cupped hands, “then standing up and putting that dust on one’s own head.” The current form of the gesture that’s widely used in India — and now elsewhere — is a “simplified version of the original gesture,” Doniger says.

Historically, the gesture has had no religious or scientific meaning — but it has long been a deeply cultural symbol of respect and honor, especially for people who are older, or people such as “a teacher, a person with power [such as a king],” she says.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron welcome Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia as they arrive at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron © Thomson Reuters French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron welcome Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia as they arrive at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Sreenivasan cautions against the romanticization of the namaste, especially in the world of diplomacy. But ironically, one man who needs to adopt it more and more is the leader of India himself — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, before the virus outbreak, was known to tightly embrace fellow world leaders. “Modi needs to change and stop hugging people,” Sreenivasan says.

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Of course, namaste is a common form of greeting in countries such as Thailand as well. Other ancient civilizations have their own forms of greeting. In Japan, you bow. And in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, new and other unique ways to greet are coming up too — for example, the fist bump, the elbow bump and the foot shake.

But Dr. Aneel Advani of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health believes namaste is “healthier than the other options” that have emerged. Using knuckles or elbows means you’re coming in really close to a person to greet them because “no one has 3-foot-long hands. And that’s not clean.” 

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets the crowd during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi © Thomson Reuters India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets the crowd during a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India May 30, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Other greetings common in traditional societies — such as nodding one’s head or bowing — are fine too, from a health perspective, Advani says. “All of these alternatives to handshaking are good because the palm of your hand touches your face the most,” he says. Palms can carry droplets with the virus from one’s face or mouth.

Namaste, though, has an added advantage — it can appear more natural. One often cups hands in greeting while walking toward the person one is honoring, and so can make the gesture several feet away without needing to make a special effort to stop and bow from a distance.

Sreenivasan is confident it’s going to gain more momentum globally. Millions around the world practice namaste as a part of yoga, in any case. Now, they — and their leaders — might take to it in daily life too.

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