Mixing with people from other societies or cultures, one is immediately struck by the differences in social behaviour and practices. For example, why is it that in some cultures people shake hands when they meet, while in others they rub their noses or exchange kisses on cheeks or they keep at arms length and do namaste?
Is it something to do with notions of equality and hierarchy, intimacy and distance? When we shake hands, are we not saying that we are equals, as compared to saluting or namaste-ing? Until as recently as the 1970s, people in rural Holland still used to doff their caps to the upper classes in greeting. They would certainly have been rebuffed had they dared offered their hands to be shaken. Handshakes also symbolise friendship, even among unequals, or signal the end of hostility and forgiving mistakes. The simple, friendly act of shaking hands has multiple meanings both simultaneously and serially, differing according to context.
In the age of economic and cultural globalisation, the handshake has also become globalised. In Nepal, more and more people are now beginning to shake hands, especially on formal occasions, such as prize-givings and after speeches. It is also increasingly common for Nepalis to shake hands as well as doing namaste. Nepalis are now less hierarchical than they were, say 20 years ago. But shaking hands now signifies not just friendship and equality, but also sets one apart from the more traditional ('backward?') compatriots.
The namaste (or namaskar) is a form of salutation also practiced by Indians, Sri Lankans, Thais, Burmese and other groups influenced by 'Indic' cultures. One rational scientific explanation for the evolution of this form of salutation is to avoid spreading germs and dirt. Traditional Nepalis frown upon shaking hands and that other 'dirty' practice of kissing, because it is not hygienic. But as an apprentice anthropologist, I am tempted to explore beyond just the rational to social, cultural and political-economic roots of the namaste.
Given the hierarchical social structures in India and Nepal, the namaste fulfils the need for men and women and people of unequal social status to maintain physical distance. Traditionally, what is important during the namaste procedure is who initiates the greeting, how low one bows while doing it to a priest or elder, for instance, and how long you stay down. People of higher social status only respond to the namaste, and don't do it themselves first.
Let's analyse the much-publicised handshake between the leader of a party once classified as terrorist and the helpless head of government at a nonpolitical function during last year's ceasefire period. It signified a (temporary) cessation of hostilities, equality between the leaders of the two powers, a shift to a new (western? global?) way of interacting with the opposition and a new symbol of conflict resolution. A namaste would have meant status quo and support of the traditional ways of doing things. Besides, who would have offered his namaste first?
In the wider global universe, doing namaste as a form of greeting culturally marks us as Asians. When abroad, if you greet another Nepali or Asian with a namaste you signal an affinity to a vague sense of 'Asian culture and identity' and thus a shared culture and closeness in contrast to people of other cultures.
The greeting you get while boarding most Asian airlines is a namaste. In the hospitality business, what sells is culture packaged with its unique traits and the namaste has come to fulfil this role as well.
The form of greeting or salutation used displays social and cultural meanings, those of closeness or distance, hierarchy or equality and also of being modern or westernised. By switching from one form of salutation to another, one switches the meaning of the interaction and social relations.
Rajendra Pradhan is a Kathmandu-based anthropologist.