Is It Cultural Appropriation to Say ‘Namaste’?

These days there many things that are indisputably true. One of them is that sensitivity around people’s cultures is at an all-time high. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – we can probably all agree that there are too many who are insensitive towards other people and how parts of their identity are extremely important to them. The other is that the current social climate in North America means there is also heightened sensitivity around cultural appropriation. Whether or not that sensitivity is way more pronounced than it needs to be is a legit question, but is is cultural appropriation to say Namaste?

First we need to go into greater detail about what is cultural appropriation. It is defined as using or taking something from another culture without giving proper recognition or respect to that culture. One of the more well-known and public examples of this is the uproar over the use of Native American culture in mainstream fashion and other aspects in America, and it’s now seen as inappropriate to wear a Native American headdress unless you’re a person who comes from that heritage. And quite frankly that’s the way it should be as this is an egregious example of cultural appropriation.

It is quite understandable that these people would be opposed to anyone not from their culture wearing the headdress, but can we assume that Hindu people would consider saying ‘Namaste’ as similarly inappropriate? Spoken expressions don’t carry the same weight as garments or symbols, but it is still a fair question to ask and that is what we will look at with this blog entry.

A Greeting & Blessing

In previous blogs we’ve explained what Namaste means and anyone who’s been following here will know that it means ‘I bow to you’ in Hindi, and the expression has its roots in Sanskrit culture from thousands of years ago. The meaning is actually deeper than that though, and from what we’ve learned about it might be more appropriate to say that Namaste means, ‘the divine in me bows to the divine in you.’ There’s no debating it’s a very reverent and respectful thing to say to someone.

Examples like headdresses for Native Americans or cornrow hairstyles for African Americans are ones where it is a physical and visually identifiable taking of another culture’s style identity. A greeting or blessing is nothing of the sort, and if a collection of Germans in downtown Berlin were to hear an African American man say ‘Guten Tag’ they likely wouldn’t find at abnormal at all – much less an example of Bavarian cultural appropriation. In fact, they might even like it and wish them a good morning too.

You can see where we’re going with this. Namaste is a spoken expression and suggesting it is cultural appropriation isn’t as legit simply because there are all sorts of examples where language is borrowed from other cultures simply because it works well and it has a distinctiveness to it that people like. If it’s harmless and no one is offended by it, then it should be seen as okay. This is true in spite of all the MANY different examples where people are harmed by cultural appropriation. We are certainly not making less of it, but we don’t think it applies to using Namaste as an expression.

If there are people from Southeast Asia who believe it is inappropriate or a non-Hindu to say Namaste then please let us know why that is. Although ‘stepping’ on someone’s toes in the context of upsetting them may be a bigger deal because touching anything holy with your feet is among the 6 things a devout Hindu should never do. We will certainly respect that, and if saying Namaste is seen as cultural appropriation we’ll be happy to change our viewpoint on that as well.

Spiritual Significance

The only counter to that may be because the expression Namaste has real spiritual significance for Hindi people. With that understood we might be able to guess that they would not see saying Namaste as cultural appropriation. However, that might be different if the person was to be using it repeatedly and / or too casually. But if you think about it, who would do that? Most people only know ‘Namaste’ as something you say to conclude your yoga practice, and it’s unlikely they would ever be in any situation where they’d be blurting it out without any context for using it.

What about you? Do you think saying Namaste is cultural appropriation? Let us know if you do.