Recently one bhakta asked what ‘Vanakkam’ (in Tamil) actually means. Its counterpart is ‘Namaste’ in Hindi. Though there was no specific reason for asking this question, I have noticed that some people object to saying ‘namaste’ with hands folded because it is supposed to be a sign of worship of that person and therefore equating her/him with God.
One can well understand that he said this in his context of defending his handshake to greet others. As a joke, I said, “There are three kinds of folding hands, one keeping the before one’s face, another in front of the heart and another above the head – which one do you mean?” Then I pointed out to him that in general when we say ‘vanakkam’ we keep our folded hands in front of our face and when we worship deities we keep them either in front of our hearts or on top of our heads.
Though I don’t know the etymology or root word of the Tamil word for ‘Vanakkam’, it might come from ‘Vanangu’ which has several meanings like bowing down, humbling, lowering, respecting, etc. The opposite word is ‘Vanagga’ which was used in the Old Tamil Muktiveda as ‘vanagga kazhutu ullavarhal’ (வணங்காக் கழுத்துள்ளவர்கள், Exo. 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9 etc.) which in English means, ‘those who have a stiff neck’.
But we know that taking the literal meaning doesn’t help us understand the actual meaning of a word and the context in which it is used. For example, I need not point out that ‘stiff neck’ does not mean any health issue but rather disobedience. Similarly when we say ‘Vannakkam’ or ‘Namaste’, do we really mean that we worship the other person as God or we say that we are worshipping the God in that person?
Each culture has its own form of greeting others. In North India they say ‘namaste’ to people at the same level and ‘pranam’ to elders and out of respect. To gurus, acharyas, sannyasis and family elders they touch the feet and say ‘pranam’ or ‘pailagun’ (I touch your feet). Of course this not a pan-North Indian custom too. Similarly in Tamilnadu, most people say ‘Vanakkam’ to greet/salute others and say ‘namaskaram’ to those from the older or elite society.
But according to my understanding, I think that with the exception of gurus and sannyasis/swamijis, no other person is greeted with reverence as if worshipping God. Even in the case of gurus and sannyasis/swamijis, they are considered ‘human gods’ and not deities or eternal ones. So when we say ‘vanakkam’ or ‘namaste’, we don’t worship any God in that person or worship her/him as God.
Even this concept of ‘human-god’ does not have a uniform understanding. Very few individuals like Saibaba claim to be a god whereas in a few cases the followers of a particular guru or sannyasi (like Sri Ramana, Kanchi Chandrasekara Saraswati Swami, etc.) call the individual ‘bhagavan’ and treat him like God. Even Ramakrishna Paramahamsa received the same status from his followers. But in other cases, ‘human-god’ means someone who showed grace by revealing the spiritual path to the followers. As the Hindu reality is a pluralistic inclusivism, deriving one meaning to the multi-complex worldview will mislead all.
Even if we accept for argument’s sake that by saying ‘vanakkam’ or ‘namaste’ we worship the God in that person, then what does it mean? Again according to my understanding, the Muktikedic teaching of humans being ‘created in the image of God’, we need to see every other person as a bearer of that image of God in her/him. This could also mean that we treat and respect the other person for her worthy as created in God’s image and not in any other form such as an animal.
So when we follow cultural-religious practices, it is helpful to understand them in their cultural context and not approach them from theology alone. In addition to saying ‘vanakkam’, many severely object at touching the feet of elders. Just read how many times in the Muktiveda (particularly in Purvaveda) even the ‘chosen’ people touched others’ feet.
2-6-15. db. Gurukulam.