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The Algebra of Namaste

Raja Murthy |

At 3.30 pm Eastern Time yesterday (1.00 am IST, July 3), US President Barack Obama was online on Twitter, taking questions on his new health care and Affordable Care Act. Quite likely Obama is unaware of his importing from his India visit this January a lesser known but significant practice to health care: avoiding the handshake. The farewell to India picture of Obama was my favourite from his visit – the smiling president and his wife Michelle silently saying ‘namaste’ from the door of Air Force One.

As a greeting or farewell, the sincere ‘namaste’, ‘namaskar’, or ‘vannakam’ (in Tamil) has to rank topmost among the most gracious of human gestures: conveying humility, respect and goodwill to a fellow being. It beats the handshake hollow. I have no idea how, why and when the handshake first became the global gesture of greeting, but I do know it may be time to bid a farewell ‘namaste’ to the handshake.

Medical tests prove it. Handshakes are a dangerous enough transmitter of disease that some US doctors have called for the handshake to be banned in hospitals. The handshake is easy transfer of lethal micro-creatures like the Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacteria, found researchers David E. Whitworth and Sarah Mela of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Wales. The American Journal of Infection Control published their study in July, 2014.

Longer and stronger the handshake, more dirt and sweat lovingly and warmly gets exchanged. The firm, strong handshake may show character, but it also shows how strongly delusions infect our daily life. And it also shows how readily we give up wise ancient traditions to adopt less-clean habits as ‘civilized’ manners. On the other hand, we are less ready to adopt the best of western culture like strong work ethics, discipline, being polite and not dirtying and littering streets and public places. We often forget to say ‘please’, ‘thank

you’ or use the dust-bin, but we rarely forget to shake hands.

Over ten years ago, a research finding startlingly declared that the human palm contains more germs than a toilet seat! I remember that particular bit of news because not only did I write an article about it in the Mumbai tabloid ‘Mid-day’, but I also tried my best to get the handshake out of my life. No point exchanging grime in the guise of greeting.

It does not always work. Either of the two happens: a) the handshake has become such a reflex action on meeting someone that the right hand almost automatically extends, or b) refusing to shake hands by ignoring a proffered hand obviously gets interpreted as an insult, rudeness, arrogance and very bad manners.  Or c), in real time, it&’s a bit difficult to tell the other person, “Shaking hands would mean you only get the dirt and sweat I may have in my palm.”

So I tried another option the past few years: a closed-fist greeting. The person&’s hand in greeting touches my enclosed fist. This way, the hand shaken greeting becomes less a hearty exchange of ‘yecch’ stuff we don’t like to see mentioned. When thinking of the handshake, just think of all the possible places where the hand or fingers have recently been ….sure, not exactly things to be discussed at the dining table. That is also why the term ‘dirty money’ is actually dirty money, as in coins and currency notes passing through thousands of hands.

The closed fist greeting works somewhat – but it again promotes the delusion that there has to be some physical contact involved in a greeting. While researching this article today, I found President Obama is already a proponent of the closed-fist greeting. The fist pump, the Wales Institute of Biological, Environmental Research found, is 20 times more hygienic than the handshake.

By year 2030, the hand shake might have as much social approval as animal sacrifice and sniffing cocaine. Even now, if world leaders insist on continuing their frequent handshaking ways, they could

include among their entourage a water basin carrier for them to frequently wash and disinfect their hands. The infamous Roman governor Pontius Pilate washing his hands takes a whole new non-biblical meaning in the new world order of better sense: “I wash my hands to ensure the next person who shakes my governing hand does not bag all the accumulated grime and less visible gory things.”

Yet whether it is handshake, fist pump or high fives, an exchange of dirty stuff happens depending on how lengthy is time and area of contact. One option for those believing physical contact is “essential” to signify warmth (not really) could be the E.T version of greeting. Like in the promotional poster of Steven Spielberg&’s 1982 smash hit movie E.T, touch an extended forefinger as the gentle extra terrestrial being and the boy Elliot did.

“A few weeks ago, we took a look at nonverbal greetings around the world,” said an American journal. “In Japan, they bow. Ethiopian mentouch shoulders. And some in the Democratic Republic of the Congo do a type of head knock.” The ‘namaste’ was not mentioned in Michaeleen Douclef&’s article in the amazingly titled publication ‘Goats and Soda’.

The Los Angles Times that reported, “Public health experts are urging handshakes to go the way of cigarettes, at least in healthcare settings,” also seemed unaware of the ‘namaste’. This respectful greeting could be India&’s next beneficial gift to the world. A New York professional Jalanda James&’s blog ‘stophandshaking.com’ – possibly the only one of its kind – mentions ‘namaste’ among alternatives to the handshake.

Other subtler reasons exist for avoiding casual physical contact, realities a Vipassana practitioner experiences as a truth of mind-matter. No good actually comes out of a handshake, but then we more readily embrace the harmful and mentally keep resisting the good.

The handshake is part of what I call our ‘ulta-pulta’ (upside down) perspectives of life: what tastes sweet could be actually poisonous, a charming ‘friend’ may be a tempting enemy, what we possessively own in reality owns us. Like the handshake as greeting is a friendly exchange of germs, we necessarily have to work to penetrate the apparent truth, to get beyond to the deeper territory of actual truth. 

That reality may be to our liking or dislike, but therein are real solutions to problems big and small. Besides, there is no escape from the truth.

(The writer is a senior, Mumbai-based journalist)