The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Namaste, linked inextricably to the hands-pressed-together gesture that accompanies it, might be an excellent illustration of this thesis. Of course, to enter with me into an exploration of what I mean here you first have to consent to an expanded definition of “document,” where the term refers not just to something written, or even to a text in the way a film is a text, but rather to any unit in any system of signification or meaning-making. Thus, to arrange your body in a particular manner (as in placing your hands together in the gesture of namaste) is to produce a “text” full of meaning that must then be “read” by your interlocutor (the addressee of your greeting). It is in this way that I term namaste a “document.”
So much for a breezy review of cultural theory. The verbal text of namaste is generally translated as “I bow to you,” and in this sense, accompanied by the aforementioned pressed hands placed before the heart, is indeed a wonderful Indian greeting of humility, vulnerability, and open-ness to the other. But is that all it is? Let me play the provocateur here. Consider this. Europeans shake hands in greeting, Arabs embrace each other, Maori touch foreheads and let their breath mingle. And then we have Hindus, who namaste each other from a safe distance.
What’s going on here? How do we “read” this discrepancy? Is it possible there is an aversion to physical contact in namaste? To cut to the chase: can we separate this long-distance civility that Hindus engage in from the culture of untouchability that pervades India?
As is well known, untouchability, or rather strict rules about who may touch whom under what circumstances, is a fundamental feature of caste. It is associated with notions of impurity and is one of the most obnoxious features of caste prejudice. Is it not perfectly reasonable, then, to speculate that namaste is exactly the kind of greeting that a culture of untouchability would produce? Is it not probable that the civilized document of namaste hides within itself the barbaric code of caste prejudice?
Civilization and barbarism—scratch the surface of one and find the dark depths of the other. How tragically fitting that a man who died fleeing the horrors of Nazism should have (perhaps much too presciently) provided us with such potent insight into the relationship between the two.
“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Benjamin. What barbarism do you find in your cherished documents of civilization? Confronting that question might be the first step in a radical politics.