“Namaste” is the traditional Indian greeting, which roughly translates to “I bow to the god within you.” It is often accompanied by a literal bow, palms together.
Despite its troubling theological implication (God is actually outside of us), you have to admit it is quite a bit less self-centered than our “hello,” which means at some level, “hey, pay attention to me.”
This idea, that any guest or stranger is a god, lays the foundation for Indian hospitality. It may seem little different from the Jewish and Christian notion that any stranger could be an angel. But it is.
For devout Hindus, that which you offer a guest is not just sustenance, it is sacrifice, an offering to the gods. Over four millennia this is culturally embedded. And it is deeper than the ubiquitous offer of masala chai. Short of acute deprivation, Indians will offer you the very best with little thought of what they personally have or need.
You have to be careful of even hinting at what you might wish or like. If our students suggested to their student hosts in Mumbai something they might like to do—ride a rickshaw, for example—they set off to find it or do it, with no reference to the group’s schedule or the personal cost.
So the hospitality offered by the Christian minority in India is rich and warm, but rooted in cultural practices that predate the church. It is humbling to be served in this way. And not a bad way to serve others, actually.
They could be an angel after all.