The coronavirus and the wisdom of traditional greetings

For years health authorities have been urging Malaysians to practise personal hygiene, especially to wash their hands properly. Most of us, of course, don’t take it seriously.

Now, it’s not a matter of whether we should or not. We have no choice but to do so. With the novel coronavirus 2019 spreading, it is incumbent upon everyone to be extra conscious of personal hygiene and to follow the advice of the health authorities.

This is because the novel coronavirus that has so far killed more than 800 people, mostly in China, is spread by droplets discharged by an infected person through, for instance, sneezing or coughing. If we happen to touch any surface that is infected and then place our hands on our eyes, nose or mouth, we could also be infected.

In this respect, I found it interesting that Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye has called on Malaysians not to shake hands but to greet each other with the “Salam Malaysia” – a gesture where you place your hand on your chest and bow very slightly.

I think it is good advice in this period of the novel coronavirus contagion.

It got me thinking. Greeting each other by shaking hands is not an Asian traditional practice. It is a western practice which we have all adopted wholeheartedly.

Asian cultures had the right idea about greeting each other because none of them involve touching the other person.

The early Chinese practice was to clasp the hands together and greet the person in front with a bow. The Japanese would simply bow. And the Indians have their “vanakkam” or “namaste” greeting where they place their palms in front of the chest and greet the person with a slight bow. This is still in practice.

No touching. And, therefore, healthier from the perspective of the spread of disease.

As I know a little about the vanakkam greeting, allow me to share some insight to show the wisdom of traditional forms of greeting.

The vanakkam can be used when we greet a single person or a million people. The vanakkam gesture, known among yoga practitioners as the Anjali Mudra, is highly symbolic, a civilising gesture, if you like.

Our hands can strike at someone and cause harm; the same hands can come together in the vanakkam gesture and show friendship. By saying the vanakkam, the greeter is subtly taught to value people and cooperation.

The gesture also teaches us that our destiny is in our hands. I can use my two hands to hurt myself or hurt others or I can use it to improve my life and the lives of others. The decision is mine.

For instance, in the current situation, I can use my hands to spread alarm about how we may all die from the coronavirus and pour vitriol on the eating habits of some people. Or, I can post messages that tell people how to keep themselves from getting infected and praise the doctors and medical staff who are putting their lives in danger in trying to curb the spread of the disease.

For instance, I can blame others for my difficulties or wallow in pity over this or that: Or, I can create a plan to be free of the difficulties and seek out opportunities to improve myself.

In bringing the two hands together, I am reminded that just as the hands cooperate to form a meaningful symbol, we humans can and should cooperate to make a meaningful and beautiful society or world.

The fingers on a hand remain fingers so long as they are apart and so long as we view them as separate; but when we bring them together and view them as part of a whole, it becomes a hand. Each finger is different, yet when they all come together, they make a hand and if both hands are brought together they make a beautiful gesture.

Let me relate this to Malaysia: the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazandusuns and other Malaysians are all different in their practices and way of life; yet, when they accept the differences and come together, they form a beautiful nation called Malaysia.

And what separates the fingers? Space. The space between the fingers gives them a separate identity but when we bring them all together in the vanakkam gesture, the space disappears.

If we Malaysians can remove the space that separates us, then we can surely see each other as Malaysian and, more importantly, as human.

Humans have five sense organs and five organs of action. Indians call them karma indriyas and nyana indriyas respectively. We perceive through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin and we act through our hands, legs, voice box, anus and reproductive organs.

The vanakkam gesture, the Anjali Mudra, serves to remind us to discipline these 10 organs – represented symbolically by the 10 fingers – so that we can live a fulfilling, good and useful life.

If we dance to the dictates of the sense organs or the organs of action, then we become confused and distracted, we lose our sense of balance, even our humanity. So, we are reminded to control our karma indriyas and nyana indriyas and not become slaves to them.

Hindus, if you have noticed, use the Anjali Mudra both when they pray and when they meet a person. It conveys the philosophy that the same divinity that created me and that lives in me, created you and lives in you. Therefore, I should not hurt you but rather help you, because in hurting you I hurt the divine. The message is for us to live in amity with everyone and work together for the common good.

There is, as we can see, much depth in our ancient ways, but in the name of modernisation, we often adopt the ways of others.

Let me also talk a little about how greetings came about. They did not come about because the greeter liked the greeted. They came about because the greeter feared the greeted.

Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers, travelling in tribes, killing for food, and killing those who stood between them and their food. Often, individuals from different groups, and entire groups, clashed. They all carried weapons of one sort or another

So, how are you to tell whether the person approaching you would harm you or not? By showing that they do not have any weapon on them and that they come in peace. And what can be clearer then bringing the hands in front, or offering an empty hand to the other, to show there are no hidden weapons?

Different communities evolved different ways of doing this, incorporating their ideals and philosophies into the gestures.

The vanakkam gesture, for instance, carries the seed of Indian philosophy.

The Salam Malaysia gesture, that Dr Lee wants us to adopt at this time when the novel coronavirus is spreading, says: I come in peace and I hold you in my heart. It is not only helpful at this time but can also be good for Malaysian unity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.