Gayatri mantra is a short hymn written in Gayatri meter. Let us first look into the significance of this meter.
A meter is a basic rhythmic structure of the verse. Sanskrit has many meters using which verses can be composed, but Gayatri is considered as the most sacred of all. It is also the shortest meter. It has three lines or padas with 8 syllables each. It is like an Indian version of Japanese Haiku.
An extraordinary talent is required to say something in the shortest way possible, limiting the number of syllables to very few. People who composed hymns in Gayatri had to say something sweet and significant in just 24 syllables.
In Bhagavad Gita 10. 35, Krishna says गायत्री छन्दसामहम् (gAyatri chandaSAmaham) which means ‘among Chandas (metres), I am Gayatri’. This verse glorifies Gayatri meter and says that it is the best among all meters. (In Tamil, we have a meter called Kural venpa, a meter of two lines, which has the same significance because of its shortest length. Tirukural, a Tamil law code for the humanity, proves its excellence by conveying great wisdom quotes in Kural venpas.)
Now let us explore the actual Gayatri mantra, a highly revered verse from Rig Veda (Mandala 3.62.10). It is addressed to Savitr, a Vedic solar deity, which is one of the Adityas. Savitr refers to the sun before sunrise. This implies the hidden sun within us, the sun of Self or atman which is hidden by our own ignorance. Bhagavad Gita 5.15 says ‘अज्ञानेनावृतं ज्ञानं’ (ajñānenāvṛitaṁ jñānaṁ) which means that jnana or the wisdom of Self is covered by one’s own ignorance.
Gayatri Mantra goes like this:
ॐ भूर् भुवः सुवः ।
भर्गो॑ दे॒वस्य॑धीमहि ।
धियो॒ यो नः॑ प्रचो॒दया॑त् ॥
(oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ
dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt)
– Rigveda 3.62.10
Gayatri mantra has three parts:
The first part is the mantra Om. Om is the symbol of absolute reality and a mantra on its own. It is considered as the most suitable one for meditation. This sound can actually be heard as a buzzing sound when you close your ears with fingers, when you are in a silent room or when you are in meditation. It might have a medical explanation on its own but focusing on this sound is one way to do focused attention meditations.
The second part has the phrase ‘bhūr bhuvaḥ suvaḥ’. This is known as ‘Mahāvyāhṛti’ which means ‘great utterance’. It has three words.
Physically they mean the following:
- Bhūḥ: the terrestrial,
- Bhuvaḥ: the world connecting terrestrial to celestial,
- Svaḥ: celestial
(The letter ‘r’ replaces the visarga ḥ of‘Bhūḥ’ because of Sandhi.)
There is also a mystical interpretation to this. There are three obstacles when it comes to spiritual path, which can be also said as the three layers of the mind. Here they are:
- Attachment to objects, pleasure, sleep. It is tamasic in quality. ‘tamas’ means resistance and is one of the three attributes of prakrti (nature). In human beings, lethargy, laziness, depression etc are tamasic qualities. They resist the flow of life and act like speed breakers. This level of mind is very basic and called as Brahma granthi or the knot of Brahma.
- Attachment to people, ambition, goals, power, fame etc. It is rajasic in quality. ‘rajas’ means activity and is one of the three attributes of prakriti (nature). Desire in human beings is rajasic, as it makes people to be active and even restless. This is also called as Vishnu granthi or the knot of Vishnu.
- Attachment to one’s own self-concept or personal narrative. This is the last obstacle. It is a combination of rajas and tamas. This is also called as Rudra granthi or the knot of Rudra. This knot is responsible for the sense of separation, the duality or avidya, the basic ignorance of mistaking one’s body and mind as the Self.
Savitr, the inner sun illumines all three in the process of the spiritual path. As you go deeper and deeper in meditation, your consciousness illuminates the deeper layers of your mind and purifies them, helping you to untie the three knots and get liberation (moksha).
The third part is the actual verse, which has 3 lines and 24 syllables:
tat savitur vareṇyaṃ (or vareniyam)
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt.
Let us explore the word by word meaning:
savitur – the God Savitr or Savitri. Spiritually it is the inner sun, the antaryami or the divine spark within you.
varenyam – it means ‘the most excellent’ or supreme bliss.
bhargo – भर्गस् (bhargas) means glory or radiance; it becomes bhargo because of Sandhi.
devasya – of God (bhargo devasya together means the radiance or glory of God).
dhimahi – it means let us meditate. It comes from Sanskrit root root ‘dhī’ = to think about (something/somebody), to meditate upon (something/somebody). When it is conjugated in first person plural, it becomes ‘dhimahi’. It doesn’t need any pronoun since dhimahi itself is the conjugation in first person plural, making it clear.
dhiyo – the actual word is ‘dhiyaH’ which has become ‘dhiyo’ because of Sandhi. dhiyah is the plural of ‘dhi’ which means intellect.
yo – which
naḥ – Our
prachodayāt – comes from the root ‘pracud’ which means to command, to excite or to inspire. It means inspiring or driving something to action.
So the actual meaning of the third part is, “Let us meditate on Savitr, the glory of God and supreme bliss, which inspires our intellect!”.
There is also another significance in this verse. The verse summarizes the three attributes of Brahman or supreme reality: which is sat – truth, cit – consciousness and Ananda – bliss. (satcitAnandA means truth – consciousness and bliss:
‘tat’ refers to the truth. Truth is always mentioned with the pronoun ‘that’. tat tvam asi, an important Mahavakya from Chandogya Upanishad means ‘You are that’.
‘bhargo devasya’ means ‘radiance or glory of God’ and it refers to consciousness.
‘varenyam’ means ‘’the most excellent’ or the supreme bliss. It refers to the bliss, AnandA.
So, Gayatri mantra is a good mnemonic device as it has some important spiritual concepts. It is also a good choice for meditation. Focusing on a sound comes as an aid in meditation and Gayatri mantra is a good choice as an aid.
In my blog, I have written in detail about a meditation called ‘3 level meditation’. It combines a psychological concept called classical conditioning, vajrayana meditation of Buddhism, and dhyana, the form of focused attention meditation mentioned in Yoga sutras. The second level of this meditation requires chanting of a mantra and Gayatri mantra is an excellent choice for it. I have explained about the three level meditation here: A Shamatha Meditation Based on Symbolism, Visualization, Mnemonics and Classical Conditioning
It has a visual meditation aid (VMA) to facilitate focus and I have written about it in detail in the page, including two videos of my speech regarding the various objects you see in the VMA. Here it is: