Awakening to the Gayatri Mantra

  • By Rolf Sovik
  • June 2003
  • 25049 views

Gayatri as Prayer

Gayatri is a prayer as well as a mantra. As a mantra, it is a set of sounds used by practitioners to realize a higher state of consciousness - a state symbolized by the sun. as a prayer, it petitions God for guidance. “Direct my mind,” it asks.

We all wish that selflessness, love, and humility would characterize our thoughts and actions, but they often slip away. Ego problems are a disturbing complication - anger, fear, and desire cloud out thinking. So we wangle our way through life, hoping all the while to outgrow these limitations.

But within each of us is a natural desire to bare our inner life, exposing it to higher wisdom, and the gayatri mantra does this for us. It gives us a prayer through which we may address our predicaments in the privacy of our heart, and by so doing it fulfills a deep need. It returns us regularly to our inner aims. And when has the capacity to lead us back to them.

Contained in the prayer is an elaborate exposition of spiritual philosophy. The gayatri describes the bhargah (the pure solar spirit), who is the essence of Savitri (the divine solar being), who is yet the inner identity of Surya (the sun). The gayatri as a prayer is a petition to tat (that) which is the infinite light of pure consciousness.

But what really is that consciousness? And what does that the gayatri, as a prayer, have to do with yoga? The Vedas explain that pure consciousness, dwelling in the highest heaven (and thereby pervading all), is also that which dwells in every human being (the Self): “Now the light which shines above in heaven pervading all the spaces, pervading everywhere, both below and in the farthest reaches of the worlds - this indeed is that same light which shines within man.” (Chhandogya Upanishad 3.13.7)

The place from which this light emerges is the heart - a word that connotes the most refined awareness possible. The heart is the place in which we make our decisions and act on our intentions; it is the place where intuition arises and the Self is ultimately realized. Thus in its role as a prayer the gayatri mantra simultaneously addresses both cosmic consciousness and the finest forces of our own being. It acknowledges that these two aspects of universal consciousness are one.

The Self bears Itself in two ways; as Prana [the life-force], and as Aditya (the sun)… Worship these two, with the syllable Om, with the mala vyahritis, and with the gayatri hymn. Maitrayani Upanishad 6 Prapathaka 1.1,2

The path of mantra is inevitably the path of the mystic. It leads to the transformation of our consciousness. According to the tradition, the twenty-four syllables of the gayatri mantra contain in themselves the energies which are expressed intellectually in the mantra's translation. Thus the solar consciousness is present in the sounds of the mantra. It can gradually be realized by reciting and internalizing the mantric sounds.

This concept can be difficult for Western students to grasp, and it may help to observe that the practice of internalizing a mantra is similar to the experience of listening to music. If we allow the tone, melody, and rhythm of musical sounds to do so, they will transform us. If is just so with a mantra.

How to Practice

If you would like to practice the gayatri mantra, dedicate yourself to regular meditation sometime in the morning and evening. Your meditation does not need to coincide precisely with the actual rising or setting of the sun. Here is a brief practice:

Sit for meditation in a comfortable seated posture. Establish relaxed breathing and spend a little time feeling the breath flowing in the nostrils. This will calm and focus your mind.

Now visualize a golden, sun-like object, and bring that golden light into yourself. Let it enter at the eyebrow center and then travel slowly down to the region at the center of the chest. There, feel the golden rays of the sun spreading out through your whole body and mind.

Give a moment of thanks to the seers of the Vedas (the seer of the gayatri mantra is the sage Vishvamitra). Then, just at the center of this golden orb which rests at the anahata chakra (your heart center), begin to repeat the mantra mentally. Recite it as if the consciousness at your heart has merged with the sun in you and the sound now flows from the core of that sun. From there, let the sounds of the syllables resound in your entire personality.

Repeat the mantra as many times as seems natural. For a longer practice you can use a mala (a set of beads for counting mantra repetitions). You might complete one mala (108 repetitions). Listen to the sound resonate in you. Let it fill the entire space of your inner being.

As a contemplative practice (once in a day, week or month), pause after each word in the mantra and ponder it. This will help you internalize its meaning. It will provide a moment for self-reflection as well.

When you have finished the gayatri recitation, then go on to your own personal mantra or to any other practice that is customary for you.

This is not the only way to practice the gayatri mantra. The mantra may simply rise in the heart for a few repetitions as a preparation for meditation. Or it may become the focus of more extensive concentration practices that are continued at times of the day other than dawn and dusk. And in the elaborate sandhya rituals of tantrism, different yoga techniques are woven together that thoroughly immerse both body and mind in meditation on the gayatri mantra.

A Solar Vision

The culmination of the solar path encapsulated in the gayatri mantra is described in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. There Arjuna asks Krishna for a vision of his divine Self. Krishna grants the wish, and thus begins an eloquent and profound eulogy to the glory of the solar being.

“If a thousand suns were to arise in the sky, that splendor might compare to the brilliance of the Supreme Spirit. Then Arjuna beheld there the whole universe, multifarious in its variety, yet standing as one in the body of the God of gods.”

Bhagavad Gita 11:12-13

Then Arjuna begins to speak. He cannot contain his wonder and astonishment.

“I see You with crown, mace, and discus; a brilliant mass of light shining in all directions. Almost unbearable to behold and immeasurable, You are like blazing fire, like the sun.”

Bhagavad Gita 11:17

To grow, spiritual life needs such moments of blinding inspiration. The quiet rhythms of daily practice with the gayatri mantra illumine each morning and evening with quiet joy. But gayatri can also, at times, inspire, elevating us above the troubled places where we may be living in the moment. Quiet practice and marvelous inspiration-these are the needs of the soul. The gayatri mantra fulfills both.

Chanting the mantra

The written text of the Rig Veda adds some markings to the syllables that indicate a way of chanting the mantra. In this system three pitches of a minor triad are used. The central tone is the primary pitch, and when a syllable is meant to be chanted at this central pitch, no marking is given either above or below the syllable (the mantra opens on this pitch). Whenever the lower pitch of the triad is indicated, a horizontal line is placed below the syllable. Whenever the upper pitch is indicated, a vertical stroke is placed above the syllable. The mantra thus appears:

Om bhur, bhuvah, svah
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat

But the gayatri may be chanted in many ways, and the person reciting the mantras often simply recites the words without any musical change in pitch. As the mantra repetition increases in speed, the chanted quality is lost anyway.

Meaning of gayatri mantra

Om bhur, bhuvah, svah
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat

om

ultímate reality

bhur

plane of the five elements; matter

bhuvah

plane to the life-force, of prana

svah

plane of the mind

tat

that

savitur

of the Solar Being, the solar orb, the sun; the light and energy of the sun That impels us to grow and know God

varenyam

splendid, beautiful, choice-worthy, wondrous

bhargo

the Spirit dwelling within the sun; the light of knowledge that dissolves Fear and ignorance

devasya

of the divine, brilliant, shining

dhimahi

We meditate upon, contemplate recollect, call to mind

dhiyo

thoughts (vritti), intellect (buddhi), inner vision

yo

Who

nah

Our

prachodayat

May be guide, lead, direct

Om. In each of the three planes of existence. We recollect in ourselves and meditate upon that wondrous Spirit of the divine Solar Being; may he guide our inner vision.

Would you like to learn how to recite the gayatri mantra? Just go to www.yiextra.org, click the link to the gayatri recitation practice, and listen to how the mantra sounds.

This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Yoga International. Courtesy & copyright Yoga International

Also read
1. Listen to Gayatri Mantra
2. Gayatri Mantra 
3. The mystery of Mantra 

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