Asato Maa Sadgamaya

  • By N K Balakrishnan
  • September 12, 2023
  • What is the deeper meaning of prayer Asato Maa Sadgamaya.


 असतो मा सद्गमय 
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय 
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय 
 शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः 


Ohm! Asato ma sadgamaya

Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya

Mrutyorma amrutam gamaya

Ohm! Shanti Shanti Shanti:


To listen to video 1.21 minutes


This prayer, familiar to most of us, is from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The literal meaning of this Sanskrit verse is very simple. The first syllable Ohm is interpreted as the primordial sound of the Universe. Some interpret it as the Universe itself representing the Paramatman or the Supreme. It is also known as Pranav Mantra, and often used as starting of invocations and prayers. Thus, it invokes the Supreme, the Brahman or Paramatman.


The generally understood meaning of the subsequent part is as follows-“Oh Lord! Lead me from untruth to truth. Lead me from darkness to light. Lead me from mortality to immortality. Let there be peace for all, peace for the whole Universe.” 


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal.


But, to understand the real meaning of this prayer, one should explore deep through swadhyaya or self-learning or alternatively it requires perfect learning of the Vedas and Upanishads.


Asato ma sadgamaya

Oh! Lord lead me from Untruth to Truth. Since we dwell in the physical/material illusionary world, we perceive the meaning of Truth also in material terms. We understand Truth as abstaining from telling lies, not indulging in dishonest activities etc.  If we are a little wiser or virtuous, we perceive it as not cheating our own conscience.

But this understanding of Truth is just like picking up a granule of sand from the vast seashore. The reasoning goes like this: All the material things that we witness in the world are subject to birth and death or creation and destruction or formation and decay. We all know, many of the stars that we see now are no longer in existence and vanished thousands or millions of years ago. The light emanated from them reaches our eyes only now, after travelling for thousands of light years. When the stars are subject to an end, naturally, the Sun which is also a star is also subject to an end or death leading to the end of life in the whole solar system including our planet earth.


The existence of everything living or nonliving that we experience with our senses is also purely with relevance to and limited to the period of their life. Lightning happens for only a few seconds. A bubble formed in the vast ocean lives only for a few minutes. Millions of independent cells in our body take birth, live and die, maybe in a matter of hours or days. There are bacteria, viruses and microorganisms which live only for a few minutes or days. There are insects with a lifespan of only a few days or months, birds and animals living only for a few years, much less than the lifespan of a human being.


Whatever is the nature of these organisms, none of them are permanent but subject to an end. The only difference is their span of life. We tend to believe that they are all permanent. The lightning, the cells in our body, an ant or a firefly, we ourselves, all exist only for a small fraction in the vast stretch of time. A few days for a firefly is equivalent to say, 100 years for a man, because the lifespan of both are different. For the fly, these few days are long enough to live, regenerate, and fulfil the purpose of life. Now, before and after the life of the fly, it is non-existent and the period of its life is very negligible in the vast stretch of never ending time scale.


This means, in terms of both space (indicating the physical existence) and time, these things are not permanent at all.


Therefore, everything we experience with our senses exist but are subject to the limitations of Time and Space which means they are all not permanent or real but only an illusion for a fraction of time of their apparent existence. But we tend to believe that they are all permanent. This illusion is what is called Maya, which prompts us to believe in the permanency of non-permanent things.


First line of the prayer ‘Asato ma sadgamaya’ is an invocation to the Supreme to lead us from the Untruth or Maya, to the Truth, the Brahman.  In other words, it is a prayer requesting to release us from the clutches of Maya by understanding the ‘self’ as part of the Brahman which is the only Truth. 


Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya

“Oh Lord! lead me from darkness to light”. The darkness and light mentioned here are not the darkness and light experienced by us through our external eyes, but those experienced by the inner eyes. Darkness here means lack of wisdom (the ability not to be entangled in Maya) and Jyoti or divine light is the clear understanding of the Self, the Supreme, and the relation between the two without being illusioned by Maya. Thus, this part of the prayer is to lead us from ignorance to wisdom in the form of awareness of the ‘Self’ and the Supreme and the correlation between them. 


Mrityorma amritam gamaya

It is the general belief that after death, man and every being for that matter, take rebirth depending upon Karma or one’s own deeds, till one attains Eternity by virtue of righteous deeds or dharmic karma.


The invocation is to lead us to dharmic karma and through that to attain Eternity. Here, we are not to deliberate on the validity of this belief. But this belief may be the background of this portion of prayer seeking immortality.


As deliberated earlier, once we understand the ‘self’ body as part of Nature, and  ‘Atman’ as part of ‘Paramatman’,  there is no birth or death but only change in form. This is true for the whole lot of living and non-living things. Everything that we come across, living or non-living, is a form of energy. Even physicists believe that the total energy is constant. Once we understand that nothing is being created or destroyed in the totality of the whole universe, birth and death are only changes in form, texture and mixture, symbolic to formation and bursting of a bubble in the vast body of ocean. In the life cycle, death is just like the river water flowing and merging with the ocean; and birth is just like the water turning into vapour, clouds and rain drops. By invoking the prayer for leading us from mortality to immortality, we seek blessings to be wise enough to understand that: 


1. Birth and death are illusions, due to identification of body as our ‘self’. 


2. Relief from this illusion leads us to dharmic karma and through this, from mortality to  immortality.


3. As part of Nature physically, and as part of Paramatman spiritually, we are immortal.


In short, though we invoke God  for favour of three things, ultimately all the three parts of the prayer are for one and the same bliss—realisation of the ‘Self’ or the Atman and the ‘Supreme’ or the ‘Paramatman’, and  also the fact that  the former is very much a part and parcel of the latter.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 31 August 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


The Hindi verse taken from and Here


To listen to video 1.21 minutes6.22 minutes



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