Awakening to the Gayatri Mantra

  • By Rolf Sovik
  • June 2003

Courtesy & copyright Yoga International

Morning and evening, dawn and dusk, keep time for us, reminding us of the passing moments and calling us to make a journey back to ourselves. Thus, the Vedas sing, “O pair of divine powers, Dusk and Dawn, come near… Like two boats, take us across.” Among yoga practitioners these morning and evening transitions have long been used for meditation. In ancient times, for example, seekers rose early, bathed, performed their rituals, and silently recited mantras. In the evening the day’s fatigue was washed away with another period of meditation. This pattern of morning and evening practice persists even now.

In Sanskrit, the word sandhya indicates a juncture, and for this reason the meditation process performed in the morning and evening junctures of the day is called the sandhya meditation. There are many ways to practice this, some dating from the Vedic times, and portions of these practices continue to be observed throughout modern India and other parts of the world. In this way, elements of devotion and introspection are woven into the daily lives of millions. And since morning and evening practice is uplifting to the mind and heart, new students of yoga find nourishment in it as well.

At the heart of many sandhya rituals is the gayatri mantra. Like the light of the early morning sun, which sweeps away the darkness of the night as it illumines the landscape, the gayatri mantra is purifying and enlightening. It is said that it embodies the collective wisdom of the entire Vedic revelation.

The Three Worlds
The gayatri mantra is found in the Rig Veda (3.62.10) It takes its name in part because it is written in a meter called the gayatri meter: twenty-four syllables divided into three lines of eight syllables each. But the word gayatri also means “she who protects the singer” (from gai, to sing, and trai, to protect). Thus, Gayatri is a name of the Divine Mother, she who protects her children and leads them toward self-realization.

The gayatri mantra reads:

tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat

When the mantra is recited in meditation, however, an additional line is added at the beginning. This line contains the sound Om, followed by three short seed sounds called the three maha uyahritis (“great utterances”): bhur, bhuvah, and svah. Thus the complete mantra as it is used in meditation is:
Om bhur, bhuvah, svah
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat
The Chhandogya Upanishad gives us a sense of the significance of the three vyahritis and the sound Om. It explains that once Prajapati, the lord of the universe, contemplated the nature of the three worlds: earth, sky, and heaven. (These three “worlds” also represent the three planes of existence: mantra, energy or prana, and mind). Through intense concentration Prajapati was able to discover the essential guiding force of each: agni (fire) governed the earth; vayu (the vital force) governed the sky; and aditya (the sun) governed the vault of heaven.

Once more Prajapati applied his intense concentration to these three guiding forces and obtained their essences: from fire he obtained the verse of the Rig Veda; from the vital energy he obtained the Yajur Veda; and from the sun he obtained the Sama Veda.

He applied his concentration once more, now to the three Vedas themselves. From the Rig Veda he obtained the syllable bhuh; from the Yajur Veda the syllable bhuvah; and from the Sama Veda the syllable svah. Thus the three vyahritis are the essence of the three Vedas, the seeds of fire, vital energy, and the sun-as well as the seed sounds of the earth, sky, and heaven.

Finally, Prajapati focused on these three vyahritis together, and through intense concentration he obtained a single, pure sound, the syllable Om. Om, it is said, “is all this.”

Vedic Symbols
The spiritual themes of the Vedas are transmitted through tangible symbols that represent an intangible reality. And through these symbols the Vedic seers (rishis) venerate the sun, the moon, wind, fire, and rain; they universalize such human archetypes as mother, daughter, sister, brother, and father; and they recognize human inventions like the pot, the door, and the wheel as expressions of universal truth.

Put another way, the Vedas tell us that the cosmos in which we live is the intangible highest reality itself-but veiled. We see only a portion of the whole. The cycles of the day, the turning of seasons, birth and death, planting and harvesting, all are outward displays of this reality. Just as a first view of the ocean awakens a sense of wonder at the apparent limitlessness of the earth’s waters, so with every dawn and dusk, every birth and death, the mind overflows momentarily with wonder at the unseen whole. Thus it is said:

Three fourths of the Divine Person ascends above,
One fourth manifests again here.
Thereafter it spreads everywhere
Into both the animate and inanimate world.
      Rig Veda 10.90.4

The Cosmic Ritual
A finely tuned mind is capable of knowing this reality, but such a mind must be able to see intuitively and go beyond the outward forms of things. When this has been accomplished through tapas (self-discipline), the seer is capable of presenting the facts of everyday experience to others as a kind of doorway into the interior meaning of life. The Vedas are just such a doorway a revelation of the infinite reality as it appears in the immensity of this very cosmos.

But the Vedas do not oversimplify, nor did the seers of the Vedas underestimate the complexity of things. They recognized that the symbols of reality are ever shifting and may overlap. During the day, for example, light is the product of aditya (the sun), while at night it is product of agni (fire). So aditya and agni are described as brothers. Similarly, the power of illumination is symbolized both by light in the cosmos and intelligence within the human personality. So the word “light” may mean both the sun’s light and the power of intelligence.

Thus the highest reality is not limited to a particular symbol, or personified by any single force of nature. It is not the sun god, the moon god, or the god of lightning that are eulogized in the Vedas. These are only the “priests” of a cosmic ritual, an ongoing ceremony that takes place directly before our eyes in the form of the universal rhythms of life. We are all, gods and man, part of this ritual; each has a role to play.

 In the following verse, the Vedas describe the sun’s role in that cosmic ceremony:

His golden arms the Solar Being has extended
Skillfully toward the sacrifice.
Like a well-trained young priest,
he lets the melted ghee drip
From his hands onto the airy space.
    Rig Veda 6.71.1.

Here the rays of the sun are likened to priestly arms and hands pouring golden offerings of ghee (clarified butter) into a ritual fire. The air is filled with the golden hue of these offerings. This great cosmic ceremony proceeds continuously, and all the forces of nature play some role in it.

The ritual progresses within the individual, too. There is a well-known saying, “As above, so below,” meaning that the forces at work in the cosmos are the very same forces that shape the lives of the creatures abiding in it. In the individual person, “the Self is the chief of the ritual, the power of discrimination [buddhi] is his wife, the Vedas are the priests, the ego is the subordinate priest, and the mind is the officiating priest. The body is the altar.” (Pranagnihotra Upanishad 38.40)

In the universe (the macrocosm) as well as in the individual person (the microcosm), the ritual ceremony of life evolves. Ultimately, through yoga, we fully internalize the ceremony, and this heralds the experience of Self-realization.

Mind and Mantra
As individuals, how do we share in the Vedic vision? What is the relationship between this vision and the practice of yoga? These important questions are answered by the gayatri mantra. Here is the basic text once more:
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat 

The mantra begins with the word tat (meaning “that”). It is a word that specifies the thing in mind. “That what?” we want to know. The verb at the end of the second line, dhimahi, sharpens our attention. It is derived from the verb root dhyai, which means “to meditate on, to contemplate, to recollect, to call to mind.” This is a process that takes place internally. Thus the mantra begins, “We recollect in ourselves and meditate upon that….”

But following the opening word tat the word order (as is often the case in Sanskrit) requires some sorting out. The world that follows tat is savitur (meaning “of the sun” or “of the solar being”). This word is derived from su, another powerful root that means “to bring forth; to beget,” as well as “to set in motion; to vivify.” In other words, the energy of the sun is the source of life on earth. It has caused the creatures on earth to come alive, and it sets them in motion as the day begins. The sun is the vivifier. Here we are not speaking just about the physical sun; more importantly, we are speaking about the principle of life-giving energy that is symbolized by the radiant solar orb.

The word savitur is in the possessive case (its nominative form is savitri). Because word order is more flexible in Sanskrit than in English, the endings of words can generally be depended upon to clarify their relationship with one another. Thus, savitur is modified by the adjective devasya - which means “divine, brilliant, shining” - to produce the phrase “of the divine solar being” or “of the divine sun.” This gives us the beginning and end of the first two lines of the mantra; only the middle remains to be clarified.

Two words remain in the opening lines. The word varenyam is an adjective meaning “excellent, desirable, wished for, best among, choice-worthy, wondrous.” That which is varenyam is above all worthy to be admired and selected. It modifies the noun bhargah (bhargo), a word that plays an important role in clarifying the gayatri mantra.

Bhargo means “the self-effulgent consciousness that dwells in the sun.” Concepts included in this word are “radiance, splendor, luminosity, eminence.” But to use a more spiritual analogy, bhargo here is the soul of the sun, the indwelling self of the divine reality whose body is the solar orb.

We can draw a parallel with human consciousness: your body is the most visible manifestation of your personality; but you are not merely a body you are an individual, a mind, a person. Thus you have a psychological reality as well as a physical one.

Beyond name and form, you are a soul. You do not have a soul; you are a soul. The life-force in you emerges out of its pure nature to take a name and form. Yogis call the soul or spirit of a person the atman. The bhargah is to the solar being what the atman is to you. It is the self-effulgent, self-luminous, and self-radiant consciousness of the sun. Thus, in English, we might translate bhargah as spirit. The first two lines of the mantra now read: “We recollect in ourselves and mediate upon that wondrous Spirit of the divine Solar Being.”

The opening two lines of the gayatri mantra, then, venerate solar images of light, energy, purity, transcendence, illumination, and compassion (the sun shines for all). The third line, dhiyo yo nah prachodayat, changes the tone. It makes a request - a petition for inner clarity and intuitive awareness. “Guide us,” the mantra asks.

The word prachodayat means “may he guide, lead, direct.” Self-surrender, faith, and trust are all implied. Dhiyah (dhiyo) relates to the operations of the mind, but at more than one level. It may mean simply “thoughts,” but more importantly it refers to buddhi, the mind’s higher faculty and intuitive vision. The short word yah (yo) means “who” and provides emphasis- 

As a prayer, this mantra petitions God for guidance.

In effect, the line reads, “may it be none other than he who guides.” Nah means “our”. Thus the complete translation of the mantra is:

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.

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  ultimate 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 to 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 he 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, click the link to the gayatri recitation practice, and listen to how the mantra sounds. 

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