The zen of the Gayatri Mantra

  • Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 24, 2015 16:14 IST

It seems wholly inappropriate to speak of the Gayatri mantra this week given how the sun is roasting our brains instead of 'stimulating our intellect'. But do let's talk about it on principle, as free spirits who won't let anyone take it away from or tarnish it for normal, peaceful people.

A particularly beautiful slok comes to mind whose purpose is to mentally prepare us to chant the Gayatri. Such pre-invocation verses are called 'dhyan slok'. Dhyan is Sanskrit for 'meditation', which became 'chyan' in Chinese, which became 'zen' in Japanese.

This verse describes the Gayatri as a personification of all cosmic attributes. It is said to come from a tantric treatise called the 'Sharada Tilakam' by Lakshmana Desikendra, an early 11th-century expert in mantra vidya.

It goes: "Mukta vidruma hema neela davalachhayai, mukhais tree kshanai, yuktam indu kala nibaddha makutam, tatvartha varnatmikam, gayatri vardabhayangusa kasas, subram kapalam gadam, sankam chakram atharavinda yugalam, hastair vahanteem bhaje."

It means (and I lament the inadequacy of English to convey either its beauty or the layers of meaning contained in it): "I sing in praise of Gayatri, seated on a lotus, who has five faces in the colours of pearl, sapphire, gold, blue and white; who has three eyes; who has the crescent moon in her crown, who takes the form of the 24 letters describing the tattva ['thatness' or 'truth'], whose first two hands are held in the varada mudra [boon-granting gesture] and the abhaya mudra [fear-dispelling gesture of protection] and whose other six hands hold the whip, the goad, the bleached skull, the mace, the conch and the discus." (The varada and abhaya are key Buddhist mudras as well).

Deconstructed, the 'five faces' mean the five parts of the Gayatri mantra; the three eyes, the crescent moon and the skull represent Shiva; the mudras, conch, discus and mace signify Vishnu; the lotus throne denotes Brahma and the whip and goad symbolise Devi, the ultimate power or Parashakti. Thus the Gayatri connotes a great many things, from the essence of the Vedas and the resonance of the primordial syllable 'Om' to the cyclical creation, sustenance and remaking of the world and the mysterious life force that makes it all happen - together symbolised by the light of Savitr (the sun), who is addressed in the actual Gayatri mantra.

Neither this dhyan slok nor the Gayatri should be misunderstood literally and simplistically as "worshipping many gods". Indeed, this zen personification is traditionally recommended only for householders because it's assumed that they have so much going on that they need a faster way to focus, hence this powerful visual-through-verse. The rest of us are taught to see nothing but white light when we engage with the Gayatri. The old way was to chant it with morning pranayam on an empty stomach. But we may chant it whenever we wish. It belongs to everyone, to whoever wishes to imbibe its energy as brain food through syllables.

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