The Gayatri Mantra: Let Your Light Shine

What verse has been chanted daily for nearly 4,000 years? If you answered the Gayatri mantra, familiar to fans of Deva Premal and entered into pop culture by Cher, you’d be right. No doubt you’ve sung along, chanted it in an asana class, or even studied the Sanskrit words: Om bhuh, bhuvah, swaha/Tat savitur varenyam/Bhargo devasya dhimahi/Dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.

The simplest way to describe the Gayatri mantra is as a meditation on light. Translations vary, but Vyaas Houston’s is among the most accessible: “Earth, atmosphere, heavens. We meditate on the sacred light of the effulgent source. Let that inspire our thoughts.” Stuck on the word “effulgent”? Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “radiant splendor,” but in a yogic sense, it refers to the all-pervading light of the celestial realms. (Hmm … celestial realms. Is that why the Battlestar Galactica series adopted the Gayatri as its theme song?)

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Across cultures and throughout time, the sun symbolized spiritual light. The word “savitur” refers to Savitri, the Vedic sun deity. The mantra, considered the essence of all mantras, is personified as the resplendent Gayatri, the power behind the sun and the mother of the universe. As we chant her mantra, we tune into the frequencies of universal light and bring it down to the earth plane (bhuh) and ourselves. (If you doubt your energetic connection to the sun, check out this fascinating graphic.)

How the universal mantra came to be chanted here on earth is a rich story of anger, envy, lust, and forgiveness. It begins in ancient times, when King Vishwamitra and his army visited Sage Vashista, who was able to feed their numbers thanks to a wish-fulfilling cow. Vishwamitra wanted to take the cow with him, and Vashista’s refusal angered the king so much that he vowed to undertake austerities and meditate until his spiritual powers surpassed the sage’s. Each time Vishwamitra believed he was nearing success, however, he failed another test of ego.

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When Vishwatmitra at last recognized his shortcomings and begged Vashista’s forgiveness, he experienced spontaneous Samadhi and the gods gifted him with the words of the Gayatri. (The poses Vashistasana and Vishwamitrasana honor these sages.) Vishwamitra is among the authors of the Rig Veda, the oldest known source of the Gayatri. His tale teaches that enlightenment is possible for anyone who practices with dedication, and the Gayatri is recommended as a practice suited to people from all walks of life.

It’s said that by regularly chanting the Gayatri mantra, you accumulate spiritual light, and that you will not only raise your own vibratory level but also the levels of those around you—your family and friends, your circle of acquaintances, the entire global community.

What’s your experience with chanting the Gayatri mantra?

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