The Gāyatrī Mantra and the Dawn of a New Year
Given how difficult this past year has been, it’s become common to hear someone say a version of, “You know. 2020.” Indeed, 2020 started out like other years, with great promise, but quickly took such a sharp turn that many of us have now lost loved ones, become ill ourselves, or experienced other events that we would, and could, never have anticipated in even our darkest, most anxious moments.
Joy and Sadness
Admittedly, while we have endured tremendous losses as well as lockdowns, shutdowns, and restrictions, we also experienced and witnessed transformations. As people commuted less, our air quality greatly improved in many cities. Animals began to venture out more or even reclaim lost territories. Relationships with those closest to us, marked previously by quick conversations after long workdays and commutes before retiring to bed to do it all over again, now had more time to be nurtured and to thrive.
2020 has revealed itself to be a mixed bag of tremendous pain for so many but also one that has presented us with glimmers of hope and opportunity. What if we don’t commute and travel as much as we’ve grown accustomed to when things return to normal? What will normal look like? Can our climate truly begin to heal? Can we develop a new sense of gratitude for those around us? How, too, will we deal with the loss of those we hadn’t expected to lose so soon? How will we heal?
We could’ve barely imagined that something so small, something we could literally never see coming, a virus, would provide us with new perspectives and ways of living life beyond the habits and obligations we had created for ourselves. So much can be accomplished remotely, particularly in our work lives, that we can consider moving out of urban centers; not engaging in rush hour commutes; and recouping the time devoted to activities associated with preparing for and traveling to and from our jobs, leaving us more time with loved ones and, just as importantly, for ourselves.
Inspiration from India
A few years ago, when I traveled with my LMU master’s cohort to India, we visited Haridwar, a city just outside of Rishikesh and home to Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya, a university established to “unite contemporary education with spiritual training.” As a guide showed us around the university, the Gāyatrī Mantra (Gāyatrī) blared from speakers peppered about the campus. No matter where we were on the grounds, we could not help but hear the chanting. When we asked our guide why Gāyatrī was ubiquitous, he told us that the entire university was dedicated to this ancient, sacred chant. It wasn’t long before we were humming and singing it to ourselves and, as a group, we chanted Gāyatrī together in different places for the remainder of our journey.
While I’d been familiar with Gāyatrī before that trip, the chant particularly resonated with me throughout the years that have followed. I would find myself reciting it, in the same way that one would other prayers, when feeling like I was in a dark space and needing something that I thought would be helpful, something that would get me through. I then began to chant Gāyatrī at other times, enjoying its bliss-inspiring sacred vibrations.
Although I’ve chanted Gāyatrī in good times and in bad, I never spent much time thinking about its meaning or purpose. I had heard vague references during my teacher trainings that chanting Gāyatrī could yield prosperity, be it material or otherwise, but I chanted it mainly for the overall sense of peace it brought me.
As I’ve since learned, Gāyatrī has its origins in what is considered humankind’s oldest known text, the Ṛgveda (III, 62, 10). According to Monier-Williams, “this is a very sacred verse repeated by every Brāhman at his morning and evening devotions . . . . addressed to Savitṛ or the Sun as generator.”
That definition, “the Sun as a generator,” calls to mind the image of the Sun as we often considered it, a source of light, heat, and energy. Per Oxford Reference, Savitṛ is thought of as a Sun god, equal to the Sun god, Sūrya. However, Savitṛ can also be differentiated from Sūrya, with the latter’s referring to the Sun as it appears from sunrise to sunset, and Savitṛ’s denoting the Sun before sunrise.
With the second definition in mind, one can think of Savitṛ as containing all the potential of the Sun as it is just about to rise, full of possibilities and excitement, free of the form and stories we assign to it. In this pre-dawn phase, anything is possible; nothing is determined for us. We can truly seize the day, approaching it with every aspect of our personal power, aligned with that of Savitṛ, and create any experiences we choose.
Translations of the Sacred Chant
Gāyatrī’s verses have been variously translated, generally with similar interpretations. For instance, Swami Vivekananda, who is credited with bringing Yoga to the West, translated Gāyatrī as: “We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may She enlighten our minds.” Indian Yogi, philosopher, poet, and guru, Sri Aurobindo translated the text as our drawing esoteric energy from the Sun: “We choose the Supreme Light of the divine Sun; we aspire that it may impel our minds.”
Acclaimed meditation instructor and Chopra’s Chief Meditation Officer, Roger Gabriel, notes, “It is said that meditation with the Gayatri [sic] Mantra burns away all the layers of impurities covering the mind, accumulated through countless births, and bestows upon you the vision of supreme consciousness.” Gabriel shares that the ideal time to chant Gāyatrī is “during brahma muhurta, between 3:30-4:30 a.m.”
Embracing a New Day
I am only at the beginning of my quest to know Gāyatrī. Each time I chant this mantra, I feel as though I learn something new, and the experience manifests in my life in a unique way. My suspicion is that becoming deeply acquainted with Gāyatrī will be a lifelong process, akin to that of every other practice along my personal Yoga journey.
But, even with my nascent knowledge, as we move into a New Year, 2021, and place 2020 far behind us, I hope my experience can spark the same curiosity in others. I hope, too, that we can call to mind Gāyatrī’s infinite wisdom and perfection and be reminded of the myriad transformative opportunities Savitṛ represents for all of us as 2021 dawns, bringing with it the unbounded optimism and potential of a new day, a brand New Year.
Gāyatrī, here in transliteration, contains 24 syllables:
oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tat savitur vareṇyaṃ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt
Gabriel’s site provides very helpful audio recordings of the traditional and longer versions of this sacred verse.