Mantra is a carefully crafted sound formula that has the power to invoke and anchor divine energy for the benefit of humans: this is what Hindus, Buddhists and Jains believe. Rig Veda is the oldest collection of mantras: 10,000 verses that were brought together like flowers to make 1,000 songs-garlands ( suktas), placed in 10 chapter-baskets ( mandalas).
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It was compiled over 3,000 years ago, in the Punjab-Haryana region, and orally transmitted meticulously by men who came to be known as Brahmins, who were so focussed on the pronunciation, that over time only specialists bothered with the meaning. Even today, you have the orthodox saying the meaning does not matter; only the sound, and its vibrations.
As per later Vedic lore, mantras are not human creations: they were ‘seen’ by seers ( rishi) and articulated in sound ( shruti). Stories of how this happened are captured in the histories ( itihasa) scattered across wider Vedic corpus such as Brahmana, Aranyaka, and Brihaddevata. These mantras were chanted during rituals known as yagna. Access to the mantra, their itihasa, and the yagna was limited to the elite, the dvija or twice born: priests and their patrons. All men.
A popular caller tune
After the ceremony, there was no trace of the sound, the ritual, or the stories, as the altar was set aflame. This is why we have hardly any material evidence of the Vedic period that thrived from 1000 BCE to 500 BCE in the Gangetic plains, in lands we now know as Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The oldest clearly visible hawk-shaped Vedic altar has been unearthed at Purola, in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand. It is 2,000 years old. The site also has painted grey ware dated to 1000 BCE, indicating a very old Vedic settlement.
But in the 21st century, one single mantra from this collection has survived to become the symbol of Hinduism, and accessible to everyone, men and women, dvija and non-dvija, even mleccha (barbarian), via a very popular caller tune. This is the Gayatri Mantra. The 24-syllable mantra, is verse 10 of the 62nd song in mandala 3. It was meant to invoke the sun, savitur. It is now visualised as a five-headed 10-armed goddess, equated with Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. Why did this, of all the mantras, become so popular?
At dawn and dusk
We can give a mystical justification or simply note that of all the mantras, this one was most frequently used in Vedic rites of passage and ceremonies. Every Brahmin male, for the past three millennia, would be taught this at the time of upanayana or initiation rituals, when he is given the sacred thread, after which he becomes eligible to read the Vedas. Additionally, this mantra would be chanted during the sandhya rituals, at dawn and dusk. This elevated the status and popularised the mantra.
Traditionally, when the Gayatri Mantra is chanted, it is prefixed by a line, which begins with the ‘ omkara’, the chanting of Om, followed by invocation of the three Vedic worlds: earth ( bhu), atmosphere ( bhuva) and sky ( svar). This then is followed by the three lines of eight syllables each, which is essentially the poetic metre known as Gayatri. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita 10.35 says that Gayatri is the foremost poetic metres, contributing to its popularity. However, there are many mantras in the Rig Veda, which follow this three-line-eight-syllable pattern. Of these only 3.62.10 has become identified as the Gayatri Mantra. It is dedicated to the Rig Vedic deity Savitur; hence for a long time this mantra was known as Savitri.
The mantra, “ tat savitur varenyam, bhargo devasya dhimahi, dhiyo yo nah pracodayat,” has been translated differently by different people. Broadly speaking, it invokes the sun and requests it to illuminate the human mind, so that the mind becomes as resplendent as the sun. Thus, it becomes an invocation to expand the mind and increase the intellect, which is seen as the cornerstone of Veda.
When the Mahabharata was put down in writing about 2,000 years ago, Gayatri is described as a woman from whose mouth came children, who were the Vedas. Thus Gayatri or Savitri became the mother of Vedas and gradually came to be equated with Saraswati.
In Puranic lore, Saraswati was linked to Brahma, to ensure symmetry in the Hindu trinity: Vishnu was with Lakshmi, Shiva with Shakti. At Pushkar, in Rajasthan, an old Vedic site, Saraswati was explicitly connected with Savitri and Gayatri. As per local lore, Brahma became impatient as Savitri had gone too long for a bath, and so created Gayatri, to help him complete the ceremony. An angry Savitri cursed Brahma that no one would worship his icon in temples. Instead of Brahma, Gayatri/Savitri came to be associated with Vishnu. So in the Gujarat region, around the 11th century, we finds 24 images of four-armed Vishnu vyuha (emanation) said to embody the 24 syllables of Gayatri Mantra. The 24 images are created by showing Vishnu bearing his four icons — the conch, the wheel, the mace, the lotus — in his four hands in all possible permutations and combinations.
Gayatri Mantra’s fame skyrocketed during the Hindu Reformation of the 19th century. Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, and the Ramakrishna Mission used the Gayatri Mantra as a chant to revive Hinduism. Gayatri Mantra was a sliver of the Veda that was made accessible to all, bypassing the rigid caste hierarchy. It was used by Hindu missions to reconvert people from Christianity to Hinduism. They also brought in new followers to Hinduism. The Gayatri Mantra’s popularity was further amplified by the international organisation known as All World Gayatri Parivar. This emerged in the 1950’s when chanting the mantra was believed to give spiritual benefits including good health and happiness.
In the 20th Century, the goddess Gayatri was visualised as a woman with five heads and 10 arms seated on a lotus flower. Those who could not chant the hymn could look upon this deity and invoke her power. Her five heads embodied the four Vedas, and their mother, Saraswati.
Thus, after 3,000 years, a hymn composed by men, heard by men, transmitted by men, for a male deity, the sun, visualised 1,000 years ago as the 24 emanations of Vishnu, restricted to elite circles, was eventually embodied as a five-headed goddess that could be seen, and venerated, by everyone, interpreted differently by different people, everyone insisting the idea is eternal.
Devdutt Pattanaik is author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.