The Gāyatrī Mantra is a highly revered mantra, based on a Vedic Sanskrit verse from a hymn of the Rigveda (3.62.10), attributed to the rishi (sage) Viśvāmitra. The mantra is named for its vedic gāyatrī metre. As the verse can be interpreted to invoke the deva Savitr, it is often called Sāvitrī. Its recitation is traditionally preceded by oṃ and the formula bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ, known as the mahāvyāhṛti ("great utterance").
The Gayatri Mantra is repeated and cited very widely in vedic literature, and praised in several well-known classical Hindu texts such as Manusmṛti, Harivamsa, and the Bhagavad Gita. The mantra is an important part of the upanayanam ceremony for young males in Hinduism, and has long been recited by Brahmin males as part of their daily rituals. Modern Hindu reform movements spread the practice of the mantra to include women and all castes and its use is now very widespread.
Recitation of the Gayatri Mantra is preceded by oṃ (ॐ) and the formula bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ (भूर् भुवः स्वः), known as the mahāvyāhṛti ("great utterance"). This prefixing of the mantra proper is described in the Taittiriya Aranyaka (2.11.1-8), which states that scriptural recitation was always to begin with the chanting of the syllable oṃ, followed by the three Vyahrtis and the Gayatri verse. Following the mahāvyāhṛti is then the mantra proper, the verse RV 3.62.10:
Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tát savitúr váreṇyaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi
dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt
Whereas in principle the gāyatrī metre specifies three pādas of eight syllables each, the text of the verse as preserved in the Rigveda Samhita is one syllable short, the first pāda counting seven instead of eight. Metrical restoration would emend the attested tri-syllabic vareṇyaṃ with a tetra-syllabic vareṇiyaṃ.
A literal translation of the Gayatri verse proper can be given as:
"May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the god:
So may he stimulate our prayers."
—The Hymns of the Rigveda (1896), Ralph T. H. Griffith
with this analysis of the constituent words:
- dhīmahi "may we attain" (1st person plural middle optative of dhā- 'Unify' etc.)
- tat vareṇiyam bharghas '"that excellent glory" (accusatives of tad (pronoun), vareniya- 'excellent' and bhargas- 'radiance, splendour, glory')
- savitur devasya "of the lord savitar " (genitives of savitr-, 'stimulator; name of a sun-deity' Surya and deva- 'god, deity')
- yaḥ pracodayat "who has the ability to encourage" (nominative singular of relative pronoun yad-, causative 3rd person of pra-cud- 'set in motion, encourage, urge, impel')
- dhiyaḥ naḥ "our prayers" (accusative plural of dhi- 'mind, thought, meditation' and naḥ enclitic personal pronoun)
The literal translation of the Mahāvyāhṛti formula bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ prefixed to the verse is "earth, air, heaven". These are the names of the first three of the seven vyāhṛti or higher worlds of Hindu cosmology.
The following is a list of English paraphrases or free translations.
Sir William Jones (1807)
"Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the god-head who illuminates all, who recreates all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, whom we invoke to direct our understandings aright in our progress toward his holy seat."
William Quan Judge (1893)
"Unveil, O Thou who givest sustenance to the Universe, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, that face of the True Sun now hidden by a vase of golden light, that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our journey to thy sacred seat."
Sivanath Sastri (Brahmo Samaj) (1911)
"We meditate on the worshipable power and glory of Him who has created the earth, the nether world and the heavens (i.e. the universe), and who directs our understanding."
Swami Vivekananda (1915)
"We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds."
S. Radhakrishnan (1947, 1953)
1) "We meditate on the effulgent glory of the divine Light; may he inspire our understanding."
2) "We meditate on the adorable glory of the radiant sun; may he inspire our intelligence."
Role in Vedic and Vedantic literature:
The Savitri mantra is cited widely in Vedic texts.
The Rgvedic stanza 3.62.10 is found a number of times in the mantra listings of the Śrauta liturgy, where it is used without any special distinction, typically as one among several stanzas dedicated to Savitar at appropriate points in the various rituals. Accordingly, the stanza is cited several times in the Brahmanas and the Srauta-sutras.
In this corpus, there is only one instance of the stanza being prefixed with the three mahavyahrtis. This is in a late supplementary chapter of the Shukla Yajurveda samhita, listing the mantras used in the preliminaries to the pravargya ceremony. However, none of the parallel texts of the pravargya rite in other samhitas have the stanza at all. A form of the mantra with all seven vyahrtis prefixed is found in the last book of the Taittiriya Aranyaka, better known as the Mahanarayana Upanishad.
The stanza is also cited in a number of grhyasutras, mostly in connection with the upanayana ceremony in which it has a significant role.
The stanza is the subject of esoteric treatment and explanation in some major Upanishads, including Mukhya Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and the Maitrayaniya Upanishad; as well as other well-known works such as the Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana.
The stanza is the apparent inspiration for derivative "gāyatrī" stanzas dedicated to other deities, patterned on the formula ... vidmahe ... dhīmahi ... pracodayāt", instances of which have been interpolated into some recensions of the Shatarudriya litany. Gāyatrīs of this form are also found in the Mahanarayana Upanishad.
Modern Brahmanical usage:
In traditional Brahmin practice the Gayatri Mantra is addressed to God as the divine life-giver, symbolized by Savitr (the sun), and is most often recited at sunrise and sunset. It is believed by practitioners that reciting the mantra bestows wisdom and enlightenment, through the vehicle of the Sun (Savitr), who represents the source and inspiration of the universe. Recitation at sunrise every morning is part of the daily ritual. While often associated with outward ritual offerings, it can be recited more inwardly and without rites, a practice generally known as japa.
Imparting the Sāvitrī mantra to young Hindu males is an important part of the traditional upanayanam ceremony, which marks the beginning of study of the Vedas. S. Radhakrishnan has described this as the essence of the ceremony, which is sometimes called "Gayatri diksha", i.e. initiation into the Gayatri Mantra. However, traditionally, the stanza RV.3.62.10 is the Sāvitrī imparted only to Brahmin boys. Other Sāvitrī verses are used in the upanayanam ceremony for non-Brahmins: RV.1.35.2, in the Trishtubh meter, for a Kshatriya; and, either RV.1.35.9 or RV.4.40.5, in the Jagati meter, for a Vaishya.