The cherished objective of a seeker in the advaita school is to get over the time-space limitations with which he is bound and realize Brahman, or, in other words, become Brahman. Jñāna path is the only way for this, as we are told in the Gita. But the majority of us, donning various roles in society, bound in household duties and engaged in karma have to have some way to attain the same. Vedanta provides an answer to that.
In the earlier blog in this series, I noted that the variety of saguṇa forms of deities are for upāsanam ( I quoted Sri Shankara from the ubhayaliṅgādhikaraṇam of Br. Su. 3-2-12). This concept of upāsanam refers to a sort of intermediary stage between karma for worldly gains and karma for chitta śuddhi. In simple words, upāsanam is visualizing a big thing in a small thing. It is somewhat like the Romantic poets, ‘seeing a world in a grain of sand’. Here the intention is to develop ekāgratā, i.e. concentration of mind on the object of worship. Sometimes the object worshiped symbolically represents the idea or nature of the deity worshipped and so the seeker will be dwelling on that idea. Sri S.S.Sastri, in his scholarly edition of Upanishadbhashyam, explains this in his editorial notes in the Chandogya Upanishad. The basic type is pratīka-upāsanam i.e. the one noted above (pratīka means a symbol). The next is ahaṃgrahopāsanam, i.e. meditating on the god-form as one’s own self. Another type is upāsanam meditating on a god-form as part of a ritual such as yajña wherein material gain is sought. Hundreds of upāsanam-s are described in the Vedas, and one can choose any one of them for his specific objectives.
But one such upāsanam, named sandhyopāsanam, is a nitya karma, i.e. a duty which is compulsory spiritual exercise for every person in society, man and women. This is a ritual, not for any earthly gain but a pure philosophical reminder of one’s own self and its equation with Brahman. It is for all dwija-s. dwija includes 1) Brahmin, the priest, 2) kshatriya, the ruling class and 3) the vyshya, the economically active groups. The last category has to be correctly understood. All those engaged in kṛṣi (farming), gorakṣa (cattle tending), and vāṇijyam (trade) are vyshya-s as we see in the Gita and other scriptures. All sections of society are covered in these three categories but social change has slowly weaned away large sections of the people from this practice, giving an impression that this exercise was only for Brahmins. But yet, millions of people perform this ritual all over the country.
(The reader who is totally new to this is advised to see a couple of videos available on you tube on ‘sandhyāvandanam’ for better understanding).
The initiation into this ritual is called ‘upanayanam’, where ‘upa’ =near, and ‘nayanam’=leading. The ritual is intended to lead the person to the ultimate truth. Again, everyday during the ritual, it is said –upanayane viniyogaḥ, which means that Gayatri is being meditated upon for upanayanam.
Many voluminous commentaries such as ‘Gayatri Hridayam’ are written on this daily ritual, explaining various mantra-s noted in it. The brief commentary in Sanskrit by Krishna pandita gives the vedantic meaning. I shall explain a few points from the same in the following narrative.
The word ‘sandhyā’ means ‘a point of intersection’. Here it refers to the points of intersection between day and night, i.e. dawn and dusk. In addition mid-noon is another such point. One is expected to do this exercise at these three points. But the vedantin’s meaning of ‘sandhyā’ is ‘chit-śakti’, i.e. the manifest consciousness. The ford is in feminine gender as it is referring to śakti also.
The ritual itself is a twenty-minute spiritual exercise but every step has significance. It is to be done three times a day as noted above. The specialty of this exercise is that it is a bridge between a mere ritual and nididhyāsanam. For the layman, it is a ritual, and for the jñānī, it is nididhyāsanam. It is a mixture of vedic mantra-s, mīmāṃsā practices, prāṇāyāma, tantra, mudra-s, all of which are combined with meditation on the meaning of Self.
The very first verse uses the word ‘sabāhyābhyantaraḥ’ which is also used in the muṇḍaka upaniṣad (2-1-2). It means that the one who meditates on the indweller of the heart goes beyond the division of dṛśyam which is outside (bāhya) and dṛk which is inside (bāhyābhyantaraḥ), as the apparent division of both is within the Supreme Consciousness. He remains as the undivided (akhaṇḍa) consciousness.
The familiar Gayatri mantra is the central theme of the ritual. The mantra runs as follows: ‘om, bhūrbhuvasvaḥ, tat saviturvareṇyaṃ bhargo devasya dhīmahi, dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt’.
The letter ‘om’ denotes the timeless reality which we see in the Mandukya upanisahd. The three mātrā-s ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘ma’ which combine to form ‘om’ denote the time frame of the waking stage, dream stage and deep sleep. In terms of space they refer to the three worlds, i.e. earth, heavenly worlds and space. Om is beyond these and is called amātraḥ, beyond time and space, as the Mandukya says. It denotes the supreme Brahman.
The word order of Gayatri mantra is explained by Krishna pandita as follows: ‘1) yaḥ naḥ dhiyaḥ pracodayāt, 2) tat savituḥ devasya vareṇyam bhargaḥ 3)dhīmahi’। The first part refers to the supreme Consciousness which illumines all our buddhi vṛtti-s, the thought processes. It refers to the ephemeral thought processes and the unchanging consciousness which is a witness to all.
The second part refers to savitā, or māyā, which is the source or origin for the consciousness found in different upādhi -s. In the normal sense, the word refers to sun, who is the symbol meditated here, but the vedantic meaning is the originator. The next word in this expression is ‘vareṇyaṃ bhargaḥ’ the source for that māyā, i.e. the substratum for māyā.
The operating part is ‘dhīmahi’, which means – ‘we realize the unity of conscious which is in us with the Supreme Consciousness’.
At the level of an unrealized person it is a prayer or upāsanam of the Sun god. The words used at every step point to the lakṣyārtha, or the intended meaning and not merely the literal meaning. Hence for a realized person, it becomes an exercise in nididhyāsanam.
The ritual starts with a grand time scale, saying ‘adya brahmaṇaḥ dvitīya parārdhe’ and so on. It refers to the rule of the present creator-god who has tenure of billions of years. In the tenure of each of such creator, there are several cycles of creation (kalpa). Again, there are yuga-s like kṛta, tretā etc. all of which are to show the miniscule nature of a human being in the universe, while at the same telling that this limited being is of the same nature as the absolute.
Pravara, i.e, the description by the devotee of his own place of dwelling and lineage is to trace his origin to the ancient ṛṣi -s and to remind himself that he should not break the tradition. It is again to show his delimited nature.
There is a mantra which says – ‘brahmaiva san brahmāpyeti’ – which means that while being Brahman, he attains Brahman. The devotee visualizes Brahman in Aditya, i.e. the sun god, but later realizes that his own self is the same.
prāṇāyāma, as described by Patanjali is an integral part of the ritual. Teachers demonstrate how it has to be done along with the Gayatri mantra. The procedure is also outlined in the chapter six of the Gita. This is an exercise for concentration and regulating the thought processes towards the meaning of the mantra.
aṅganyāsa and karanyāsa are two exercises which have to be done along with the words of the Gayatri. (karanyāsa, properly done, resembles a Shaolin type of finger movements). The Gayatri is described as follows:
‘tat savituḥ’ refers to brahmā, the creating force of māyā.
‘vareṇyam’ refers to viṣṇu, the sustaining force of māyā.
‘Bhargo devasya’ refers to rudra, the resolving, or withdrawing force of māyā.
Beyond creation, sustenance and withdrawal is the substratum i.e. Brahman. This is explained in continuation to the above.
‘dhīmahi’ refers to satyātmā,
‘dhiyo yo naḥ’ refers to the jñānātmā
pracodayāt refers to sarvātmā , the infinitude.
One can easily see that these three refer to the real nature of Brahman described in the Taittiriya Upanishad – ‘satyam jñānam anantam brahma’, i.e. Brahman is truth, knowledge and infinitude. The Gayatri starts with the saguNa aspect which is a projection of māyā and moves on to the nirguṇa level of Brahman. Krishna pandita says that the unity with Brahman is the sum and substance of Gayatri.
Japam is repetition of the same mantra several times. One should not be concentrating on the count but on the meaning of the mantra. It is an exercise in nididhyāsanam, but not a karma which gives puṇyam at a future date.
A boy, initiated into this ritual at the age of eight (which is the age prescribed), would not know all the above stuff. He would merely follow the drill of the ritual. The meaning of Gayatri would dawn on him only as a result of vedantic study. The meaning sinks deep as the person speculates on that and when the drill becomes regular. This is the first step for nididhyāsanam for a man of the world.
We also noted that this ritual is an exercise in what Gita calls niṣkāma karma i.e. action performed as an offering to the Lord. In other words, it is an action for the welfare of the whole universe. It has a concluding verse which says: ‘whatever I do is an offering to Narayana, the Lord’. Another concluding line invokes Lord’s blessings on all the upholders of dharma, and seeks welfare of the whole world of beings.
It is advaita transported into daily life, enlightening the practitioner through different levels of understanding.