Om bhur bhuvah svah
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.
The eternal, earth, air, heaven
That glory, that resplendence of the sun
May we contemplate the brilliance of that light
May the sun inspire our minds.
Translation by Douglas Brooks
The Gayatri mantra first appeared in the Rig Veda, an early Vedic text written between 1800 and 1500 BCE. It is mentioned in the Upanishads as an important ritual, and in the Bhagavad Gita as the poem of the Divine. According to Douglas Brooks, PhD, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester and a teacher in the Rajanaka yoga tradition, the Gayatri is the most sacred phrase uttered in the Vedas. “It doesn’t get more ancient, more sacred, than this. It’s an ecstatic poetic moment.”
The mantra is a hymn to Savitur, the sun god. According to Brooks, the sun in the mantra represents both the physical sun and the Divine in all things. “The Vedic mind doesn’t separate the physical presence of the sun from its spiritual or symbolic meaning,” he says.
Chanting the mantra serves three purposes, Brooks explains. The first is to give back to the sun. “My teacher used to say the sun gives but never receives. The mantra is a gift back to the sun, an offering of gratitude to refuel the sun’s gracious offering.” The second purpose is to seek wisdom and enlightenment. The mantra is a request to the sun: May we meditate upon your form and be illumined by who you are? (Consider that the sun offers its gift of illumination and energy to all beings, without judgment and without attachment to the outcome of the gift.)
Finally, the mantra is an expression of gratitude, to both the life-giving sun and the Divine. Brooks encourages taking a heart-centered approach to the mantra. “The sensibility it evokes is more important than the literal meaning. It’s an offering, a way to open to grace, to inspire oneself to connect to the ancient vision of India,” he says. “Its effect is to inspire modern yogis to participate in the most ancient aspiration of illumination that connects modern yoga to the Vedic tradition.”