There is a famous prayer in Sanskrit that first appears in the Rig
Veda (iii /62/10) called the gayatri mantra that almost every Hindu knows. In roman letters it is as follows:
Om bhur bhuvah svah
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
Gayatri in Devanagari letters
Literally hundreds of books and thousands of web pages are currently dedicated to explaining the esoteric meaning of this mantra, so I will not repeat that discussion. Instead I will provide a basic grammatical explanation of this most famous mantra and if you are new to Hinduism and want to know at least one prayer, this is the prayer you should learn.
Gayatri is actually the name for a Sanskrit poetical meter that contains three lines of eight syllables each. There are, therefore, many gayatri mantras, but this particular one is the oldest and most well known of all gayatri mantras. In Hinduism all Gods and Goddesses have a gayatri mantra associated with them. There is a gayatri for Ganesha, one for Shiva, one for Durga, one for Vishnu, one for Lakshmi, and so on. Most people are unaware of this fact and when Hindus talk about the gayatri mantra they mean thee gayatri mantra shown above, which is addressed to Savitri, the sun. The first line: om bhur bhuvah svah that you see above is not actually part of a gayatri mantra. It is a special utterance called vyahriti that has been added to the beginning of this famous gayatri . This vyahriti is important in and of itself and we will discuss it after we have explained the basic gayatri mantra. The three lines of this gayatri mantra are:
1. tat-savitur varenyam.
2. bhargo devasya dhimahi, and
3. dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
Here is a word-for-word breakdown of the gayatri mantra that most Hindus know.
savitur–of the sun
bhargo (bhargas)–light, illumination
dhimahi–let us meditate (a verb)
nah–of us, our
pracodayat–May it push, inspire (a verb)
Savitri: the Sunrise
The deity associated with this gayatri mantra, as we mentioned, is the sun, savitri. (The second word of this mantra.) The more common name for the sun is surya. Generally "surya" is the name for the sun while it is above the horizon and savitri is the sun as it is rising and setting, just below the horizon. There is a great metaphor in Hinduism that when understood explains a lot about the Hindu way of seeing the universe. The metaphor is: “the sun equals light, which equals knowledge, which equals consciousness.” This metaphor applies not only to the gayatri mantra, but also to the design of temples and homes, and to details such as why we circumambulate from left to right and offer incense and lamps in a clockwise direction.
The most important word in the gayatri mantra is the word, “tat,” which is a neuter pronoun meaning “that.” It is a reference to “that One," God. According to the metaphor mentioned above, the sun, which is the source of illumination, heat, food and so many other things in our life, can naturally be seen as the “representative” or symbol of God in this world. There are two verbs in the gayatri mantra, dhimahi and prachodayat. Dhimahi means, “let us meditate.“ So, “let us meditate on the light (bhargo) of the sun which represents God.” This is the basic meaning of the first part of the gayatri mantra.
The second part is also straight forward. The verb prachodayat literally means , “it should push,” but in more poetic language we can translate it as “let it inspire.” Dhiyah is “thoughts,” so dhiyo yo nah prachodayat means, “may our thoughts be inspired” So the most literal meaning of the gayatri mantra is, “Let us meditate on the light of the sun which represents God, and may our thoughts be inspired by that divine light.”
As with most things Hindu, the gayatri mantra is also personified as the Goddess, Gayatri Devi. She is the wife of Brahma and is pictured with five heads sitting on a lotus. She is the embodiment of the supreme brahman. You will also see other depictions of Gayatri Devi that vary somewhat.
The gayatri mantra is traditionally whispered into the ear of a young boy in a ceremony called The Thread Giving Ceremony (upanayana), which is one of the rites of passage followed by many Hindus. In addition, the gayatri mantra is repeated during daily prayers performed by many Hindus three times a day, while facing the sun: at sunrise, at noon and at sun set. It is also common to recite the gayatri as part of a havan, or to recite it in a collective way in temples or homes.
The Great Utterance
The first part of the gayatri mantra, om bhur bhuvah svah, which we mentioned at the beginning as not part of the mantra, is called vyahriti or the “great utterance.” This mantra is repeated not only in conjunction with the gayatri mantra, but also separately during havans or fire ceremonies. The word om is a auspicious sound made at the beginning of many prayers. The expression bhur bhuvah and svah is technical, but a simple way to think of it is as a “call to creation,” that the light of the sun (the light of God) shines on the earth (bhur), in the sky (bhuvah), and in space (svah), and therefore the implication is, “let that light also shine on me.”
The technical explanation vyahriti has to do with subtle practices of meditational yoga. This earth is simply one of many planes of existence. In fact, above this earth are six higher planes, heavens as it were. Including this earth, there are seven planes up (heavens) and seven planes down, or hells below this earth. The earth is in the middle. If you have ever heard the expression, “he is in seventh heaven” you should understand that this is a reference to the Hindu idea of heavens. The seventh heaven is the highest heaven. The first three of these planes starting with the earth are called bhur, bhuvah and svah. The utterance bhur bhuvah svah, therefore, refers to the first three subtle planes of existence that may be reached in meditation by a yogi.