The Philosophy of Gayatri: An Introduction

Jan - Feb 2003

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Indian Culture is founded on the principles of Gayatri (the protector of prana and the Goddess of wisdom and pure intelligence) and Yajna (noble deeds). Gayatri is revered as the mother and Yajna the father of Indian Culture.

Gayatri - the protector of prana

The scripture "Aitareya Brahmana" defines Gayatri as "gayan pranan trayate sa Gayatri", meaning, "That which protects prana is Gayatri." Prana means the source of liveliness, consciousness and vitality. The element within us that grants us the ability to move, work, think and possess wisdom and life is called prana. It is the presence of prana that keeps us alive. When prana leaves the body, a person dies and the body becomes useless. Thus in other words, prana is the soul residing in our body. Due to the presence of prana, living organisms are called prani. Physical matter such as rocks, water, wood, etc. is devoid of prana. When the prana of a person becomes weak, his physical appearance may not seem to be affected but internally he feels helpless and powerless, as if his strength has been drained.

There are people who appear physically strong but are very weak internally (for example, fearful). They get exhausted very easily and experience dizziness after sometime. Their face looks glim and their speech sounds unimpressive. It takes a long time for them to recover from a minor disease. This is due to insufficient prana. The insufficiency of prana has damaging effects on the mind also. The mind unnecessarily imagines of incidents of fear, distress and discomfort. For example, a person may think, "I will run into difficulty" when there is no chance of any difficulty being encountered. And when difficulties really surround him, he becomes nervous and panicky and passes sleepless nights. Apprehension and depression accompany him all the time. He thinks of failure in any task he undertakes. To him, people seem selfish, deceptive, fools and/or enemies. He does not trust people's honesty and gentlemanliness.

Other symptoms that result from the insufficiency of prana include nightmares, tension, impatience, an atheistic attitude, etc.

A person who is full of prana lives in a different world. He is enthusiastic, determined, courageous, patient, hopeful and active. He may be physically weak and less educated and may live in substandard conditions, yet, because of the vibrancy of his prana, he seizes opportunities and executes deeds that surprise even those who cannot succeed despite an abundance of facilities. Human strength is derived from prana, not from bones and muscles.At the time of death, prana leaves the body and all the body components (muscles, heart, lungs, liver, etc.) become inactive. A person whose prana is strong and protected from becoming depleted becomes powerful and hardworking and achieves happiness in the external world (materialistic happiness) and of the inner self (spiritual happiness).

The above discussion leads to the conclusion that the essence of life is prana because it controls the physical capabilities. God has provided this prana in plentiful to us; its infinite store is present all around us. We can acquire prana from this store as per our determination and worthiness. The fact that some people do not possess prana in abundance means they waste and do not conserve the power of their prana. Preservation of prana makes a person pranavana, meaning one whose prana is exceptionally strong. "Aitareya Brahmana" provides a solution on how to prevent the waste of prana and preserve it by worshipping Gayatri.

Saints and other scriptures also assert the prana-preserving function of Gayatri:

Pranagayaiti proktatrayate tanathapi va  - Rishi Bharadwaj
Gaya means prana, and that which protects prana is called Gayatri.

Tadyatpranam trayate tasmad gayatri  Vrihadaranyak Upnishad 5|14|4
"That which protects prana is called Gayatri."

Gayan trayate Gayatri  Shankarbhasya
"That through which prana is protected is called Gayatri."

Gayastrayate devi! tadgayatriti gadyase | Gayahprana iti proktastasya tranadapiti va  - Rishi Vashishtha
 "O Goddess! You protect your devotee and therefore you have been named Gayatri. Gaya means prana, and the name Gayatri means the protector of prana."

Gayatri procyate tasmad gayantam trayate yatah -  Rishi Yagyavalkya "
"That (Goddess) is termed Gayatri because it protects prana."

Gayatri - the Goddess of wisdom and pure intelligence:

According to Adya Shankaracharya, giyate tatvamanaya gayatriti, meaning, "That through which the Supreme Being (God) can be known is Gayatri. The wisdom brain, the righteous intelligence (ritumbhara prajna) through which that Being, that Reality can be known is Gayatri.

Ritumbhara prajna is the aspect of the brain that enables us to discriminate between truth and untruth, fame and notoriety, good and bad and right and wrong. The decision-making ability conferred by ritumbhara prajna is based on divine inspiration. It is an extremely powerful attribute; no other power in the world is as beneficial as ritumbhara prajna. In its absence, a person can be intelligent, clever, wealthy, talented, etc., but these qualities do not bestow true happiness. Also, they do not enable him to see the light of spirituality. They may permit him to accumulate materialistic wealth and power but they also bring with them tension, fear, doubts, greed, moha (attachment towards worldly objects and people), bad habits, etc. When these self-degrading qualities pile up, they become burdensome for the soul. Wealth that is earned with an aim to increase happiness without worrying about ethics always yields contrary results. The temporary glitter of the material world destroys the inner joy of a person. He suffers physical and mental ailments as a consequence. His soul also suffers. He may consider himself very intelligent but remains worried and uneasy. The intelligence that is not enlightened by ritumbhara prajna thus endows pain and suffering; it is best to have a minimum of such intelligence.

Gayatri inspires the brain to remain saturated with divine, virtuous (satoguni) qualities, which in turn inspires man onto the path of true wellbeing. Cultivating noble thoughts and practising righteous deeds safeguards and increases his strength. With every act, he becomes stronger. On the other hand, thoughts and actions inspired by impure intelligence decrease the power of prana day by day. Deeds performed with a consumerist attitude adversely affect the body physiology. Selfish thoughts cause immense anguish to the mind. Therefore, the strength of the body diminishes through such acts. This situation draws a parallel with milk contaminated with solid impurities being passed through a sieve plate containing fine pores: pure milk passes through the pores while the solid impurities are retained on the suave. The prana of a person using his intelligence in wrong directions similarly leaks out of the body. He then becomes vulnerable to even minor disturbances in life.

True wisdom keeps the lifestyle satvika pure and austere by maintaining control over the senses (e.g. willful avoidance of tasty food), practising celibacy, simple and natural daily routine, hardworking attitude, etc. These qualities keep life energetic, preserve our strength and increase the life span. The feelings of charity, sacrifice, tolerance, penance, generosity, empathy, friendliness, compassion, faith, theism, etc. remain active in his mind. These feelings impart joyousness and spiritedness. Normally, an individual is trapped in maya due to which he remains attached to foul- constricting elements in life. He experiences pain and suffering and ends up having led a purposeless life. This happens because of the lack of righteous knowledge. Gayatri acts as a bright, divine light, a message of hope for people caught in the darkness of gnorance. It opens up the door to material, spiritual and mental bliss. It grants us a "third eye" (the eye of wisdom) through which we can look at the world prudently and attain the aim of life (self-awakening). This is the philosophy of Gayatri.

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