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Gayatri Mantra: A Prayer for True Understanding
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on April 25, 1984 - Swamiji's birthday message)

The bell rings for the glorification of God. It awakens man to his great duty of worship of the Almighty. Therefore, this auspicious bell-ringing is not to awaken God but to awaken man to his great destination, and this evidently is also the purpose for which we are seated here.

Any word that emanates from our mouth will be a flower that can be accepted by That which is. Futile talks convey no sense, and we should not spend our time in giving expression to ideas which bear no relevance to That which is our supreme succour and which sees everything in Its multi-formed eyes and innumerable sensations. This is not a birthday of any person. This is a kind of occasion, as we have several others in the religious and spiritual history of this ashram, this monastery. You are all seated here perhaps expecting me to say something, and you can well imagine what I would like to say, inasmuch as you know me very well, root and branch.

While the body has its own natural obligation to get subjected to the process of the movement of time, and thus has to one day or the other enter a condition called senility, old age, it is expected that our mental, intellectual and spiritual life is not to attain senility. That our understanding be vigorous even to the last moment of our life, and that this understanding be directed properly, is the prayer of a great mantra of the Veda called the Gayatri. This great invocation called the Gayatri mantra occurring in the Veda is indeed a prayer, but it is a prayer which seeks nothing ulterior, material or objective. It is considered as the best and the foremost and the greatest of prayers, adored by everyone who loves the Veda and knows it, because here is a prayer which seeks inward illumination and a request that the understanding be directed suitably, adequately, properly.

Our wealth is our understanding. We cannot hope to have any other wealth in this world. If wealth is a possession, a kind of property hanging on us, then we cannot own any property and we cannot be wealthy in this world. But if wealth means the possession of something from which we can never be bereaved, then such a wealth is nothing but the wealth of understanding. Nobody can rob us of this property. Any property that can be taken away from us has never been ours at any time. We cannot lose what is really ours. If there is a chance of losing what we own, actually we have never owned it and we were under an illusion that it belonged to us. We cannot lose anything that is our own because it is ours, and that which is ours cannot become anybody else's. Hence, there cannot be theft of a property that is really ours. But if it is not ours, it will go to that place to which it belongs, to its origin and its source.

Hence, the prayer of the great Gayatri asks not for any property, wealth or belonging that can be taken away from us one day or the other, but for that wealth, that form of riches and glory, that belonging and property which is understanding.

Now, here is a great point before us. Our wealth is our understanding, but it is not just any kind of understanding. It is a properly directed understanding, a rightly motivated understanding. May we be blessed with this understanding. This is the prayer of the Gayatri mantra. Look at the wonder of this prayer. We are asking for understanding, and we are asking for nothing else from the Gayatri.

If there is nothing that we can understand, one may wonder, “What good is understanding?” We understand everything that is outside the understanding, and there is no such thing as understanding the understanding itself. If our glory and value do not lie in anything that is outside the understanding—because it is very clear that the prayer seeks not anything other than understanding—then we do not know what we are asking for. If we should not expect anything different from understanding, other than understanding, then what else remains? Only understanding remains.

But what do we understand? If in a sentence ‘understand' is a process of action and, therefore, is a transitive verb, then it has to have an object. We cannot say “I understand” without saying what it is that we understand. But the great Rishi who invoked this prayer, to whom this prayer was illumined as a great mantra, knew the glory of understanding—a kind of understanding which does not stand in need of an object of understanding, because an object of understanding would be outside the understanding. Then it would be something different from understanding, which the understanding does not seek and the prayer does not ask for. Anything other than understanding would be a property that can be lost.

We are apparently in a state of quandary. We do not know what we are saying and what we are expecting and praying for through this mantra. On the one hand, it appears that understanding requires an object because there cannot be simply an understanding without understanding anything. But we also seem to make out that there should be nothing outside the understanding, because anything outside the understanding would be different from the understanding, a property that can be lost. So where are we?

This shows the difference between our way of thinking and the great thinking of that great Master, the Rishi to whom this Gayatri mantra was revealed. From childhood we have been introduced into a system of thinking which is wholly erroneous in the light of facts as they are. The understanding to which a reference is being made in this Gayatri mantra does not require an object outside it because it is not a finite understanding. It is a rightly directed understanding: dhīyo yo naḥ pracodayāt.

Our understanding at the present moment, which requires the presence of something other than understanding, cannot be called right understanding because something that cannot exist without something else cannot be regarded as independent. If my existence is meaningful only because somebody else is there, my existence cannot be regarded as an existence. It is not there, really. It is a phenomenon projected by the circumstance of my relationship to that other thing on which I am hanging, and without which I cannot be. So my existence would be a phenomenon, and not a reality. That would be the state of this understanding if its meaning is wholly in something other than itself, if it requires an object different from itself. Such an understanding is a fleeting flame, a passing wind, a transient phenomenon. Such an understanding is not what is expected through this prayer. It is a self-illumined understanding which is self-sufficient and self-existent, and it is itself the subject as well as the object.

How could this be possible? The possessor and the possessed cannot be one and the same entity. We have never seen anywhere in this world the possessor possessing himself or itself. You cannot be a property of yourself. But such a state is conceivable, and an understanding of this type is possible. It stands by itself, and it stands not in need of any external prop. That is why ‘rightly directed' is added. Our understanding today is not rightly directed. It is directed to an illusory presentation before itself. It is so because the understanding spoken of in this mantra is an illumination, an enlightenment, a radiance, a light which cannot be extinguished.

But, as I mentioned, if it is a light that is fed with the oil of the presence of something outside itself, it can be extinguished when the oil is spent, as we say that a man has become poor because his wealth is exhausted. The wealth he calls his is the oil which feeds this apparent flame of his possessiveness and his sense of riches and wealth. When the wealth is over, one becomes a pauper as when the oil in the lamp is exhausted, the flame is no more there; it is just nothing.

So our sense of being wealthy and possessed of glory in this world is definitely an illusion because it is a picture presented before us by our slavishness in respect of another thing which seems to be supporting us—call it gold, call it silver, call it land, call it building, call it friends. But we can be deprived of connection with friends, with land, property, gold, silver, for reasons that everyone knows, and then we will no longer be rich. How could we regard ourselves as anything worth the while, rich in any sense of the term, if this is a phenomenon falsely projected by our hanging on somebody else whose existence is more important than ours, and but for which we would be nobody? Such is the value of earthly glory.

The prayer here referred to does not ask for such a glory. Independence is the characteristic of this rightly directed understanding, and who among us is independent in this world? We subsist on a million things in this world. We are something like a house constituted of various elements that go into it as the building material. There is no building; it is only a shape given to a pattern of the arrangement of the building material. The material takes a particular shape or pattern, and that shape is called the house. Likewise, our existence, this personality, this ‘me', may not be there for all practical purposes if it is merely constituted of certain building bricks which are other than what I am. The brick, the cement, the plaster, the iron bars and the girders are not the house. But where is the house minus these things?

Likewise would be our fate if our wealth is in the bank, our friends are in their own houses and our land is somewhere else, and yet we seem to be very rich. That would be a false picture that is presented before us. This is why it is said that the world is an illusion and the values that we attach to things in the world are also equally an illusion in the same way as the idea of a house is an illusion. There is no such thing as a house, as I mentioned. It is a name that we give to a pattern of an arrangement, which can be broken down if there is a disintegration of its constituents. And what are the constituents of our glory in this world? They are friends, gold, silver, wealth, land. So if these are the brick, the mortar, the plaster, the girder and so on of our very meaningful existence in this world, we can imagine how much meaning can be attached to our existence in this world.

That is why this great mantra dhīyo yo naḥ pracodayāt prays not for these ephemeral constituents of our imagined glory in this world. It asks for our understanding to be rightly directed. What is meant by rightly directed understanding? It is that understanding which can tune itself to the great light of the universe. It is the spirit within us that seeks communion with the spirit of the cosmos. May the spirit be directed along the lines of its communion with this Universal Spirit so that there is an unending radiance before us. This is the prayer of the Veda, called the Gayatri.

Many of you must be reciting this mantra, and at least some of you may know its meaning. It is a heartfelt summoning on the part of the great Rishi of that Almighty radiance which is symbolically represented by the sun, Surya Bhagavan. This radiance in the firmament before us at this hour is symbolic of that eternal radiance which throbs and pulsates through all the radiances, including the radiance of the sun in this world; and in that eternal powerhouse which is all radiance, these phenomenal radiances shine not.

Thus, our imagined, foisted existence as this body, this personality, is an illusion, and I tried to illustrate how it is an illusion. Our imagined existence assumes a faint resemblance of reality because of this supernal existence that is at our back, as a mirror shines because of the light that is cast on it. The mirror cannot shine, but it appears to shine because of the radiance that falls upon it. We appear to be existing here because of something that really exists. We appear to be capable of understanding, thinking and ratiocinating because of something which is all illumination and radiance. We sometimes appear to be pleased, satisfied and happy because of there being something which is eternally blissful.

But these appearances of our so-called being here—thinking and understanding and being happy—assume a tentative meaning, and an apparent reality, because they are shadows that dance on a really existent screen. Nevertheless, they are shadows. They have no existence of their own. Such is the world, such are our personalities, such is the picture of this world. May we be lifted above this theatre of dancing shadows: asato mā sad gamaya, tamaso mā jyotir gamaya, mṛtyor māmṛtaṁ gamaya (B.U. 1.3.28). This prayer is an echo of the great Gayatri mantra: Om bhūr-bhuvaḥ svaḥ tat-savitur-vareṇyaṁ bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt. So may this great Vedic prayer of the supermind of the Rishi be also our prayer at this hour. This is my humble prayer. God bless you all.