Guest post by RAJNI K. DIXIT
The Gayatri mantra, as it is called these days, has been assigned a very important position in Hinduism. One is supposed to pray to the Sun god with this verse every morning and evening. It is supposed to be a prayer to the Divine Light to guide our mind in the right direction, and to show us the correct way to live life. At the thread ceremony, which was a rite performed as the initiation of a Brahmin child’s education (samskarajanma or dwijatva i.e. second birth), the Gayatri mantra is spoken in the child’s ear because it is a prayer to guide the mind. It becomes his daily prayer to god for the right guidance and upliftment of mind for his whole life henceforth.
However, this verse was composed in a particular political context, understanding which expands our understanding of what is called Hinduism today.
This verse is composed by the great poet-priest Vishvamitra Gathina, and is selected from a poem of eighteen verses, the 62nd poem of the third mandal of the Rigveda. The major portion of this third mandal or group is composed by Vishvamitra. ‘Gayatri’ is actually the name of the metre that the verse is composed in. The verse is about god Savita, i.e. the sun, and the correct name by which this verse was originally known is the ‘Savitri’ mantra.
Gayatri is not the composition of an ascetic sage. It is written by a poet-priest who was a born politician, a Rajarshi as the later Sanskrit calls him. This was a time when all good poets worked as professional priests. Composition of literature had no existence separate from religion in those times.
It is the Hindu Dharmashastras and Sayanacharya’s Bhashya that have given this exalted position to this verse, assigning it such a marvellous meaning. However, the Dharmashastras and Sayanabhashya were composed at a period when the Aryabhasha, in which the Rigveda is composed, was not understood any more. That is the reason why all the later religious books have been assigned the lower position of Smritis – or whatever is remembered out of the correct Vedic meaning. The Hindu religion was born in the Rigveda. The Hindus (Saptasindhu and Sindhu-valley people) heard the message of acceptance of all religions through Vasishtha in the Rigveda. Hinduism, a mixed Arya-Anarya religion, started at that point of the Vedic period. That is why the Vedas are known as Shruti – what is heard, a more direct source of knowing and understanding Hinduism than what is remembered out of what was heard, which is in the later books known as Smruti. It is therefore better to try to understand this verse in its correct Rigvedic context, as intended by the author himself.
The importance of God Savita
Savita can by no means be called a much-worshipped or important god of the Rigvedic pantheon. That position can be claimed by Agni, Indra and the Ashvins (the twin galloping ‘horse riders’ – the personification of the few minutes before day break, of the mixture of light and darkness). It is only the popularity of this Savitri verse of Vishvamitra, as understood in the later period after the Aryabhasha was forgotten, that has made Savita a more important god in the later Hinduism.
The poem as a whole
The poem of Vishvamitra, however, is not solely a prayer to the sun god. Vishvamitra, in most of his poems, has preferred to write about either Indra or Agni, who were more popularly worshipped by Aryans in those days. Out of the meagre eight poems written fully and solely about Savita in the Rigveda (there are totally more than 1000 poems in Rigveda), not a single one is composed by Vishvamitra.
The 18 verses of this poem have been addressed to six gods or god-groups, three verses each. Savita is just one of these six, and is placed somewhere in the middle of the lot.
The poem has been sung by Vishvamitra at a sacrifice performed immediately after Bharata, the son of his daughter (whom Mahabharata has named Shakuntala) was selected as a king, and mainly reflects his pleasure at the event. The principal cause of the pleasure, however, is not that his grandson has become the king, but that the Bharata clan of Aryas would henceforth rule over the Anaryas of Mohenjodaro. Vishvamitra, though he was not a great ascetic as the later Sanskritists thought he was, was still a staunch Aryan priest, who disliked the dark Anaryas. This issue will be dealt with more in detail in a later section of this article.
The language not understandable in later Sanskrit period
The Arya bhasha in which the Rigveda has been composed has branched into Sanskrit on the one hand and the European languages on the other. When this Arya bhasha was forgotten in the later Sanskrit period, some scholars thought that Rigveda was a book of meaningless magic mantras. The verses which were thought to have been still reasonably understood, like the Savitri, or the Mrityunjaya mantra, or the ‘Gananam ganapati’ verse, started being used – completely out of context – in the rites in which they were thought to be suitable. It was a time when they respected Rigveda and continued to orally preserve it by rote – cramming it up without understanding. The more its language was not understood, the more it became worshipped as divine and awe-inspiring, while its real historic value remained unseen. Thus, the political and ideological differences between the two great political personalities of the time – Vasishtha the international socio-political leader and prime minister of Sapta Sindhu, and Vishvamitra the staunch believer in Aryan superiority, who desired Aryan rule over the dark race in the whole of India – was interpreted by the Puranas as only a competition between two ascetics about tapashcharya. The social and political implications of their differences remained totally unnoticed. Many years later Sayana wrote his Bhashya (explanation) of Rigveda, but unfortunately that was a time when Indian scholars had no access to the European languages. The Aryabhasha cannot be properly understood without taking the help of both of its branches. Many of its words, which are no longer found in the later Sanskrit, are preserved in the other branch, making access to it necessary.
A verse, however, can be understood properly and correctly only when it is read in its context. Fortunately, we now have access to the context of Gayatri.
Vishvamitra – the author
As mentioned earlier, none of the writers of Rigveda are ascetics as the later stories describe them to be. Most of them, including Vasishtha and Vishvamitra, are active politicians and city-dwellers. Some of them are professors, and a few, students of subjects like language and literature, philosophy, or history. There is no mention of tapascharya (meditation) in the Rigveda.
The later books tell us that praise and position were very important to Vishvamitra. These later books also tell us about Vishvamitra being a jealous competitor of Vasishtha. The only source that these later writers had of knowing about his jealousy was Vishwamitra’s own writing in the Rigveda – i.e. the 3rd mandala of Rigveda. The two contemporaries – Vasishtha with his views of Ahimsa and friendship with all (his thoughts are reflected in the one hundred verses of Rg.Mandala 7) and Vishvamitra, the victory- and war-loving ‘Alexander’ of the times (Rg. Mandala 3) – did not see eye to eye. To understand Vishvamitra’s poems and thoughts, it is necessary to know a little about the political events of the time and the thought process of this politician-poet coming to India from Europe.
A digression about Aryan immigration
The later books of Hinduism, our Puranas as well as our epics have given us an impression that Vasishtha, Vishvamitra, Agastya, Kanva, etc. – the ‘sages’ – were Indians by birth. They were not. The Rigveda calls the Aryas a white (shvitri) race (Rg. i, 33: 14, 15), which indicates that they immigrated to our sunny land from a colder climate. Vasishtha says in Rg. vii 33:7 and vii 88:5 that different Aryan groups had settled in many different countries on the earth. That the Avesta of Iran is very similar to Rigveda is an accepted fact. So is it well known that Aryans had settled in Europe as well as in India. In the pauranic story of Yayati (yati=goes, yayati=goes on and on), this king Yayati represents the Aryan race that travelled on and on and immigrated to many countries the world over. The story tells us that one of his sons was known as Puru. This Puru was a famous emperor and his mother was Asura. This son (i.e. one of the branches) of Yayati, i.e. the Aryan race, represents the Pharaohs (Sanskrit – Puruh) of Egypt, which is midway between Europe and Iran, the place of Ahur Mazda. The Yadu branch however, migrated towards Iran, Turkmanistan, and later to India. So Yadu’s mother is named ‘Deva-yani’ or ‘going towards Diu’ (ya=to go). In later years, small groups of people came to India from various countries. Examples of this are groups such as the Bharatas (including Vishwamitra), the Kanvas, etc.
Vishvamitra – his political and religious views and poetic skill
Vishvamitra had come to India from Italy. The Rigveda refers to the part of the world that he belonged to as ‘the corner land, Romani’ (Rg. ix, 62, 8). ‘Romani’ means Roman lands or the Roman countryside. Rome and Italy are situated in the north-western direction (or corner) from India and Mohenjo Daro-Gujarat. Vishwamitra was not the son of king Gadhi of Kanauj (Uttar Pradesh, India) as the later books tell us. There was no king of that name in ‘Uttar Pradesh’ at that time. When the Vedic language was understood no more, the fact that this author’s surname is Gathina possibly caused this misunderstanding. The Vedic surnames, however, are mostly formed from the places the people belong to, and the surname Gathina probably suggests that his parents originally were from Gatchina (Russia) situated near the Gulf of Finland.
He and his people, the Aryans known as Bharatas, came to India as refugees after the great War of the Ten Kings (Dashrajnyayuddha). Vasishtha and his people, the Aryans known as Manavas or Manushyas, i.e. descendants of Manu who were already settled in Punjab (Vedic Saptasindhu) then, could settle the newcomers in the Mahi river area only through the help of the neighbouring Mohenjodaro-Gujarat dark race, whom the Manavas had disliked and avoided till then.
The change in Vasishtha’s attitude and his friendship towards the Anarya race after this help from them, however, enraged Vishvamitra, who had always looked down upon the dark Anaryas and their religion (Rg. i,168,2).
The religion of the Mohenjodaro-Gujarat Anaryas
The religion of this area was the old Shaivism. They did not worship many gods like the Aryans, but believed in only one formless Creator. They did not make any human-like idol of this God but worshipped creation, through the Linga, as they believed in God as an abstract, bodiless Power, in other words, Energy. The universe, they believed, was created by this Energy from itself (Rg vii, 59,11). They worshipped in temples, ringing bells (ranan) and singing worship songs (archan) unlike the Aryas who worshipped only through sacrifices. “They move light around a static figure” says Rg.i, 6, 1. This shows they performed ‘arati’ which possibly symbolised the circular movement of the celestial lights (planets and stars) keeping the creator Energy at the centre.
Vishvamitra looked down upon these dark Indians and their way of worship. Both the groups of Aryans, the Manavas and the Bharatas were proud of their white race and religion, but as opposed to Vasishtha and the Manava Aryans, the pride of the Vishvamitra group had made them close their eyes to the good points of the Anaryas. Possibly this dislike was at the root of the word Asura, originally only a word like ‘Parsi’ or ‘Marathi’ (with no negative connotations), being thought of to mean a demon by the later Sanskritists. Many of the important historic dark kings like Maha Bali and Bana- Asura have been left historically unstudied, except for their so-called defeats by the Aryans, because of this dislike.
Vishvamitra as a poet
Vishvamitra had an excellent command on language. His people’s dialect of the Aryabhasha was known as Bharati just as Vasishtha’s and the Sapta Sindhu Aryan group’s dialect was known as Sarasvati. Vishvamitra did not like Vasishtha the Manava and his acceptance of the black race’s god Tryambaka amongst the white race’s pantheon, but he was not in a position to criticize Vasishtha openly, because he was under Vasishtha’s obligation. We find him using puns and suggestive sense very efficiently in his poems for his propaganda against Vasishtha, and his new Arya-Anarya mixed Aryanism, which later became known as Hinduism. The third mandala is full of his criticism of Vasishtha, and his ambition and plan to rule over the black race of India.
Vishvamitra is a master of the art of making political comments under the cover of sacrificial prayers. He started the trend of criticism through puns and suggestive language and almost all the authors except Vasishtha followed his method for their political criticisms. As a result Agastya remarked, “Your yajnyas have not remained yajnyas” (Rg. i,168,1). Another poet Dvita also said “The outer appearance of a prayer is kept but the words mean something else” (Rg. v,18,4).
Vishvamitra was against Vasishtha’s ‘no war’ and ‘Vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ or ‘love thy neighbour’ ideals. He thought Vasishtha was acting against Aryanism and Aryan interests. He, like Alexander, believed that the Aryans, good warriors that they were, ought to and must attack others for possessing more and more land and power. He very successfully utilised his sacrifices to express these views, thus turning them into political meetings of the Bharatas.
Bharata, the underage grandson chosen as king
Bharata, the son of Vishvamitra’s daughter (who is named ‘Shakuntala’ by the later Sanskrit writers) did not inherit the rulership of India from his father Dushyanta (the name was ascribed to him afterwards), as the later Sanskrit stories tell us. Rulership in Mohenjodaro-Gujarat, unlike amongst the Aryans, was not hereditary. This dark race, which called itself ‘Asura’ (Eng. Azure=sky colour; Eng. Ash-aura, or the colour of ash) held elections for choosing their president or gana-pati. Bharata’s father was himself neither a king nor was he a resident of India. He was a Puru i.e. from the family of the Pharaohs of Egypt, though he was himself not a king. But Vishvamitra, the very shrewd politician that he was, decided to take advantage of the family name of the great Purus, get the underage Bharata elected, and start ruling over Mohenjodaro-Gujarat in his name. The land of Mohenjodaro-Gujarat being populated by a business community, it was an affluent region, and capturing it would mean getting power and money, to attack and capture more and more of the lands of the Indians. The last line of the prayers at the sacrifices of the Bharata Aryans, many a times, is ‘O sacrificial Fire! Give this sacrificer the land of Mohenjodaro-Gujarat (Ila=land, particularly the land of Mohenjodaro-Gujarat, as Ila was the name of their mother tongue) for it to be ruled over by this Puru, so that we can go on getting more and more lands.’ (Rg. iii -1, 5,6,7,15,22,23,etc.)
At the time of the elections most of the Mohenjodaro people, being businessmen, were out of the country for trade. They were very satisfied with their president and took his re-election for granted. The Bharatas were their guests and they had not expected the guests to interfere with their government. After all, they had helped other outsiders, the people of Atri, and others in the same way before, and nobody had ever interfered. But Vishvamitra was different. Thus, through Vishvamitra’s shrewdness, the underage Bharata became king of Mohenjodaro-Gujarat entirely by the votes of the Bharata race. That is why history knows him as king Bharata. The real name of this great ruler after whom we are known as Bhaaratiya was Dyumna. Vishvamitra ruled as the guardian of this underage Puru king, and acquired more land through wars.
King Bharata of Bharat desh
When Dyumna came of age and forcibly took the reins of power into his own hands though, he became a very efficient and benevolent king. Rigveda tells us he was equally good to all races, interacted with them all as one of them, and worked for Vasishtha’s ‘United Nations Organisation’ of that time (named Amrita) and his ‘No war’ policy (Rg.i,100, -1,4,7,12,16; 102-8). But that happened only after he started ruling independently. In this article, we are concerned not with the great king Bharata but with his grandfather, Vishwamitra.
The whole of poem 62 of the 3rd mandala, of which our Gayatri verse forms a part, is the victory song of Vishvamitra, composed on the occasion of Dyumna winning the elections, and it reflects his future policy.
Gayatri in its context
The first three verses of this poem (consisting of 18 verses in all) are addressed to the two gods Indra and Varuna together, an odd combination necessitated by the political second meaning hidden in the verse. In the Rigveda generally, Mitra (the sun) forms a pair with Varuna (the open covering sky) while Indra (the rain god) forms a pair with the Maruts (the wind gods).The sky covered with black clouds is described as a demon in the Indra prayers. But the public lecture required to be given by the election-winning politician before his subjects, Arya as well as Anarya, needed this odd combination of deities. The word ‘Indra’ also means a king while ‘Varuna’ also means a person who chooses, in other words, a voter –and therefore both these words were necessary in the political announcement.
Vishvamitra is critical about the Mohenjodaro government giving the ordinary people the power to choose who would rule over them. He addresses the Mohenjodaro subjects as ‘electors of the king’ and says:
“We were sure of your travels, and so we did not give up the idea of fighting (ud jya=those who have untied the bow string) your government elections (i.e. we knew we would be able to take advantage of your absence).You filled up the assembly seats with your friends till now. Where is that glory of yours now? (Verse 1)
“This Puru here is succeeding and becoming your protector permanently… (suggesting that they would introduce hereditary monarchy in Mohenjodaro instead of an elected government) ..As for now, hear that we are elected and enjoy that news with your friends, Rajasthan (maru=desert and Maru+tah= people from Rajasthan) and Saptasindhu. (Verse 2)
“Let that wealth of yours, together with the resident subjects, and the brave soldiers from Rajasthan belong to us now. Let the committee in charge of election (varutri) award mansions to us, and in the parliament let our Bharati language be used, because the centre (of government) has shifted towards Dax (France) side now.” (Verse 3)
He addresses the next three verses to Brihaspati (the god of knowledge, by pun the officer in-charge of announcement of the election results: brih =to roar, to speak loudly) and says:
“Enjoy our election. Bow low before the (new) white (shuchi = pure, by pun white) president elect – I for my part have now got power, and so I do not have to salute anyone” (4,5,6).
In the next three verses he addresses Pushan (the god supporting the life-system by providing food for all, by pun the Anarya state which gave him refuge. In this verse, he has applied the word deva to Pushan to convey this second meaning.
“O people of Diu (Diu, Dyau at that time, was a very important city and possibly capital of Mohenjodaro-Gujarat) who provided us refuge! Here is the new poem of praise (i.e. national anthem) that I have made for you. Just listen … This very country, which has to look up to Vishvamitra and has to look at the world according to his views (now), used to be his protector and life supporter, once upon a time! … Enjoy this poem of mine. Or (va) shall we call it my song of victory (jayanti) composed at the time of your fall (ava aa)? Enjoy it as a bridegroom enjoys the company of a newly wedded bride (we are like a permanently wedded couple now. Aryans are going to rule for ever – there will be no elections, we believe in hereditary monarchy).” (7, 8, 9)
Then comes our Gayatri, the first of a group of three verses, selected by the later Sanskritists. Gayatri mantra is generally translated as
‘Let us meditate on the glorious splendour of the divine sun, the life-giver, that he may guide our intelligence.’
Let us first of all note down one thing – that the “Om, Bhur bhuvah svah (same as svar)’’ words with which we start the recitation of the Gayatri mantra nowadays are a later addition. Even the Om is not a part of the original verse. Vishvamitra’s verse starts with ‘tat savituh’. However, since it has now become part of the verse, I have interpreted this phrase as well. ‘Bhurbhuvah svah (svar),’considered to be three mystic words, are generally translated as ‘the earth (bhu),the atmosphere, and the heavens beyond’. The three words thus stand for the entire creation, and I feel it would be better to translate them as ‘the earth (bhu), the other earths i.e. planets (bhuvah is the plural of bhu)and the stars (svar: sva= one’s own, ra = fire or heat i.e. that which has its own fire – a star). Om, in day-to-day Sanskrit, is used in the sense of ‘yes’, just like ‘hmm’, the sound conveying agreement or like the Hindi word ‘han’. It symbolically represents the creation of positivity from nothingness.
The original Savitri starts with the words ‘tat savituh’ and has been beautifully explained, after the Vedic language was forgotten, as a prayer to the sun to guide our intelligence. In Rigveda however the word ‘dhiyah’ generally means poems. So the verse has to be understood as originally to have been a prayer to the sun to stimulate Vishvamitra’s and the Bharata clan’s poems, and Griffith has translated it as “May he stimulate our prayers.”
Generally in the Rigveda, the word deva is never used with the name of any god. For example, the Vedic writers refer to Indra as Indra only, never as deva Indra. However Vishvamitra has found it necessary to use the word deva, not once, but every time he has used the word Savita, because the political message, which is more important to him, cannot be conveyed without it.
“Let us all think through this poem about the sudden glory (the word ‘ bhargo’ means sudden flare – Guj ‘bhadako’) attained by the Diu-elect (deva) (Bharata) of the Sun dynasty(deva Savita) through election(var =to choose)and let that (thought of our victory) stimulate our poems (sung today).”
The next Savita verse says- “We desire to enhance our (own) luck now that we are governing (puram dhya)”. The third Savita verse announces that now the people, poets and all, will salute this king of the Sun dynasty, as they are under his rule.
Vishvamitra, using the power of his pen, has additionally criticized Vasishtha’s friendship with the dark race. Vasishtha, though himself an Aryan, had invited the Anaryas, and welcomed them by offering them soma (Rg.vii, 59, 9). It was after and because of this friendly invitation of Vasishtha and his offering havi to their Tryambaka (Rg vii,59,11) that the mixed religion of (Sapta) Sindhu, which later became known as the Hindu religion, came into existence, worshiping the gods of both communities through both methods – through arati and bells in temples as well as through havana fires.
But Vishvamitra is critical of this behaviour of the Aryan prime minister– “Let us now think here about that stunt, aimed at getting public praise, of the man who prepared soma for the people from Diu (devasya savituh: savita = extractor of soma). It will certainly stimulate my pen.” He then laughs at Vasishtha – “We wish luck to that soma-giver, now that we (his opposition) have gained control over the government!”
Vishvamitra ends this 18-verse victory song from which our Gayatri has been selected, with a very happy note –
“I am sitting at the centre of the legislative assembly. The Diu people are out. Our boy rules everything. You people used to talk big things (like acceptance of all and no to war), but now you will have to salute (us) in order to do anything, you will have to follow the rules of the white race, and will have to be more afraid than you used to be (draghishtha bhih)”.
The end and a Pauranic story
Vishvamitra and the race of Bharatas, the Roman Aryans also known as Nahushah (sons of Nahu i.e. Noah) were against the new all-inclusive Aryanism propagated by Vasishtha jointly with their neighbouring Anaryas of Mohenjodaro-Gujarat. These Anaryas were also known as Devas – residents of Diu city which was then known as ‘Dyau’.
Mohenjodaro regained its independence and got a local ruler after a time through the efforts of freedom fighters like Parashurama. Parshurama was, as opposed to his image in the Pauranic literature, only a strong pacifist, a political leader who attacked the idea of war and spoke against warmongers (Kshatriyas = warmongers by nature, not by caste – there was no caste system at that time) and attacked the Kshatriyas only through election campaigning. This historical fact is at the root of the Pauranic story of king Nahusha being selected to be the ruler of heaven (Dyau in Sanskrit means Diu as well as heaven or swarga) by gods for some time, his arrogance and misbehaviour, and his being thrown out of heaven as a result.
A new Savitri of Hinduism by Shyavashva
The victory song of Vishvamitra, and particularly his ‘tat savituh ’verse, was something the followers of Vasishtha’s novo-Aryan religion in Mohenjodaro-Gujarat and Saptasindhu could never forget. When they regained their independence, Shyavashva Atreya, who believed in Vasishtha’s novo-Aryanism that taught acceptance of all (which has later become known as Hinduism, the new religion of Sindhu), welcomed this independence with a composition parodying the original Savitri verse (the Gayatri mantra) :
“tat savituh vrinimahe vayam devasya…………bhago dhimahi” (we are now voting to say that what that priest was devouring, belongs to Diu ……)(Rg.v,82, 1).
“No one will be allowed to lay his hand on this, our fatherland’s own independent rule now, which will carry it to its glory.” (Rg.v,82, 2)
Then he pronounced the prayer of the new religion, Hinduism, to Deva-Savita (the sun of Diu) – “Kindly remove all evils and sinful ways (vishvani= all, also by pun – ‘brought in by Vishvamitra’) and give us what is really beneficial, what can give real happiness” (Rg. v, 82, 5). The words are “Vishvani deva Savitar duritani parasuva, yat bhadram tanna asuva” – a prayer to remove racial prejudice and the mentality of selfish gain by exploitation of others from the human mind, and to teach humanity the religion of equality, friendship and acceptance.
 It is well known that the story of Rome (original name Roma) being named from the brothers Romulus and Remus is fictitious, and that Rome – though not the Roman Empire – existed since ancient times. The fact that we find the reference to ‘Rome’ in the Rigveda is further proof of this.
As explained before, Bharata belonged to the Egyptian Pharaoh household, and the Pharaohs were known as Sun kings.
Rajni K Dixit is a retired Lecturer of Sanskrit.