Asato Ma Sad Gamaya (April, 2019)
Our rishi-munis were masters of concision. Whether it is the Vedas, Upanishads, Darshan, or any scripture, it is amazing how they packed vast information and limitless wisdom in the fewest of the words. A reflective reader of the scriptures would attest to the fact that often life-long lessons and philosophies are packed even in a single Vedic sutra. Unfortunately though, when such deep wisdom is arranged in succinct words and often quoted casually, it loses its impact. This year, as part of the monthly assignments, rather than focusing on just the literal meaning of the Vedic mantras and verses from the scriptures, we dig deep into the real message behind those pithy words. In that series, the mantra of the month is the following potent prayer from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya;
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya;
Mrityor-Maa Amritam Gamaya.
O God, take me from lies/unreality to truthfulness/reality;
Take me from darkness/ignorance to light/pure knowledge;
Take me from morality/death to immortality/self-realization.
There are three parts in this mantra. In the first part, the worshipper asks for guidance to take him from lies and unreality to truthfulness and reality. Let’s first focus on the word lie. Is lying just an attribute of speech? In other words, is the lie limited only to saying what the speaker knows is not a fact? No – the lie is much more detailed and deeper.
At the social level, a lie is when someone either says or does what he doesn’t believe in. Most of the people know what a lie of speech is, but not many are aware of the lie that comes with silence. Say, in a classroom setting, you see another student is being punished for a mistake he didn’t make. You know that your statement will save him. But, because you don’t like him, you keep quite. In this case, even though you didn’t lie with words, your silence is not just a lie but also immoral. It is also possible that you enjoyed that incident, but know that this behavior has weakened your character and dented your personality for good. Whether you say it or not, deep inside your heart, you know you made a mistake. That guilt, which may not be obvious in the moment, is like a big weight on your personality. This feeling will not let you rise and express your full potential. On the other hand, if, in that moment, you decided to stick with the truth, you would have not only won the heart of the other student and your teacher but also felt great about yourself. Feeling respectful of one’s own core values and behavior is one of the biggest achievements of being truthful. Its benefits are lifelong and cannot be described in words.
At the spiritual level, the lie is centered on one’s own thinking and life style. For instance, pursuing meaningless goals or living hypocritical life is considered an unreal life. Say, if a kid thinks that the latest phone model or wearing expensive clothes will make him cool and earn others respect, he is living in an unreal world. First, harboring such imaginary (unreal) thoughts will never make him happy or satisfied. Second, his such attitude will ultimately deprive him of respect of his near-and-dear ones.
How does one realize that he is living in an unreal world? It comes from pure knowledge, which the worshipper seeks in the second part of this mantra. In this part, the worshipper seeks help for taking him from darkness to light. Here, the darkness signifies ignorance and the light signifies pure knowledge. When a person is living in the fake world, he is either ignorant or has impure knowledge. Let’s understand a few key points: ignorance, impure knowledge, and pure knowledge.
Being ignorant means one doesn’t know about a particular matter. Thereby, he doesn’t know what is right or wrong in that field. A knowledgeable person is one who has built understanding of a subject matter. If that knowhow is sound, it is pure knowledge; otherwise, impure.
Say, a kid who does not know the benefits of studies, scores, sports, and after-school activities is ignorant. He is ignorant about the role these programs play in shaping his future. Another kid knows that these programs are important but doesn’t know the right role each one plays. He has formed some incorrect notions about their importance. He thinks that he must focus on getting highest score only. He not only ignores other programs but also does not care if he understood the underlying subject – as long as he gets perfect score, nothing else matters. Such an awareness is considered impure knowledge. There is yet another kid who knows the rightful balance of all the programs and their importance in his success. Having such a clear understanding is called pure knowledge.
Now the question arises how one should acquire pure knowledge. In this world, everyone has opinions and sometimes ulterior motives; so, how can one know and choose the right path? That is where meditation and the second prayer inherent in this mantra comes into picture. We pray to God to guide us (i.e., our intellect) in “right” direction. We pray that the knowledge we acquire from the scriptures, family members, teachers, society, and, above all, our own contemplation lead us in the right direction.
After knowing the difference between lies & truth and acquiring pure knowledge, the next step is to live a meaningful life based upon the acquired pure knowledge. For instance, what good is a master’s degree in a subject if you don’t practice the acquired knowledge? In the third and last part of the mantra, the worshipper prays to God to inspire and guide him to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. After acquiring the fruits of the first two prayers, the worshipper now clearly knows that only when he lives a joyful life in which he fulfills all of his duties of every phase of life, he will make his current life meaningful. So, he prays for inspiration and guidance for achieving immortality. Please refer to the last month’s assignment in which we went over this point in details.
You must have noticed that even though being short and simply worded, this mantra captures one of the most earnest prayers for achieving the life’s ultimate goals. I am looking forward to kids capturing their interpretation of this mantra. I request the parents that rather than asking the kids to research the topic on the internet, where they will likely not find the hidden and profound explanations, please take their assignment as an opportunity to spend some quality time together and discuss the deep and not-so-obvious meaning of this mantra.