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"Among Mantras I am Gayatri"
--Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita

New York teenagers do it. Yoga teachers do it. Ascetics in the Himalayas do it, as do housewives in New Delhi. It is the Gayatri Mantra, a chant thousands of years old, spoken in a dead language, and yet the mantra's tremendous power, according to those who chant it, gives peace and calm to today's stressed-out multitudes. It is said that the Gayatri Mantra liberates one from the fruits of karma--the cycle of endless births and rebirths, and its maha mantra, or supreme status among mantras, is universally recognized. No surprise then that the rapidly proliferating CDs of the mantra have become best-sellers both in the United States and in India.

According to The Indian Express, one of India's three leading newspapers: "Every music company worth its salt [has] come out with albums devoted to the mantra." Artists as diverse as Swami Sukhabodhananda, Suresh Wadkar, Ajit Kadkade, Anuradha Paudwal, and Kavita Krishnamurthy have come out with their versions.

The Gayatri Mantra is a famous mantra that has been chanted since Vedic times, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. It concerns the creation of the universe by Lord Brahma. It is a universal prayer, an amalgamation of potent sounds. "The Gayatri, of course, is the most important of mantras in the Hindu tradition. It is sometimes called the "mother of the Vedas" and is certainly the most luminous among the mantras," says University of Florida religion professor Vasudha Narayanan. "By reciting it, one doesn't seek just cognitive, conceptualized knowledge, but the splendor and brilliance of transformative wisdom." The Gayatri Mantra, says the album notes to one popular version, "has the force to move the cosmos."

"O Divine Beings of all three worlds," says the mantra, "we meditate upon the glorious splendor of the Vivifier divine. May He Himself illuminate our minds."

The Gayatri Mantra is important to practicing Hindus, and they chant it daily as one's nitya karma--part of the daily actions Hindus perform as prescribed by the scriptures. In Vedic times, both young girls and boys were initiated into this mantra, but in time only boys of the upper castes were eligible for it. "In the last two centuries," says Prof. Narayanan, "various groups have reclaimed this beautiful mantra, and I have heard men and women recite it both at regular prayers and at specific times of the day.

Traditionally, it is to be recited at twilight and midday, usually in the context of the sandhya vandanam, the prayers said at twilight, midday, and dusk, at the junctures of changing time. The daily sandhya vandanam is considered mandatory, and if a Hindu misses a prayer it is to be done with a compensation or "penance" (prayaschitta).

Murali Rangarajan, originally from South India, is a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering at the University of Florida. Rangarajan got his upanayana (a sacred thread given to boys to mark their commencement of studies of sacred texts) when he was 7 years old and has been chanting the mantra ever since. He feels it improves his concentration and composure and helps him through rough periods: "It is a kind of a fallback whenever I feel upset or angry--or in general whenever my mind ceases to act--and reacts. It helps me cool down. It is a reminder of my goal in life."

As a lifelong practitioner, Rangarajan believes the Gayatri Mantra is necessary in today's stressful world, where material reality can overwhelm us. "Japa is a technique by which we consciously monitor and control our thoughts and thus observe the functioning of our mind. This is a rather general purpose of chanting any mantra, but I have personally seen that the Gayatri Mantra gives the tejas [power]--or at least freshness, energy, clarity and peace that the Rishis claim it will."

Now the power of the mantra is catching on with mainstream Americans. Deva Parnell, a yoga teacher at Discovery Yoga in St. Augustine, Fla., says the mantra is the perfect way to end the day. "By allowing time for spirit at the end of the active day, we can more fully release the fruits of our actions and enter into restorative sleep."

Parnell ends all her yoga sessions with the chanting of the Gayatri. She says, "To me, the mantra speaks of the divine spirit in all things. Hatha yoga is becoming more of an exercise technique, so the Gayatri Mantra is a way for me to bring spirit back to maintain the spiritual connection between the individual consciousness and the divine soul."

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