Asato mā

Asato mā sadgamaya
Tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
Mrutyor mā amritam gamaya
Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. 1.iii.28

This popular hymn is found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.iii.28), where the speaker asks for an improvement in his or her own self or situation. There are many commentaries about the meanings and implications of asat and sat, tamas and jyotiḥ, and mṛutyu and amṛtam, and obviously, these concepts are worthy of reflection. Instead, I focus on some curious aspects of the language and structure of this hymn, and see if that also gives some insights.

A single word repeats three times in this hymn, gamaya. Gamaya is a causative form of the verb gam ‘to go’, it means, ‘make me go.’ Why does the speaker ask to be forced to go, does she not want to go of her own free will? Or is this is a way of saying, that on my own I tend to gravitate to everywhere else but truth and light, therefore give me no choice, ‘make me go.’ Or, my own drive and will-power is weak, please reinforce that and ‘make me go’  towards better conditions. By saying ‘make me go,’ the speaker gives permission to whomsoever she is addressing to take matters out of her hands, to stop her own resistance to improvement. The statements give permission to be directed, even coerced and given no choice.

Next, consider the literal translation. For the moment, I consider the meanings of sat, tamas and mṛtyu as truth, darkness and mortality. Precisely what the terms mean does not quite matter here, whether sat means ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ does not matter here, it is the syntax we examine right now.

Not to not-truth but to truth, make me go.
Not to darkness but to light, make me go.
Not to mortality, but to not-mortality, make me go.

Why the double negative in the first line? Perhaps there are many opposites and alternatives to truth, untruth is just one of them. It seems to me that in this line, the speaker is rejecting all alternatives to truth including distortions, half-truths, misunderstandings, etc. If truth has many opposites and alternatives, the speaker accepts none of them. By contrast, in the second line, the speaker seems more definite, seems to know what is tamas, and how jyotiḥ is the desirable goal. The third line reverses the template. Here, the negative is not applied to the starting point but to the end-goal. Not to death but to not-death make me go. The petitioner has some idea of what is truth and light, so she can ask for it, but she has no clue to what might be the alternative to death, so she has to ask for it in the negative: amṛtam.

It is interesting when we see how the verse has been explained in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (henceforth, BaU). In the BaU, the mantra is quoted and then explained, but as an integral whole rather than as a collection of three distinct wishes, the first two lines are explained in terms of the third line. I use Patrick Olivelle’s translation here— Olivelle translates asat and sat as ‘unreal’ and ‘real,’ and tamas and jytotiḥ as ‘darkness’ and ‘light.’

“The unreal is death, and the real is immortality— so, when he says, “From the unreal lead me to the real,” what he is really saying is: “From death lead me to immortality,” in other words, “Make me immortal.” Darkness is death, and light is immortality— so when he says, “From the darkness lead me to thelight,” what he is really saying is: “From death lead me to immortality,” inother words, “Make me immortal.” In the statement, “From death lead me to immortality,” there is nothing obscure.” (45)

When we read the BaU,we also realize that this is a time and age where sat (whether real/truth/existence), and jyotiḥ (light) require explanation, but amṛtam (deathlessness? not-mortality? immortality? ambrosia?) does not, it seems to be a particular world or known state.

The next paragraph makes it even more clear that amṛtam is an assured location. Today, we may think of death as giving up a location, but in the paragraph that follows, we will see how amṛtam becomes an alternative location, another world. Here is Olivelle’s translation (and note, an Udgātṛ priest is one who sings the Sāmaveda).

“He may, further, procure a supply of food for himself by singing the remaining lauds. When he is singing them, therefore,he should choose as a reward anything he may desire. An Udgātṛ priest who has this knowledge is able to procure by his singing whatever he desires, either for himself or for the patron of the sacrifice. Now this is true world conquest. When a man knows that Sāman in this way, there is no fear of his being left without a world.” (45)

Today, explanations of this verse tend to present the three lines as three distinct requests: ‘From ignorance, lead me to truth. From darkness, lead me to light. From death, lead me to immortality. Oṃ peace, peace, peace.’ On the Amritapuri website, each of these lines is referred to as a mantra: “first mantra,” “second mantra,” and “third mantra,” and the distinctions between the lines do not matter: “The essence of each of these three mantras is the same.” Instead, when we go back to the BaU we see how it explains each of the lines in terms of the final line, and the abstract ideas of the first two lines are anchored to the concrete location of the world of amṛtam.

Oṃ shantiḥ shantiḥ shantiḥ

 

 

WORKS CITED:

  • Olivelle, Patrick. The Early UpaniṣadsAnnotated Text and Translation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Amritapuri official website. Accessed 9th September 2015. <http://www.amritapuri.org/3731/asatoma.aum>

Leave a Reply

Mani Rao is the author of eight poetry books, and two books in translation — The Bhagavad Gita, and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. Her poems and essays are published in journals including Tinfish, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum, West Coast Line, and Interim, and in various anthologies.