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Mani Rao
Asato Mā
Mani Rao

Warli painting: ‘Tarpa Dancers’ by Jivya Soma Mashe
Click on image for enlarged view.

Image Source: Détail d’une oeuvre de Jivya Soma Mashe, (tribu Warli / Thane district) Danseurs Tarpa autour d’un musician, Acrylique et bouse de vache sur toile 2003, Stiftung Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf Image de l’exposition; Wikimedia Commons}
Asato mā sadgamaya
Tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
Mrutyor mā amritam gamaya

               — Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. 1.iii.28
This popular hymn is found in the Bhadārayaka Upaniad (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 sattamas and jyoti, and mrutyu and amtam, 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, gamayaGamaya 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 meaning of sattamas and mtyu 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 the speaker rejects 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 jyoti 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 truth and light is, 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: amtam.
It is interesting when we see how the verse has been explained in the Bhadārayaka Upaniad (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 jytoti 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 the light,” what he is really saying is: “From death lead me to immortality,” in other 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 realise that this is a time and age where sat (whether real/truth/existence), and jyoti (light) require explanation, but amtam (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 amtam 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 amtam becomes an alternative location, another world. Here is Olivelle’s translation (and note, an Udgāt 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. O peace, peace, peace.’ On the Amritapuri website, each of these lines is referred to as a 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 amtam.
O shanti shanti shanti
Works Cited
Olivelle, Patrick. The Early UpaniadsAnnotated Text and Translation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Amritapuri official website. Accessed 21st September 2017.


Issue 80 (Jul-Aug 2018)

feature Sanskrit Literature
  • Editorial
    • Usha Kishore: Editorial
    • Artwork featured in this section
  • Poetry Translations
    • A N D Haksar: From Ksēmēndra’s ‘Darpa Dalanaṃ’
    • Anusha S Rao: From ‘Saduktikarṇāmṛta’ compiled by Srīdharadāsa
    • Debjani Chatterjee: From Valmiki ‘Rāmāyana’ and Yōgēśwara
    • Kanya Kanchana and Varun Khanna: From ‘Krṣṇa Yajur Veda’
    • Mani Rao: From ‘Īśāvāsya Upanishad’ and Śankara
    • R R Gandikota: From ‘Vāyu Purāṇa’ and ‘Śankara’
    • Varanasi Ramabrahmam: Autotranslation of ‘Viṣṇu Vaibhavam
    • Shankar Rajaraman and Venetia Kotamraju: From Uddanda Śastri
    • Shankar Rajaraman: Autotranslation from ‘Citraniṣadham’
    • Usha Kishore: From Kālidāsa and Śankara
  • Conversation
    • Atreya Sarma U: In conversation with K V Ramakrishnamacharya
  • Essays
    • Atreya Sarma U: Sumadhuram, Subhashitam
    • Bipin K Jha: A Critical Review on the notion of Kāla
    • K H Prabhu: The influence of Sanskrit on Purandaradāsa’s Kannada lyrics
    • Mani Rao: Asato Mā
    • Pritha Kundu: Kālidāsa’s ‘Śakuntalā’ - ‘Lost’ and ‘Regained’ in Translation
    • R R Gandikota: ‘Cāru Carya’ of Kṣemēndra
    • M Shamsur Rabb Khan: Non-Indian Scholars of Sanskrit Literature
    • Shankar Rajaraman: ‘Citranaiṣadham’
    • Shruti Das: Ecopolitics in the Dasāvatāra in Jayadeva’s ‘Gītagovindaṃ
    • Usha Kishore and M Sambasivan: On Translating the Divine Woman
    • Vikas Singh, Dheerendra Singh and Vruttant Manwatkar: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam