asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
Lead me from the
asat to the sat.
This is true prayer—the seeker’s admission of his sense of limited-ness and his heartfelt cry for assistance in transcendence. It is not a prayer for the things of the world. It is not a pray for food, shelter, health, partnership, riches, success, fame, glory or even for heaven1. One who recites these three mantras has realized that such things are full of holes, soaked in pain and, even in abundance, will forever leave him wanting. It is in this full understanding that one turns to this prayer. The essence of each of these three mantras is the same: "O, Guru, help me free myself from my sundry misunderstandings regarding myself, the universe and God and bless me with true knowledge." It is in this spirit that devotees regularly chant these mantras twice daily—both at the conclusion of the morning archana and after the evening aarati.
The first mantra—asato ma sadgamaya—means, "Lead me from the asat to the sat." In fact, it is best to not translate sat (nor its negative counterpart asat) for, as with many Sanskrit words, sat has many meanings and not only are most of them applicable here, their deliberate combined import provides a depth that no one of them could hold independently. These co-applicable meanings include: existence, reality and truth. (Co-applicable meanings for asat being: non-existence, non-reality and untruth.) We often speak of religion or philosophy as a search for Truth. But only in India’s philosophy of Advaita-Vedanta has the concept of "truth" been so meticulously and successfully dissected. According to Advaita, for something to be considered true in the ultimate sense, it must be true not just at one given moment, but always be true—true in all three periods of time: the past, present and future. In fact, Advaita goes one step further. It says: if something does not exist in all three periods of time then it does not truly exist, it is not ultimately real. Thus, truth, existence and reality are one and the same. That reality, Vedanta says, is what we call God. The universe and its things are in a constant state of change. The planets are in constant motion, their positions in relation to each other and the other astral bodies are in continuous flux. The seasons similarly are ever-shifting. Scientifically, we can easily understand that our bodies (and the cells within them) come into existence, are born and then go through periods of growth, sustenance, deterioration and death. In fact these six modifications are part-and-parcel of everything in creation. On the level of emotions, we move back and forth between happiness, sorrow and anger. Even our intellectual convictions rarely stay fixed for very long. So, according to Vedanta, we cannot call this world ultimately real. It is not ultimately true. Ultimately, it does not exist. It seems real etc. but it is not. Such a thing is called asat.
The seeker giving voice to this prayer has come to understand the finite nature of all the objects of the world, and he wants the Guru to guide him from the asat to the sat. He is fed up with depending on things that are not real. Why? Because just as the sandcastle is always washed away by the tide, dependence on the asat always ends in pain. sat is our True Self—the blissful consciousness that ever was, is and ever will be. Being beyond time, this consciousness can never be washed away by time’s tides. In fact, sat is there as the essential part of all of the asat objects. It is a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were. When speaking about the ultimate reality, Sages say it is of the nature of sat-cit-ananda: pure existence, pure consciousness and pure bliss.
The second mantra—tamaso ma jyotirgamaya—means "Lead me from darkness to light." When the Vedas refer to darkness and light, they mean ignorance and knowledge, respectfully. This is so because ignorance, like darkness, obscures true understanding. And in the same way that the only remedy for darkness is light, the only remedy for ignorance is knowledge. The knowledge spoken of here is again the knowledge of one’s true nature. Currently, in the darkness of our ignorance, we believe ourselves to be bound and limited (otherwise we would not be reciting these mantras in the first place). But the Guru and the scriptures are telling us that, in truth, we are not, never will be and never have been bound. Eternally we are sat-cit-ananda. The only thing that can remove our ignorance regarding our true nature is a spiritual education at the hands of a True Master. At the culmination of such an education, light floods the room, as it were; darkness vanishes.
The final mantra—mrtyorma amrtam gamaya—means: "Lead me from death to immortality." This should not be taken as a prayer to live endless years in heaven or on earth. It is a prayer to the Guru for assistance in realizing the truth that "I was never born, nor can ever die, as I am not the body, mind and intellect, but the eternal, blissful consciousness that serves as the substratum of all creation." It is important to remember that, with all these mantras, the leading is not a physical leading. The Atma is not something far away that we have to make a pilgrimage to, nor is it something we need to transform ourselves into. Atma means "self." We do not need to transform our self into our self. Nor do we need to travel to it. We are it. The journey is a journey of knowledge. It is journey from what we misunderstand to be our self to what truly is our self. What the mantras really means is "Lead me to the understanding that I am not the limited body, mind and intellect, but am, was and always will be that eternal, absolute, blissful consciousness that serves as their substratum."
The first step in attaining the knowledge for which one is praying when they chant these mantras is satsang: listening to spiritual talks, reading spiritual books and being in the company of spiritual seekers and, most importantly, spiritual masters. We need to continuously be fed the knowledge that our true nature is the Atma and not the body, mind and intellect. Through satsang, our attachment to the asat gradually lessens. Slowly as we understand that everything in the world—all worldly relationship, all worldly things—are ever-changing an impermanent, our attitude towards the world changes. We gain detachment. As we become more and more detached, our desires also naturally decrease, because we know that the things of the world are impermanent and cannot bring us lasting happiness. As the desires decrease, the mind becomes less and less agitated. It obtains serenity, stillness, peace. Then, with this stilled, subtle, penetrating mind we can finally come to realize our true nature.
In Vedanta, heaven—or rather heavens—are accepted as part of the lower reality. Unlike in other religions, going to heaven is not professed to be the ultimate goal of life. According to Vedanta, heaven can be likened to a vacation resort. After death, if one has done enough good deeds in life, one can go to heaven for a very long time. But eventually he will have to return to the earthly plane. Thus even though one may be in heaven, he is still bound and mired of ignorance to his true nature. [As it says in the Bhagavad-Gita:
From Brahma Loka to the lowest world,
all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place O Arjuna.
But one who comes to me, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again. (Gita 8:16)
The human goal according Vedanta is Self-realization. The Atma is the ultimate reality. When one realizes one's true nature, one attains spiritual fulfillment in this life itself. Then, upon death, one does not go to any heavenly abode but simply merges into the supreme reality.