Can women chant the Gayatri mantra?
A friend asked:
Why is there controversy over whether females can recite the Gayatri? Also, why do some people believe that you must have a "pure" body to recite the Gayatri i.e you must not eat meat, etc?
I am asking because I had discussed with a Hindu priest at the temple here that I like the Gayatri mantra (this was sometime last year) and he seemed to be shocked, and he said that it was not advisable for women to chant this mantra, and that it has adverse effects if they do. I then Googled it, and there were alot of conflicting information on the Web.
Personally, I believe this restriction that women cannot chant the Gayatri mantra is baseless. I will qualify my thinking based on the Hindu mysticism and the nature of mantras. Before I get into the technical details of why this belief that women cannot chant the Gayatri mantra is wrong, I must state that this restriction is mainly propagated by a handful of priests and brahmin pundits. I have never heard of spiritually enlightened gurus ever putting such a gender based caveat on the Gayatri mantra. If anything the Gayatri mantra is one of the most encouraged mantra for chanting because of its soothing nature and also its uplifting meaning.
Aum bhur bhuvah suvaha,
tat savitur varenyam.
Bhargo devasya dhimahi.
Dhiyo yo nah pracodha yat.
Aum, Dear God, Thou are the giver of life, the bestower of happiness and the remover of pain and sorrow.
O Lord, Creator of the universe, may we receive your sin-destroying light.
May Thou guide our intellect in the right direction.
The Gayatri mantra is a mantra that was revealed by God, as it comes from the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda which is considered the first or the base of all the other three Vedas reveres the Gayatri mantra. As such all the subsequent Vedas make reference to it and use the Gayatri mantra extensive in its texts. Nowhere in the Vedas, in my study of it, does God say that women cannot chant this mantra nor any other mantra.
The most common answer that I can get from priests who believe in this gender restriction is that it is just the tradition. When I press further as to why, one said that it causes too much heat in the body. Both these answers are unacceptable as justifications for such a restriction.
All mantras have two elements, the first is the bija and the other element is a prayer or the name of God. The bija is effective energy or shakti generating sound of the mantra. These sounds are related to the spiritual chakras within our body. In the Gayatri mantra the bijas are Aum, bhur, bhuvah, suvaha. Bhur is related to the first chakra (muladhara), bhuvah, the second chakra (svadhisthana) and suvaha the third chakra (manipura). Aum is the bija for stimulating spiritual consciousness. The bija's main importance is in the pronounciation of its sound, which naturally stimulates the energies within the chakras in oneself. Meanings may be associated with the bijas though this is not necessarily always the case. In the Gayatri mantra the bijas do have meanings where bhuh means the element earth, bhuvaha means the element water and suvaha the element fire.
The other element of the Gayatri mantra, which is from tat savitur varenyam to prachodayat, is a prayer asking for God's blessings. The english translation above comes entirely from this second element of the Gayatri. Essentially a mantra works by first stimulating psychic energy within ourselves using the bija sounds and then directing this energy towards the intention of the prayer part of the mantra, thus energizing the prayer or intention that it may take effect in our lives.
As you can see from translation, the Gayatri mantra is neither gender specific nor even denomination specific, it can even be adapted by non-Hindus, leave alone gender. Don't women also share equal rights to implore the Lord for bestowal of happiness, removal of sin and suffering, and guidance? Of course they do. This is why I refute any proclamation that the Gayatri cannot be chanted by women. There is simply no logical nor spiritual reason that can support such a proclamation.
An interesting fact regarding the Gayatri, is that the name Gayatri is Herself a personification of Supreme Godhead as a Goddess. Gayatri is therefore a feminine Hindu name. How is it again than the Gayatri cannot be chanted by women? Makes no sense.
One possible explanation for dogmatic rules such as this one is the exclusivity tradition that exists in some brahminical traditions. Some brahmins hold that the Vedas can only be studied by the brahmins. Rules such as this were made more to preserve the political and revered status of brahmins in Hindu society and have nothing to do with the spiritual teachings of the Vedas (which were written down by rishis who had themselves renounced their caste status in pursuit of spirituality). It is highly likely that this rule about women not being allowed to chant Gayatri was created to preserve male dominance in the brahminical priesthood traditions, since the Gayatri is an essential chant in most Hindu temple ceremonies.
Fortunately Hinduism teaches us not to be beholden to any dogma, and instead to question and qualify all belief systems and truth for ourselves before accepting them. When it comes to the Gayatri mantra, I can further share that I know far more gurus, pundits and priests who teach this wonderful Vedic mantra free of gender bias and only rarely come across those who ominously caution women against chanting the Gayatri. This alone should dispel this myth about the Gayatri mantra.
Now after that long winded response, here is a quick response about whether you have to be 'pure' (that is be a vegetarian) to chant the Gayatri. I believe that being a vegetarian is always a good ideal to uphold in life whether one chants the Gayatri or not. I would hope that someone who chants the Gayatri who is not a vegetarian will one day be inspired to be a vegetarian as a result of chanting the Gayatri. I certainly do not believe that there will be any harm for a non-vegetarian to chant the Gayatri unless of course if the chanter fears a possible positive life transformation - like becoming a vegetarian!
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