This article is written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
The two most important mantras of the Vedas are Pranava (OM) and then the Gāytri. There is another mantra or a group of mantras used extensively, the vyahritis. Ahriti is to hold back whereas Vyahriti is to give out and hence these vyahriti mantras are known as utterances.
There are seven vyahritis, out of which the first three are very commonly used. They are also called mahavyahritis or great utterances. The seven utterances are bhuh, bhuvah, suvah, mahah, janah, tapah, satyam. What do they convey, what do they represent? According to one school especially the purnic school, the seven vyahritis represent the seven worlds starting from the world we are in, the bhu loka. Then the rest of the six worlds are the higher worlds. Due to one’s good karma one is able to traverse to higher worlds in successive births.
The first three vyahritis are more commonly used and are known according to some authorities as Maha Vyahritis, or the great utterances. In Indian, especially South Indian, dishes turmeric is invariable added, like in curries, sambar (soups), rasam. It is an integral part of pujas or worships. Many women in olden days used to smear themselves with turmeric paste before or while taking a bath, as a skin conditioner, and use it also as a facial base. Sometimes the mahavyahritis can be considered as essential concomitant mantra like turmeric is in daily life. So one may call the vyahritis ‘mantra turmeric’.
Om burbhuvassuvaH is how one starts the pariseshana mantra or the food purification mantra before one starts to eat food. One takes a spoonful of water in the right hand and sprinkle it on the food (usually cooked rice) saying Om bhurbhuvassuvaH. Then one would proceed to to do the parseshana mantra when water is dripped around the plate or the plantain leaf on which the food is served. Thereafter one would pick up with the thumb and the ring finger, one cooked grain of rice and put it into the mouth hailing the five pranas one by one and finally the Brahman the ultimate reality. It is a beautiful, cute, meaningful ritual at the start of taking food.
Taittiriya upanishad talks about the fourth vyahriti. “There are three vyahritis, BhuH, BhuvaH and SuvaH. Beyond them is the one, the fourth, Maha(t), says the great sage Mahachamasya. That is Brahma(n). That is Atman or individual Self. (Maha iti| tat brahma| sa atma||”
It could be seen that the Upanishad says that MahaH is Brahman or the ultimate reality. And what is Brahman? The upanishad elsewhere defines Brahman as “Satyam, jnanam anantam brahma.” Satya would mean Truth or one that really exists. It is something that is not affected by time, as truth is not affected by time. Secondly it is jnana or consciousness and finally it is ananta or it is everywhere or something unaffected by space. So the definition of Brahman is pure consciousness unaffected by time or space. Here advaitins tend to take heart in the statement that the brahman is the atman or the self in each of us. They say Brahman and atman are one and the same, not different from each other– that it is advaita.
The upanishad helps to understand these mystic vyahriti mantras.by relating them to something known to us. The first vyahriti can be related to this world (ayam lokah) or the bhuta, agni or fire, or the brilliant sun or the rig veda mantra (rik) or prana or the life force itself. Then the next vyahriti ‘BhuvaH’ may be related to inter-space (antariksha), or the bhuta, vayu or air, or the sama veda mantra or the physiological principle apana. The third vyahriti ‘suvaH’ would relate to the heaven, or the sun or the yajur veda mantra or the vyana vayu in the body. Finally the mahat could be related to aditya or the sun, or chandrma the moon, or Brahman the ultimate reality and also food which sustains life of all beings. Thus one should be contemplating on the four vyahritis as per the upanishad.
Again there are vedic passages that refer to not just three or four but seven vyahritis, BhuH, bhuvaH, suvaH, mahaH, janaH, tapaH, satyaM (OM bhur-bhuvas-suvar-mahar-janas-tapas-satyaM). These seven vyahritis are referred to as seven worlds or lokas as mentioned earlier. However these lokas are also related to the seven states of consciousness. According to taittiriya upanishad, Brahman, alone and immortal, pure consciousness desired to become many “bahusyam prajaayeyeti”. Then it contemplated or was in a state of tapas. This perception (aaloka) of the brahman in known as tapoloka even as it is interpreted in the puranas as a world by itself.
After deep contemplation Brahman created the entire universe. This state of the supreme consciousness came to be known as jana loka. Having created it, the Brahman entered into each one of its creation and became the Self of everything, everyone. In this microcosmic state it had three experiences: one with the waking state, one with the dream state and one with the deep sleep state.
Mahachamasya, after deep yogic contemplation, realized that there was a fourth state of this consciousness which transcended all the three other individual states of consciousness. So we have three levels of ordinary consciousness at the individual or microcosmic level represented by the three vyahritis bhuH, bhuvaH and suvaH. Then the fourth level is the yogic state which the upanishads call as turiya or the maha loka. But since the same consciousness is also the one from which everything came about, the three state of super or cosmic or macro-cosmic consciousness will be the jano loka, tapo loka and satya loka. This ideation is used in the pranayama mantra which proclaims that the same consciousness can be viewed to have seven states four at the microcosmic state and three at the cosmic state.
In all brahman, as atman or individual self, is in the pure state of consciousness (atman or drashta) at the fourth state represented by the vyahriti mahat. And at the cosmic level it is in its pristine glory bereft of any creation or ideation and is represented by the vyahriti ‘satya’. Yoga helps to realize the pure consciousness at the individual level (kaivalya, turiya) wheras vedanta helps to realize the same consciousness at the cosmic level (moksha)
The vyahritis therefore are very important mantras next only to Pranava (OM) and the gayatri. In fact, when we chant the gayatri three times a day (gayatri japa) during the sandhya, the gayatri mantra is chanted (japa) not alone but preceded by pranava and the three vyahritis.
bhur-bhuvas-suvaH (the vyahritis)
tat-savitur-varenyaM (I pada of gayatri)
bhargo-devasya-dhimahi (II pada of gayatri)
dhiyo-yonaH-prachidayat (III pada of gayatri)