A very popular mantra, Asto ma sadgamay, is an ancient Sanskrit prayer quoted in Brihad-aranayka Upanishad, one of the earliest of the Upanishads (8th-7th century BC). Let?s look at the mantra closely.
Asto ma sadgamay,
Tamso ma jyotirgamay,
From unreal lead me to the real,
From darkness lead me to light,
From death lead me to immortality.
Let?s explicate this mantra and gain an insight into it.
The very first glance at the mantra, brings to our notice that each line includes the words "lead me". This symbolizes that the mantra is a prayer for transformation from lower into an exalted state, unreal to the real, darkness to the light and finally death to immortality.
Asto ma sadgamay From unreal lead me to the real
Here, what does this term "unreal" symbolize? It speaks of the world of illusion (Maya). According to our scriptures, all what we see with mortal eyes is an illusion. In GURBANI (page 1428), it has been said: "the world appearance is totally false; know this well, my friend. Says Nanak, it is like a wall of sand; it will not endure." Thus we see that the world is considered to be false or unreal by our saints, the only reality being the divinity that lies inside us. Once we get a glimpse of that reality, we gradually realize what is true and what mere illusion is. Then only we become free from the trap of illusions. In other words, we are driven from unreal to real.
Tamso ma jyotirgamay From darkness lead me to light
In the second line, the devotee beseeches the Lord to lead him from the darkness to the light. But the darkness mentioned in this line is not that of external world. It is the darkness of anger, passion, jealousy, pride, greed, and attachment within us. These vices enshroud the divine light, the practical wisdom, which resides in our innermost being. But, this darkness can be eliminated by the One who has the ability to penetrate these thick veils of ignorance. It has been stated by our saints: the word Guru is comprised of two parts, GU and RU. Here, GU means darkness and RU means Light. Thus the True Guru is one who dispels the darkness of ignorance with the light of knowledge. He removes the veils of ignorance so that we can see our Divine form. Therefore, a Perfect Guru can only lead us from 'darkness into light.' It's been stated in the BIBLE as well: "He will bring me out into the light; I will see his righteousness" (Micah 7:9). This is a transcendental experience that one must have within and is not possible in the external world.
Man?s real Self is full of light. But today he is dwelling at the superficial level of his mind and intellect. So, an aspirant prays that he may be initiated into spiritual knowledge which can lead him from the darkness of ignorance towards the light of the soul. Mrityorm'amritam gamay From death lead me to immortality
In the last line of the mantra, a person prays to the Lord that he may be led to immortality. We all know that death is an inevitable truth. Then what does the aspirant mean when he asks for immortality? It?s been stated in the GURBANI (page 522): "I have obtained Eternal Life, realizing the Self."
The goal of life is to live forever, attain immortality or Eternal Life. Only through the realization of True self one can arrive at the stage called liberation, salvation or moksha. This is the stage where he conquers death and is able to experience immortality while living.
We must reflect on these truths presented by the mantra. We may recite this mantra many times, but have we made any effort to reach the stage that the mantra speaks of? Have we truly done anything on our part to have this experience for ourselves? If not, then it's high time to step forward for the practical knowledge to reach the stages that the mantra illustrates. As it has been rightly stated, "to know what has to be done, and then do it comprises the whole philosophy of life."