The mrthyumjayam mantram is one mantram that is taught in every Hindu household. Yet, I am not sure how many truly understand the meaning of this very beautiful mantram. The beauty of this mantram is lost by the rota if uttering it by-heart as opposed to understanding and revelling in its meaning. Moreover all translations miss out the translation of the “critical word” in the mantram “OM”. It has always been left off as a greeting of some sort which seems to change the meaning completely.
The Mrthyumjayam mantram goes as below:
om trayambakam yajamahe sugandhim pushti vardanam urvarukamiva bhandanam mrtyormukshiyamammrita
The standard translation for this mantram is as below from wikipedia:
Tryambakam: The three eyed lord (Shiva) who sees what we can see but who also sees what we can not see. Hence 3 eyed.
Yajamahe: Yajanam is invocation; I invoke
Sugandhim Pushti Vardhanama: Increase my good vasanas
Urvarukam iva bandhanaan mrityor mukshiyam amritaat: (my soul is) like a cucumber bound (to the body), please free me from the captivity of death and give me immortality.
Problem with this again as I have said before, it assumes that someone called “Shiva” was considered as a God and through the ages has been called the same. That seems a little impractical. Sadly this reeks of a translation to suit someone’s theories on God and religion. And as I have said before, it has very conveniently ignore OM as a “is a sacred/mystical syllable in Sanatan Dharma or Hindu religions, i.e. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism & Sikhism.” Very sad!!
So, let’s start looking at the actual words and meanings of this mantra and see what could possibly mean. Let’s start translating OM, instead of missing it out. “OM” has a lot of garbled stories coming down from ages that talk about “OM” not having any written connotation and was only introduced later. The latest seems to indicate that OM is a vibration of 7.3Hz. Assuming this to be somewhere near the truth, and we translate the words:
OM = Vibration (some sort of wave of 7.3Hz)
Tryambakam: That which pervades or suffuses or fills the three worlds
Yajamahe: embracing which
Sugandhim Pushti Vardhanama: comfort + growth + causing to increase
Urvarukam iva bandhanaan: the result + of which + is attachment
mrityor mukshiyam amritaat: perishable + overshadowing + the imperishable
Putting it all together we get the following meaning:
The 7.3Hz vibration has permeated all the three worlds, embracing which has increased the growth of comfort, the result of which is attachment. This has caused the perishable to overshadow the imperishable.
Looking at this, it is very clear that this has nothing to do with the Gods or divinity or any other such garbled nonsense that we have been fed, but, it seems to be a highly condensed, rememberable version of the answer to the question “What is reality?” Isn’t it this reality around us because of which we do not see the underlying truth on which it is formed? There is a very good saying in Tamil:
Marathil maraindirukkum maa-mara aanay, marthai maraithirukkum maa-mara aanay
What this means is,
“In the wood is hidden the elephant, the wood is hidden by the elephant”
If you looked at a wooden carved elephant, what do you see? The carved elephant or the wood in which the elephant is carved? Then, what is it “The wood” or “The carved Elephant”.
Exactly the same way, when you look at life around you what do you see? The life that is (or reality that can be sensed) or that in which life is created (that which cannot be sensed)? What is “that” which has become life? Sometimes, as I had written, language is the barrier. Strangely the question cannot be worded correctly at all because life is what I am and I am what life is? So, what am I?
Getting back to the mrthyumjaya mantra, let’s look at it in-depth. There are a number of questions that arises from this translation:
The answers to these seem to be embedded within the mantra itself.
“What is permeated by the 7.3Hz vibration?”, “That which is overshadowed by this 7.3Hz vibration”, it has to be the imperishable.
“What are the three worlds that is being talked about here?”. Now this seems to be something that the mantra does not talk about. We can look outside the mantra to find this, for eg., the Bhagavat Gita talks about it:
Tri-guna vishaya veda, nish-trigunyobhavarjuna nirdvando, nityasyasato, niryogakshema atmavan yavan arth udapane sarvathaha sampluthodake taavan sarvan brahmanasya vijanathaha
When you live by principles, there are three characteristics, live beyond these three characteristics oh Arjuna. Just as how water picked up in a jug from the ocean cannot be different from the ocean water itself, so also the atma devoid of duality, devoid of time, devoid of the state of comfort is same as that truth from which it was picked.
There are a number of such references where the upanishads talk about “Tri-guna” and “dvandva”, i.e., “Three characteristics” and “duality”. The duality is pretty clear, it is the pairs that occur in the world “Good” and “bad”, “Happy” and “Sad” and so on. Obviously without one the other does not exist. But what is “Three characteristics”?
Possible that we can look inside and find them just as easily, that is why no one thought of explaining them to us. I look inside myself and I find anything I do is driven by three things “logic”, “expectation” and “emotion”. Anything I do I can boil it down to a combination of these three things.
“Why am I sad?”, “A death occurred, my logic tells me that I have to now take care of the things that the person was looking after, or my logic tells me that I can no more depend on the dead person to pull me out when problems occur, I feel sad.”
“Why am I happy?”. “I wanted to try out something, I expected my action to succeed, I did the work, it worked as expected, I am happy”
So, it is always these three that drive my state of being, which I believe is the “tri-guna” that is being talked about. “Is this the same three characteristics that the mrthyumjaya mantra” is talking about?
Somehow I do not think this is what the mantra is talking about? Why? Because, in my view these are still in the realm of the perishable world. Are these three gunas so rooted that the vibrations themselves are caused because of these or are these caused by the vibrations?
If we think about this, the people who passed this mantra down thought it was complete in itself and by itself. Which means that the meanings can be augmented easily by what we see within ourselves or the meanings are within the mantra itself.
So, the other possibility I see is that the three worlds that they are talking about is implied in this mantra itself. The two that emerge to me are “The perishable world” created by the vibration and “The imperishable world” that is permeated by the vibration. So what can be the third?
To try to understand this, maybe we should look at the nirvana shatakam. One very nice words in it say as below:
Na Punnyam Na Paapam Na Saukhyam Na Duhkham Na Mantro Na Tiirtham Na Vedaa Na Yajnyaah | Aham Bhojanam Naiva Bhojyam Na Bhoktaa Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||4||
Neither good nor bad, neither happiness nor sadness
Neither hymns nor holiness, neither intelligence nor sacrifices
I am neither the Experience, nor the Experienced, nor the Experiencer,
Pure Blissful form; The unmanifest, the unmanifest
How does this relate to this mantra, here again he talks about three worlds, “The experience”, which is “the perishable”, “the experienced”, which is the truth that is causing the perishable, hence the “the imperishable” and “the experiencer” i.e, “I” which has formed because of this perishable. So now we have the three worlds “the perishable”, “the imperishable” and the “I that can see the perishable”.
“What is this “I” then?” which seems to be the most difficult and the very question because of which we started this journey or searching answers.
“What is this imperishable?”, it has to be the truth in which this perishable has become. So, how do we find any of these?
Yes, the mrthyumjaya mantra is a great mantra that invokes questions that we want to answer, not a mantra that tries to promote immortality.