Besides that Gayatri is one of the goddesses of Hindu pantheon she also manifests or personifies the ‘shakti’ – power, of the great Vedic ‘mantra’ known by the same name, that is, the Gayatri-mantra. As a goddess is revered as three-aspected : as Gayatri, Savitri and Saraswati – Gayatri representing senses, Savitri, mastering ‘Prana’, that is, life, and Saraswati, speech, that is, commanding purity of thought, word and deed, Gayatri is hence linked with Brahma. A frequently quoted myth contends that Gayatri was one of the Brahma’s consorts. As the myth has it, once when performing a ‘yajna’ Brahma nominated his other consort Swara to host it along him. However, when the auspicious hour to begin the ‘yajna’ arrived, Swara failed to reach the venue. Gayatri was there and Brahma asked her to sit along him and host the ‘yajna’. On her arrival Swara, finding Gayatri sitting in her place, cursed her furiously to turn into a river. This transformed her into a river adding one more aspect to her being besides being the ‘shakti’ of the Gayatri-mantra and accomplishment of ‘yajna’.
This mythical position is, however, little accepted. Most of the Puranas class her as a Shaivite goddess. A yet different picture emerges in visual representations. Except that she has the ‘tri-netra’ on the forehead of the central face and one or two Shaivite attributes are included among the attributes she carries in her hands, the lotus seated and ‘chakra’ – disc, ‘shankha’ – conch, ‘padma’ – lotus, and ‘gada’ – mace holding Gayatri seems to have strong Vaishnava links and appears to be only a transform of Lakshmi. In the usual iconography of her image, besides a hand held in ‘abhaya’, and another, in ‘varada’, in six of her eight hands she carries Vaishnava attributes. She not only sits on a large lotus emerging from the deep ocean, much like a form of Lakshmi, but also holds in two of her hands lotuses and puts on the ‘Vaijayanti – the garland of fresh Parijata flowers typical of Vishnu. She is universally acknowledged as Annapurna : the Mother – the sustaining force that animates all life, an aspect more close to Lakshmi. In this visualisation of the goddess she is exactly the Lakshmi’s image only if she is without her additional four faces and a ‘tri-netra’ on the forehead.
The type of headgears the goddess is putting on her five heads, kind of iconography and the style of costuming reveal South Indian influence for the obvious reason that Gayatri has been a more popular theme of South Indian artists, especially those from Mysore. With her five faces, painted in five different colours : pale white, red, golden yellow, mauve, and pink, she manifests five constituents or elements of the cosmos – ‘pancha tattwas’, namely, ‘Prithvi’ – earth, ‘jala’ – water, ‘vayu’ – air, ‘teja’ or ‘agni’ – fire, and ‘akasha’ – sky. Her five heads are also seen as representing as ‘pancha-pranas’ or ‘pancha-vayus’ – five lives or five winds that sustain life. Of her ten hands in five she is carrying ‘pancha-ayudhas’ – five weapons : disc, mace, conch, goad and rod. Clad in red sari with gold-border along a green blouse and usual jewellery her total appearance illuminates with rare divine aura.
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The Brahma Purana alludes to Gayatri as one of Brahma's consorts, though this allusion itself has symbolic dimension. Once Brahma was going to perform a 'yajna'. He wanted his other consort Swara to accompany him in performing it. Swara was not, however, available at that time. As mandated under ritual norms, the 'yajna' could not be accomplished singly without a consort. Brahma hence asked his other consort Gayatri to sit with him and perform the necessary rites. In the meantime Swara came back. She lost her temper as soon as she saw Gayatri seated with Brahma in her place for the 'yajna'. Infuriated Swara cursed her to turn into a river. However, before the curse materialised Gayatri accomplished the 'yajna'. In the Puranic tradition, Gayatri hence symbolises in simultaneity the 'mantra-shakti' for which she initially stood, sacred river by Swara's curse, and accomplishment of 'yajna' for being instrumental in performing it.
Perhaps for her diverse attributes, Gayatri subsequently emerged as one of the most powerful Tantrika deities. She is often meditated on as an aspect of Mahalakshmi. Though in the north not many shrines are devoted to her, she is in live worship all over, and is the presiding deity in various Tantrika practices. However, in South she is one of the most popular female divinities worshipped on par with Padmavati. The five-faced coral complexioned goddess represents multi-faceted female energy and thus embodies in one supreme form all feminine potentials manifesting in different individual goddesses. Though the deity's complexion is all over the same, her all five faces have different colours suggestive of energy's different constituents. She is required to deliver various goods and hence her ten hands, carrying different attributes disc, mace, wine cup, lotuses, conch, goad and cane, besides, two hands in the posture of 'Abhaya' and 'Varada' assuring fearlessness and bestowing bliss. In her usual iconography she carries also a whip and noose and hardly ever imparts 'Abhaya' and 'Varada'. The artist in the painting has substituted with 'Abhaya' and 'Varada' at least two instruments of war, perhaps for perceiving in her a more benevolent protective and bliss-bestowing mother, not much of a chastiser. Alike, not splendour, the painting strives at attaining a kind of cosmic mysticism, which its background reveals. From its oceanic depths and against its darkness she illuminates like rising sun which the colour of her body, costume and lotuses symbolises. Tantrikas revere Gayatri as the most auspicious and as one whose bare presence accomplishes all desired.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.