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I've come across two versions of the Gayatri mantra.

One is this:

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The other is this:

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The only difference is that in the first pada, the word "varenyam" is different. Both these variations are valid since they come from authoritative sources.

But why is there a difference? And which one is to be used in sandhyavandana japa?

This is what is said on wikipedia:

Whereas in principle the gāyatrī mantra specifies three pādas of eight syllables each, the text of the verse as preserved in the Samhita is one short, seven instead of eight. Metrical restoration would emend the attested tri-syllabic vareṇyaṃ with a tetra-syllabic vareṇiyaṃ.

But then why do authoritative sampradayas enjoin the first version?

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    The first version is from Yajur Veda, the second from Rig Veda. "vareṇyaṃ" is actually grammatically correct. It means the "excellent" or "desirable". It is quite common in literature. And it is not uncommon to find mantras in Rig Veda that are one syllable less than demanded by the chandas, but they are grammatically correct. In the Yajur Veda, it is quite common to see addition of extra sounds. – RamAbloh Dec 22 '20 at 1:53
  • @RamAbloh But which one to use for sandhyavandana japa? It has to be 8x3 syllables because of devI gAyatri chandas – Ikshvaku Dec 22 '20 at 13:40
  • @Ikshvaku whichever Veda is your svashAkhA. For example, Shukla Yajur Veda substitutes "kha" for "Sha", for example in "puruSha". It makes the word "purukha" which is grammatically incorrect, but those who inherited Shukla Yajur Veda will say it that way. Meaning has the highest value, which means grammar (vyAkaraNam) and etymology (niruktam) have higher priority. – RamAbloh Dec 22 '20 at 23:11
  • @Ikshvaku Even if the samhitApATha of Yajur Veda says "vareNiyam", it is grammatically explained as "vareNyam". – RamAbloh Dec 22 '20 at 23:13
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Let me take a shot at two of the questions. First off, I have no idea as to why there is a 21 syllabled (7 syllables x 3 pada) Gayatri Mantra. Many authoritative sources such as Kanchi Mutt, Chandrasekarena Saraswathi (Book Hindu Dharma, pg./ 548, Chap. 10) and others suggest 24 syllabled "The Tripada Gayathri ( 8 X 3 padas, one each for the Rig, Yajur and Sama vedas) one With the second version you mentioned for Sandhyavandana. The only addition AFAIK is adding 'Pranava'(OM) and 3 Vyahrithis(Bhoo, Bhuva, Suvaha) in Sandhyavandhana. There is one more Gayathri in Atharvana Veda with Chatushpatha(4 padas) which has additional words with additional meanings, for which one needs to get a Second Upanayana. This Chathushpada Gayathri or Gupt Gayathri or Turiya Gayathri is strictly for Advaitha Moksha and is only for Spiritual aspirants and not for Loukika life.Many books such as "Gayathri" by S.M. Prasad has nice explanations on both. If you could post the context and which sampradayas follow the first version we can research the motivation behind...

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Gayatri is the name of Chandas 24 letter mantra in case varenyam the no letters in gayatri mantra becomes 23 1/2 because of the letter "en" varenyam now if they extend the pronunciation of "en" by "enee" vareneeyam now it fits 24 letters so that chandas is not broken in the mantra
The Mantra is named after chandas means the vedic people have given more importance to chandas than actual meaning itself there is corresponding statement in sanskrit "Maatra balaam iti Mantra balaam antram teja balam" meaning metered recitation of mantra is needed for mantra to give any phala

There rule here also on where to add the extension it should be presiding "venjana" I.e. yaa raa la vaaa

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