(with select references from Ancient Indian Literature)
In India, at the beginning of every prayer, at the beginning of every undertaking, one chants OM. It is often the first and last sound in a discourse, the start and end of a yoga class, the beginning and conclusion of anything auspicious.
In any group that assembles in India, and this can be observed mainly in religious or spiritual gatherings, the proceedings start and end with everyone chanting OM in unison. Those who have participated in this exercise will confirm that this chanting of OM creates a feeling in the air, a distinct change in the atmosphere that is caused by the vibrations produced by this chanting. This vibration seems to pervade the atmosphere, leading to a definite sense of calm, and also seems to reverberate within, affecting us internally in subtle ways. Many people will vouch for this fact: the chanting of OM does have an effect.
What exactly is this OM, what are its origins and what is its significance?
Chanting OM is a very grounding and peaceful experience. Bhavani Lorraine Nelson, a teacher of Kripalu Yoga, says "When we sound OM together, we're aligning body/mind/spirit; we're aligning with one another; we're aligning with the universe because it's the sound of the universe and we're referencing something real… It's a very grounding and peaceful sound. One teacher said that if you simply go through life chanting OM, the very air around you will sparkle." (as cited by Reiss, 2014)
Yogananda says that chanting OM also creates a link with those who have practised before us. "It's a sound that validates oneness and harmony," he says. "We chant it because yogis have for thousands of years. And when we chant it, we're connecting with those yogis in a ritual way, and drawing upon the support of the practices they've been doing for a long, long time." (as cited by Reiss, 2014)
The Bible, in the first verse of the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, says:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1, The Bible, many translations including King James New International version)
From whence arose man, and the entire Universe, known and unknown? Spiritual traditions have for long grappled with this question, and have recognized the profound role of the Divine Word as the origin of the Universe. At first, there was a sound vibration, and the world was born. Western science is also beginning to study the role of vibration or sound being at the root of matter, which is a branch of study in quantum physics.
If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration. (this is a quote that has been attributed to Nikola Tesla, the famous scientist, but there is no proof that he ever said it. However, many spiritual masters have been asserting this over and over). Yoga recognizes a profound connection between speech (the expression of our thoughts) and prana (the fundamental life force).
The potential of sound vibration and intention in creating our reality has been explored by the ancient yogis, as well as by several scientists working with modern paradigms.
What is the significance of OM, and how can it aid our spiritual practice and growth? This article will explore some of these aspects.
While talking of OM, the focus is on the sound, but it is most likely to be recognized by its symbol:
The word OM and the symbol are in Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. Both as a sound and a symbol it is deeply revered in the Hindu tradition. The enunciation of OM produces a peaceful resonance, resulting in a beneficial calming influence on the mind. It has these effects even when the meaning may not be fully understood.
As per the Mandukya Upanishad (quoted later in this article), 'in Sanskrit the word OM (which can also be written as AUM, but is most correctly represented by the symbol ॐ) consists of three syllables, अ, उ, and म् (a, u, m).' The first two syllables, following the rules of Sanskrit Grammar, combine to form ओ (o), thus forming the word OM, represented by the symbol ॐ
According to Vedic tradition, all sounds have an intended purpose, so it is important to pronounce words correctly. For a word of such deep mystical significance, it is even more so for OM. "It is important to understand that in repeating OM one should not break it down into its component three letters but pronounce it as two letters. Nor should one elongate or drag the sound out when chanting it." (Cleary J, 2012)
All words are a combination of sounds that mean something or represent an object or an idea. To say the word is to think of the object, and vice versa. In a sense, the word, its meaning and object are inseparable. What idea or object then does the word OM represent? Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages, has a very scientific way of classifying sounds. Depending on where the sounds emanate from in the throat, sounds are classified into:
Velar/Guttural, using the soft palate: this is sound originating at the throat, or base of the mouth – the consonants and letters are: क्, ख्, ग्, घ्, ङ्, ह्, अ, आ (k, kh, g, gh, ṅ, h, a, ā)
Palatal, using the hard palate, the roof of the mouth somewhere in the middle: च्, छ्, ज्, झ्, ञ्, य्, श्, इ, ई (c, ch, j, jh, ñ, y, ś, i, ī)
Retroflex/Cerebral, originating in the front part of the mouth, closer to the base of the teeth: ट्, ठ्, ड्, ढ्, ण्, र्, ष्, ऋ, ॠ (ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ, r, ṣ, ṛ, ṝ)\
Dental: originating at the base of the teeth: त्, थ्, द्, ध्, न्, ल्, स्, ऌ (t, th, d, dh, n, l, s, ḷ )
Labial: originating at the lips: प्, फ्, ब्, भ्, म्, व्, उ, ऊ (p, ph, b, bh, m, v, u, ū)
ए (e) is a combination of a and i; ऐ (ai) is a combination of ā and i; ओ (o) is a combination of a and u, and औ (au) is a combination of ā and u.
Reiss (2012) says:
· "For one tiny sound, OM is deeply complex. Apply these simple mouth adjustments just as you would shift an asana to maximize its potency.
· For "ahh," relax the jaw. The sound rises from the belly, lips are parted, and the tongue doesn't touch the palate.
· In "oooh," the lips gently come together as the sound moves from the abdomen into the heart.
· During "mmm," the tongue floats to the roof of the mouth, and the lips come together to create a buzzing in the head. Some say this syllable goes on twice as long as the others.
· Silence — or om's "fourth syllable" — follows while the sound fades into nothing. Observe how you feel now."
This complete sound of three sounds turned into two is the complete OM. From the Velar/Guttural, the sound progresses to Labial. From "open" it progresses to "closed". The way the sound is produced, it represents the beginning, the middle and the end. Any and all sounds, in any language, all fall within the range of these three sounds. These three letters, A, U, and M represent Creation, Sustenance, and Destruction; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. Thus, if one word can be said to represent the whole of Creation, Ishwara, OM is that word. A simple way to appreciate and invoke Ishwara, is by the recitation of OM. This is why OM has such an important place in Vedic culture. In fact, there is a fourth sound after that, that of silence; after you complete chanting the OM, maintain silence, and you will observe that the OM has converted into the sound of silence which reverberates silently in your conscious. OM rests in silence, emanates from silence, and merges back into silence. Thus, in the recitation OM, one recognizes all of creation, and also Brahman, or Ishwara, the eternal truth, from which all creation emerges.
It is said that when the sages went into deep meditation, they heard OM as the underlying basis of all things. It is the eternal sound, the sound that is there in the Universe all the time. It represents a slew of trinities: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; the heaven, the earth, the underworld; the waking, dreaming and dreamless states, and a host of other mystic significances that have been attributed to it over time.
The Guru Granth Sahib starts with the following verse:
"Ek Omkara sat naam, kartaa purakh nirbh-a-o nirvair akaal moorat ajoonee saibhn gur parsaad"
"There is but one God (the Mul Mantra – OM). True is His Name, creative His personality and immortal His form. He is without fear, sans enmity, unborn and self-illumined. By the Guru's grace He is obtained." (Sri Guru Granth Sahib (n.d.), 1)
So what offering can we place before Him, by which we might see the Darbaar of His Court?
What words can we speak to evoke His Love? In the Amrit Vaylaa, the ambrosial hours before dawn, chant the True Name, and contemplate His Glorious Greatness.
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib (n.d.), 2.4, 2.5)
In Buddhist chants too, OM occupies a primary place. OM stands for love, purity, eternity, peace. The total prana is represented by one sound OM. Before birth, we exist in OM, after death, we dissolve into OM.
Many layers of meaning are there in OM for those who delve into these things, yet OM has endured in its popularity not because of its esoteric mystical underpinnings, but because of the vibration it generates and the feeling it creates in those who chant it. "The sound itself seems to calm the nervous system," says Stephen Cope, founder of Kripalu's Institute for Extraordinary Living, "Like all chants, it gathers and focuses the mind, and in that state it's not vulnerable to the rising of the odd thought that will create grasping or aversion. It shifts us out of our ordinary discursive mind and into a more contemplative mode." (Reiss, 2014)
OM as a Bija (primordial seed) mantra
Seed, or bija, mantras are single syllable mantras from the Sanskrit language.
David Frawley, in his book Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound writes: "Shakti bija mantras are probably the most important of all mantras, whether for meditation, worship of deities, energizing prana or for healing purposes. They carry the great forces of Nature such as the energies of the Sun and Moon, Fire and Water, electricity and magnetism, not simply as outer factors but as inner potentials of Divine Light. They project various aspects of force and radiance for body, mind and consciousness. They hold, resonate, and propel the Kundalini force in specific and transformative ways. Below is a simple table of the main energies (Shaktis) of the Shakti mantras." (Frawley, 2010)
Pranic energy: OM Energy of sound: AIM Solar energy: HRIM Lunar energy: SHRIM Electric energy: KRIM Magnetic energy: KLIM Power of fire: HUM Power to stop: HLIM Power to stabilize: STRIM Power to transcend: TRIM
सर्वे वेदा यत् पदमामनन्ति तपा्ँसि सर्वाणि च यद् वदन्ति ।
यदिच्छन्तो ब्रह्मचर्यं चरन्ति तत् ते पद्ँ संग्रहेण ब्रवीम्योमित्येतत् ।। 1.2.15 ।।
sarve vedā yat padamāmananti tapām̐si sarvāṇi ca yad vadanti
yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti tat te padm̐ saṃgraheṇa bravīmyomityetat ।। 1.2.15 ।।
I tell you briefly of that goal which all the Vedas with one voice propound, which all the austerities speak of, and for which people practice Brahmacharya: it is this, viz OM (Gambhirananda, 2013)
ओमिति ब्रह्म। ओमितीद्ँ सर्वम्। ओमित्येतदनुकृतिर्ह स्म वा अप्योश्रावयेत्याश्रावयन्ति। ओमिति सामानि गायन्ति। ओ्ँशोमिति शस्त्राणि श्ँसन्ति । ओमित्यध्वर्युः प्रतिगरं प्रतिगृणाति। ओमिति ब्रह्म प्रसौति। ओमित्यग्निहोत्रमनुजानाति। ओमिति ब्राह्मणः प्रवक्ष्यन्नाह ब्रह्मोपाप्नवानीति। ब्रह्मैवोपाप्नोति।।1.8.1।।
omiti brahma। omitīdm̐ sarvam। omityetadanukṛtirha sma vā apyośrāvayetyāśrāvayanti। omiti sāmāni gāyanti। om̐śomiti śastrāṇi śm̐santi । omityadhvaryuḥ pratigaraṃ pratigṛṇāti। omiti brahma prasauti। omityagnihotramanujānāti। omiti brāhmaṇaḥ pravakṣyannāha brahmopāpnavānīti। brahmaivopāpnoti।।1.8.1।।
Om is Brahman. Om is all this. Om is well known as a word of imitation (i.e. concurrence). Moreover, they make them recite (to the gods) with the words, 'Om, recite (to the gods)'. They commence singing Samas with Om. Uttering the words 'Om som ' they recite the sastras. The (priest) Adhvaryu utters the encouraging words with Om. The (priest) Brahma approves with the word Om. One permits the performance of the Agnihotra sacrifice with the word Om. A Brahman, when about to recite the Vedas utters Om under the idea, ' I shall attain Brahman '. He verily attains Brahman. (Gambhirananda, 2013)
The sound Om is Brahman. The rishis and sages practiced austerity to realize the Sound-Brahman.…By following the trail of Om you attain Brahman, of which the Word is the symbol. That Brahman has been described by the Vedas as the ultimate goal" (Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, as cited in Nikhilananda, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna).
"It [Om] is not a word, it is God himself" (Vivekananda, Inspired Talks, Page 180, Sunday, July 21).
एतद्ध्येवाक्षरं ब्रह्म एतद्ध्येवाक्षरं परं ।
एतद्ध्येवाक्षरं ज्ञात्वा यो यदिच्छति तस्य तत् ।। Katha Upanishad 1.2.16 ।।
etaddhyevākṣaraṃ brahma etaddhyevākṣaraṃ paraṃ
etaddhyevākṣaraṃ jñātvā yo yadicchati tasya tat ।। Katha Upanishad 1.2.16 ।।
This letter (OM), indeed, is the (inferior) Brahman (Hiranyagarbha); and this letter is, indeed the supreme Brahman. Anybody, who, while meditating on this letter, wants any of the two, to him comes that. (Gambhirananda, 2013)
तस्मै स होवाच। यथा गार्ग्य मरीचयोऽर्कस्यास्तं गच्छतः सर्वा एतस्मिंस्तेजोमण्डल एकीभवन्ति ताः पुनः पुनरूदयतः प्रचरन्त्येवं ह वै तत्सर्वं परे देवे मनस्येकीभवति। तेन तर्ह्येष पुरूषो न श्रृणोति न पश्यति न जिघ्रति न रसयते न स्पृशते नाभिवदते नादत्ते नानन्दयते न विसृजते नेयायते स्वपितीत्याचक्षते।।Prasna Upanishad 5.1.2।।
tasmai sa hovāca। yathā gārgya marīcayo'rkasyāstaṃ gacchataḥ sarvā etasmiṃstejomaṇḍala ekībhavanti tāḥ punaḥ punarūdayataḥ pracarantyevaṃ ha vai tatsarvaṃ pare deve manasyekībhavati। tena tarhyeṣa purūṣo na śrṛṇoti na paśyati na jighrati na rasayate na spṛśate nābhivadate nādatte nānandayate na visṛjate neyāyate svapitītyācakṣate।।Prasna Upanishad 5.1.2।।
O Satyakama, this very Brahman, that is (known as) the inferior and superior, is but this Om. Therefore the illumined soul attains either of the two through this one means alone. (Gambhirananda, 2013)
"Om is the highest Name of God, and comprises many other Names of God. It should be borne in mind that Om is the Name of God exclusively–and of no other object material or spiritual–while the others are but descriptive titles and not exactly proper names" (Dayananda Saraswati, Satyartha Prakash).
"The One Omkar is the True Name [of God]" (Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion. This is the opening line of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs.).
"Om–this is the sound that comes at the beginning of creation. The rishis were able to hear that sound. Even today, yogis hear it at the inner core of creation. There is no sound as pure as this in the whole world. It is the primordial Name of God.…Fix your mind on the sound Om, feeling that it is God himself" (Premeshananda, Go Forward, pp. 245, 246).
"That which is manifested by the Pranava is the Lord (Ishwara) himself.…When the yogi has recognized the power of Om to express its meaning, the Lord, he should undertake japa and bhavanam of it on the Lord who is signified by Om. When the yogi thus engages in japa and bhavanam of Om, his mind becomes one-pointed. So it has been said: 'After Om japa, let him set himself in yoga [bhavanam], after yoga, let him set himself to japa. When Om japa and bhavanam come to perfection the Supreme Self [Paramatman] shines forth.'" (Vyasa, Commentary on the Yoga Sutras).
"The underlying reality of nature, soul, and God is Brahman; but it (Brahman) is unseen, until we bring it out. It may be brought out by Pramantha or friction, just as we can produce fire by friction. The body is the lower piece of wood, Om is the pointed piece and Dhyana (meditation) is the friction. When this is used, that light which is the knowledge of Brahman will burst forth in the soul" (Vivekananda, Inspired Talks, Sunday morning, July 7).
धनुर्गृहीत्वौपनिषदं महास्त्रं शरं ह्युपासानिशितं संधयीत। आयम्य तद्भावगतेन चेतसा लक्ष्यं तदेवाक्षरं सोम्य विद्धि।।Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3।।
dhanurgṛhītvaupaniṣadaṃ mahāstraṃ śaraṃ hyupāsāniśitaṃ saṃdhayīta। āyamya tadbhāvagatena cetasā lakṣyaṃ tadevākṣaraṃ somya viddhi।।Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3।।
Taking hold of the blow, the great weapon familiar in the Upanisads, one should fix on it an arrow sharpened with meditation. Drawing the string, O good-looking one, hit that very target that is the Imperishable, with the mind absorbed in Its thought. (Gambhirananda, 2013)
अरा इव रथनाभौ संहता यत्र नाड्यः स एषोऽन्तश्चरते बहुधा जायमानः। ओमित्येवं ध्यायथ आत्मानं स्वस्ति वः पाराय तमसः परस्तात्।। Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.6।।
arā iva rathanābhau saṃhatā yatra nāḍyaḥ sa eṣo'ntaścarate bahudhā jāyamānaḥ। omityevaṃ dhyāyatha ātmānaṃ svasti vaḥ pārāya tamasaḥ parastāt।। Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.6।।
Within that (heart) in which are fixed the nerves like the spokes on the hub of a chariot wheel, moves this aforesaid Self by becoming multiformed. Meditate on the Self thus with the help of Om. May you be free from hindrances in going to the other shore beyond darkness. (Gambhirananda, 2013)
"All this expressed sensible universe is the form, behind which stands the eternal inexpressible Sphota, the manifester as Logos or Word. This eternal Sphota, the essential eternal material of all ideas or names, is the power through which the Lord creates the universe… this Om and the eternal Sphota are inseparable;…the eternal Om" (Swami Vivekananda, Bhakti Yoga, The Mantra: Om: Word and Wisdom).
OM is the mantra by which we worship God and the gods
महर्षीणां भृगुरहं गिरामस्म्येकमक्षरम्।
यज्ञानां जपयज्ञोऽस्मि स्थावराणां हिमालयः।।Bhagavad Gita 10.25।।
maharṣīṇāṃ bhṛgurahaṃ girāmasmyekamakṣaram।
yajñānāṃ japayajño'smi sthāvarāṇāṃ himālayaḥ।।Bhagavad Gita 10.25।।
Among the great sages I am Bhrigu; among words I am the one syllable (OM); among sacrifices I am the sacrifice of silent repetition; among the immovable things I am the Himalayas. (Sivananda, Bhagavad Gita)
"Just as the image of Vishnu or any other god is regarded as identical with that god (for purposes of worship), so is OM to be treated as Brahman" (Shankara, Commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, as cited by Madhavananda, 1960).
"The Cosmic Spirit utters Om and by pure will creates the various objects" (Yoga Vashishtha 3:67).
"The goal of the universe is to realize oneness with the 'Om' or One Existence" (Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga, section III).
The Mandukya Upanishad talks primarity of OM:
हरिः । ओमित्येतदक्षरमिद्ँ सर्वं तस्योपव्याख्यानं भूतं भवद्भविष्यदिति सर्वमोङ्कार एव। यच्चान्यत्त्रिकालातीतं तदप्योङ्कार एव ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.1 ।।
hariḥ । omityetadakṣaramidm̐ sarvaṃ tasyopavyākhyānaṃ bhūtaṃ bhavadbhaviṣyaditi sarvamoṅkāra eva। yaccānyattrikālātītaṃ tadapyoṅkāra eva ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.1 ।।
OM! This Imperishable Word is the whole of this visible universe. Its explanation is as follows: What has become, what is becoming, what will become – verily, all of this is OM. And what is beyond these three states of the world of time – that too, verily, is OM. (Krishnananda, Mandukya Upanishad)
सोऽयमात्माऽध्यक्षरमोंकारोऽधिमात्रं पादा मात्रा मात्राश्च पादा अकार उकारो मकार इति ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.8 ।।
so'yamātmā'dhyakṣaramoṃkāro'dhimātraṃ pādā mātrā mātrāśca pādā akāra ukāro makāra iti ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.8 ।।
This identical Ātman, or Self, in the realm of sound is the syllable OM, the above described four quarters of the Self being identical with the components of the syllable, and the components of the syllable being identical with the four quarters of the Self. The components of the Syllable are A, U, M. (Krishnananda, Mandukya Upanishad)
जागरितस्थानो वैश्वानरोऽकारः प्रथमा मात्राऽऽप्तेरादिमत्त्वाद्वाऽऽप्नोति ह वै सर्वान्कामानादिश्च भवति य एवं वेद।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.9 ।।
āgaritasthāno vaiśvānaro'kāraḥ prathamā mātrā''pterādimattvādvā''pnoti ha vai sarvānkāmānādiśca bhavati ya evaṃ veda।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.9 ।।
Vaiśvānara, whose field is the waking state, is the first sound, A, because this encompasses all, and because it is the first. He who knows thus, encompasses all desirable objects; he becomes the first. (Krishnananda, Mandukya Upanishad)
स्वप्नस्थानस्तैजस उकारो द्वितीया मात्रोत्कर्षादुभयत्वाद्वोत्कर्षति ह वै ज्ञानसंततिं समानश्च भवति नास्याब्रह्मवित्कुले भवति य एवं वेद ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.10 ।।
svapnasthānastaijasa ukāro dvitīyā mātrotkarṣādubhayatvādvotkarṣati ha vai jñānasaṃtatiṃ samānaśca bhavati nāsyābrahmavitkule bhavati ya evaṃ veda ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.10 ।।
Taijasa, whose field is the dream state, is the second sound, U, because this is an excellence, and contains the qualities of the other two. He who knows thus, exalts 13 the flow of knowledge and becomes equalised; in his family there will be born no one ignorant of Brahman. (Krishnananda, Mandukya Upanishad)
सुषुप्तस्थानः प्राज्ञो मकारस्तृतीया मात्रा मितेरपीतेर्वा मिनोति ह वा इद्ँ सर्वमपीतिश्च भवति य एवं वेद ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.11 ।।
suṣuptasthānaḥ prājño makārastṛtīyā mātrā miterapītervā minoti ha vā idm̐ sarvamapītiśca bhavati ya evaṃ veda ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.11 ।।
Prājña, whose field is deep sleep, is the third sound, M, because this is the measure, and that into which all enters. He who knows thus, measures all and becomes all. (Krishnananda, Mandukya Upanishad)
अमात्रश्चतुर्थोऽव्यवहार्यः प्रपञ्चोपशमः शिवोऽद्वैत एवमोंकार आत्मैव संविशत्यात्मनाऽऽत्मानं य एवं वेद ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.12 ।।
amātraścaturtho'vyavahāryaḥ prapañcopaśamaḥ śivo'dvaita evamoṃkāra ātmaiva saṃviśatyātmanā''tmānaṃ ya evaṃ veda ।। Mandukya Upanishad 1.1.12 ।।
The fourth is soundless: unutterable, a quieting down of all relative manifestations, blissful, peaceful, non-dual. Thus, OM is the Ātman, verily. He who knows thus, merges his self in the Self – yea, he who knows thus. (Krishnananda, Mandukya Upanishad)