Deciphering ÓM

If you think this title is a bold move, you are absolutely right. But you must agree that there is something magnificent about the sound ÓM that is waiting to be explored.

Have you noticed students after chanting a chorus of ÓM in their yógāsana class fall out of the room energized and at the same time look peaceful and content? This is just a sliver of a sliver of what the vibrations of ÓM can do for you.

Deciphering ÓM is a personal journey. It can get frustrating and at times lonely especially in the early stages of practice. The idea behind the title is to interest you in the study of ÓM through the words of the ancient seers, yogis and gurus for continued inspiration during practice.

Let’s begin by exploring the connection between ÓM and the language of Sanskrit.

ÓM and Samskritham

“When I clap my hands, that sound will vibrate and creates a particular form. The vibration of ÓM creates its form, the entire universe.” (Svāmi Rāma)

ÓM is the sound of creation from which all other sounds are born. Just as the light passing through the prism gets refracted into different colors, ÓM passing through the vocal organ gets altered into various phonetic sounds.

The alphabets are called (अक्षराणि) Akśrāni, script is called (देवनागरी) Dévanāgari and the language is called (संस्कृतम्) Samskritham. Each alphabet represents a divine being in its name and attribute. All sounds produced by the human vocal organ can be accepted as originating from this Akśara, un-decaying seed sound.

Spelling of AUM/OM as a word

Yes, both spellings – ÓM and AUM can be used. (अ) A, (उ) U, (म) M are three different letters of the Samskritham alphabet that make up this sacred Sound. By applying the grammatical rules, the letters अ, A and उ, U combine to form ओ, Ó. merges with (म) M configuring the word, ÓM, ओं, as written in Samskritham. ÓM can be chanted 3 times to honor each sound.

AUM as a Symbol

As quoted above by Svāmi Rāma, every sound has a form. The sound ÓM creates a form as seen in the picture below. “This form has not been created by an artist according to his imagination. The sound ÒM, produced as this image was revealed to a seer and hence became a symbol.” (Svāmi Rāma)

The symbol AUM represents the complete Universe as planes of consciousness (more in next post) as seen in the symbol below.

Courtesy 123RF
  • The material world of the waking state is symbolized by the large lower curve. (A)
  • The dream state is represented by the upper smaller curve. (U)
  • The deep sleep state – between the waking state below and the deep sleep state above, comes from the joining of the two curves. (M)
  • The dot and semicircle are separate from the rest. The dot represents Īśvara – state of Absolute Consciousness.
  • The ‘open’ semicircle is symbolic of the infinite (immeasurable, limitless) – indicating that the meaning of the dot cannot be grasped if one limits oneself to finite thinking. In other words, Īśvara cannot be intellectualized, it has to be revealed and realized.

AUM as Explained by Yogis and Gurus

AUM is the mantra word chanted/heard in Dhyāna or meditative state; Gurudev called It “the vibration of the Cosmic Motor”- sound that represents the Absolute Brahman. The yogis have shown that enlightenment comes from chanting this mantra alone with the merging of human or material consciousness into spiritual consciousness. The three sounds of AUM represent the Trinity composed of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. (Paramahamsa Yogananda)

A-U-M represents the divine energy (Śakti): Brahma Śakti (creation), Vishnu Śakti (preservation) and Shiva Śakti (liberation, and/or destruction). These three letters when pronounced in unison create an invigorating effect within the body. Hence, AUM is the most sacred syllable spoken during the practice of many Hindu rites and ceremonies. (Svāmi Jnanéśvara Bhārati)

AUM is also referred to as Śunya Ākāsha, an emptiness or void; but it more than nothingness because everything existed in a latent state of potentiality (Avyaktha), and as the Sphota, The Eternal Word from which the entire universe and its expressions sprang forth. (Svāmi Vivékānanda)

AUM as a sound, a symbol, a syllable or a glyph symbolizes the fact that all material objects, all phenomena, all thought patterns, both on microcosmic and macrocosmic level are the states of energy vibration (Svāmi Niranjanānanda Sarsavati).

AUM represents the complete concept of time, not as perceived by the limited human mind. “A” represents the present, “U” the past and “M” the future. Moreover, the silence of Turiya symbolizes underlying Reality that is beyond the time, not touched by past, present or future. In other words, Timeless – out of which time (kāla) as we know it has emerged. (Svāmi Rāma)

AUM is not a physical sound, so it cannot be heard by the human ear. After many years of meditation and Sādhana, spiritual/yogic practices, when your concentration is so deep that you are no longer aware of the cars on the road or sounds of the birds outside the window during meditation, this sound can be heard reverberating through your thoughts. It is not an external sound, but internal sound heard deep within your consciousness. (Eknāth Easwaran)

OM, the Eternal Witness, The Word is all – what was, what is and what shall be; All is OM. (Juan Mascaró)

The symbol represents “Tat Tvam Asi” – literally translated as “That Thou Art – meaning “Thou art That” – the realization of man’s divinity is within himself. The symbol stands for Self-realization (and the chanting of) which liberates the human spirit from the confines of the body, mind, intellect and ego. (B.K.S. Iyengar)

Chanting AUM

Mantra or Japa (repetition) yoga is considered an ideal way to express devotion to the Supreme, especially for those following the path of Rāja and Bhakti yoga.

“Why don’t we use only OM as a mantra? Why do we need any other mantra to chant during meditation? Before meditation, you chant ÒM and create the vibration, but for meditation you need different mantras. Just ÒM is not used; Hari ÒM or ÒM Namah Śivāya, or something else is used along with OM. Only recluses, those who want to do nothing with the world, or are very old are allowed to chant ÒM. Those who don’t have anything to do with the world only they are allowed to chant just ÒM.” (Śri Śri Ravishankar)

Instructions

Sit comfortably in any of the meditation āsanas, poses or in a chair. Your arms may be resting on your knees with palms facing up in Puśpaputa Mudra or in Pranava (ÓM) Mudra (index and thumb touching while the other fingers are open).

AUM is usually chanted on exhalation after a deep inhalation. “A” originates in the throat, and finishes with “M” with the lips, with the sound “U” rolling forward of the originated sound. “A” and “U” are pronounced in combination as “Ó”, hence are not heard separately. And, in making the sound of AUM, we hear this un-struck sound most clearly in the instant when the last humming vibration of the “M” fades away into silence. (Svāmi Vivékānanda).

Inhale and exhale gently, practicing Dīgha Prānāyāma, three-part breath – approx. 1-12 rounds. Close your eyes and concentrate on the space between your eyebrows, (bhrumadhyay), called Śāmbhavī Mudra or Kūtastha Chaitanya, window into the realm of super consciousness. (Paramahamsa Yogananda)

When you are ready, begin the chant with the “A” sound. Let your voice transition seamlessly to the “U” sound (together they sound like Ó), then gently gliding to the “M” sound prolonging it long enough to feel it vibrating in your head. Finally, as “M” hushes, and in the echo of the silence, breathe gently and be still at peace for the moment, possibly 1-2 breaths. Then take the next deep breath and begin again. You may prolong “M” for 5 seconds or more – which symbolizes going within, letting it resonate inside your head.

The technique of chanting audibly first (vaikari), then silently or mentally (mānasika) is often recommended by most gurus and is a practice followed in Mantra Yoga (Svāmi Śivānanda). Consistent and prolonged practice of ÓM with right intentions and commitment can lead one to Samādhi, Self-Realization. (Yoga Sutras 1:27-29)

Once you have finished with your audible repetitions you can switch to silent repetition of AUM. Continue to sit in your comfortable pose with your focus in Śāmbhavī Mudra. Notice the harmonizing effect of the sound on your body, mind and emotions. In this state, yogis assert that if you listen deeply there is a possibility to hear the true, un-struck sound of ÓM behind the chanted sound, the Ultimate Sound of Creation.

Repetition of ÓM is called Pranava Japa. It has a tremendous influence on the mind. The vibrations sent up by this word are so powerful that one can move mountains and buildings in a manner of speaking. It transforms every cell in the body, driving away worldly thoughts, calming restlessness and awakening spiritual energy needed on the yogic path. (Svāmi Śivānanda)

Next Post: ÓM in ancient writings

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References

Śivānanda, Svāmi. Japa Yoga: A Comprehensive Treatise on Mantra Śastra. 1994. Eleventh edition. Divine Life Society, Shivanandanagar, Distt. Tehri-Garhwal, U.P., Himalayas, India

Yogānanda, Paramahamsa. 1999. God Talks to Arjuna. Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA

Eaśvaran, Éknāth. 1987. The Upaniśads. Nīlgiri Press, Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, Berkeley, California

Rāma, Svāmi. 2007. OM: The Eternal Witness; Secrets of the Māndūkya Upanišad. Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust, Distt. Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India.

Mascaró, Juan. 1965. The Upanišads. Penguin Books, London, UK

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