I hadn’t planned on writing a series on ÓM. Sometimes you get caught up in the moment, right? So, here is a naïve attempt to bring out the essence of the wisdom of ÓM in the earliest writings in the next few paragraphs.
As a longtime yogini (that is, one who only does āsanas and prānāyāma, not the enlightened kind), I can tell you that even if you are the one who has endurance to be a seeker, and a great love for the spiritual, you can still accept this information in two ways; too tedious or completely inspirational. I’m slowly falling into the second category only after finding it extremely tiresome (blaming the text when I’m the one who couldn’t understand) in the first year of my training. Yet, if you want your first reading experience of these writings to be a successful one, you must come prepared, so you can stay open to receive and be inspired.
In the previous blog Deciphering ÓM, you were introduced to this sacred syllable as the primordial sound from which all other sounds (worldly and phonetic) and the whole creation emerged. What is important to remember is that all sounds within our range of hearing are created by things visible or invisible, striking each other or vibrating together, creating pulsing waves of air molecules which our ears and brain interpret as sound.
However, ÓM is an un-struck sound. Literally, this means “the sound that is not made by two things striking each other.” The point of this particular distinction is that all ordinary audible sounds are made by at least two elements: bow and string; drum and stick; two vocal cords; two hands clapping, two lips against the mouthpiece of the trumpet; waves against the shore; wind against the leaves; ÓM is a sound that is not produced by such mechanical means.
Incompetent and unqualified to explain any further, thought it best to share my study of traditional and philosophical interpretations of this sacred sound found amid the ancient writings of the Védās and the Upanišads that have inspired my practice. Below is a compilation to get you started, along with a list of books for continued study. With utmost gratitude, I place this collection at the feet of the Lord and Gurudév.
Etymologically, Véda comes from the Samskritham root ‘vid’ meaning sacred knowledge or highest wisdom. From the most ancient mystical traditions comes the idea of an unchanging, non-decaying, indivisible Cosmic Absolute, the prime vibration, the Word. The first reference to ÓM, as Ādi Anādi, one without a beginning or end was seen some four to six thousand years ago in the writings of the Védās.
Védās, the oldest texts of ancient India (Bhārath) are recognized as the origin of their faith (originally called sanātana dharma, eternal law, currently Hinduism) and its highest authority. They are four in number: Rik, Sāma, Yajur and Atharva. Each is divided into two parts: work and knowledge. The first part is made up of hymns, rites and ceremonial instructions and rules of conduct. The second is concerned with the knowledge of God, highest aspect of truth and is called the Upaniśads. (Svāmi Prabhavānanda & F. Manchester)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Likewise, the Védas state that God first created sound, a mahā vākya – a great vibration, which was ÓM. And from ÓM the whole creation came into existence, hence named the Sriśti Mantra, source of all creation. And, AUM of the Védās is similar to the sacred word Hum of the Tibetans (Buddhist); Amīn of the Muslims; and Amen of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians. (Svāmi Vivèkānanda)
The concept of the Word and its transformative powers is universal. Throughout history and across cultures, each tradition recognizes that there is an aspect of language – the Word – that is a manifestation of the Supreme Being, or Absolute Truth. This is not a metaphor – the Word is not a means of communicating with the sacred realm; it is itself the Absolute Truth. Please read more about this in the book ‘The Power of Mantra’. Pandit Tigunait has a wonderful section on the Word in his book that is worth your attention.
The Upanišads are part of the vast ancient Vedic Literature of India (Bhārath), and they highlight the transcending quality of intelligence. While reading the Upanišads, it is important to remember that they are about the qualities of pure consciousness. Even though the stories describe the comings and goings of people and events, at a more subtle level of understanding these stories describe the dynamics of consciousness found within everyone. (Dr. Thomas Egenes)
The Samskritham word Upanišad, (U-pa-ni-šad) comes from the verb ‘šad’- to sit with, upa connected to the Latin s-ub – under; and ni – near, found in be-neath. The whole word would mean a sitting, an instruction – the sitting at the feet of a master. When we read in the Gospels that Jesus ‘went up into a mountain’, and his disciples came unto him after – we can imagine them sitting at the feet of their Master and the whole Sermon on the Mount might be considered an Upanišad. (Juan Mascaró)
The word also means ‘secret teaching’ – secret, no doubt, because a teaching vouchsafed only to those who are spiritually ready to receive and profit by it. (Svāmi Prabhavānanda & F. Manchester) Yet, the Upanišads are not philosophy. They do not explain or develop a line of argument. They are ‘darśana’, ‘something seen’, and the student to whom they were taught was expected not only to listen to the words but to realize them; that is to make their truths an integral part of their character, conduct and consciousness. Consequently, the teachings of the Upanišads were strictly passed down from a realized, enlightened teacher to an ardent seeker as a tradition. (Eaśvaran)
All Upaniśads teach the philosophy of absolute unity, where behind names and forms of the world dwells the eternal, infinite Brahman, (the Highest or Cosmic Consciousness) – “Seek to know That (AUM is Brahman), by knowing which the nature of all things becomes known.” While we cannot see a country by merely looking at the maps, the living words of the sacred books are infinitely above those of their commentators. (Juan Mascaró)
According to the Muktika Upanišad (1.30-9), there are a total of 108 – with ten of which are considered as principal Upanišads (Īsha, Kéna, Katha, Praśna, Muṇḍaka, Mānḍūkya, Taittirīya, Aitaréya, Chhāndogya, and Brihadāranyaka). (Svāmi Harśānanda)
In the collection below at least one reference to ÓM within a few Upanišads are mentioned below.
Ten Upanišads on ÓM
This text asks how can we reconcile multiplicity with the divine oneness in order to grasp the unity of the phenomenal world. Seeing things as separate (I-ness) is the sole cause of otherness is repeatedly explained to a sincere seeker.
“Thou art Brahman, one with the syllable ÓM, which is in all scriptures-the supreme syllable, the mother of all sound. The syllable ÓM is verily thine image. ÓM is Brahman. ÓM is all. He who meditates on ÓM attains Brahman. (Svāmi Prabhavānanda & F. Manchester)
This text is a highly successful representative of about five Upanišads whose names have the suffix bindu or drop, indicating succinctness as a distillation of upanišadic wisdom. (Eaśvaran)
“The audible ÓM is perishable (kśara), whereas the subtle one is imperishable (akśara). Only by meditating upon the latter, it is possible to reach the state of equanimity and experience oneness with God. This Upanišad describes ÓM as the chariot to reach the Absolute. By chanting the sacred sound, (AUM) until it reverberates in your heart, one enters into the subtle state through the last letter ‘m’ which is also the bindu (the seed or focal point). Detached from the senses, mastering breath control and the mind, focus fully on ÓM, as this mantram is the symbol of Brahman, repetition of which bring peace to the mind.” (Eaśvaran)
In this text, AUM is referred to as Nāda Brahman or Śabda Brahman the Primordial Sound, or as a tasty form of nectar represented as a dot, bindu.
“This sound has no source. It is referred to as Anāhata Nāda, un-struck sound because it emanates from nowhere, but is present everywhere. The goal of Yóga, asserts the text, is to realize the transcendental nature of Ātman, individual consciousness, its existence in everyone, and its oneness with Brahman through meditation and absorption into Nāda, sound of OM.” (Eaśvaran)
This text answers the question wherefrom do all these worlds come.
“It begins with the Creator of all, Brahma, in deep meditation over the worlds of his creation. From his continued meditation emerged the threefold knowledge, called Védas, from which bhūr, bhuvah and svah, the syllables emerged. When he rested in meditation upon them, the syllable A-U-M issued forth from them. Even as the leaves come from a stem, all words come from ÓM. ÓM is the whole universe.” (2.23.2 Mascaró)
Here, the text extols those sages who chose to ignore the rituals and sacrifices part of the Védas considering them to be lower knowledge, and went in search of higher knowledge. These sages with purified hearts, who practiced meditation after conquering their senses, sought a teacher who had realized the Self (Brahman) to lead them to the imperishable Lord of Love. (Eaśvaran)
The text stresses this with a beautiful analogy – “Attain this goal (Brahman)! ÓM (mantram)is the bow; the aspirant/seeker/soul is the arrow; and Brahman, the Lord of Love is the target. Now, draw the bowstring of meditation, hitting the target, be one with Him.” (2.2.4 – Eaśvaran)
“Where all the nerves meet like the spokes of a chariot wheel in the hub, there within the heart He moves, becoming manifold. Meditate on that Self as ÓM. Godspeed to you in crossing to the farther shores beyond darkness.” (2.2.6 – Svāmi Chinmayānanda Sarasvati)
This text describes that ÓM is like the fire which though potentially present in firewood is not seen until two sticks are rubbed against each other.
“Fire is not visible in a firestick, its original form, yet its subtle element is present in the source itself and can be obtained by striking it again. After making one’s body the lower piece and the Pranava (ÓM) the upper piece of the wood, by the practice of meditation on obtains (realization) something that is hidden. By meditating on the sound ÓM, Ātman is revealed in the body, which actually was already there in a dormant state.” (Svāmi Satyānanda Sarasvati)
In this Upanišad, six seekers after the Truth come to an enlightened sage and each one poses a question. The fifth question refers to ÓM.
“Which world will a man attain who meditates on ÓM throughout his life?” Satyakāma (name of the student)
The sage replied; “ÓM is both the higher and lower Brahman, He who meditates on ÓM will surely attain one of them. He who meditates with a little understanding gains some enlightenment. And he who meditates on ÓM with greater understanding gains greater illumination. But he who meditates on the Supreme Puruša with help of ÓM is united with Him, who abides in all hearts.”
This is a beloved text for many spiritual aspirants as the questions – as difficult as they may be – are not posed by an adult seeker but a mere child; not with childlike inquisitiveness but with a maturity of a resolute spiritual seeker, and with a capacity to impress upon the God of Death himself to reveal the highest teaching through humble persuasion.
“That goal which all scriptures (Védas) praise, the object of all penance (tapas), and a life devoted to austerity (brahmacharya) and knowledge – that goal is called ÓM. The word (Akśara) ÓM is indeed Brahman, and this word is Supreme. One who knows this Word obtains whatever he wants.”(1.2.5-6 – Svāmi Satyānanda Sarasvati)
Māndūkya Upanišad is the shortest, most revered of all Upanišads. Eaśvaran calls this chapter ‘the medium of awareness or knowing, consciousness.’ He parallels a comparison of this Upanišad to Book 11 of the Confessions where he points out Augustine’s reference that the three divisions of time have no independent, absolute existence. What we call past, present and future are really only three ways that human consciousness orients itself to phenomena: recollection, awareness, anticipation.
Through (the study of) ÓM, it helps to answer questions such as: What is waking or dreaming state? What is deep sleep and how does it help you understand death? Is your personality completely annihilated at death? How are you reborn? In this Upanišad there is a unique combination of psychology and profound philosophy; a clear exposition and understanding of the four states of consciousness. (Svāmi Rāma)
This Upanišad goes on to explain the four elements of AUM as a metaphor of the four planes of consciousness, using the three letters of Samskritham alphabet -“A, U, and M” representing waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The fourth represented by the ‘dot’ or ‘bindu’. Below is a brief explanation of the states of consciousness within OM.
‘A’ signifies normal waking consciousness, called Vaiśvānara, in which the ego-person (I-ness) and Spirit within, exist as separate entities. This is the level of mechanics, science, logical reasoning, and the three lower chakras. Here we live enslaved by our senses, indriyās directing our prāna or life force outside of the body into the external world of desires. We exhibit gross level of spiritual consciousness, slow to observe and implement discipline and change.
‘U’ indicates dream consciousness or Taijasa. Here, the ego-person (I-ness) and Spirit within, become entwined in awareness, where the sense of ‘I’ is questioned. While one acts on past deeds and present desires, there slowly emerges a deeper awareness to the inner world of intuition and spirit. Although the indriyās (senses) are still the triggers for temptation, there is an raise in the level of spiritual awareness and self-discipline to control the external loss of prāna and to redirect it within.
‘M’ represents the realm of deep, dreamless sleep or Pragña. There is no distinction between the ego-person (I-ness) and Spirit within. Only pure consciousness exists, unseen, perfect, dormant, but still covered with darkness as there is no mindful awareness. The sense of ‘I’ is released. The indriyās (senses) are not active and the concentration is directed within.
The fourth sound of AUM, Turiya, super-consciousness state, is represented by AUM, the primal “un-struck” sound. The silence at the end of this sacred syllable, neither inwards or outwards, beyond the senses and the intellect, dissolves the ego “I’ which surrenders completely to the Infinite. The egoless-pure consciousness merges into Absolute Consciousness.
For practical purposes, the word “silence” can be understood only in reference to “sound.” We hear this silence best when listening to any sound without interpreting or judging (attaching meaning). What if we listened intently, fully, openly, without preconceptions or expectations to the sounds that surround us – sound of music, the sound of the city, the sound of the wind in the forest of trees, sound of conversation? Can this give us the opportunity to follow the path of sound into the awareness of that sacred sound behind the sound of sounds, words and noise?
This text presents – “There are two ways to contemplate on Brahman; in sound and in silence. By sound we go to silence. The sound of Brahman is ÓM . With ÓM we go to the End. The End is immortality, union and peace. At the end of ÓM there is silence of Brahman. It is the silence of joy.” (6.22-23 Mascaró)
Obviously, whatever I am understanding from these ancient writings is hard to put in words. Better yet, am I understanding anything at all? Hence, the wisdom of the great seers which inspires me to reread their words in hopes to uncover the essential meaning eventually. Proving once again that ÓM cannot be conceptualized through the finite mind. There may have been a few aha moments during reflections that have filled my heart with wonderous feelings of love, joy and peace, but then in an instant – poof, gone – nothing – with no lingering proof whatsoever.
The alternative, is taking comfort in modern technology and resorting to the digital version ÓM. Sometimes seated in Ardha Padmāsana, half lotus or basking in the restorative luxury of Śavāsana, corpse pose, on the yóga mat as the sound of ÓM – as we humans know it – composed in harmonies, wafts through the air and soothes my being. Other times the melody of ÓM streaming through the headphones is directly beating upon my eardrums, vibrating in my head and pulsating through the bodily pathways. Playfully, I visualize each cell throbbing eagerly, feeding on its energy and renewing their health. Happily, I listen and sigh, terribly aware of this momentary contentment but with immense gratitude.
Here’s hoping that the energy of ÓM manifests in my waking reality of daily busyness to help me tune into the voice of the inner teacher and prepare me for another day of discipline and service.
Here’s wishing that the (digital) sound of ÓM jolts my consciousness awake, dares me to surrender my stubborn ego, and thrusts a deep longing in my heart to unite with the Highest Truth with a desperate sense of urgency.
Śivānanda, Svāmi.1959. 2013. Essence of Principal Upanišads. The Divine Life Society, Shivanandanagar, Distt. Tehri-Garhwal, U.P., Himalayas, India
Prabhavānanda, Svāmi, Manchester, Frederick. 1948, 2002. The Upaniśads: Breath of Eternal Life. Védānta Society of Southern CA, Signet Classics, Penguin Group, USA
Eaśvaran, Eknāth. 1987. The Upanišads. Nilgiri 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
Sarasvati, Satyānanda, Svāmi. 1975. 2004. Nine Principal Upanišads. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.
Tigunait, Rājāmani, Pandit. 1996. The Power of Mantra & The Mystery of Initiation. Himalayan Institute Press, Honesdale, PA
Egenes, Thomas, Dr. Maharishi University, TM, Professor of Sanskrit and Philosophy
Sarasvati, Chinmayānanda Svāmi. 1953. 1997. Mundakopanišad. Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Sandeepany Sādhanālaya, Mumbai, India.