Om, The Imperishable Word
ओमित्येतदक्षरमिद्ँ सर्वं तस्योपव्याख्यानं भूतं भवद्भविष्यदिति सर्वमोङ्कार एव।
यच्चान्यत्त्रिकालातीतं तदप्योङ्कार एव ।।
OM is this imperishable Word, OM is the Universe, and this is the exposition of OM. The past, the present and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be, is OM. Likewise all else that may exist beyond the bounds of Time, that too is OM.
(From the Mandukya Upanishad)
Om is the quintessential signature of the Hindu dharma. No sacred task, no holy sacrifice or yajna, no worship, prayer or invocation can begin without Om. Om is the first invocation and the last benediction. All mantras and hymns, all prayers and salutations to the Divine end on the note of Om. The Mother, Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, called Om the signature of the Lord, and the supreme invocation.
Whether one recites Om quietly within oneself or sings it in a group, it has the same beneficial effect of spreading the vibrations of peace and calm, of concentrating the mind and heart in the deepest or highest consciousness. Om is the sound that rises ever upward, from the lower chakras to the higher, from the lower prakriti to the higher, from our earth plane, the so-called mrityuloka or the plane of death, to the highest Anandaloka or the plane of Divine bliss. Om is the ascending path of Light from death to immortality, from unconsciousness to Truth Consciousness. It is believed in the Sanatan Dharma that the right understanding of Om can open the passage to the highest Yoga.
In Sri Aurobindo’s words, OM is the symbol and the thing symbolized. It is the symbol, aksharam, the syllable in which all sound of speech is brought back to its wide, pure indeterminate state; it is the symbolised, aksharam, the changeless, undiminishing, unincreasing, unappearing, undying Reality which shows itself to experience in all the change, increase, diminution, appearance, departure which in a particular sum and harmony of them we call the world.
Describing Om intellectually is a daunting task, for Om is not a subject for academic study but a theme for meditative contemplation and inner concentration. Analyzing Om intellectually is like dissecting a poem into structure and semantics to find out how it is composed instead of plunging mind and heart into it and letting it express itself through you. Analogies apart, that is what Om does: if you give yourself wholly to it, immerse your mind and heart in it, it comes alive in you, it reveals and expresses itself through your consciousness, making your consciousness its own manifest field.
This is the transcendental power of Om: it is not just a particular sound, syllable or mantra with a certain mystical significance but it is the very root and basis of all sound, it is literally the mother of all mantras, the consciousness matrix out of which the whole universe arises as seed vibration, or beej-spanda, of the Divine.
When the Supreme Inconceivable Brahman, in its absolute singularity, wished to become the Many, that inconceivable divine Wish, which was also simultaneously the divine Will, became the seed of this entire universe, and that seed was Sound. Not a sound but Sound itself, nada. Nada was the first sound to arise out of the infinite potentiality that was before the beginning of Cosmos. That infinite potentiality, without beginning or end, out of which all universes arise like so many waves out of an infinite sea, is known as bindu. Bindu, in Sanskrit, means a point or a dot. Bindu, in mystical Hindu Dharma, represents the dimensionless point of infinitely massed consciousness as pure potentiality. It is this that is the origin of all manifestation and creation.
Think of this bindu as a mathematician would think of a point, a position without dimensions. As infinitely massed consciousness and infinite potentiality of existence, bindu is therefore absolute (non-relative) position, sthiti, and as infinite, it is without dimension, ananta aparimanit. Whatever exists in dimensions is finite, and constitutes srishti or manifestation, and whatever is without dimension necessarily transcends srishti or manifestation. Bindu, therefore, transcends manifestation while containing it all within itself, not in any space or time but in its own sthiti and is known by the sages as the symbol of the adishakti, the Divine Mother or the Divine Womb.
Om is the primal cosmic vibration through which the nada, eternally absorbed in bindu, arises out of it and becomes Chit-shakti or the consciousness-force pervading the Cosmos. Om is nada and bindu in conjunction or Yoga out of which all consciousness and Cosmos manifest. In the Shiva Purana, nada is identified as Shiva himself, incarnate as sound that becomes Cosmos, and bindu is identified as Shakti, incarnate as the infinite creative potentiality out of which arises Cosmos. This whole universe then is Shiva, as nada, manifesting out of Shakti, as bindu; and Shakti, as bindu, sustaining Shiva, as nada, through all this visible and tangible universe. While the Shivalinga symbolizes this mystery in the visible universe, the Omkar, or the mystic form of Om, symbolizes this mystery in the invisible and subtle universe.
As the Omkar devolves from its supreme transcendental heights into our material world and consciousness, so it can evolve from our material world and consciousness back into its transcendental heights. Thus, the Omkar is known as the supreme path of ascension to the highest of realizations. By following the upward pathway led by the Omkar, the seeker can attain to the truths of all the worlds and planes of being.
The syllable Om itself is composed of three seed syllables (or letters as phonemes) A, U and M. A (अ), U (उ) and M (म), pronounced together gives rise to the sound of OM or AUM, and it is this three-syllabled sound that the Yogi intones and meditates upon. There are layers of occult and mystical meanings involved with each of these three syllables, as with the integrated sound of Aum.
In Sri Aurobindo’s words: the syllable A (अ) represents the external manifestation or consciousness realized in the actual and the concrete, seen by the human consciousness as the waking state.
The syllable U (उ) represents the internal manifestation, the intermediate consciousness realised in the inner potentialities and intermediate states between the inmost supramental and the external, seen by the human consciousness as the subliminal and associated with the dream state.
The syllable M (म) represents the inmost seed or condensed consciousness (the inmost supramental, glimpsed by the human consciousness as something superconscient, omniscient and omnipotent, and associated with the state of dreamless Sleep or full Trance.)
The integrated sound of AUM (ओम or आऊम) represents Turīya, the Fourth; the pure Spirit beyond these three, the Atman consciousness..
This AUM is the transcendent sound of infinite wavelength. The idea of infinite wavelength is difficult to grasp; but if one can imagine infinite wavelength, one will intuit how an entire universe, which is ultimately energy combinations, can be contained in a single sound or vibration. AUM, as this single infinite vibration, is the portal to the superconscious, non-dual state. It is at this point, at this mystic threshold, that AUM merges into the anahata, the sound of Silence, and the known universe is reabsorbed into the transcendental Silence of the Divine.
To continue with Sri Aurobindo’s description of Om: OM is the symbol of the triple Brahman, the outward-looking, the inward or subtle and the superconscient causal Purusha. Each letter A, U, M indicates one of these three in ascending order and the syllable as a whole brings out the fourth state, Turiya, which rises to the Absolute. OM is the initiating syllable pronounced at the outset as a benedictory prelude and sanction to all act of sacrifice, all act of giving and all act of askesis; it is a reminder that our work should be made an expression of the triple Divine in our inner being and turned towards him in the idea and motive.
Om is thus the vehicle of the highest meditations. By meditating on each of the letters of AUM, the Yogi can access and master the planes associated with each of the letters — the waking, the subtle, the atmic or the inmost; and by meditating on the integrated sound of AUM, the Yogi can enter the integral Turiya state that not only transcends but subsumes the other three.
The Mandukya Upanishad opens with the declaration that Om is the eternal, imperishable word. All other words, being descriptors of transient subjects and objects of the universe, perish; but Om being the descriptor of the Eternal, is itself eternal and imperishable. The Hindus regard Om as the very name of God.
Let’s reflect briefly on Om as the name of the Divine.
In Hindu philosophy, manifestation consists of two aspects: nama (name) and rupa (form). Nama, or name, represents the psychological nature and qualities of a being and rupa, form, represents the visible, physical attributes. Namarupa, therefore, is the mind-body of all beings in existence. The process of naming is essential for a complete mental cognition of reality, as the senses, cognizing only form, are unable by themselves to form a complete picture of reality. The mind grasps or realizes (makes real to itself) a thing or being only by perceiving the form in conjunction with the name, thus associating form with identifiable attributes. Naming, therefore, gives the consciousness the power to recall and invoke the entity that is named and perceived.
Thus, the name has enormous power. One can perceive form but not be able to relate to the form without recalling and invoking the name associated with the form. A relationship is established and maintained only through namarupa — name and form. But in terms of consciousness, relationship doesn’t need the form, name alone is sufficient; the name can recall the form perfectly to mind even without the form being present. Form is impermanent and perishable since it depends on physical presence in space and time; but name, as a construct or reality of consciousness, is imperishable and timeless. Thus, there are traditions in Hinduism that are based solely on the nama of the Divine and dispense with rupa. This is particularly true for non-dualists who accept only the formless aspect of God, for the formless Divine can only be invoked and recalled through the nama or the power of the nama. Anyone in love can readily testify to this power of the nama: you only need to recall the name of your beloved to be immediately in touch with him or her in your consciousness, even to the exclusion of the entire world.
Om, then, is the name of the Divine: Brahman or Ishvara are only descriptions of the attributes of the Divine — Brahman is that which infinitely expands, the ever-perfect and the auspicious; Ishvara is one’s highest or inmost status of being, one’s own divinity or godhead. But Om is the name itself, the name that has the power to immediately recall and invoke the Divine. Meditating, therefore, on Om as the name of the Divine is held to be the most direct way to the realization of the Divine. The name leads to that which is named: the symbol leads to the symbolized. If Om is the living and direct symbol of the Divine, then the Divine, as the symbolized, is present in the name as its inmost vibrations. The Yoga is to bring the inmost vibrations to the surface consciousness and make those vibrations the natural vibrations of one’s mind, life and body.
Om is thus not only the way but also the destination concealed in the way. To chant Om is to immediately connect in consciousness with all that Om represents, symbolizes, conceals. Meditating on Om is immersing one’s outer and inner consciousness in the inmost, the soul-consciousness. Om is the surest and perhaps the quickest way to penetrate the multiple layers of the outer being and the outer universe and drill ever deeper into the inner and inmost layers of self and cosmic existence, it is indeed to return to one’s existential and spiritual source in Brahman, in the Supreme Truth.
As mantra, Om is supreme, it is the beej-mantra, the seed-mantra of all other mantras. Indeed, all mantras known to Yogis through the ages arise out of this one beej-mantra. Sri Krishna declares in the Bhagavad Gita, om ity ekaksharam brahma, the single syllable Om is the supreme God, and then goes on to establish his own identity with it: pranavah sarva vedeshu, within all the Vedas, I am the AUM; giram asmi ekam aksaram, of vibrations I am the transcendental AUM. For those who know who Sri Krishna is, and what he represents, these three statements read together are the signature and seal of the Divine on Om.
Sri Aurobindo, the Maharishi of the twentieth century, and the avatar of the Supramental Divine, said of Om: OM is the mantra, the expressive sound-symbol of the Brahman Consciousness in its four domains from the Turiya to the external or material plane. The function of a mantra is to create vibrations in the inner consciousness that will prepare it for the realisation of what the mantra symbolizes and is supposed indeed to carry within itself. The mantra OM should therefore lead towards the opening of the consciousness to the sight and feeling of the One Consciousness in all material things, in the inner being and in the supraphysical worlds, in the causal plane above now superconscient to us and, finally, the supreme liberated transcendence above all cosmic existence.
In the words of that other saint and avatar of the last century, Sri Ramakrishna: Some sages ask what will you gain by merely hearing this sound of Om? You hear the roar of the ocean from a distance. By following the roar you can reach the ocean. As long as there is the roar, there must also be the ocean. 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.
Om is also known as pranav. As Rishi Patanjali stated: Pranav is the designator, vachak, of Ishvara, the Supreme Self. By the japa or constant repetition of pranav with profound bhava or devotion, all obstacles in life and sadhana will disappear and the consciousness will turn inward.
The Shivapurana describes Om as an excellent boat to cross the ocean of samsara or worldly existence, playing on an interesting etymology of the word pranav — the root pra from prakriti or manifestation, and navam varam, meaning, excellent boat.
In the words of the Mother of Pondicherry Ashram: With the help of OM one can realize the Divine. OM has a transforming power. OM represents the Divine. You will recall this O……..M, O…..M, that’s all. O…..M. It must be manifested. If anything goes wrong, repeat OM, all will go well.