OM – its Meaning and Significance
If you attend a yoga class, it is very likely that the teacher starts the class by reciting the sound of OM three times. Most teachers like to chant OM at the end of the class as wll. That’s how I start and end the classes tha I teach. So, the natural question that comes up is, “why chant OM and what is the significance of this sound?”. Here is a brief explanation of the meaning and significance of OM.
OM is considered to be the ‘primordial sound’. Even before the material creation came into existence there was only the natural humming energy which resembled the sound of OM. Today, we know that one form of energy can be converted to another form – electricity to sound, electricity to heat, heat to electricity etc. According to the famous equation by Einstein – E=mc2, all matter is nothing but waves of energy. So, when the ‘powers that be’ decided to create this material universe, they were able to use the ever-present humming sound vibration of OM to manifest this creation. This same vibration continues to exist all around us and even inside us. The inner sound is given the name “antar-naada” (the inner sound) which can be heard when we can tune in to our pure inner self.
The OM mantra has been mentioned in many of the ancient texts related to yoga. In many of the Upanishads, it is revered as representing everything that is manifest and yet has its roots in the unmanifest. The Mandukya Upanishad (MU), in particular, is fully devoted to the discussion of OM. In the Upanishads, OM is mentioned as being the same as Brahman (the supreme consciousness).
Meaning of OM
The Sanskrit word OM (also written as AUM) is a composite of three letters “A” (? – like the first sound in ‘aware’ , “U” (? -as in ‘foot’ and “M” (?? – as the last sound in ‘mum’). According to MU, the three letters A, U and M represent the waking, dream and deep sleep states. The silence between successive repetitions of the mantra represents the fourth state called ‘turiya’ (literally the ‘fourth’ in Sanskrit), a state that transcends these three states. These three states correspond to the conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious states of the mind. A few other commonly mentioned interpretations of the letters A, U and M are given below:
- According to yoga, Samkhya and many other scriptures, the whole material creation, including human mind and body are a manifestation of the ‘mula prakriti’ (primordial nature) which is composed of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. The three letters of OM thus correspond to the three gunas as follows:
- A = tamas (darkness, inertia, ignorance)
- U = rajas (passion, activity, dynamism)
- M = Sattva (purity, truth, light)
The silence between the two AUM sounds represents the pure consciousness, a state which transcends the three gunas (called ‘trigunaatit’ – beyond gunas)
- A = Brahma (the creator), U = Vishnu (the sustainer) and M = Shiva (the destroyer); the silence between two OM sounds = the substratum or the reality that lies beyond the trinity
- A = Present, U = Past, M = future; silence between sounds = the reality beyond time and space
Other names for OM
In some of the Upanishads, OM is referred to as ‘udgita’ (the uplifting chant) or ‘Omkara’. In Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and in some Upanishads it is mentioned as ‘Pranava’. Patanjali mentions it as a ‘vachaka’ or the representative symbol for Ishvara (the Lord). Other words used for OM include ‘taraka’ (the one that helps us cross the ocean of this perishable life), ‘akshara’ (indestructible or imperishable), and the Brahman (supreme consciousness) in sound form called ‘Shabda Brahman.
OM in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
In chapter 1 (Samadhi Pada) of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us the concept of Ishvara as “Ishvara is the supreme Purusha, unaffected by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions or by any inner impressions of desires.” (translation by Sw. Satchidananda) (sutra 1.24). The following sutras provide us an insight into the sacred symbol OM:
- sutra 1.27: “The word expressive of Ishvara is the mystic sound OM (pranava)”
- sutra 1.28: “To repeat it with reflection upon its meaning is an aid.”
- sutra 1.29: “From this practice all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns knowledge of the inner Self.”
- sutra 1.30: “Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.”
- sutra 1.31: “Accompaniments to the mental distractions include distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing.”
As we can see from these sutras by Patanjali, chanting of OM can make us free from obstacles (defined in sutra 1.30) and provide us a glimpse of the inner self.
Even though chanting of OM as a mantra by itself is advocated in the above sutras, it is common to use OM in conjunction with other mantras. In some cases, it is added at the beginning of a shloka ; for example – “OM namo shivaya, OM bhur, bhuvah, svaha” etc. In other cases it is also added at the end of a phrase – e.g., Hari OM. Most of the mantras in the vedas also start with OM. In the spiritual tradition, those who wish to meditate on a regular basis get a personal mantra from their spiritual teacher. This personal mantra may or may not include OM as a part of the mantra.
How to chant OM
As Patanjali states in sutra 1.28, OM should be chanted keeping its meaning and significance in mind. Since OM is the representative sound and symbol for Ishvara, it is important to keep the essence of Ishvara (sutra 1.24) in mind while chanting OM. The technique for chanting OM is given below:
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged seated posture with the spine upright, head, neck and spine in a vertical (if comfortable) alignment. Close the eyes and take a deep inhalation. While exhaling start uttering the OM sound. Begin by feeling the vibration of the “O” sound building up in the navel area and traveling upward. As you continue the chant, feel the vibration moving upward toward the base of the throat. When the vibration reaches the throat area, convert the sound to a deep humming sound of “M”. Continue to feel the vibration moving upward until it reaches the crown of the head (called Sahasrara Chakra). You may repeat this process two or more times. At the end of the final chant, continue to sit still and feel the vibration of the OM sound permeating the whole body – every single cell of the body.
Benefits of chanting OM
The continued recitation of OM (called Udgita Pranayama) fills one with peace, calmness, tranquility and serenity. When we recite it with the understanding that OM is nothing but a representation of Ishvara, it brings us closer to our true nature, our own pure self. As mentioned above, OM is the primordial sound and this entire creation is a manifestation of this mystic sound. It represents the cosmic prana (the vital energy) and the air we breathe. Meditating on these thoughts can bring us closer to other human beings and lift the veil of separateness.
Do you chant the sound of OM in your yoga practice? If so, do you chant OM by itself or in association with other mantras? I would love to get your feedback on this article and also would like to know about your own meditation practice. Please leave me a comment below.