OM – its Meaning and Significance

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.


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