The Meaning of OM

April 8, 2011

Did you ever wonder why we chant Om during yoga classes??  If you ask, you often get an obscure answer like “It’s the sound of the universe” or “It represents the past, present and future.”  These confusing answers never really satisfied me – but once I studied the subject, I understood why it’s so hard to answer.   There’s so much depth and richness to the answer, it’s hard to cut it down to a “sound bite” appropriate for a short answer.   The sound bites don’t do it justice, and instinctively we know that it isn’t a complete answer – which leaves us searching for more.  So why do we chant Om and what does it mean??  The answers are in the ancient yoga text known as the Mandukya Upanishad.  Written in 800-500 BC, this text explains both the concepts behind the sound and the symbol.

The first paragraph of the Mandukya sheds some light on where those obscure answers originate – it states,

“The syllable OM, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the universe.  Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, and whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is OM.  And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is OM.” 

Brahman can be viewed as divinity – both the divinity within the Self and everything else which is divine, including that which creates divinity.  A technique that can help if you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the concept of Brahman is to replace it with whatever word you associate with a higher power.  It can be God, Jesus, Buddha, Mother Nature or anything else that represents the divine to you.  Om is the sound that represents this higher power and its connection to each of us.

The next paragraph elaborates,

“All this that we see without is Brahman.  This Self that is within is Brahman.  This Self, which is one with OM, has three aspects, and beyond these three, different from them and indefinable – The Fourth.”

Everything that surrounds us has an aspect of the divine, just as we do ourselves.  The chanting of the sound Om reminds us of those connections to the divine and to each other.  But Om also represents the states of human consciousness.  The Mandukya talks of three states of consciousness – plus an indescribable Fourth.

The first state of consciousness, known as Vaishvanara, is waking state which is focused outward to material objects.  The waking state is represented in the symbol by the lower curve (the bottom of the “3”).  The second state of consciousness, Taijasa, is dreaming sleep or the mental nature which is focused inward to only the thoughts in the mind.  The dreaming state is represented by the curl coming out of the center of the “3.”  The third state of consciousness, Prajna, is dreamless sleep or deep meditation.  As stated in the text, “…the veil of unconsciousness envelopes his thought and knowledge, and the subtle impressions of his mind apparently vanish.”  The dreamless state is represented by the top curve (the upper part of the “3”).

The Fourth state of consciousness, known as Turiya, is the hardest to describe – in fact, the text calls it “indescribable.”  But perhaps the best attempt to describe it is as follows,

“It is pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated.  It is ineffable peace.  It is the supreme good.  It is One without a second.  It is the Self.  Know it alone!  This Self, beyond all words, is the syllable OM.”

The Fourth state is represented in the symbol much as it is described in the text.  It is separate from and different than the other three states – visually represented by the crescent and dot in the upper right.  These four states of consciousness are part of the makeup of human nature.  They exist in all of us at all times. 

Each of these states is represented not only in the symbol, but also in the sound.  Om is comprised of three distinct Sanskrit sounds – A-U-M.  The A and U together create the sound “O.”  The A represents Vaishvanara, the U is Taijasa, and the M is Prajna.  But what of Turiya?  How is it represented in the sound Om?  It is represented by the silence that follows the sound.  Have you ever noticed the peacefulness of the seconds just after an Om?  That is a subtle expression of Turiya – The Fourth state.

So, as you see, I still haven’t figured out how to answer the question in a sound bite, I’m not sure it’s even possible.  Om is a sound and a symbol which is rich in meaning and depth.  It represents the divine in each of us, as well as our interconnectivity.  It reminds us that we have the ability to move past our physical and mental states of consciousness and connect with the divine – both in ourselves and others.  In its essence, Om represents the sound of divinity in all things in the past, present and future.

The translations used are from “The Upanishads – Breath of the Eternal” by Swami Pabhavananda and Frederick Manchester.  For my accurate interpretations, I give credit to my teacher, Kathryn Payne; however, any errors are solely my own.


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