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.


41 Responses to “The Meaning of OM”

  1. Kelly Byrne says:

    Thanks so much! Beautifully put ! Light & Love,
    -kb

  2. Nichole says:

    That was very informational and well put. Thank you!

  3. Laurie says:

    Very helpful, clear and beautiful answer. thank you.

  4. Mamta says:

    Very beautiful and enlightening! Did not find any such explanation anywhere else. As Yoga Sutra mentions to concentrate on the meaning of mantra, while reciting the same, this explanation will help in achieving that goal. Thank You!

  5. rosa says:

    beautiful!

  6. Shaun says:

    I have been contemplating a tattoo and Om is one of the symbols I’ve been playing with. Your description and definition has helped me decided that this symbol is such a great all-encompassing idea of good, collective, self, and mystery that I am set on my choice on using it to represent my beliefs. Thanks!

  7. MANOJ UPPAL, KAMPALA says:

    THANKS

  8. Casey says:

    Thank you for the explanation of the symbol, itself. Very interesting and thought provoking.

  9. Nancy says:

    Thank you. Very helpful!

  10. Anita Hearn says:

    I have made an OM pendant in pewter and have used a link to your page to offer my Artfire customorse an overview on the meaning of the symbol. If you would like to see the pendant, please visit Jewelry Expressions by Anita on Artfire. If you have any objections to my using your link, please let me know ASAP and I will remove it. Thank you!

  11. Mandy Hernandez says:

    Very helpful. I understand the concept of Om much better now. Thank you!

  12. Chelsea Klubi says:

    Wow!! this is an amazing explanation. Thank you very much. :)

  13. Indira says:

    POWERFUL AND BEAUTIFUL JUST LIKE LIFE ITSELF ….

  14. Beth says:

    I just bought my daughter and I OM pendant necklaces. Now we can describe what this beautiful symbol represents to anyone whom asks.

    Thank you for your love!
    Beth

  15. Keith McGuckin says:

    Thank you. How complete.

  16. Mamta says:

    Love it

  17. Sarah H says:

    You have illuminated my study, thank you.

  18. Sk says:

    Very well explained.

  19. Megan says:

    This was a great explanation! Thank you!

  20. Lollye Martin says:

    “On the path to enlightenment, you must carry water and pull weeds. Once you have obtained enlightenment, you must carry water and pull weeds.”- Buddhist saying (paraphrased).
    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (3 ‘conscious-type’ states then Self-Actualization) also seems to accurately reflect these ideas/truths. “The Gift of Love” (Corinthians) speaks of ‘Love, Faith, & Hope’-3 conscious states perhaps? To cycle out of the birth, life, death deal, I believe, is to move onto another plane of existence (Heaven, Light,etc.). Feels like the Fourth Om state, huh? I dunno, just checking out the journey & guessing the destination.
    Thank You for the helpful info.

  21. Sujatha says:

    Thanku..your work has given much more light into my understanding of Om..very apprehensive
    Sujatha
    Narainsuja@gmail.com

  22. Steven P says:

    This is amazing and extremely informative. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

    I am new to study and chanting of “OM” and have a few questions, posting it here hoping to get some advice from some senior members.

    1. Is there a best time of the day to chant OM ? I usually do it in the evenings.

    2. I heard different recitations of OM on the internet, how do I learn the right way to pronounce this ? What are your thoughts on (www.soundofom.in). Personally, I found this to be very relaxing. But I want to make sure its the right way of chanting.

    3. Is there any benefit to just listening to the chant of “OM”, whenever I cannot chant myself ? Like during work, etc ?

    Thanks in advance and please keep up the great work.

  23. Michael Sunspirit says:

    Thank you for this explanation. It seems to leave one aspect of the symbol to mystery though. I would be interested to know what the “tail” that comes out the back of the “3″ and loops around under itself stands for.

  24. This is such a wonderful explanation. I love it… LET LOVE BE…

  25. SUBHENDU KAR says:

    THANK YOU.

  26. Doryan says:

    Thank You

  27. Sankar.S says:

    thanks a ton.. u made me understand it and memorable in my brain…

  28. Chris and sharon says:

    beautifully described. thank you

  29. Sadhana Yadav says:

    Thanks for elaborating the sacred word OM very nicely.

  30. Karen Huffman says:

    Fascinating and enlightening – thank you!

  31. mustaque says:

    phonetically om is very close to “hamd” which means praise. every creation is silently or loudly(thunder) praising the creator, the sustainer.
    interestingly hamd is an arabic word .

  32. Hemanand says:

    Definition of OM: OM is combination of 3 syllables A+U+M.

    A represents Krishna Ref: Bagavad Gita 10.33
    akñaräëäm a-käro ‘smi
    dvandvaù sämäsikasya ca
    aham eväkñayaù kälo
    dhätähaà viçvato-mukhaù

    Of letters I am the letter A, and among compounds I am the dual word. I am also inexhaustable time, and of creators I am Brahmä, whose manifold faces turn everywhere.

    U represents Adhi Lakshmi. Ref: tattvata tantr(sruti mantra)

    M represents living entities Ref: sanskrit word MAMA refers self which shortens to M
    —————————————

    This defines that all living entities are eternally servant of RadhaKrishna. (A U M)
    M is eternally the servant of A & U.
    This is OM

  33. SAILENDER KUJUR says:

    Very helpful. I understand the concept of Om much better now. Thank you!

  34. Susan S says:

    Earlier this year I became very ill and was in and out of hospital. At one stage I had a feeling of just surrendering to the universe as I was in so much pain that I did not want to be here. I started to hear the OM sound whilst bed ridden and first thought it was something making a noise outside the house , but I realised I was tuning in to something greater. Has anyone heard this sound at any period in their lives? Also what does it mean if you happen to hear it. I heard the sound vibrating in a continuous OM sound for about 5 hours continuously and it helped get me through the pain…. Was I hallucinating, whilst in agony??
    What do other people think?

  35. Susan says:

    A good clear explanation bringing the ancient to the present.

  36. Dr Rajesh Dhir says:

    OM HAS HUNDREAD MEANING BUT THE WAY YOU HAVE EXPLAINED IS GREAT
    REGARDS

  37. Elsa says:

    a beautiful sharing about OM!! <3<3

  38. Kumi says:

    Thank you for enlightening me of the true meaning of this very special word.I have always felt something which is difficult to explain while saying this sound

  39. ty says:

    Aaaaaaauuuuuuummmmmm

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