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Musings from the Mat: What is this thing called OM? Or is it AUM?

November 2, 2017

For you science and engineering geeks, it sounds like Ohm - the measure of electrical resistance – but it’s much more than that.

Every “thing” manifest is vibration. This concurs with modern science which says that every atOM and molecule is formed out of energy vibration. Einstein’s equation, E=mc2, states that matter (m) is an expression of energy (E). OM as the sound symbolizes that all material objects, all phenomenon, and all thought patterns are states of energy vibration.

As the creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration manifesting as sound. Before creation began it was emptiness or the void but more than nothingness, because everything then existed in a latent state of potentiality. The vibration of AUM/OM symbolizes the manifestation of God/Brahman, the vibration of the Supreme. It is the reflection of the absolute reality, without beginning or the end and embracing all that exists.

Most religions indicate that creation began with sound. Ancient Egyptians knew of Aum as Amen or Amun. Amen or Amen-Ra was the name of the supreme deity who was considered Creator and ruler of all the other Gods. Aum became Amen and was incorporated into Christianity and is widely mentioned in the bible. Don’t forget the reference to the original OM, “In the beginning was the Word…” The Greek root for word is logos which meaning cosmic throb or vibration. Amen was adapted into Islam as Alm. Even the Irish Celts through their Druid priests, knew the word Ogham, pronounced OM. Modern Science, the Bible, the Koran, Egypt…these parallels should not surprise us. They have a lot in common with the Indian mystics. OM is also the name given by the Hindus to the spiritual sun, as opposed to Surya, the natural sun. Thus OM mystically embodies the essence of the entire universe.

OM the Sacred Sound
In America OM is often spelled as AUM. OM consists of three Sanskrit phonemes – the smallest units of sound. The whole word has three sounds which is a combination of A (a-kāra), U (u-kāra), and M (ma-kāra). However, when occurring within an utterance, the syllable is subject to the normal rules of Sanskrit grammar. After preceding an a or ā, the au of AUM does not form au but “O” (i.e. as in Oh). AUM is regularly monophthongized (conversion of 2 sounds to 1) because the vowels “A” and “U” combine to become “O” and now represent a single sound. So this confusion is due to transliteration.

As a mystic word, it is sometimes called the greatest of mantras (mahat mantra), the essence of all mantras. It is often found at the beginning of prayers, mantras, and scriptures as a word of invocation and adoration. It is pronounced at the beginning and end of every lesson in the Vedas (ancient scriptures) and is also the introductory word of the Puranas (religious works embodying legends and mythology).

OM is believed to be the basic sound of the world and to contain all other sounds. The pronunciation of the word OM symbolizes the totality of all sounds as it includes all other sounds that humans can utter. This idea of totality also exists in the English word "OMnipresent" that includes OM as its prefix. OM is a sacred syllable representing Brahman, the supreme reality — OMnipotent, OMnipresent, and the source of all existence. OM, therefore, represents both the unmanifest (nirguna) and manifest (saguna) aspects of God. That is why it is called pranava (humming), to mean that it pervades life and runs through our prana or breath.

It’s a humming sound just like the sound of one's own nerve system, or the sound made by an electrical transformer or a swarm of bees. It’s the soundless sound that runs throughout the Universe. It’s the “hum” of the universe.

OM the Syllable
OM is mentioned in all the Upanishads, especially elaborated on in the Taittiriya, Chandogya and Māndukya Upanishad as the highest spiritual value. The Katha-Upanishad states: "Whoever knows this syllable obtains whatever he wishes." However, the Māndukya Upanishad is entirely devoted to the explanation of the syllable. 

According to the Māndukya Upanishad, "OM is the one eternal syllable of which all that exists is but the development. The past, the present, and the future are all included in this one sound, and all that exists beyond the three forms of time is also implied in it".

The Māndukya Upanishad talks of the four stages of individual consciousness as the manifestation of the Self. A-kara means form or shape like earth, trees, or any other object. U-kāra means formless or shapeless like water, air or fire. Ma-kāra means neither shape nor shapeless (but still exists) like the Universe. 

These three phonemes, a, u and m, also symbolize the Three Vedas or the Hindu Trimurti or the three stages of life (birth, life and death). When taken letter by letter, A-U-M represents the divine energy (Shakti) united in its three elementary aspects: Brahma Shakti (creation), Vishnu Shakti (preservation) and Shiva Shakti (liberation, and/or destruction). The 'A' represents birth/creation, the 'U' life/preservation, and the 'M' represents death/dissolution. The four aspects of Pranava – the “A”, “U”, “M” and finally the OM. In essence, chanting OM represents the process of existence.

OM is the fourth stage, the stage of immortality, which is represented symbolically by the mantra OM. It is a mantra or prayer in itself. If repeated with the correct intonation, it can resonate throughout the body so that the sound penetrates to the centre of one's being, the atman or soul. 

OM the Symbol
OM is the symbol for what was, what is and what shall be; it lies beyond past, present and future. With its threefold nature, special shape and unique sound, OM lends itself to a variety of detailed symbolic interpretations.

 

The symbol consists of three curves (curves 1, 2, and 3), one semicircle (curve 4), and a dot. The large lower curve 1 symbolizes the waking state (jagrat), in this state the consciousness is turned outwards through the gates of the senses. The larger size signifies that this is the most common ('majority') state of the human consciousness.


The upper curve 2 denotes the state of deep sleep (sushupti) or the unconscious state. This is a state where the sleeper desires nothing nor beholds any dream. 

The middle curve 3 (which lies between deep sleep and the waking state) signifies the dream state (swapna). In this state the consciousness of the individual is turned inwards, and the dreaming self beholds an enthralling view of the world behind the lids of the eyes. 

As mentioned above, these are the three states of an individual's consciousness; therefore these three curves represent the entire physical phenomenon. 

The symbol's threefold nature is central to its meaning. It represents several sacred triunes (three-in-ones):

  • the three worlds - earth, atmosphere, and heaven

  • the three major Hindu gods – Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Siva (the Destroyer) -  into Brahman, the Atman

  • the three sacred Vedic scriptures - Rg, Yajur, and Sama

  • the three levels of consciousness – waking, dreaming, and deep sleep - into Turiya (transcendental fourth state of consciousness).

  • the 3 gunas (qualities) - tamas (“A”, ignorance, dullness, darkness), rajasu (“U”, passion, activity, heat, fire), sattva (“M”, harmony, purity, light, serenity or peace/shānti) - into Brahman.

  • The 3 “B”s - Body, Breath and Brain - into Oneness.

  • Generate (Brahma-Saraswati), Operate (Nārāyan-Lakshmi), Destroy (Shiv-Shakti) - as GOD within.

The dot signifies the fourth state of consciousness, known in Sanskrit as turiya. In this state the consciousness looks neither outwards nor inwards, nor the two together. It signifies the coming to rest of all differentiated, relative existence. This utterly quiet, peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity. This Absolute (non-relative) state illuminates the other three states.  Indeed this is the state symbolized by the dot in the traditional symbol of AUM. 

Finally, the semi circle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. Thus it is the illusion of maya that prevents us from the realization of this highest state of bliss. 

The semi circle is open at the top, and when ideally drawn does not touch the dot. This means that this highest state is not affected by maya. Maya only affects the manifested phenomenon. This effect is that of preventing the seeker from reaching his ultimate goal, the realization of the One, all-pervading, unmanifest, Absolute principle. In this manner, the form of OM represents both the unmanifest and the manifest.


OM the Vibration
It is said that the three parts of A-U-M include the totality of the 16 vowels of Sanskrit. The first alphabet "A" is regarded as the primal sound, independent of cultural contexts. It is produced at the back of the open mouth, and is therefore said to include, and to be included in, every other sound produced by the human vocal organs. Indeed A is the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. 

The open mouth of "A" moves toward the closure of "M". Between is "U", formed of the openness of "A" but shaped by the closing lips. Here it must be recalled that as interpreted in relation to the three curves, the three syllables making up AUM are susceptible to the same metaphorical decipherment. The dream state (symbolized by U), lies between the waking state (A) and the state of deep sleep (M). Indeed a dream is but the compound of the consciousness of waking life shaped by the unconsciousness of sleep. 

AUM thus also encompasses within itself the complete alphabet, since its utterance proceeds from the back of the mouth (A), travelling in between (U), and finally reaching the lips (M). The two ends between which the complete alphabet oscillates are the back of the mouth to the lips; both embraced in the simple act of uttering of AUM. 

The last part of the sound AUM (the M) known as ma or ma-kara, when pronounced makes the lips close. This is like locking the door to the outside world and instead reaching deep inside our own selves, in search for the Ultimate truth.

But over and above the threefold nature of OM as a sacred sound is the invisible fourth dimension which cannot be distinguished by our sense organs restricted as they are to material observations. This fourth part is the vibration in the body and mind following the chant. It's more subtle than the other parts but it's actually probably the most important part. 

This fourth state is the unutterable, soundless silence that follows the uttering of OM. A quieting down of all the differentiated manifestations (i.e. a peaceful-blissful and non-dual state). 

If all existence is energy, then chanting can help us experience the subtle vibrations of sound. It represents the cycle of life. It is also said to be the sound of the universe. When we chant OM, we create within ourselves a vibration that attunes sympathy with the cosmic vibration and we start thinking universally. The momentary silence between each chant becomes palpable. Mind moves between the opposites of sound and silence until, at last, it ceases the sound. In the silence, the single thought – OM – is quenched; there is no thought.

OM is not a word but rather an intonation, which, like music, transcends the barriers of age, race, culture and even species. OM is the sound of a thoughtless state of mind. Nothingness. A lot like TOFU! 

As explained by Jasmine Jolley, "everything that exists pulsates, creating a rhythmic vibration that the ancient yogis acknowledged with the sound of OM. We may not always be aware of this sound in our daily lives, but we can hear it in the rustling of the autumn leaves, the waves on the shore, the inside of a seashell. Chanting OM allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole universe moves - the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the beating of our hearts." In essence, OM is the signifier of the ultimate truth that all is one.

The Lotus has 3 stages of growth. “A”, the roots that sink deep into the mud. “U”, the stem as it grows through the water. “M”, the bud and flower above the water facing the sun. The lotus also symbolizes our growth in life as we pass through the 3 gunas. We start in the mud of tamas, pass through the active waters of rajas, and finally we arrive at the fresh air and clear sky of sattva. There is where we realize Reality (the sun), our essential nature is free. We blossom like the beautiful lotus, our petals unfurl in the sun just as we open to our connection to spirit - freedOM.

OM versus AUM
According to Sanskrit grammar rules, the correct way to pronounce “Aum” is OM. OM/Ohm is pronounced with the long “O” and short “M” (the ratio is 3:1). However, Aum is often chanted with soft “au” vowels just as they’re spelled. It is said that these 2 different sounds have yin and yang functions. OM/Ohm pulls in energy and Aum gives it out. You’ll find many chants spelled using both. So many beautiful chants! Which one do I choose? Do I choose by their sound or by their intention?

Chanting cleanses the mind, helps us control our emotions, as well as improves concentration, memory, and our capacity to understand. It helps us relax physically, mentally and emotionally and has a positive effect on the surrounding atmosphere. So…pick the sound that is appropriate for you at this moment.

Why chant OM? 
My teacher describes chanting OM as a union of opposites - strength receiving - merging in the body. The “O”, as sounding in the word “open” comes from below at the base whereas “M” as in “mmmm” comes from the above at the head. The sounds join together at the heart center where you rest in silence. While sitting, sweep your arms overhead with your inhale. On the exhale, say OM and bring the hands in prayer to the heart center where you rest in silence. Be sure to resonate the word (long “Ohhhhhh”, short “Mmm”) in the deepest range of your vocal register, with a single breath. Elongate the “O” with an open mouth and then vibrate the “M” through closed lips. Continue for several minutes then repeat again but silently finally bowing the head – surrender of brain to breath.

Just as in asana, we surrender the activity of the brain down to the heart center while simultaneously lifting the energy at the base toward the heart. This is the place where everything merges with the heart…as above so below.

Why chant AUM? Chanting Aum allows us to see a greater connection between our physical and mental bodies and the universe; it symbolizes the path towards unity. This is the movement of within to without.

If you choose to experiment with this sound for your own meditation, transform the OM to AUM (ah…ewe…mmm). When chanted as AUM, feel the resonance of the “A” in the abdomen, the “U” in the chest/throat, and the “M” in the head. After the sound there is silence, which is “above” the head or beyond thinking. 

The AUM sound is said to navigate chakra energy through your left channel (A), right channel (U) and centers your energy through the center channel (M). This is union of left and right. It helps to achieve effortless meditation state. If you ever wondered why monks or any other group of people who meditate say OM and not AUM, here is the answer. 

It also is helpful to visualize the symbol for OM while doing these chants, either with eyes closed or by looking at the symbol during a wide-eyed meditation. Remember, the symbol of AUM represent the 3 realms of experience, 3 levels of mind, etc. See the symbol as a “seed” with each OM-AUM it grows inside you…until you become the OM-AUM. 

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