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Om

Pranava Image

Pranava, Omkara, and Ekakshara are the other names of Om. Pranava means that transcends Prana. Prana is the life force. It is Atman that transcends Prana. Pranava denotes Atman. Omkara literally means Om-ness. The suffix 'kara' is commonly added to letters when they are separately spoken of. For example, when the letter 'A' is separately spoken of, it is termed as 'Akara'. Similarly, Om is termed as Omkara. Ekakshara means 'mono-syllable'. Normally, vowels are skipped in the counting. Om contains Makara only. Hence it is called Ekakshara.

It is a combination of three syllables: Akara, Ukara, and Makara or simply AUM.

It is the sacred sound for Hindus. Om has its place not only in Hinduism but also in other major religions. For example, 'Amen' in Christianity, and 'Amin' in Islam. It is the sacred word also in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. 


It is not only a sacred sound or word but a sacred symbol too. It is also used as a mantra or the sacred or mystic syllable. There exists hardly any mantra without Om. 

Voluminous literature on Pranava exists in Sanskrit and other vernacular languages like Tamil, Telugu, etc.

Some Indologists including Max Muller in the name of research have tried to interpret Om as the mere word of affirmation. Such attempts were made with the ulterior motive of diluting the significance of the sacred syllable.

According to the German Scholar Max Muller, Om is the contraction of the word 'Avam' which means "Yes, It is". Swami Sankarananda proposed that it is derived from the 'Soma' which is a sacrifice of Vedic time. Persians pronounce the letter S as H only. It is to be noted that the word 'Hindu' is derived from the original word 'Sind'. Similarly, by the influence of Persians, the word 'Soma' becomes 'Homa'. In due course, 'Homa' has become 'Om'. However, these theories could not be substantiated without refutation.

There is no direct reference to the sacred letter found in Rig Veda. However, Rig Veda 1.164.39  indirectly talks about the sacred syllable. In other words, it talks about the syllable but kept it a secret by not directly mentioning. The verse declares "He who does not know the sacred syllable, the supreme seat on which all the gods seated, has nothing to do with Veda. Only he who knows it sit here with peace".

In Sukla Yajur Veda, it found its place in the opening hymn itself. it is evident that it was not a secret by that time. In the study by Moore Gerety, Finnian McKean. 2015, This Whole World Is OM: Song, Soteriology, and the Emergence of the Sacred Syllable, Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the researcher simply rejects the reference found in verse 1.164.39 of Rig Veda and concludes that it may not pertain to Om. He could not deny that there is equal probability, if not higher, that it may pertain to. What if it pertains to? The Whole of his conclusions will get diluted. Hence the researcher takes the convenient option to make his pre-drawn conclusions strong.

Definition of Om

Katha Upanishad (1.2.15) defines om as below.
sarve vedā yatpadamāmananti
    tapāmsi sarvāṇi ca yadvadanti ।
yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti
    tatte padam saṃgraheṇa bravīmyomityetat ॥

It means the word that which is taught by all Vedas as the prime goal, for which all penances are undertaken, and for which disciplines like celibacy are practiced, that word is concisely om.

Om is God

According to Vedic Scriptures, it is the primordial sound that existed before creation. It is the sound that transcends all sounds. It is the substratum of all words that manifest as sounds. It pervades all forms of the world, animate or inanimate. It is the manifestation of Brahman in the form of sound. It is nothing but Brahman, the ultimate reality.

Katha Upanishad (1.2.16) tells
etaddhyevākṣaraṃ brahma etaddhyevākṣaraṃ param ।
etaddhyevākṣaraṃ jñātvā yo yadicchati tasya tat ॥
It means this letter alone is Brahma. This letter alone is absolute. He who knows this letter attains everything that he desires.


Taittirya Upanishad (1.8.1) says Omiti Brahma Omitīdam Sarvam. It means this Om is Brahman, and all this is Om.


When a word is uttered, it signifies a thing. The word that signifies Brahman is Om. In Yoga Sutra 1.27, Sage Patanjali says 'Tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ'. His word is Pranava. Swami Vivekananda translates this as 'His manifesting word is Pranava'. 

Swamiji Continues "There are hundreds of words for God. One thought is connected with a thousand words; the idea, God, is connected with hundreds of words, and each one stands as a symbol for God. Very good. But there must be a generalization among all these words, some substratum, some common ground of all these symbols, and that symbol which is the common symbol will be the best, and will really be the symbol of all. In making a sound we use the larynx and the palate as a sounding board. Is there any material sound of which all other sounds must be manifestations, one which is the most natural sound? Om (Aum) is such a sound, the basis of all sounds. The first letter, A, is the root sound, the key, pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by the closed lip, and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding board of the mouth. Thus, Om represents the whole phenomena of sound producing. As such, it must be the natural symbol, the matrix of all the variant sounds. It denotes the whole range and the possibility of all the words that can be made. Apart from these speculations we see that around this word Om are centered all the different religious ideas in India; all the various religious ideas of the Vedas have gathered themselves round this word Om. What has that to do with America and England, or any other country? Simply that the word has been retained at every stage of religious growth in India, and it has been manipulated to mean all the various ideas about God. Monists, Dualists, Mono-Dualists, Separatists, and even Atheists, took up this Om. Om has become the one symbol for the religious aspiration of the vast majority of human beings. Take, for instance, the English word God. It conveys only a limited function, and if you go beyond it, you have to add adjectives, to make it Personal, or Impersonal, or Absolute God. So with the words for God in every other language; their signification is very small. This word Om, however, has around it all the various significances. As such it should be accepted by everyone."


Brihadaranya Upanishad (5.1.1) says Om̃3 khaṃ brahma khaṃ purāṇaṃ. It means 'Om is Brahma. Om is primeaval'.


Manusmrti (2.83) says ekākṣaraṃ paraṃ brahma. It means 'the mono-syllable is Supreme Brahman'.

In Bhagavat Gita (9.16-17), Lord Krishna Says 'aham..omkara' which means 'I am Omkara'. In verse 10.25, Lord Krishna declares 'ahaṁ girām asmyekam akṣharamwhich means 'I am the mono-syllable among the chants'.

Om is Atman

According to Mandukhya Upanishad Atman has four aspects and Turya-Atman is Omkara-Atman. Mundaka Upanishad instructs 'omityevaṃ dhyāyatha ātmānaṃ' which means 'Meditate on Om as Atman'.

Om is all and all is Om

Om Itidam Sarvam (All this is Om) is the declaration of Taittriya Upanishad. The basic tenets of Vedanta are: All is Brahman, Atman is Brahman, and Consciousness is Brahman. Om is meant to be the synonym of Brahman, Atman, Consciousness and the whole universe. According to Mandukhya Upanishad, Om is the past, present, and future. 

Om as Mantra of Japa

We have seen that it is God, Brahman, Consciousness, and the whole universe. Pranava is also used as the means to attain God or liberation. It is used as a Mantra in Japa, as an object of meditation and as an aid in Pranayama.


Pranava is the Beeja (seed) Mantra like Hrim, Srim, etc. It is the supreme mantra of liberation. Japa is the repetition or intonation of a specific mantra. As a result of continued repetition, Atman gets merged in Brahman. Hence it is the boat that one can use for crossing the ocean of Samsara. 


In Kundalini Yoga, Chakra activation is done with the help of Mantra Japa. Each chakra is assigned with a Beeja Mantra. The Beeja Mantra of Ajna Chakra is Pranava.

Amirta Nada Upanishad describes a technique of Japa. Nada Bindu Upanishad also elucidates a different kind of technique called Vairaja Pranava. 

Pranava is the knife that cuts the bondage which can be sharpened by the practice of Pranayama, says Ksurika Upanishad.

Om as Object of Meditation

In his commentary on Brihadaranya Upanishad, Sri Sankara advocates that meditation of Pranava should be used as a means to attain Brahman. Mahanarayana Upanishad says 'One should meditate on Atman chanting Pranava'. Mundaka Upanishad and Prasna Upanishad convey the same message. 

According to Mandukhya Upanishad, Atman has four states: waking state, dreaming state, deep sleep state and the fourth state which is the substratum of the other three states. Similarly, Pranava has four parts: A, U, M, and soundless state.

There is a meditative technique with the combination of meditation and Japa of Pranava based Mandukhya Upanishad. While intoning Om, one should superimpose the syllable 'A' on waking state, 'U' on dreaming state, 'M' in deep sleep state and Soundless state as the fourth one which is the basis for other three states. The intonation should be 'Om' whereas the meditation should be on the various states for every intonation. Those who want to have more details on doing this meditation, See this video where Swami Sarvapriyananda explains it in detail.

Conclusion

Om is God. It is the Self. It is the universe. It is Consciousness. To attain liberation, one should resort to Pranava. It is the dispeller of all obstacles. Varaha Upanishad says that Pranava destroys all sins and impurities. In the same tone, Yoga Tattva Upanishad says that all previous accumulations of sins are removed for him who utters Pranava. All obstacles and impurities vanish. Yoga Chudamani Upanishad suggests that one should chant daily Pranava by mouth, mind, and body. Yoga Sutra 1.29 says that by the repetition of Samadhi is attained and obstacles are removed. Mandala Brahmana Upanishad says that one should meditate on the internal radiance which is the real form Pranava. Yoga Sikha Upanishad says that Pranava is called Mula mantra because it is the root of all mantras and it is the root of Supreme Being.

In Krishna Yajur Veda, Kathaka Samhita 12.5, 27.1, it is stated: 
Prajapati vai idam agra asit 
Tasya vak dvitiya asit
Vag vai paramam Brahma


In the beginning, the creator was there alone, the only word was there, that word was not different from the supreme God Brahman. 

It is interesting to note that the Gospel of John 1.1 reads 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'.


Suggested Further Readings
  1. Om Yoga Meditation
  2. The sound of Sun

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