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The Mantra OM

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The Mantra OM | Mandala Yoga Ashram | Yoga, Advaita, Tantra

by Swami Nishchalananda

The Mantra OM – Symbol Of Primordial Vibration

The mantra Om (or Aum) has been handed down to us by the Himalayan sages. It is the most important mantra of yoga. According to tradition, every ‘thing’ manifest comes from primordial vibration, which is symbolised by Om: all material objects, all living beings, including each of us, all spiritual teachings, including yoga, all languages, including Sanskrit, all scriptures, including the vedas, everything.

Everything has come out of primordial vibration, which is represented by Om. This concurs with modern scientific thinking which says that everything - every atom and molecule in every nook and corner of this universe - is formed out of energy vibration. Einstein’s theory of relativity states that E = mc2, which indicates that matter (m) is but an expression of energy (E). Every atom, at-Om, comes out of the primordial vibration which is symbolised by Om.

Om as a sound, syllable (Om or Aum) and glyph (`) all sym bolise the fact that all material objects, all phenomena, both on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level, and indeed all thought patterns, are in essence states of energy vibration.

The Mantra OM In Sanatan Dharma

Indian mystical and philosophical thinking is impregnated with Om.

It symbolises the essence of Sanatan Dharma (the eternal way), commonly known as Hinduism - the tolerant and profound conglomeration of spiritual thinking and practice from which yoga has come.

The sacred syllable is mentioned widely in the upanishads (1), the tantras (2), the puranas (3), the samkhyas (4) and in specialised vedantic (5) texts such as the Yoga Vashishta (6). 

Om is widely known as the ‘Mahat Mantra’ - ‘the great mantra’.

Surprisingly, Om is not explicitly mentioned in the Rig Veda (7), but this is probably because it was considered too sacred to utter or to put in writing. Om is first mentioned, albeit implicitly, in the Yajur Veda (8) in verse 1:1 where it is known as the ‘pranava’ – ‘the humming sound’- or ‘udgita’ – ‘the elevating chant’.

Interestingly, no graphic representation of Om has yet been found in the extensive excavations of the so called Indus Valley civilisation (circa 3000 BC, though probably much older). (9) Again, the reason may be that Om was considered too sacred to be graphically represented, or that it had not yet been realised and brought into mainstream spiritual practice.

The oldest direct references and descriptions of Om are to be found in the upanishads which are considered to contain the essential teachings of the vedas.

The Mantra OM In The Mandukya Upanishad

One of the major upanishads, the Mandukya Upanishad, is exclusively dedicated to explaining the significance of the mantra Om.

It says that Om symbolises everything manifest and yet has its origin in the unmanifest.

In its exegesis it depicts Om as “Aum,” with each of the three syllables having specific significance (10).

Indeed, much of what is said about Om in this article is contained, in essence, in the 12 pithy verses of the Mandukya Upanishad (11).

The Mantra OM In Other Upanishads

Om is also widely mentioned and discussed in other upanishads, such as the Chhandogya, Nada Bindu, Amrita Bindu, Maitri, Katha, Sweteshwatara and Dhyana Bindu Upanishads. Below are a few key quotes:

Om is the primordial throb of the universe. It is the sound form of Atma (Consciousness).
Maitri Upanishad

This is similar to the biblical statement ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ — see later sub-heading ‘Om in judaism and christianity.’ In any case, it indicates, as we have already mentioned, that Om represents the primordial vibration of the universe.

Often, the two paths of mantra yoga (being absorbed in the sound vibration) and gyana yoga (reflecting on the meaning) are recommended in relation to Om, as for example:

Let Om be the bow, mind the arrow, and Higher Consciousness the target. Those who want enlightenment should reflect on the sound and the meaning of Om. When the arrow is released from the bow it goes straight to the target.
Dhyana Bindu Upanishad

Furthermore, continuously chanting Om creates inner clarity. This can bring about insight into the deeper, esoteric meanings of the holy texts:

Like the continuous flow of an oil stream and like the vibration of a bell ... this is the way to chant Om and the way to really know the meaning of the Vedas.
Dhyana Bindu Upanishad

Here, the word ‘vedas’ refers not only to the four vedas, but in a wider sense to any inspired sacred text of any tradition. There are many thousands of verses contained in the vedas alone; it is said that the essence of all these verses is contained within Om.

Om is like the DNA molecule: it contains enormous information.

Om is not just a philosophical symbol, but also a practical tool for transformation as the following quotation indicates:

Concentrate on Om in the heart centre as though it is like a candle flame the same size as your thumb.
Dhyana Bindu Upanishad

Here, the visualisation of Om can be combined with the chanting of Om, or not, whatever your preference. In any case, it is a simple yet potent practice.

Om is a key which can open the door to the infinite:

This mantra Om indeed represents Brahman (the Absolute). It is the highest. He who knows its meaning and worships it attains the supreme goal and knows everything.
Katha Upanishad

Om acts like the fabled philosopher’s stone of alchemy: it transforms base metal into gold. That is, it completely changes the perception and understanding of the yogic practitioner so that he or she is able to understand what was previously incomprehensible or unthinkable. This is clearly indicated by the following statement:

Fire, though potentially present in firewood, is not seen until one stick is rubbed against another. The Atma is that fire; it is realised by the constant awareness of the sacred mantra Om.
Let your individual personality be one stick and Om the other. Thus you will realise your real nature, which is hidden within just as fire is, in a sense, hidden in combustible materials.
Sweteshwatara Upanishad

The vibrations of Om act on the personality to bring transmutation - there is an alchemical change in one’s whole being and perception. This enables us to realise the hidden but ever present reality known as atma (consciousness).

From these quotations we can see the enduring importance given to the philosophical meaning of Om and its practical application in chanting, visualisation and reflection. It has the power to transform our perception of what we are and our place in the universe.

The Mantra OM in the Puranas

Om is widely mentioned in the puranas as the following verses will reveal:

I pay respects to the Ineffable Intelligence which is symbolised by the sacred syllable Om.
Bhagavat Purana

Let him recite the Gayatri Mantra prefixed with the mystic syllable Om, the mother of all the Vedic mantras.
Garuda Purana

In this last quote, we see that Om is inextricably linked to the Gayatri Mantra (12) which has been used in India since time immemorial.

The Shiva Purana states that 1,080,000,000 recitations of Om will purify our mind and lead us automatically to salvation.

The Narada Purana encourages the yoga practitioner to fix Om in the heart centre while meditating. Om is prescribed as an accompaniment to pranayama.

Other Puranas such as the Agni, Padma and Vayu Puranas also mention Om.

The Mantra OM in the Yoga Sutras

In the classical Yoga Sutras, the yogi and sage Patanjali tersely defines Om as follows:

Om is a symbol of Ishwara (Underlying Intelligence).
verse 1.27

And in the following verse he continues and advises combining mantra and gyana yoga:
Om should be repeated over and over again whilst reflecting on its deeper meaning.
verse (1.28)

As he next points out, this takes us to the state of meditation:

From this practice (of using Om), Awareness turns inwards and all obstacles are overcome.
verse 1.29

So we see that Om is a fundamental part of both the practice and the teachings of Ashtanga Yoga (13), also known as Patanjali Yoga.

The Mantra OM in the Bhagavad Gita

Om is widely mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita 14 where the mantra Om is an essential part of its teachings and practice. Krishna tells Arjuna:

O Arjuna, I am the taste of pure water, and the light of the moon and the sun. I am the essential nature of the mantra Om mentioned in the holy scriptures, the sound in ether, as well as the courage and virility of human beings.
verse 7.8

Krishna, who symbolises underlying intelligence or consciousness, is the essence of Om. Om, as sound vibration, is an expression of this underlying consciousness. Therefore, by practising mantra or gyana yoga (or even bhakti yoga )(15) we can trace Om back to its source. In this way, we are enabled to realise the nature of consciousness.

Krishna talks of death and the importance of chanting Om at the time of death:

The mantra Om symbolises Reality. At the time of death, repeat Om and you will go forth from the body and attain the Supreme Goal.
verse 8.13

From the yogic viewpoint, death is not just the time of disintegration of the physical body, but also a golden opportunity of directly realising our immortal or deathless essence. Chanting Om at the point of death can be a valuable part of this process.

Krishna also says that all spiritual practices should be initiated with Om:

Before starting sacrifices, holy practices and austerities (as prescribed by the scriptures), serious spiritual seekers should chant Om.
verse 17.24

Indeed, this is what we often do before starting yoga practice or meditation – we chant Om a few time, either aloud or mentally, whether alone or in a group.

Try it! It works wonders.

The Mantra OM in Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism

Om is an integral part of the philosophies, rituals, meditations and chants in Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. It has the same meaning and ramifications as in yoga. For further information, read the holy texts of these religions.

The Mantra AUM (OM) in ancient Egypt

It seems that the ancient Egyptians knew of Aum as Amen or Amun. It seems that Amen or Amen-Ra was a primordial creation deity, the name of the supreme God who was considered the creator and ruler of the other gods, and to have no beginning and no end. Possibly, Aum was deified as Amen. Certainly, this description ties up with Aum in that primordial energy is the source of all things, including gods, and indeed is without beginning and end, since it is the very source of time itself.

In any case, this word can be seen in the names of some of the Pharaohs, such as in Tut-ankh-amen (16) which literally means ‘The Living Image of Amen’. There was even a temple in the ancient city of Thebes called ‘Amen-Re’ or the Temple of Amen.’ It was located at the ‘navel’ of Egypt; that is, at its exact geographical centre (17).

Also, it is interesting to note that ovoidal-shaped stone markers called Om-pholos (a Greek word which literally means ‘navel’) were placed throughout Egypt as a means by which the land was delineated and surveyed. Moreover, each ompholos indicated that the god Amen was present there (18).

Possibly, and this is pure speculation, Om was symbolically placed in the form of these ompholos’ marker-monuments all over Egypt to indicate that that which Om represents is everywhere – in a word, Om-nipresent!

The God Thoth (19) (the God of Wisdom, known by the Greeks as Hermes) is believed to have created the world by his voice (primordial vibration) alone; this again hints at Om.

These parallels should not really surprise us, as it is becomes increasingly evident that the ancient Egyptians had enormous commercial, cultural and religious exchange with India. Possibly, in the mists of time, they shared a common culture or a common heritage.

And in passing, we would like to point out that some people say that the massive pyramids were constructed, not using present-day construction techniques, but the power of sound. As we develop our understanding of sound we may re-discover knowledge that the ancient Egyptians had known and used. Who knows?

The Mantra OM in Judaism and Christianity

Indian mystical thinking influenced Judaism in many ways. In this process, Aum (Om) became Amen and, as such, was later incorporated into Christianity as a sacred word. Amen is said to mean ‘so be it’, although this may be a later usage to convey the finality of the word.

Amen is widely mentioned in the Bible. It is used during worship (Revelations 3:14); to confirm an oath or that one agrees to moral laws (Deuteronomy 27:15-26); as an expression of benediction (1 Chronicles 16.36); for expressing one’s love of God (2 Corinthians 1:20) or as sign of thanks (1 Corinthians 14.16).

Though perhaps not directly, the following well known statement would also indicate Aum:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Amen (Aum)
Bible St. John 1:1

In any case, the ‘Word’ (or ‘Logos’ in Greek) means the cosmic throb or vibration and signifies exactly the same as Aum or Om. We see, therefore, that in fundamentals, such as the use of Aum or Amen, yoga and Indian mystical thinking in general, have a lot in common with Judaism and Christianity.

The Mantra Om in Islam

A few centuries after Christ, Amen was adopted into Islam as Amin or Alm. The Arabic letter ‘l’ is pronounced like ‘u’ when it appears before a consonant (20) which means that Alm automati cally become Aum.

Moreover, in exactly the same way as most traditional Indian spiritual texts, the Koran starts with Aum in the form of Alm! Here we see an extraordinary parallel between Islam and yoga, as well as mainstream Indian mystical thinking. Everything starts with Aum.

Did the Celts Use the Mantra Om

The ancient mystical language of the Irish Celts is known as Ogham (pronounced Ohm, Om or Aum). Is this merely a coincidence? Ogham was not a flexible, developed language, but more a set of hieroglyphic words for a limited range of things, mostly denoting objects revered by the Druids. This indicates the possibility that the ancient Celts, through their Druid priests, knew of and used Om.

Certainly, there is evidence of the influence of ancient Indian culture in the ancient Irish culture. After all, Gallic is an Indo-European language in which there are many words with Sanskrit roots. For example, the word Eire (Ireland), like the word for Iran, is derived from arya, a Sanskrit word which means ‘noble’ and denotes the people of ancient India.

It is possible, therefore, that the Ogham language has distant roots and was inspired by Om which, in turn, epitomises Sanskrit and ancient Indian mystical thinking.

The Mayans and the Word

In the ancient Mayan scripture known as Popal Vuh there is a saying:

The first real men (sages) are given life by the sole power of the Word (Sound Vibration).

Though not a direct reference to Om, it does seem to imply that in pre-Columbian America, Mayan sages (like Indian sages) knew the power of sound vibration (mantras) which Om symbolises.

The same applies to many ancient cultures world-wide who knew the transformative power of sound and who realised what science has only recently discovered: that the manifest universe is based on energy, of which sound is an aspect.

Vibratory Difference Between Aum and Amen

The science of linguistics reveals that Amen has evolved from Aum (Om). If you chant Aum for some time and then Amen you will see that there is a vibratory difference: Aum is deeper and resonates in the belly and, in fact, in the whole body; whereas, Amen vibrates in the head and throat.

Therefore, the vibrations of Aum tend to take us beyond the fetters of the intellect, whereas, Amen, tends to encourage ‘thinking’ and the intellectual processes.

Amen symbolises intellect (which characterises much of western culture) whereas Aum (Om) symbolises ‘being’ which has always been the essence of eastern religious and mystical systems.

OM in English words

Is it a coincidence that various English words derived from Latin, some of which have important philosophical meanings, start with Om?

Take Om-niscience and Om-nipotence.

Can it be a coincidence that Om, symbolising the universal sound vibration that contains all sounds and vibrations, is also contained in the word Om-nipresent!

Note also the words Om-nifarious and Om-en.

The Latin root word omni means ‘all’ or ‘universal’.

Isn’t it strange (or perhaps logical!) that the last letter of the Greek alphabet is Om-ega?

Possibly Om has influenced western culture, via the Greeks and Romans, more than we think, especially on a philosophical level.

Lastly, the English word ombudsman (which comes from Norwegian) means ‘a person who judges on intractable disputes or problems’. Is it a coincidence that one can break down the word so that it conveys the ancient role of Ombudsman? ‘Om-buds man’ could mean ‘Om’ + ‘buddhi’ + ‘manas’ - using the power of Om to awaken the buddhi (Sanskrit, ‘our discriminatory faculty’) over manas (Sanskrit, ‘the conceptual mind’). (21)

As most of you will know, both the terms ‘buddhi’ and ‘manas’ are widely used in yogic paradigms of the mind and its functioning.

Shree Yantra, the Geometric Form of OM and the Modern Science of Cymatics

The word yantra means ‘mystical diagram’. There are many differ ent types and they are widely used in yogic and tantric practice as a means of bringing about meditation.

The most famous is called the Shree Yantra (lit., ‘the blessed mys tical diagram’) which symbolises the ineffable relationship between the manifest and the unmanifest, between the material universe and the underlying substratum, and between the immanent and the transcendental.

Each part and each triangle of the Shree Yantra is symbolic of underlying processes both within each of us as human beings, and in the universe as a whole. This is not the place to go into any detail, but to merely point out, bearing in mind the context of this article, that the Bija (Seed) mantra associated with the Shree Yantra is Om. That is, the resonant frequency of the Shree Yantra is Om.

Furthermore, the chanting of Om creates the geometric shape of the Shree Yantra. Impossible you may say! But modern science has proved this to be true.

The relatively new branch of science called Cymatics, devised by Dr. Hans Jenny, a Swiss engineer and doctor, is concerned with investigating the relationship between sound and form. In 1970, Dr. Jenny established the Wave Phenomena Research Institute in Switzerland to pursue his research. He invented an instrument called a ‘tonoscope’ which trans forms sounds, uttered into a microphone, into their visual representation on a screen. When Om is chanted into the tonoscope it initially produces a circle (‘O’), which is then filled and surrounded by concentric forms, until, as the last trace of the ‘M’ fades away, the Shree Yantra is produced!

This shows conclusively that the Shree Yantra is indeed a visual and geometric representation of the mantra Om (22).

Moreover, it shows that there is a direct relationship between sound and form.

The process of focusing on the Shree Yantra, whilst chanting specific mantras and visualising associated deities, is widely practised in India and is known as Shree Vidya (lit., ‘the blessed means’ or ‘the blessed knowledge’). It is a complex meditational practice which can bring about a deep transformation in the practitioner.

Symbolism of the Syllables of Aum

A, U and M, both as syllables and as sounds, as well as the silence after chanting Aum, symbolise a number of different things as follows:

► Aum can be chanted by feeling the resonance of ‘A’ in the abdomen, then allowing the ‘U’ to resonate in the chest and finally feeling the ‘M’ vibration in the head.

A = abdomen
U = chest/throat
M = head

After the sound of Aum there is silence; this symbolises that which is ‘above’ the head (i.e. beyond thinking), the ineffable: Spirit, or Consciousness.

► According to the Mandukya Upanishad, the syllables of Aum represent the following realms of experience:

A = jagrat (waking state)
U = swapna (dreaming state)
M = shushupti (deep sleep state)

After chanting Aum there is silence; this symbolises the spiritually awakened state, which transcends the previous three states.

► The three syllables of Aum symbolise the three levels of mind as follows:

A = conscious
U = subconscious
M = unconscious
After chanting Aum there is silence; this represents the super consciousness state which transcends the previous three states.

► According to yoga, tantra, samkhya and vedanta, the whole of nature, including the human mind and body, is made up of the three gunas (Sanskrit, ‘guna’, qualities): sattwa (harmony, clarity and light); rajas (passion and dynamism); and tamas (ignorance, darkness and inertia).

The three syllables of Aum symbolise these three gunas as follows:

A = tamas
U = rajas
M = sattwa

After chanting Aum there is silence; this symbolises the state of trigunatita (Sanskrit, tri, three; atita, beyond) - that which transcends the three gunas, i.e. pure consciousness.

► The three syllables of AUM symbolise the three principles of existence symbolised by Brahma, the creative; Vishnu, the sustaining; and Shiva, the destructive:

A = Brahma
U = Vishnu
M = Shiva

After chanting Aum there is silence; this symbolises underly ing reality which is the substratum behind, and beyond, creation (Brahma), sustenance (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva).

► The three syllables of AUM symbolise the three realms of time: past, present and future:

A = present
U = past
M = future

After chanting Aum there is silence; this symbolises underlying reality which underlies and yet is beyond past, present and future; the timeless out of which time emerges.

Beyond Aum — the Transcendental

According to the Mandukya Upanishad, the transcendental state is called turiya (Sanskrit, the fourth) - that which is beyond and yet encompasses the three states symbolised by A, U and M.

Hence, in order to discourage us from putting a concept on something which is beyond concept, it is simply and succinctly called ‘the fourth.’

 The All-Encompassing Nature of Turiya

The circle symbolises turiya, underlying reality.

It includes jagrat, the conscious waking state (A), swapna, the dream, or subconscious state (U) and it includes shushupti, the causal, unconscious state (M).

Yet, paradoxically, it is beyond these three states. Though not necessarily visible to eyes, the first three states exist in, and are part of, the manifest universe.

Turiya includes all of these three states or levels of manifest reality, and yet it is beyond them. It encompasses them and yet transcends them. It is the unseen sub stratum which can only be realised when our mind dissolves into consciousness – when, to use an expression attributed to the sage Ramakrishna, the ‘salt doll dissolves in the ocean.’

Symbolic Meaning of the OM Glyph

The OM glyph or symbol supplements what we have already said for the syllables A, U and M.

That is, the three curves of Om (see the diagram above) also indicate the waking state (conscious mind), dream state (subconscious mind) and non-dream sleep state (unconscious mind).

However, the symbol contains two extra aspects which are not found either in the three Aum syllables, nor their three associated sounds: these are the bindu and the raif.

The Bindu and the Raif

The bindu (Sanskrit, point), symbolises each particle of existence. Each bindu is a catalyst for manifestation. It is also known as the transcendental point because each point of existence has intimate contact with the underlying reality.

The raif is the crescent moon-shaped symbol shown in the glyph (see previous diagram).

It symbolises the creative, expressive energy which is generated by or through each bindu, each particle.

The raif represents the cosmic hum of the universe, the means by which Shiva (the unmanifest, consciousness or underlying intelligence) can manifest through Shakti (cosmic energy) to create the world of multifarious objects which we perceive through the senses. This process takes place, continuously, moment to moment.

In terms of quantum physics, we can say that each and every particle (atomic, sub-atomic or whatever) arises out of the quantum vacuum (23) and thereby creates every ‘thing’ in existence.

The Sanskrit word raif means ‘to murmur’. Therefore, consciousness or the unmanifest ‘murmurs’ with a subtle continuous sound, so to say, into the manifest world of form through each and every bindu.

The bindu is the blue-print and the raif is the creative energy. Together, they symbolise the ineffable relationship between the finite and the infinite, between the part and the totality, between the individual and the all, and between time and the timeless.

Modern quantum physics tells us that each particle of existence is instantaneously connected to every other particle. This is independent of time and space - which suggests that there is an underlying principle (David Bohm, the well known quantum physicist, called it the implicate order) which is beyond time and space and which unifies all things on a deeper level of reality.

In yoga we call this principle consciousness. In the glyph of it is symbolised by the formless background on which the symbol is inscribed and by the ether from which the sound of Aum is created and to which it returns.

Plunging Through the Centre of Infinity

There is a well-known and ancient hermetic statement:

Reality is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is no-where (24).

There are many levels of interpretation, one of which was pointed out by Giordano Bruno (25). He said that whereas finite space, no matter how large it is, can have only one centre, infinite space has its centre everywhere. Mathematically, infinite space has an infinite number of centres.

One hundred years later, Leibnitz, the German mathematician, inspired by Bruno’s thinking, tried to explain the same thing with his theory of the monad (‘monas’ is ancient Greek for ‘unit.’). Leibnitz described each centre of infinity as a ‘monad.’ Each single monad contains the reflection of the entire universe – which is in agreement with modern quantum theory as well as many mystical systems including yoga and tantra.

The Hua Yen (or Kegon) School of Chinese Buddhism (26) has tried to explain this even further with the image of Indra’s (27) jewel net where there are an infinite number of jewels in each of which is reflected all the other jewels together. Also, each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel also reflects all the other jewels, indicating an infinite process of reflection. This gives an idea of the endless and limitless interrelationship between everything in the universe.

In yoga, each centre of infinity is called bindu (see previous heading ‘The bindu and the raif ’). Each monad, each particle of existence, is impregnated with energy and consciousness. Each bindu is in intimate contact with every other bindu. Each bindu shares with the totality and the totality shares with each bindu.

The primordial vibration, symbolised by OM, resonates through each of these infinite number of centres. By chanting Om, or any other mantra, we move from a state of extroversion and dissipation to a more introspective, harmonious state. Centring ourselves in meditation, we are able to ‘touch’ the bindu.

Plunging through this bindu (which exists everywhere), we can realise the nature of reality.

The Bindu of the Human Personality

Each and every embodied being is an expression of Shiva (consciousness; underlying reality) acting through the medium of Shakti (energy; the quantum vacuum). As we have already said, each bindu (particle) of existence acts as a conduit for the flow of creative energy represented by the raif.

But the bindu of the human personality is known as the Anandamaya Kosha, the blissful sheath or causal body. This is the nucleus of our existence as an embodied being. In meditation, we are in contact with this level of our being, and we can be catapulted into osmotic contact and realisation of underlying consciousness.

As Eckhart, the medieval German mystic, said:

The eye with which I see God is the same as that with which He sees me.

That is, reality ‘sees’ us (i.e. is in constant and intimate contact with us) through the bindu, but we can also reciprocate by ‘tuning’ into reality through the bindu (by ‘seeing’ through the same ‘eye’). The bindu, here the Anandamaya Kosha, allows us to realise reality.

Or, more correctly, we should say that the bindu is the point through which the cosmic consciousness realises itself through the individual consciousness.

When we chant Om we focus on the resonance which is the raif. Our being gets absorbed in this vibration and this has the power to lead us back, via the bindu, to realise the underlying nature or consciousness which is beyond the bindu.

All this is indicated by the symbol of OM: it is a symbol of the process of manifestation or creation, the means by which we exist as embodied beings. But, at the same time, Aum also symbolises the process of return, where through practice (Sanskrit, sadhana) we can realise our essential roots.

The Analogy of the Lotus

The lotus flower is an archetypal symbol of the evolutionary potential and development of each human being.

The lotus has three stages of growth and can be related to the tripartite structure of A-U-M and its profound meaning as follows:

The roots that sink deep in the mud correspond to ‘A’; the stem, as it grows through the water, corresponds to ‘U’; and the bud and the flower above the water opening into the sun, is ‘M’.

We are born in the womb, the dark matrix of matter (the roots in the mud); we grow up, developing the intellect, learning about our emotions and the ways of the world (the stem in the water of life); finally, we can blossom like the beautiful lotus flower when we realise our eternal connection with spirit (our petals unfurl in the sun).

Put in other terms, we can say that the lotus symbolises our growth in life as we pass through the three gunas (28): where we start in the mud of tamas (ignorance; identification with our physical form), pass through the waters of rajas (emotions, passion, ambition and furious activity) and finally, through refinement of our understanding (perhaps having practised yoga or some related system), we arrive in the fresh air and clear sky of sattwa (harmony, joy and clarity). Then we are enabled to realise the reality (the sun) which far transcends our individuality (symbolised by the lotus).

A-U-M and the lotus symbolise this whole process to supreme fulfilment of our lives.


Chanting Om and reflecting on its meaning can lead us to freedom or freed-om. Our essential nature is free; chanting Om helps us to realise this fact.

The Real OM

The real OM is the primordial cosmic vibration. It is ineffable and beyond symbol, syllable and sound.

The real Om is the bedrock of manifest existence.

The sound of Om that we chant is just a faint shadow of the reality behind the manifest world.

And yet this shadow also represents the transcendental.

Consider a full moon in the sky and one of its numerous reflections in a small puddle in your backyard. Obviously the reflection is not the full moon, and anything that you do to the reflected moon (i.e. throw a stone in the puddle) will not even slightly influence the moon in the sky. And yet, despite its insignificance, the reflection does faithfully indicate the shape and markings of the full moon. So it is with Om. It pales in comparison to what it represents, and yet, nevertheless, it is an indication of underlying reality. This applies to every ‘thing’ in existence from the smallest atom to the most enormous galaxy. They are all indications of underlying reality.

Reflect on this.

From the Circle to the Point

During chanting, the sound of Om starts with a circle and ends with a point.

During pronunciation, the lips are slightly apart with ‘A’, slowly starting to close with ‘U’ until they are completely closed with ‘M’.

Try it for yourself.

There is, firstly, expansion outwards and then contraction inwards.

This indicates the path of yoga: starting from a more or less (mentally and emotionally) dissipated state (represented by the circle), where we search for meaning externally, in the world at large, we start yoga and progressively move to a more unified state where we are centred in being (represented by the point). Every time we chant Om we are symbolising the path towards unity.

Om in Other Mantras

Om is an integral part of most other mantras used in yoga (Om Namah Shivaya, Gayatri Mantra, Mrityunjaya Mantra etc.). Om precedes other mantras since it symbolises consciousness and without consciousness, nothing can exist. Without the presence of underlying intelligence, the mantra has no value and no power to transform; indeed it cannot even exist! Om is the very core, the bed-rock, of all sounds and all other mantras. Without that which is symbolised by Om nothing can exist, including each of us.

Om Takes Us Home

Our essential nature, our original home, is consciousness.

H-O M-E is composed of OM encompassed by HE; Therefore, OM is the essence of HE (underlying intelligence).

Chanting Om helps us to realise the roots of our being, and in the deepest sense takes us homeward.

Om symbolises:

• the vibration of God.
• truth, the absolute.
• the ‘hum’ of the universe.
• liberation, and the means to it.

Om symbolises and encourages:

• the descent of universality into the human heart. • the descent of the infinite into the finite.
• the expression of the unconditioned into the conditioned. • the descent of the formless into form.

The chanting of Om and reflection on its meaning helps to bring about a transformation in our perception so that we can start to realise the meaning of the above.

The Mantra OM Meditation Practice

  1. Sit in any comfortable position.
  2. Having adjusted the body and removed all discomfort, close the eyes.
    Feel the solidity of your physical body and the contact with the ground.
    1 minute.
  3. Feel as though your body is an empty vessel.
    Be aware of the inner space.
    1 minute.
  4. Then breathe in deeply.
    As you breathe out chant OM feeling the vibration and resonance in the inner space.
    At the end of the OM listen to the inner silence.
    20 seconds.
  5. Then breathe in and repeat.
    Do this 7 times according to the time available.
  6. Then, in the inner space, try to visualise the akhanda jyoti (the eternal flame).
    1 minute.
  7. Then, in the middle of the flame, visualise the symbol of OM (ॐ).
    1 minute.
  8. Reflect on the meaning of OM – that it symbolises primordial vibration, the basis for all things and all beings in the manifest universe. It is also a reflection and a symbol of underlying reality.
    2 minutes.
  9. Then slowly open your eyes and move your body.



1. Upanishads: the culmination of the vedas; texts on gyana yoga, the yoga of reflection. There are up to 260 different extant texts, though by tradition there are said to be 108 which are considered authentic.
2. Tantras: a collection of numerous texts which give the philosophical back ground and practical teachings of tantra, a system closely allied to yoga.
3. Puranas: ancient texts, 18 in number, which present spiritual teachings, includ ing yoga, in the form of epics and myths.
4. Samkhya, a philosophical system said to have been formulated by the Sage Kapila, which provides some of the philosophical basis for yoga; a form of gyana yoga, the yoga of reflection.
5. Vedanta: system of non-dualism which has been a strong current in Indian mystical thinking for thousands of years, of which there are many extant texts, including those by the yogi Shankaracharya; it also comes under the heading of gyana yoga.
6. Which can be roughly translated as ‘The teachings of yoga according to the Sage Vashishta’.
7. The first and largest of the four vedas, compendiums of the most ancient Indian mystical teachings.
8. The second of the four vedas; the other two are the Yajur and Atharva Vedas.
9. The archaeological digs are in northern India and present-day Pakistan.
10. See later sub-headings ‘Symbolism of the syllables of Aum’ and ‘Beyond Aum — the transcendental’.
11. Good commentaries on the Mandukya Upanishad include: Mandukya Upanishad (with Gaudapada’s Karika) translation and commentary by Swami Lokeshwarananda pub. The Ramakrishna Mission. Mandukya Upanishad (with Gaudapada’s Karika) – translation and commentary by Swami Chinmayananda pub. Chinmaya Mission.
12. A sacred vedic and yogic mantra.
13. ‘The Eightfold Path of Yoga, formulated by Patanjali in the ‘Yoga Sutra.’
14. ‘The Song of the Divine’ a classical text on Yoga, based on the discussion between Arjuna, the warrior, and his teacher Krishna.
15. The yoga of the heart, or the yoga of devotion.
16. Circa 1380 B.C.
17. Refer to ‘Secrets of the Great Pyramid’ by Peter Tompkins pub. Allen Lane (Penguin Books) 1971.
18. Ibid.
19. To whom is attributed the well-known Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’, a mystical text of outstanding depth and insight.
20. Refer to the article ‘Swami Rama Tirtha’s Meeting with the Muslims’ p.37 ‘Self Knowledge’ magazine Vol.53, No.1 Winter 2002, quarterly magazine of the Shanti Sadan (London), the Centre of Adhyatma Yoga in the West; also p.282 ‘Gods, Sages and Kings’ by David Frawley.
21. This possible etymology was suggested to me by Michael McCann (Spandan), who was, for some time, an Ombudsman.
22. For more details refer to Jenny’s book entitled ‘Cymatics’ published by Basilius Press, Basel.
23. Also known as the Zero Point Field: the unseen, underlying background, or the realm of non-locality, where time and space do not exist.
24. Variously ascribed to Empedocles (c. 500-430 B.C., Greek philosopher and poet), Giordano Bruno (the medieval mystic) and Blaise Pascal (the French philosopher); even to Saint Bonaventure!
25. Who was burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in Rome in 1600 A.D.
26. Developed by Fa-Tsang and which provided Zen with a formal philosophy.
27. Indra: Hindu (and later Buddhist) deity known as Lord of the Mind, who indicates the unthinkable powers and complexity of the cosmic mind.
28. Refer to previous heading ‘Symbolism of the Syllables of Aum’.

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