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 formulated his famous equation 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 symbolise the fact that all material objects, all phenomena and all thought patterns, both on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level, are states of energy vibration.
Om in Sanatan Dharma. Indian mystical and philosophical thinking is impregnated with Om, mentioned widely in the Upanishads , Tantras , Puranas , Samkhyas and in specialised Vedantic texts such as the Yoga Vashishta . 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.
Om is widely known as the 'Mahat Mantra' - ‘the great mantra’.
Om is not directly mentioned in Rig Veda , probably because it was considered too sacred to utter or even write down. Om is first mentioned, albeit indirectly, in the Yajur Veda 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) . The reason may be either 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.
Om in the Mandukya Upanishad. The Mandukya Upanishad is exclusively dedicated to explaining the significance of Om. It says that Om symbolises everything manifest and yet it has its origin in the Unmanifest. In its analysis it writes Om as Aum with each of the three syllables having specific significance [see later sub-headings ‘Symbolism of the Syllables of Aum’ and ‘Beyond Aum — the Transcendental’].
Much of what we are saying about Om in this article is contained in the 12 pithy verses of the Mandukya Upanishad.
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)."
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 also to any inspired sacred text of any tradition. There are many thousands of verses contained in the Vedas and in other texts; 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”.
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".
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.
Om in the Puranas. Om is widely mentioned in the Puranas as the following snippets will reveal:
‘I pay respects to the Ineffable Intelligence which is symbolised by the sacred syllable Om.’
‘Let him recite the Gayatri Mantra prefixed with the mystic syllable Om,
the mother of all the Vedic mantras.’
In this last quote, we see that Om is inextricably linked to the Gayatri Mantra which has been used in India since time immemorial.
The Shiva Purana states that 1,080,000,000 recitations of Om 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.
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).’
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.’
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.’
So we see that Om is a fundamental part of the practice and teachings of Ashtanga Yoga , also known as Patanjali Yoga.
Om in the Bhagavad Gita. Om is widely mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita 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.’
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 ) 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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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 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.
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. 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 (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 because it is becoming more and more 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?
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. Amen is said to mean ‘so be it’, though this may be a later interpretation.
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.
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 which means that Alm automatically 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 Om? The ancient mystical language of the Irish Celts was called 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 called the Popal Vuh it says:
'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 as well the growth of Christianity and Judaism) 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 ‘universal’. Isn't it strange (or perhaps logical!) that the last letter of the Greek alphabet is Om-ega? Possibly Om has influenced our 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’) . 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. The word yantra means ‘mystical diagram’. There are many different types and they are widely used in yogic and tantric practice as a means of bringing about Meditation.