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OM - its Meaning and Significance


OM

If you attend a yoga class, it is very likely that the teacher starts the class by reciting the sound of OM three times. Most teachers like to chant OM at the end of the class as wll. That’s how I start and end the classes tha I teach. So, the natural question that comes up is, "why chant OM and what is the significance of this sound?". Here is a brief explanation of the meaning and significance of OM.

OM is considered to be the ‘primordial sound’. Even before the material creation came into existence there was only the natural humming energy which resembled the sound of OM. Today, we know that one form of energy can be converted to another form – electricity to sound, electricity to heat, heat to electricity etc. According to the famous equation by Einstein – E=mc2, all matter is nothing but waves of energy. So, when the ‘powers that be’ decided to create this material universe, they were able to use the ever-present humming sound vibration of OM to manifest this creation. This same vibration continues to exist all around us and even inside us. The inner sound is given the name "antar-naada" (the inner sound) which can be heard when we can tune in to our pure inner self.

The OM mantra has been mentioned in many of the ancient texts related to yoga. In many of the Upanishads, it is revered as representing everything that is manifest and yet has its roots in the unmanifest. The Mandukya Upanishad (MU), in particular, is fully devoted to the discussion of OM. In the Upanishads, OM is mentioned as being the same as Brahman (the supreme consciousness).

Meaning of OM

The Sanskrit word OM (also written as AUM) is a composite of three letters "A" (? - like the first sound in ‘aware’ , "U" (? -as in ‘foot’ and "M" (?? - as the last sound in ‘mum’). According to MU, the three letters A, U and M represent the waking, dream and deep sleep states. The silence between successive repetitions of the mantra represents the fourth state called ‘turiya’ (literally the ‘fourth’ in Sanskrit), a state that transcends these three states. These three states correspond to the conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious states of the mind. A few other commonly mentioned interpretations of the letters A, U and M are given below:

  • According to yoga, Samkhya and many other scriptures, the whole material creation, including human mind and body are a manifestation of the ‘mula prakriti’ (primordial nature) which is composed of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. The three letters of OM thus correspond to the three gunas as follows:
    • A = tamas (darkness, inertia, ignorance)
    • U = rajas (passion, activity, dynamism)
    • M = Sattva (purity, truth, light)

    The silence between the two AUM sounds represents the pure consciousness, a state which transcends the three gunas (called ‘trigunaatit’ – beyond gunas)

  • A = Brahma (the creator), U = Vishnu (the sustainer) and M = Shiva (the destroyer); the silence between two OM sounds = the substratum or the reality that lies beyond the trinity
  • A = Present, U = Past, M = future; silence between sounds = the reality beyond time and space

    Other names for OM

    In some of the Upanishads, OM is referred to as ‘udgita’ (the uplifting chant) or ‘Omkara’. In Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and in some Upanishads it is mentioned as ‘Pranava’. Patanjali mentions it as a ‘vachaka’ or the representative symbol for Ishvara (the Lord). Other words used for OM include ‘taraka’ (the one that helps us cross the ocean of this perishable life), ‘akshara’ (indestructible or imperishable), and the Brahman (supreme consciousness) in sound form called ‘Shabda Brahman.

    OM in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

    In chapter 1 (Samadhi Pada) of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us the concept of Ishvara as "Ishvara is the supreme Purusha, unaffected by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions or by any inner impressions of desires." (translation by Sw. Satchidananda) (sutra 1.24). The following sutras provide us an insight into the sacred symbol OM:

    • sutra 1.27: "The word expressive of Ishvara is the mystic sound OM (pranava)"
    • sutra 1.28: "To repeat it with reflection upon its meaning is an aid."
    • sutra 1.29: "From this practice all the obstacles disappear and simultaneously dawns knowledge of the inner Self."
    • sutra 1.30: "Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles."
    • sutra 1.31: "Accompaniments to the mental distractions include distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing."

    As we can see from these sutras by Patanjali, chanting of OM can make us free from obstacles (defined in sutra 1.30) and provide us a glimpse of the inner self.

    Even though chanting of OM as a mantra by itself is advocated in the above sutras, it is common to use OM in conjunction with other mantras. In some cases, it is added at the beginning of a shloka ; for example – "OM namo shivaya, OM bhur, bhuvah, svaha" etc. In other cases it is also added at the end of a phrase – e.g., Hari OM. Most of the mantras in the vedas also start with OM. In the spiritual tradition, those who wish to meditate on a regular basis get a personal mantra from their spiritual teacher. This personal mantra may or may not include OM as a part of the mantra.

    How to chant OM

    As Patanjali states in sutra 1.28, OM should be chanted keeping its meaning and significance in mind. Since OM is the representative sound and symbol for Ishvara, it is important to keep the essence of Ishvara (sutra 1.24) in mind while chanting OM. The technique for chanting OM is given below:

    Sit in a comfortable cross-legged seated posture with the spine upright, head, neck and spine in a vertical (if comfortable) alignment. Close the eyes and take a deep inhalation. While exhaling start uttering the OM sound. Begin by feeling the vibration of the "O" sound building up in the navel area and traveling upward. As you continue the chant, feel the vibration moving upward toward the base of the throat. When the vibration reaches the throat area, convert the sound to a deep humming sound of "M". Continue to feel the vibration moving upward until it reaches the crown of the head (called Sahasrara Chakra). You may repeat this process two or more times. At the end of the final chant, continue to sit still and feel the vibration of the OM sound permeating the whole body – every single cell of the body.

    Benefits of chanting OM

    The continued recitation of OM (called Udgita Pranayama) fills one with peace, calmness, tranquility and serenity. When we recite it with the understanding that OM is nothing but a representation of Ishvara, it brings us closer to our true nature, our own pure self. As mentioned above, OM is the primordial sound and this entire creation is a manifestation of this mystic sound. It represents the cosmic prana (the vital energy) and the air we breathe. Meditating on these thoughts can bring us closer to other human beings and lift the veil of separateness.

    Do you chant the sound of OM in your yoga practice? If so, do you chant OM by itself or in association with other mantras? I would love to get your feedback on this article and also would like to know about your own meditation practice. Please leave me a comment below.

    42 comments to OM – its Meaning and Significance

    • surender

      very good sir i take very good info about om from your site

    • Great information, well recieve by us followers of hinduism and believers.

    • yoginiinthemaking

      Thank you for your insight and for posting this. Very helpful to my journey, my path.

      In the yoga class I attend, our yogini ends the class with Om, Ma, Oom, three times. Now I know what it means and what the silent part indicates, as it grows longer with each repitition.
      I also didn’t know about imagining the sound in your belly traveling upwards. I will try that.
      Namaste

      • admin

        Thank you so much for visiting my blog. I am glad to see that you found the infomation helpful. Please browse through the blog for other posts and provide your valuable comments.
        - Subhash

    • Murali

      Chanting of Ohm makes any positive impact on Endocrine system..?

      • Subhash

        Dear Murali, thanks for visiting my blog. As for impact of OM chanting on the endocrine system, I don’t have access to any research report which mentions this kind of an impact. It’s a good question and I would myself like to find an answerr. Thanks for asking.

    • Vishwa

      Hinduism has answers for anything and everything, practicing its sastrams could be considered utmost education. I am proud to have the Hindu way of life and proud to see such enchanting contributions from believers like you. Thank you for the values you bring.

      • Subhash

        Thank you so much, Vishwa, for your comment and feedback. My personal preference is to use the term “Sanatana Dharma” instead of Hinduism to represent what I think is the source of all knowledge.

    • krishan bassi

      To day I am on internet to study OM CHANTING .Luckily I saw your blog,read & TRIED TO UNDERSTAN,AS COMPARED TO MY EARLIER EXPERIANCES IN YOGA & ALSO OM CHANTING.i LIKED YOURS WHEN I READ THAT TO FEEL VIBRATION IN CHAKRAS.OM CHANTING WITH AWARENESS OF BREATH & CHAKRAS SHOULD GIVE GOOD RESULTD. I WILL TRY
      THANKS ARTICLE IS EDUCATIVE & WILL BENEFIT ME ..
      REGARDS
      K K BASSI

    • admin

      Thanks, Krishna, for visiting my site. I am glad that you found the article on OM helpful. Keep up the practice.
      Regards,
      Subhash

    • satish

      I need to know that is it necessary to make sound while chanting om? As it becomes show of when it is done for medicinal reason.Please clarify. Thanking you.

      • admin

        Satish, I am not sure I understand your question very well. Om can be chanted both with and without sound. You make sound when you recite Om before reciting another shloka, for example. You also make sound when you chant it as part of Udgita pranayama. However, you chant it silently when you are using it as a mantra for meditation. Hope this helps.
        - Subhash

    • Kathy

      Beautiful article…so many wise words…thank you so much for sharing. I always start and end my yoga classes with 3 Om’s followed by 3 shanti’s.
      All love,
      Kathy

    • krishnaiah palaboyidoddi

      Sir, I am a Yoga Instuctor in Bangalore and at present in US.
      it is very useful to chant AUM
      akara ukara makara gives rise to omkara.which vibrates all cells in the body and leads to samadi stiti.onceagain thanq sir

    • Dear Subhash,

      Very interesting and informative post! The word is discussed at length in Autobiography of a Yogi. There, Paramahmsaji equates it with Amen as well.

      Namaste,
      Yosef

    • [...] If you attend a yoga class, it is very likely that the teacher starts the class by reciting the sound of OM three times. Most teachers like to chant OM at the end of the class as wll. That’s how I start and end the classes tha I teach. So, the natural question that comes up is, “why chant OM and what is the significance of this sound?”. Here is a brief explanation of the meaning and significance of OM. Continue reading  >> [...]

    • [...] The vibration of the sound should begin at the navel and eventually work its way up to the crown of the head, according to yogawithsubhash.com. [...]

    • jaideep

      Hi Subhash sir this is jaideep from Mumbai India i want to ask i practice on not soo regularly but atleast for hundred times is it ok??as they say tat pranayams whoulb be done in limits as they make us feel tired…but i dont fell tired bu m i going right??

    • Sriman

      Dear Sir,
      This information on OM is simple and very valuable.I appreciate it.Any one can understand it easily.

    • Thanks for sharing the significance of OM. Om namah shivay chanting helps to a great extend to go deeper in meditation.

    • A

      What should be the timing for the parts of om? i.e what should be the ratio of time spent in the “Oooooo” part and “Mmmmmm” part?

      • You may have seen AUM written as ओ३म् in the Devanagri script. The digit 3 between O and M indicates that the previous sounds should be long. In Sanskrit it is called the “pluta” sound. It simply means that the O sound should be much longer than the M sound. How much longer? I haven’t seen anything specified in any of the texts that I have read. My recommendation is that we should try to make the O sound about twice as long as the M sound. Hope this helps.

    • saibaba

      its very crystal clear explanation sir.why 21 days to form a habit please publish sir if u r aware of this question?

    • Ganesha

      In very simple terms, while chanting om three times before and after yoga practice, what does each om represent? I’ve been told that it represents the physical, astral and causal bodies. Please advise.

      • Hi Ganesha,
        According to the Mandukya Upanishad, OM is a composite of three letters – “A” representing all our experiences in the waking state, “U” representing our experiences in the dream state and “M” the experience in the deep sleep state. So OM is a representation of the totality of all our experience in life. As you mentioned, these three states also correspond to the physical (waking state), astral (dream) and causal (deep sleep) states of our being. So when we chant OM three times, we are invoking our awareness at these three levels of our being.
        Subhash

    • [...] Yoga with Subhash (2010, May 31). Om – It’s meaning and significance [web log post]. Retrieved Febraury 13, 2014, from http://yogawithsubhash.com/2010/05/31/om-meaning-significance/ [...]

    • Namaste sir, how are you? Thanks for this wonderful article. Its great to come through you once again. I hope everything going well with you..

      • It is so nice to hear from you, Sunil. I visited your website. It is interesting to see that it is in Chinese and so I couldn’t see what it contains. But it does seem beautifully designed. Looks like you have established yourself well as yoga teacher in China. Let me have your phone number as i would like to call you sometime to catch up with you and all your activities.

    • hemlata mittql

      Today i joined art of living class…. nd i felt d effect of chanting om…
      thanku sir fr makingvus understand !

    • MEENA

      Great article!!! I am Meena Mothilal, SOUTH AFRICAN. I am deeply involved with promotion of Hindu culture in S.A. Loved your explaination on OM!!!!!

      • Thanks, Meena, for taking the time to read the article on OM. I am so glad that you found it useful. You are doing a wonderful job of promoting Hindu culture in SA. All the best.

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