- Guest Post by Umesh Gulati
The other day when my wife and I bought groceries at the Whole Foods and came to the cash register to pay, I noticed the sign OM in Sanskrit tattooed on the arm of a cashier. Out of curiosity, I asked her about that tattoo and she said that it was Om and her mother who was a Yoga teacher started her lesson by uttering this word, and had it tattooed it on her arm too. That led me to write this essay on this great symbol of OM for general information.
Human knowledge in various fields has been greatly advanced by the invention and use of symbols. Language itself is a collection of symbols. Quantities and numbers become simplified when expressed through symbols. When the Indian sages realized the Absolute and the Unconditioned in the unity of Brahman (ultimate Reality, God) and Atman (Soul or Self), they felt the need for adequate symbols to communicate so incommunicable a truth. No single personal God of the various religions, or any physical symbol could serve as a symbol for a Reality that is at once Personal and Impersonal, immanent and transcendent.
No particular sound of the alphabet, either as a consonant or a vowel, could serve as an adequate symbol of Brahman, which is the unity of all existence, or Existence Absolute. The universal that is Brahmanâ€”not Brahmin, which is a caste, cannot be expressed adequately through anyone particular; it can be expressed by something that possesses the characteristics of the universal. In their search they came across the sound symbol Om, and discovered that of all the sounds, it possessed the quality of universality. Om or Aum is composed of the sounds of the three letters, akaara, ukaara, and makaara of the Sanskrit vocabulary corresponding to A, U, M of the English vocabulary. ‘A’, pronounced as the letter ‘o’ in the word ‘come’, is the first vowel and letter of the Sanskrit alphabet; as the first of the guttural sounds, it is the very first sound that one can utter. As the last of the labial sounds that involves the closing of the lips, ‘m’ is the last sound that can be produced by anyone; and ‘u’, pronounced in the word ‘full’, is the sound produced by rolling the breath over the whole of the tongue. Hence the combination of these three sounds into Om is also a combination of all sounds that man can possibly utter, and therefore it includes all the words in any language; as such Om also stands for Knowledge Absolute, and is fit to be a symbol of Brahman in its immanent aspect, which is Atman.
Om in its uttered form finally merges into its unuttered form; every uttered sound merges into the silence of the soundless. This soundless (amÄtra) aspect of Om is the symbol of Brahman in its transcendental aspect, beyond time, space, and causality, and is indicated by the bindu or dot in the crescent over the syllable Om as written in Sanskrit and shown above:
The Om, as the unity of all sounds to which all matter and energy are reduced in their primordial form, is therefore a fit symbol for Atman or Brahman, which is the unity of all existence. Indeed the ancient Indian sages said that this whole universe is nothing but Om in its two aspects: manifested and un-manifested. That is why the Hindus accord the highest reverence and worship to Om, and treat it as the holiest symbol or pratika, of divinity; they call it nÄda Brahman or Brahman in the form of sound. Aside from Hinduism, other religions that emanated from India, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, too, accept it as the holiest word. Its nearest equivalent in the West is the Logos or the Word. As St. John’s Gospel majestically expounds it (1.1): ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’
The Hindu scriptures also express the truth of the Atman as revealed in the three states: of waking, dream, and dreamless sleep. They identify each of the three letters of Om (or AUM) with the Atman as revealed in each of these three states, and the soundless aspect of Om with the Atman revealed in the transcendental state. The Atman as the unity of the experiences and the experienced is the totality of all existence, and Om is its symbol. In short, the one syllable word, Om, is nothing but the ultimate unconditional or Impersonal Reality, which is Brahman; Om is also the conditioned or Personal Reality, which is called God in various religions.
Since Om represents total Reality, both Impersonal-Personal, Hindus are enjoined to perform all acts of worship, giving gifts, and doing austerities and sacrifices (yajna) as enjoined in the scriptures, by always uttering ‘Om’ at the beginning. Most of their mantrÄs also begin with the word Om. Even those who are fond of doing yoga exercises also begin their routine by uttering this word.
The rationale of this is that Om representing the Absolute Reality, which is pure and perfect, by uttering this word we purify our thoughts, words and struggles, thereby perfecting all our actions. One of India’s great saints of the nineteenth century, Sri Ramakrishna said very eloquently: A zero has no value; you put ten zeroes, it doesn’t add anything. But, put a digit ‘1’ before the zeroes, then everything shines. Every new zero then contributes to the value. So he said, put God (Om) first and then everything that you do becomes meaningful.
In other words, the actions that we perform with our limited finite bodies and finite minds are naturally imperfect because they tend to have selfish motives like earning name, fame, wealth and even heaven, behind them. However, if in the beginning we think of the Absolute, the Lord, we can perfect our finite imperfect acts. Just as all our virtuous actions are imperfect, the so-called sinful actions are much more so. In fact, a virtuous act and a sinful act differ only in degree not in kind. Therefore, the sages enjoin that by repeating this word, Om, we can convert all sinful acts into virtuous acts, and all virtuous acts into perfectly virtuous ones. Finally, and for the same reason, the Hindus also end their prayer, and hence we also end this piece, by chanting: Om, ShÄnti, ShÄnti, ShÄnti (Om, Peace, Peace, Peace).