You may chant “OM” in your yoga or meditation class, but do you really know what it means? Learn how the sound of OM weaves into your daily life, and how it relates to spiritual growth.
Most of us are familiar with the mantra OM. We routinely chant it at the end of a group meditation or a yoga class, without thinking much about it. Maybe we use a mantra that begins with OM, but what does it really represent? What is the true value of this all-powerful sound?
The Creation of the Universe According to Sound
Science tells us that the Universe began with a big bang, whereas Vedanta says that the big bang is actually a big OM, which didn’t just happen once; it is ongoing. In fact, if the OM stopped for even a microsecond, the whole Universe as we know it would disappear instantly! OM rises from Pure Consciousness, which is primary and underlies all existence, constantly unfolding as our experience of the Universe.
Imagine, if you can, a time before the Universe existed. Imagine a field of Pure Consciousness, an eternal silence. Not an empty silence, but one filled with the potential for everything. At some point, Pure Consciousness decided it wanted to have an experience but, as nothing else existed, it could only experience itself. Because all experiences are based on contrast, Pure Consciousness had to move within itself to experience itself.
Now, movement creates friction, and friction creates noise, so Pure Consciousness experiencing itself created a sound. However, Pure Consciousness, by definition, is silent, so this sound, which was OM, had to be forced out of the silence and became what we call conditioned consciousness. OM, or conditioned consciousness, is what we experience as the Universe in which we live.
The idea that God created the world out of nothing is also central today to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—and many references to a god creating the Universe by sound (words) exist. In the Old Testament God created through His words when He said, “Let there be Light.” The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word (the sound of OM), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Oneness).”
The Expanding Universe
As the initial vibration of OM emerges from the unmanifest, it diversifies into all the different vibrations of the Universe, which manifest as the world we know. OM, therefore, contains within it all the mantras, sounds, and vibrations of the Universe. Everything in the Universe is a manifestation of OM and ultimately a reflection of Pure Consciousness from which it emerged. OM is the collective sound of the Universe, the Primordial Sound.
The Secret Doctrine of the Rosicrucians says, “The One becomes Many, the Unity becomes Diversity, the Identical becomes Variety, yet the Many remains One.” The Gospel of John says, “The Word became flesh” (manifest creation). In Egyptian literature, the creator god pronounced the names of everything.
Modern science tells us the Universe is expanding. Vedanta tells us that our Consciousness, or Awareness, expands as we grow towards Enlightenment. The Quran states, “And the heaven (space) We created with might, and indeed We are (its) expander.”
If, as Vedanta tells us, the Universe is a projection of our Consciousness, then the so-called expansion of the Universe is contingent on our spiritual growth, and at the moment of our Enlightenment, the Universe will also reach the conclusion of its journey and cease to exist as a separate reality.
OM is mentioned numerous times throughout Vedic literature, most commonly in its original form of AUM.
The four principal Vedas, Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva, expound on the knowledge of the entire creation. It is said that all the knowledge of the four Vedas is contained in the Rig and all the knowledge of the Rig Veda is contained in its first syllable “A”. Thus by fully understanding this first syllable, which is the beginning of the mantra AUM, we can have knowledge of the entire creation. According to the ancient Puranic texts, AUM represents the union of the three main masculine deities and the forces within the Universe. “A” means Brahma (creation), “U” means Vishnu (maintenance), and “M” means Shiva (destruction). In the great Indian text the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (the Divine) says, “Of words I am OM.”
The Chandogya Upanishad opens with the recommendation to "let a man meditate on OM, the essence of all.” The Chandogya Upanishad also tells us that the gods took the song of OM unto themselves, thinking, "with this [song] we shall overcome the demons,” thus implying that OM inspires the good inclinations within each person.
When speaking of OM, the Katha Upanishad says, “this syllable is Brahman (the Absolute), this syllable is the highest, he who knows that syllable, whatever he desires, is his.”
The Shvetashvatara Upanishad asserts that OM is a tool of meditation that empowers one to know the God within oneself, to realize one's Atman (Soul, Self).
Adi Shankara said that if you can only study one Upanishad, it should be the Mandukya, which is fortunate because it happens to be the shortest and is devoted entirely to OM. It opens by declaring, "AUM, this syllable is this whole world, all past, present, future, and whatever exists beyond time is AUM.” In other words, everything that exists in manifest creation is contained within AUM. The Mandukya Upanishad then talks about four states of consciousness:
- The “waking state,” where the senses are turned outward, is represented by the letter “A” and by knowing this, we become masters of our senses, leading to the fulfillment of all desires and the attainment of greatness.
- The “dream state,” where the senses are directed inward, is represented by “U” and by knowing this we master our dreams, become established in wisdom, and everyone born into our family is more deeply Brahman (highly evolved).
- “Deep sleep,” where consciousness enjoys peace with no perception of external or internal objects, is represented by the letter “M.” The Mandukya says that by knowing this we know all, and everything merges into ourselves. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that Mmmm is the name of God, and in Psalms it says, “God gives Truth to His beloved in sleep.”
- The fourth state described in the Mandukya Upanishad is Turiya, which we know as Transcendental Consciousness, Atman, the soundless aspect of AUM, or the “gap” between thoughts. Turiya is represented by “AUM.” Though it is indivisible, it is the combination of three sounds. The Mandukya tells us that AUM is the very Self, beyond birth and death, the symbol of everlasting Joy. He who knows it as such, enters the Self with his self. Those who know the Truth become the Truth.
As OM is the sound of the Universe, it’s always present, so technically we can’t chant it. We cannot create OM by a chanting of it; we only produce a vibration sympathetic with the vibration that is already there, which is OM. It is not a chant made by us, created by us, or initiated by us. Rather, we establish a connection between ourselves and the Supreme Reality, which manifests itself as sound vibration in the form of OM.
An alternative way of chanting OM is in its separate form. In one breath chant, “Aaaa—Uooo—Mmm,” followed by silence. The fullness of the “A” sound collapses into “U,” then “M,” and finally the silence of all three together once they have ended on the gross level. The waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states merging into the Oneness of the Absolute.
When OM is part of our mantra, such as in Primordial Sound Meditation, we experience the fully expanded level of creation, attuning our individual souls to the Ultimate Reality.
Sometimes, if you sit very quietly, you will hear the sound of OM, like a distant cosmic hum. Listen within you; it’s not outside you, it is you.
When your mind is quiet and you listen, you will hear God humming.
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