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Aum

This page is about Aum or Om, a sacred Hindu syllable. For the Japanese cult, see Aum Shinrikyo. For words outside Hinduism which are similar to Om, see Om.

Aum (also Om, ) is the most sacred syllable in Hinduism, first coming to light in the Vedic Tradition. The syllable is sometimes referred to as the "Udgitha" or "pranava mantra" (primordial mantra); not only because it is considered to be the primal sound, but also because most mantras begin with it. As a seed syllable (bija), it is also considered holy in Esoteric Buddhism. In Devanagari it is written ॐ (Unicode U+0950) and in Tibetan script ༀ (Unicode U+0F00).

Contents

The Significance of the Symbol Om

The symbol Om (also called Pranava), is the most sacred symbol in Hinduism. Volumes have been written in Sanskrit illustrating the significance of this mystic symbol. Although this symbol is mentioned in all the Upanishads and in all Hindu scriptures, it is especially elaborated upon in the Taittiriya, Chandogya and Mundaka Upanishads.

The goal, which all Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which humans desire when they live a life of continence, I will tell you briefly it is Om. The syllable Om is indeed Brahman. This syllable Om is the highest. Whosoever knows this symbol obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahman.
-Katha Upanishad I, ii, 15-17

The symbol of Om contains of three curves, one semicircle and a dot. The large lower curve symbolizes the waking state; the upper curve denotes deep sleep (or the unconscious) state, and the lower curve (which lies between deep sleep and the waking state) signifies the dream state. These three states of an individualís consciousness, and therefore the entire physical phenomenon, are represented by the three curves. The dot signifies the Absolute (fourth or Turiya state of consciousness), which illuminates the other three states. The semicircle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. The semicircle is open on the top, which means that the absolute is infinite and is not affected by maya. Maya only affects the manifested phenomenon. In this way the form of Om symbolizes the infinite Brahman and the entire Universe.

Uttering the monosyllable Om, the eternal world of Brahman, One who departs leaving the body (at death), he attains the superior goal.
-Bhagavad Gita, 8.13

Aum in Hindu tradition

Origin

Found first in the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, Aum has been seen as the first manifestation of the unmanifest Brahman (the single Divine Ground of Hinduism) that resulted in the phenomenal universe. Essentially, all the cosmos stems from the vibration of the sound 'Aum' in Hindu cosmology. Indeed, so sacred is it that it is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu mantras and incantations. It is undoubtedly the most representative symbol of Hinduism.

Although the OM symbol's left part, ऊ (Unicode U+090A), which looks like a figure 3, looks like the uu vowel in the Devanagari script, specifically, when used as a syllable with no attached initial consonant, it is actually based on Brahmi version of ओ. The nasal sound is indicated by a chandrabindu (U+0901).

Philosophy of AUM

Sikh Ek Onkar
Sikh Ek Onkar

Gods and Goddesses are sometimes referred to as Aumkar, which means Form of Aum, thus implying that who are limitless, the vibrational whole of the cosmos. Ek Onkar, meaning 'one god' is a central tenet of Sikh religious philosophy. In Hindu metaphysics, it is proposed that the manifested cosmos (from Brahman) has name and form (nama-rupa), and that the closest approximation to the name and form of the universe is Aum, since all existence is fundamentally composed of vibration. (This concept of describing reality as vibrations, or rythmic waves, can also be found in quantum physics and super string theory, which describe the universe in terms of vibrating fields or strings.)

In advaita philosophy it is frequently used to represent three subsumed into one, a common theme in Hinduism. It implies that our current existence is mithya, or 'slightly lesser reality,' that in order to know the full truth we must comprehend beyond the body and intellect and intuit the true nature of infinity, of a Divine Ground that is imminent but also transcends all duality, being and non-being, that cannot be described in words. Within this metaphysical symbolism, the three are represented by the lower curve, upper curve and tail of the subsumed into the ultimate One, represented by the little crescent moon-shape and dot, known as chandrabindu. Essentially, upon moksha, mukti, samadhi, nirvana, liberation, etc. one is able not only to see or know existence for what it is, but to become it. In attaining truth one simply realizes fundamental unity; it is not the joining together of a prior manifold splitting. When one gains true knowledge, there is no split between knower and known: one becomes knowledge/consciousness itself. In essence, Aum is the signifier of the ultimate truth that all is one.

For the scriptural esoteric explanation of Aum see Mandukya Upanishad.

Dvaita (Vaishnava) philosophies teach that 'Aum' is an impersonal sound representation of Vishnu/Krishna while Hari Nama is the personal sound representation. A represents Krishna, U Srimati Radharani and M jivas. According to Sridhara Svami the pranava has five parts: A, U, M, the nasal bindu and the reverberation (nada). Liberated souls meditate on the Lord at the end of that reverberation.

Examples of Three into One:

  • Creation (Brahma)- Preservation (Vishnu)- Destruction (Shiva) into Brahman
  • Waking- Dreaming- Dreamless Sleep into Turiya (transcendental fourth state of consciousness)
  • Rajas (activity, heat, fire)- Tamas (dullness, ignorance, darkness)- Sattva (purity, light, serenity/shanti) into Brahman
  • Body, Speech and Mind into Oneness

The Chandogya Upanishad (1.1.1-10) states, "The udgitha is the best of all essences, the highest, deserving the highest place, the eighth."

"Aum" can be seen as Sri Ganesh, whose figure is often represented in the shape of Aum. He is thus known as Aumkar (Shape of Aum). Sri Nataraja, or the Hindu god 'Shiva' dancing his dance of destruction, is seen in that popular representation mirroring the image of Aum. It is said to be the most perfect 'approximation' of the cosmic existence within time and space, and therefore the sound closest to Truth.

"The First Word Om (Aum) It is also called Pranav because its sound emanates from the Prana (vital vibration), which feels the Universe. The scripture says "Aum Iti Ek Akşara Brahman" (Aum that one syllable is Brahman).

Om in Jain tradition

In Jainism, Om is regarded to be a condensed form of reference to the five parameshthis. The Dravyasamgrah quotes an ancient Prakrit line:

ओम एकाक्षर पञ्चपरमेष्ठिनामादिपम् तत्कथमिति चेत "अरिहंता असरीरा आयरिया तह उवज्झाया मुणियां",

"om" one akshara, is made from the initials of the five parameshthis. It has been said: "Arihanta, Ashiri (i.e. siddha), Acharya, Upadhyaya, Munis(sadhus)"

Thus ओं नमः (om namah) is a short form of the Namokara mantra.





Tibetan "Om" symbol

Om in Buddhist tradition

With Buddhism's evolution and breaking away from Vedic/Hindu tradition, Aum and other symbology/cosmology/philosophies were co-opted from the Hindu tradition. This character often appeared as "唵" in Buddhist scripts in East Asia.

tibetan Om

tibetan Om

In Buddhism this syllable is almost never transliterated as Aum, but instead as Om.

This syllable is also incorporated in the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum".

Om in Sikh tradition

Stylised Ek Onkar
Stylised Ek Onkar
Simple Ek Onkar
Simple Ek Onkar

Ek Onkar (also , ਇਕ ਓਅੰਕਾਰ, Ik Ōaṅkār, Ek Omkar, Ik Omkar and other variants) means one God and is a central symbol of the unity of God in Sikhism, and is commonly found on Gurdwaras. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, used the Hindu Vedantic idea of Om: the most sacred syllable in Hinduism. Ek Onkar is a combination of three letters: Ek - one, Om - the sacred letter for God, and the kar - which is a line drawn over the Om, signifying the continuity, timelessness and eternal presence of Om (God).

Ek means "one" (Sanskrit eka).
Onkar came from Sanskrit Omkāra, which means "he or it which makes Om", and thus could mean:-
Handwriter's and printer's term for the Om symbol.
Creator, originally referring to the Hindu god Brahma saying "Om" and thereby creating the world.

Ek Onkar is the start of the Sikh Mool Mantra and the first phrase of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

When you pronounce AUM:

"A - emerges from the throat, originating in the region of the navel U - rolls over the tongue M - ends on the lips A - waking, U - dreaming, M - sleeping It is the sum and substance of all the words that can emanate from the human throat. It is the primordial fundamental sound symbolic of the Universal Absolute." [1].

In fact, when correctly pronounced, or rather, rendered, the "A" can be felt as a vibration that manifests itself near the navel or abdomen; the "U" can be felt vibrating the chest, and the "M" vibrates the cranium or the head. The abdominal vibration symbolises Creation; It is interesting that the "creative" or reproductive organs are also located in the lower abdomen. The vibration of the chest represents Preservation, which is also where the lungs are situated (the lungs sustain or preserve the body through breath). The vibration of the head is associated with Destruction or sacrifice, since all that gives up or destroys is first destroyed mentally. Hence, the entire cycle of the universe and all it contains is said to be symbolised in AUM.

Today, in all Hindu art and all over India and Nepal, 'Aum' can be seen virtually everywhere, a standard sign for Hinduism and a vast but economical storehouse for the deep mythology inherent in the world's oldest religion.

Notes the Chandogya Upanishad, "That syllable, is a syllable of permission; for, whenever we permit anything, we say Aum." However, this is seen by others as a myopic perspective because the same Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, that aver this function also attribute to it the divine property of the source of the universe. Aum is seen as the source of existence as we know it within the causal dimensions of time and space, and thus affirmatory meanings in languages are a natural progression. Aum is not only affirmation, but negation, and transcends both.

The AUM sound is sometimes called "the 3-syllable Veda". The third syllable arises because in Devanagari and similar alphabets, a consonant at the end of a word is sometimes written as a separate consonant letter with the virama "no vowel" sign, and this combination is treated as a syllable when talking about Devanagari writing rather than about phonetics.

The Sanskrit word omkāra (from which came Punjabi onkār, etc), literally "OM-maker", has two families of meanings:-

Brahma (god) in his role as creator, and thus a word for "creator".
Writers' term for the OM sign.

An individual's "Aum" is the sound that can be held steady the longest per breath for the longest consecutive sequence of breaths. It is called "aum" in every culture that is aware of it because it sounds like that in all humans. The lower pitches are more suited because they require less muscular contraction of the abdomen, leading to lower rates of oxygen consumption, allowing for longer time between breaths. The Aum is the exact sound that is easiest for the individual to produce.

Once the minimization of oxygen consumption occurs (by minimization of muscular exertion), the outflow of air will be steady and quite sensitive to any forces that alter the amount of pressure in the chest cavity. One of the most notable consequences of this is that the rythmic contractions of the heart become audible within the Aum.

Thus, by the use of Aum:

  • one can easily hear their own heart.
  • a person can modify the pace of their heart.
  • a group of people can synchronize their heartbeats.

Some quotations from Hindu scriptures regarding AUM

In the Rig-veda we find the following information; "One who chants om, which is the closest form of Brahman, approaches Brahman. This liberates one from the fear of the material world, therefore it is known as tarak brahman."

"O Vishnu your self-manifest name, om, is the eternal form of cognizance. Even if my knowledge about the glories of reciting this name is incomplete, still, by the practice of reciting this name I will achieve that perfect knowledge. "He who has unmanifested potencies and is fully independent, manifests the vibration omkara, which indicates Himself. Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan are the three forms He manifests."

"Aum takes the form of Gayatri, then Veda and Vedanta sutra; then it takes the shape of Srimad Bhagavatam and the lila, the divine pastimes, of the Lord."

Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita 7.8 and 9.17, "I am Om", and that one must chant Om thinking of Him in order to attain Him personally ('mam anusmaran', 8.13).

"Just as a spider brings forth from its heart its web and emits it through its mouth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead manifests Himself as the reverberating primeval vital air, comprising all sacred Vedic meters and full of transcendental pleasure. Thus the Lord, from the ethereal sky of His heart, creates the great and limitless Vedic sound by the agency of His mind, which conceives of variegated sounds such as the sparsas. The Vedic sound branches out in thousands of directions, adorned with the different letters expanded from the syllable om: the consonants, vowels, sibilants and semivowels. The Veda is then elaborated by many verbal varieties, expressed in different meters, each having four more syllables than the previous one. Ultimately the Lord again withdraws His manifestation of Vedic sound within Himself." (Bhagavata Purana 11.21.38-40)