What is “OM”?

by December 23, 2020

What is OM? You may have seen it in a magazine or on Facebook, heard it in a movie or on TV show, or maybe you have even chanted it at the end of a yoga class. The symbol OM can be found many places, but can also seem quite mysterious. So where does it come from, what does it mean, and how is it used?

OM Roots

The sound “OM,” sometimes written as “AUM,” is a Sanskrit word that can be found at the beginning or end of almost all major Hindu spiritual texts. Sanskrit is the ancient language of India. It is among the oldest languages in the world and is mother to many of the modern Indo-European languages commonly spoken today. 

Among the words and characters of the Sanskrit language, Om is unique in that it is a combination of the sounds A, U, and M, yet it is written with its own single character. Although Sanskrit is no longer used in everyday conversation, it is still commonly used to recite prayers and scriptures found in the Hindu spiritual traditions. 

Sounds and Beginnings

OM is the sound of Creation itself. From this cosmic vibration come all other vibrations, and within this single syllable are all other sounds. 

In the Bible, it says, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God,” (John 1:1). In the Vaishnava tradition of India, we say, “Hari OM Tat Sat,” which translates to mean “God (Hari) is OM, that Supreme Ultimate Being.” These phrases are, in their essence, saying the exact same thing; That from limitless God comes OM, or the Word, and from OM comes everything else. 

OM is truly universal, held not only by all the many varied traditions of India as being especially sacred, but is also found in the Tibetan teachings as “Hum,” as “Amin” in Islam, and as “Amen” in the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian traditions.

The Symbol

In the Devanagari character for OM, we can clearly see the transcendental qualities of the Word. The bulk of the symbol is made of three connected, semi-circular components that represent the three principal actions of all physical reality; creation, maintenance, and deconstruction. 

These three actions correspond to the three main deities in Hinduism; Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva respectively. 

Drawn above these lower parts we see two more components. The first being a crescent shape, and above that is a dot. The dot represents unlimited infinity which is beyond everything. This can be “heard” as the silence which follows when one speaks OM out-loud. 

The crescent shape represents the aspect of Nature which acts as a veil between all that is visible in creation, and the invisible, mysterious source of that creation. So you can see that OM is transcendental because it contains all of the limited qualities of nature and the unlimited which is beyond nature. 

What does that mean? That it holds these opposites at the same time! OM is in itself a paradox because it expresses something that transcends this reality yet can still be clearly expressed within this reality! Mind-blowing, right?

OM Chanting & Mantras

A mantra is a word or combination of words that can be spoken aloud or silently, often in repetition. It is a tool used to calm and focus the mind to achieve a particular state or purpose. OM is the single most important mantra found in the Vedas, the most ancient scriptural texts of India. It is said that within OM can be found all the knowledge of the Vedas. 

In the tradition of Bhakti Marga we practice a technique known as “OM Chanting” wherein participants sit in two concentric circles and chant OM to create a continuous vibration. It is a powerful technique used to create a shared feeling of unity and peace that affects not only the participants but also influences all who are within about a mile radius, including the birds and other animals, the plants, and even Mother Earth herself! 

Because this technique is so powerful, it is important to note here that in order to safely and effectively lead an OM Chanting circle, it is necessary to carry the blessing of Sri Swami Vishwananda. If you are interested to know more about how to organize a circle, please speak directly to an organizer or visit https://bmnorthamerica.org/om-chanting/  

The Timeless OM

Although rooted in Ancient India, OM is as relevant today as ever and can be appreciated and embraced by people of all cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds. It is inherently universal, going beyond all boundaries and limits. 

By chanting or meditating on OM, it can lead you to go toward the limitless reality, whether you call that God, Great-Spirit, the Universe, or any other name that resonates with you. OM contains this Truth. By approaching and engaging with this Truth, it will also approach and engage with you. It is said by some that this is the very purpose of human life itself.

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