Om or Aum is the primary mantra (pranava mantra) in Hinduism and the most sacred symbol in Hinduism. It represents the sound of the universe and the three deities in the Hindu trinity, the trimurti (“three images”), of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The vibration of the three aspects of A-U-M represent the fullness of creation.
Existence in the entire cosmos vibrates with an energy that is audible to a mystic as a humming vibration. The closest experience of this sound in ordinary experience would be the humming sound of an electric transformer. Yet this humming is produced by the atoms of the universe vibrating at different frequencies.
In Sanskrit this sound is called Anahada Nada (also called Anahad Shabd in Sikh scriptures). Literally this means “sound produced without striking.” It is an unstruck sound, which unlike ordinary audible sounds is not produced by two things striking one another.
The hand strikes the guitar strings to produce sound, the wind brushes against leaves producing a rustling sound, the saxophonist’s lips press against the reed to produce a musical sound, or the most obvious the drum stick strikes the drum. The unstruck sound occurs without a striking force, as vibrational atoms of the universe produce this sound through their pulsating “dance,” which is the sound of the primal energy of the universe.
AUM represents this sound in its fullness from creation to eventual destruction.
The “A” represents beginning, start and emanation of the universe and life. A is an open sound formed with open lips and it resonates in the front of the mouth. It represents creation and Brahma is the Hindu god of creation.
Brahma seated on a Lotus with Four Heads. The fourth head faces backwards.
Brahma sitting on a lotus indicates that he is always rooted in the Ultimate Reality, that despite manifestation, the Transcendent remains hidden beneath surface awareness. The four heads of Brahma represent the manifestation of Consciousness as mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), ego (ahamkar) and conditioned-consciousness (chit). Thought functions within them but Consciousness is a transcendent Witness to everything.
“U” is produced from the back of the mouth with closed lips. It represents the sustenance of the universe and it is the middle between creation and destruction. Vishnu is its principal deity, often worshipped as ten different incarnations, including Krishna.
Vishnu incarnates in a form (avatar) in each cycle of time to rescue the universe. He represents the maintenance of balance in the universe through support of physical and spiritual laws.
“M” is produced with closed lips and it resonates forward in the mouth and buzzes throughout the head. It represents the ending, destruction, and death of life and the universe. Shiva is the Hindu deity that represents this stage.
While Shiva is the destroyer, his role is viewed as beneficial, since destruction is necessary for creation and destruction can also represent sublimation of the lower energies to devotion. He is often depicted with:
- A third eye, which looks beyond the illusionary nature of manifest reality (maya)
- The cobra representing death and Shiva’s conquest of it, and dormant energy, Kundalini, often pictured as a serpent at the base of the spine
- The crescent represents his control over time
- Ashes on his body demonstrate that death is beneath all life
Besides the Hindu trinity, Om can also represent psychological states of consciousness.
“A” represents Waking Consciousness (jagrat), conditioned by time and space. The conscious mind predominates this state, where the mind is under sway of thought impressions and desires. This state is expressed through the quality (guna) of activity, heat and energy (rajas).
“U” represents Dreaming Consciousness (svapna) with the subconscious mind predominating awareness. Dreams at this level can either be stimulated by nerve cells firing as our conscious mind loses awareness, or they can arise from deeper levels of the psyche and hold deep often symbolic meaning. The primary quality that represents this state is of sloth, ignorance and darkness (tamas), since in this state we are allured by the universe.
“M” is associated with Dreamless Sleep (nidra), which is a deep sleep state without any disturbance of dreams. The unconscious mind holds sway at this level. This state of mind is often experienced by people with deep spiritual advancement. The ego has been left aside and a connection is experienced with the atman (soul), which gives a special experience of bliss. Sattva, purity, serenity and light is the main quality at this state.
After the “M” we have silence, often called turiya, which is the transcendental fourth state of mind (called chautha pad in Sikh scriptures), where non-duality is experienced as our being is no longer disconnected. Superconscious mind predominates in this state and it is similar to what is often called cosmic consciousness.
Om is a common chant in Buddhism but without the association with Hindu deities. In Buddhism, Om is also viewed as the primal vibration out of which everything came into being and into which everything returns at the end of a cosmic cycle. Om is also used by Jains, though I am unaware of its associations, since Jainism is an atheistic religion.
In Sikh scriptures the oneness of God is emphasized through Ik Onkar. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, used the word Onkar (literally “OM-maker”) to state the concept of a monotheistic God rather than the Tri-deity concept of AUM in Hinduism. By placing “1” in front of Onkar, he stated that the creative, sustaining and destructive energies are all embodied in the One Supreme Being.
While Hinduism at a popular level does represent these aspects through three distinct deities, yet Hindu philosophy also emphasizes that all aspects are interrelated. So for example destruction is necessary for creation to begin anew. Therefore, creation-sustenance-destruction are part of one continuum, not separate processes.
OM symbolically connects the individual to the cosmos through a sound that represents all aspects of the creative energy from its inception to destruction. The hidden sound of silence hints at transcendent awareness hidden from conscious awareness through egoism and illusionary nature of the phenomenal world. For these reasons the Om sound has become an important aspect of sound meditation and chants.