What does om mean?
Transcribed (and edited) by– Nayanasundari Devi Dasi
Question– What is the meaning of om?
- om is the primeval sound vibration and is the manifestation of the ishvara.
- In terms of the various states of consciousness which the soul goes through, there are different levels of understanding om. These three states of consciousness are jagruti, swapna & sushupti.
- The purpose of this sound vibration is to take us to a journey towards transcendental or spiritual consciousness or turya.
om is the primeval sound vibration. In Patanjali Yoga Sutra it is said that om is the manifestation of the ishvara. Recitation of om enables one to do Vishnu pranidhan – i.e. to surrender to ishvara. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna states, pranavah sarva-vedesu (BG 7.8). Krishna says, “I am omkar, I am pranavah.” He repeats this several times in Bhagavad Gita identifying that om is non-different from Him.
Depending on the level of spiritual evolution of the seeker and the path the spiritual seeker has chosen to pursue, there are different levels of understanding om. For example, in the Mandukya Upanishad the word om is explained in terms of the various states of consciousness which the soul goes through. The sound om has three letters. Two of these letters are syllables – ‘A’ and ‘U’ and one of these letters is a consonant – ‘M’. According to the rules of Sanskrit sandhi – joining of letters together- when the letters ‘A’ and ‘U’ are combined together, then they form the letter ‘O’. That is why when we write or speak, we refer it as om. To understand the meaning of om, the three letters, ‘A’, ‘U’ & ‘M’ are to be considered. The Mandukya Upanishad explains that these three letters represent the three states of consciousness that we go through at our present level of awareness. These three states of consciousness are- jagruti, swapna & sushupti.
jagruti refers to the state of waking awareness, swapna refers to state of sleep, and sushupti refers to deep dreamless sleep. As per the Mandukya Upanishad, ‘A’ represents the jagruti state, ‘U’ represents the swapna state & ‘M’ represents the sushupti state. Now it is mentioned that in om there is actually a fourth sound, which is a soundless sound. This sound cannot be heard at our level of awareness. This sound represents a fourth state of consciousness that cannot be perceived at our level of awareness which is called turya or samadhi state. The samadhi state is perceived beyond other three states of consciousness mentioned earlier.
We know that the soul is surrounded by a subtle body and then by a gross body. Soul’s consciousness is routed through the subtle body and the gross body to the outside world. That is the jagruti state. When the soul’s consciousness is withdrawn and it is not present in the gross body, but only in the subtle body that is the swapna state. When the soul’s consciousness is withdrawn even from the subtle body to itself then that is called sushupti state. When the soul’s consciousness is redirected to the spiritual level then that is called the turya state.
The purpose of chanting om is that it takes us through these three levels of consciousness- from jagrati through swapna, through sushupti, towards turya. The purpose of this sound vibration is to take us to a journey towards transcendental or spiritual consciousness. Often om is chanted by spiritualists who are impersonalists, who do not accept or know about the personal conception of God and that is why their focus is on the self, aham brahmasmi – “I am brahman” and “I have to realize that I am brahman”. That is why the focus for them is on redirecting their consciousness from thinking, “I am this body”, which is actually material, to realizing, “I am brahman”, which is turya state. For those who are seeking this method of realization, the Mandukya Upanishad gives this explanation on how om works.
om is not just a sound vibration; it is a tool for us to realize our spiritual identity. Krishna says in Bhagawad Gita, “it is also a manifestation of the Supreme”. How it is the manifestation of the Supreme? This is explained in the Gopal Tapani Upanishad. In this literature, it is mentioned that the three letters, ‘A’, ‘U’ and ‘M’, represents three different manifestations of the Supreme Absolute Truth.
A – Represents that manifestation of the Supreme Absolute Truth who is the foundation of the universe. He is in charge of the waking state (jagruti). This is Balarama.
U – Represents that manifestation of the Supreme Absolute Truth who is the soul of the universe. He is in charge of the dream state (swapna). This is Pradyumna.
M – Represents that manifestation of the Supreme Absolute Truth who is the soul within the heart. He is in-charge of the dreamless deep sleep state (sushupti). This is Anirudha.
Beyond these three, the complete om represents Krishna. As mentioned in SB 1.3.28, Krishna is the source of all the manifestations of the Absolute Truth, krsnas tu bhagavan svayam. The three manifestations of the Absolute Truth are represented through three specific letters of om, but whole Krishna is represented through the full word, om.
When personalists (devotees) chant om, they meditate on Krishna, seeing om as a reference to the Absolute Truth. When impersonalists (yogis) chant om, they focus on realizing their own spiritual identity. Since om is a non-descript representation of the universe, there is no direct remembrance of the Lord in His personal manifestation. It is like if we have the name ‘Head of the State’, which can mean a Prime Minister, President, King, Queen, or a military dictator etc. ‘Head of the Sate’ is a very generic description, which conveys very little about the person who is the actual head of the state. On the contrary, a name conveys fully about the person being referred.
Similarly, om is a very generic description of the Absolute Truth. In fact, it doesn’t contain much description of the Absolute Truth. Devotees always want to remember Krishna as a person, that is why when they chant, Yashomati-nandan, they remember Krishna in connection with Yashoda mayi. When they chant, Gopijana Vallabh, they remember Krishna in connection with Gopis.
When there are formal mantras, then the nondescript reference to the Absolute Truth leads to the specific name as in- om namo narayanaya. Here om refers to the Absolute Truth in a generic sense, namo for obeisance, and narayanaya refers to the Absolute Truth in a specific sense. Another example is, om namo bhagvate vaasudevaya. om is a non-descript mention of the Absolute Truth, namo refers to offering obeisance to Him, bhagvate refers to the position of this person as bhagavan (possessor of all opulence), and then finally name of the person possessing all opulence – vaasudevaya – the son of Vasudeva, which is Krishna.
We can see that in these mantras, the transition of thought is from the non-specific reference of the Absolute Truth to the specific personal reference of the Absolute Truth.
To summarize, for the impersonalists, om refers to the pathway by which they can move towards the spiritual consciousness through the three lower state of consciousness. For the devotees, om represents various manifestations of the Absolute Truth. Ultimately om represents full manifestation of Krishna whom devotees worship by directly chanting His holy names.
Hare Krishna Prabhuji
Following are some of the meanings described in the Vaishnava scriptures
The acarya quotes the following verse from the Padma Purana to elucidate the meaning of AUM
srir u-karena kathyate
ma-karas tu tayor dasah
In the mantra om] the letter a signifies Lord Visnu, the letter u signifies the goddess Sri, and the letter m refers to their servant, who is the twenty-fifth element.’ The twenty-fifth element is the jiva, the living being.
Jiva goswami also gives the similar description while explaining the alphabetical constituents of the mantra as follows:
a-karenocyate krsnah sarva-lokaika-nayakah
u-karenocyate radha ma-karo jiva-vacakah
“Om is a combination of letters, A,U,M. The letter ‘A’ refers to Krishna. The Letter ‘U’ refers to Radha, and the letter ‘M’ refers to the individual soul (jiva).”