The Supreme Mantra
OM—The Sound that Sustains the Universe
The mantra OM (Auṃ) represents the substratum of creative sound that sustains the Universe. Just as the Big Bang Theory of modern physics teaches that the entire Universe arises from a single timeless, spaceless point, the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures) teach that the Universe arises from a single sound. This primal, cosmic sound is the mantra OM.
At a spiritual level, OM serves to open and clear the mind for meditation and attunes us with our Real Nature, revealing the Supreme Freedom that we are. It brings about an ascension and expansion of energy. OM allows us to harmonize with the forces of the Universe externally and with our own nature internally. It attunes us to Cosmic Consciousness and the sacred vibratory patterns that arise from it.
Traditional References to OM
The Mandukya Upanishad is entirely dedicated to the symbolism and spiritual value of the bija mantra OM, called the pranava (“uttering”). It is the shortest Upanishad, consisting of just twelve verses. The text starts with the following passage, which gives the symbolic meaning of this mantra: “OM! This Imperishable Word is the whole of this visible Universe. Its explanation is as follows: What has become, what is becoming, what will become—verily, all of this is OM. And what is beyond these three states of the world of time—that too, verily, is OM.”
That scripture explains that OM is composed of four parts, namely A, U, M, and anusvara (the nasal after-sound or vibration at the end of the M sound, which represents a nasal humming). In Sanskrit, this after-sound is represented by a dot placed above the letter “m.” These four parts symbolically correspond to the Four States of Consciousness:
- A—The state of wakefulness, where we experience things externally through our mind and sense organs.
- U—The dream state, in which inward experiences are available.
- M—The state of deep sleep.
- Turya (the “fourth”)—Represented by the nasal humming at the end of the M sound, it is the transcendental Self beyond the mind.According to the Mandukya Upanishad (7), turya is: “Neither inward-turned nor outward-turned consciousness, nor the two together; not an undifferentiated mass of consciousness; neither knowing, nor unknowing; invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable, its sole essence being the consciousness of its own Self; the coming to rest of all relative existence; utterly quiet; peaceful; blissful: without a second: this is the atman, the Self; this is to be realized.”The text concludes (12): “The fourth is soundless: unutterable, a quieting down of all relative manifestations, blissful, peaceful, non-dual. Thus, OM is the atman, verily. He who knows thus, merges his self in the Self—yes, he who knows thus.”
In the Upanishads, there are many references to the mantra OM and the meditation on it. The Taittiriya Upanishad (1:8:1) asserts: “He who utters OM with the intention ‘I shall attain Brahman’ does verily attain Brahman.”
The Atharvashikha Upanishad (1:1-2) explains: “The form of meditation that came to manifest as the foremost of all, for the regeneration of all seekers, was the First Word, indicative of Brahman (the Supreme Absolute): the OM. Meditation on OM should be resorted to by seekers after liberation. This syllable is the Supreme Brahman.”
In the Svetasvatara Upanishad (4:17), it states: “God is the Syllable OM, out of Him proceeds Supreme Knowledge.”
The Mundaka Upanishad (2:2:4) affirms that “The OM is the bow: one’s Self, indeed, is the arrow. Brahman is spoken of as the target of that. It is to be hit without making a mistake. Thus one becomes united with it [Brahman] as the arrow becomes one with the target.” That text also presents another interesting and inspiring comparison:
“Just as a spider climbing up by means of its threads finds open space, so indeed the meditator climbs up by means of OM and finds absolute freedom.”
Meditation on OM is the first practical meditative yoga method described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (1:27-29):
“His (i.e., Ishvara, the Lord’s) symbol is the sacred syllable OM.
The recitation of that [sacred syllable] means the contemplation of its meaning.
Thence [follows] the attainment of inward-mindedness and also the disappearance of obstacles.”
The obstacles mentioned in the next sutra include sickness, languor, doubt, heedlessness, sloth, and dissipation. Patanjali recommends the recitation of the mantra OM for the removal of all obstacles, however, it is important to understand that this recitation should not be done in a mechanical manner, but with awareness and aspiration. Only when practiced in this way does it naturally lead to the bhavana (transfigured contemplation) of the inner, ultimate significance of the mantra—the Absolute.
OM is also called the “root” or mula mantra. It often precedes and, thus, empowers other long mantras. It is the oldest and most venerated of all Hindu mantras, and is also used in Buddhism.