By Yogi Baba Prem Tom Beal, Vedavisharada, CYI, C.ay, C.va,
Aum is one of the sacred sounds (pranava) in the great Indian tradition. But AUM is a sound, word, and symbol that has permeated western culture more extensively than almost any other aspect of the Indian tradition. It has been parodied on TV and in movies. Tell someone you are learning to meditate, and often jokingly they will touch their index finger and thumb together and say “om”. It commonly appears on bumper stickers, windows, tattoos, and jewelry. But is there more significance to this sound and image? Are there other ideas, concepts, and principle’s encapsulated within this word? If one were to look at the teachings from the great Indian civilization the answer would surely be, YES!
Originally AUM was a sound reserved for Brahmins and students of the Vedic system. It was most commonly taught to Brahmins (priests), scholars, philosophers, and religious leaders and was in common usage amongst Brahmins and Vedantists. To them it is considered a sacred sound called pranava.
Literally the word pranava means, “humming”. Pranava can be a reference to a boat that carries one across the ocean of birth and reincarnation. It can also mean to “roar”, sound, or reverberate. The word pranava comes from the Sanskrit root “nu”, which means to praise. So AUM is literally a humming sound of praise, which aids to carry one across the ocean of transmigration or reincarnation. It is also viewed as the primordial sound from which all creation emerged. There additional functions and benefits of the sound AUM, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Relative to previous attributes, one must ask, 'Is this the only pranava sound?' No, though it is considered the highest, but in reality there are several pranava sounds that exist within different systems in India.
Originally,it was taught that different sounds would best match the life, karma, and temperament of different people. These were divided by the Indian varna system. The varna system of ancient India should not be confused with system known as jati. It was originally intended to be a system of systematic elevation and identification of groups and assured that all people had a place with society. For our purposes in this article, these groups were:
The sounds for these groups are:
This is only a sampling. As an example, a merchant could use the mantra Shriim.
In the earliest Vedic teachings there were only two groups, over time a third and fourth group (Shudra –servants) were added and this appeared within the Purusha Suktam of the Rg Veda. As the understanding of the teachings began to degrade several additional groups were added. Even to this day we all fall into one of the varna groups. This is not a negative association, though in present day India it is commonly used to degrade others through the improper definition of caste. (It is common to hear caste used for varna, but in reality they are not the same, as caste is a foreign definition.)In our current age, these rules pertaining to sacred sounds and groups have been largely “cast to the wind” and people from all groups use AUM.
Within some teachings it was believed that different sounds should be used during different periods by humanity. This teaching appears frequently in a group of books known as Tantras. The current period that we live in is called the Kali Yuga, and the pranava sound for this age is Hriim. This Tantric pranava sound is also the bija mantra for the Goddess Mahamaya. As the teaching states, in order to obtain release from incarnation you must find release from maya. Therefore, it is Mahamaya that can release us from the illusions of samsara (transmigratory existence).
It becomes quite clear that there are several pranava sounds that have been used throughout human history and by various groups. Yet sitting atop these sounds is the sacred AUM.
A common teaching is that AUM represents all the major points of creation of sound. “A” comes from the guttural region or back of the throat for pronunciation. “U” comes from the palatal region or roof of the mouth for pronunciation. “M” comes from the labial region or from the lips. These three locations represents the major points that sound can be produced; it also represents the complete manifestation of sound.
“A” represents the creation of sound, and pure consciousness. “U” maintains the subtle essence of creation and power. “M” represents the final manifestation of creation and completion. These sounds also represent the three Vedic worlds:
Aum also represents the Vedic texts, with “A” representing the Rg Veda. “U” represents the Yajur Veda. “M” represents the Sama Veda. This has a practical application, as one focuses or places the most emphasis on “A” this will have a more profound effect on the physical or earthly realm. If a student places more emphasis on “U”, this will have a more profound effect on the astral body or emotional body. If the student places more emphasis on “M” this will have a stronger influence on the spiritual realm or causal body. This idea is reinforced in the Upanishads especially the Taittiriya and Manduka. Both of these Upanishads embrace the concept of contemplation on AUM.
From Vedantic philosophy, “A” can represent the waking state. “U” can represent the dream state. “M” can represent the deep sleep state. The student by focusing on one part of the sound AUM, they can stimulate activity on that plane of consciousness. By using the correct approach with the sacred sound this will eventually lead to the fourth state called turiya. Turiya is not actually considered a state, as it is beyond cause and effect, but for clarity amongst readers it will be referred to as such. In yoga, we might call it Nirguna Samadhi, super consciousness without attributes.
Is Turiya separate from AUM? This is complex answer as Turiya is beyond AUM, yet AUM emanates from Turiya. The expansion of AUM from the Turiya state gives birth to creation and all its diversity of qualities. For the meditator to obtain Turiya, it is AUM that leads the aspirant back to the source, which is Turiya or Brahman. In reality, both Turiya and Brahman are in oneness.
From a yogic standpoint, AUM represents the three gunas or attributes of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Within later Hinduism, it can represent the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Since A-U-M are all vowels, they can easily be associated with Shiva or the Vedic Indra as well.
The benefits are tremendous with contemplation upon the AUM. From an Ayurvedic standpoint, it can increase lightness to the mind and body. It can be used to cleanse and open the flow of the nadi’s of the body. It is also energizing to the mind, and body. Additionally, it can increase peace and clarity of mind. This is also the view of several yoga systems.
From a Vedantic perspective it begins to teach the student about the three states of consciousness (waking, dream, and deep sleep states), and three worlds in the Vedic system (earth, atmosphere, heaven). Repetition of AUM increases our ability to properly function in these three states and worlds. From a yogic standpoint, it increases sattva or harmony within the student.
Chanting of the sacred sound will most importantly, aid in experiencing the actual hearing of the cosmic sound AUM. This will bring a student much closer to realization of the ultimate truth or reality. The experience of the sound does not immediately lead to self-realization, but with repetition of the AUM experience, it will bring the student to self-realization.
For those that resonate with mantra, AUM gives additional power to mantras. This is why it is placed at the beginning of so many mantras from India. As it clears and opens the channels of the body and mind, allowing for an experience of the mantra.
This is just a sampling of the benefits of repetition of the sacred sound. There are numerous benefits hidden in many of the ancient texts, and philosophies and systems that evolved from them. To directly experience the AUM is a tremendous accomplishment, as few students of meditation directly experience it. But it is not the end of the journey, but rather marks the beginning of serious and advanced practice of meditation leading to the highest level of experience-Brahman.
Physical yoga is required to cleanse and purify the body and mind. Repetition of mantra can be beneficial in this purification process. Pranayama can be beneficial as well. All of these should be learned from a qualified teacher. Once the proper preparatory programs have been followed; then the student is ready for a more serious practice of AUM.
The mantra should be taught by a Guru or qualified preceptor. The student should follow the teacher’s instructions carefully and not deviate from the proper practice. Within proper preparation, proper practice, proper instruction, and with a little grace the student will surely attain the higher realms of consciousness.
“Aum is Brahman…All is Brahman.” Taittiriya Upanishad. I.8
“With the sound Aum uttered, the priest recites, “May I obtain Brahman…”
Taittiriya Upanishad. I.8
“One who knows AUM…is a real sage.” Gaudapada Karika I. 29
“AUM, it is the beginning; it is the middle; and it is the end…” Gaudapada Karika I. 27
The sacred sound (AUM) will give assent…He who knows this mediates on AUM.
Chandogya Upanishad I.I.8
Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.
References, sources, and recommended reading:
Beal, Yogi Harinam Baba Prem Tom, Mantra: Inner Transformation Through the Power of Sound, Universal Yoga:Orlando 1997.
Frawley, David, From the River of Heaven, Passage Press: Salt Lake City, 1990
Nikhilananda, Swami, The Upanishads Vol. II, Ramakrishna/Vivekananda Center:New York 1990
Copyright 2006, 2017. All Rights Reserved.