The Meaning of Om

The Meaning of Om 
by Jim Gilman

Hari Aum. Aum ityetadaksharam idam 
sarvam tasyopavyakhyanam 
bhutam bhavad bhavishyaditi sarvam Omkara eva. 
Yachchanyat trikalatitam tadapyomkara eva.

Hari Aum. Aum, the word, is all this. 
A clear explanation of it is the following. 
All that is past, present and future is verily Aum. 
That which is beyond the triple conception of time, is also truly Aum.


This is the opening mantra of the Mandukya Upanishad, the shortest, and subtlest of all the major Upanishads, the most revered scriptures of Hinduism. In this Upanishad, we have the classic exposition of the meaning of Aum, the most sacred of all mantras. 

For westerners, the ambiguity of spelling may be perplexing. Is it "Om," or "Aum"? In Sanskrit, the sound "O" is a diphthong, actually spelled "AU." It is pronounced more like the English "O" than the pure sound found in Italian or German. The difference in spelling is merely a matter of transliteration. 

The mantra begins with a salutation, Hari Aum. It goes on to state that Aumkara (the word Aum) is all this. The term idam (this) is a technical term in the Upanishads, which refers to the phenomenal world. So that the student is not confused, the Upanishad goes on to define what the phenomenal world is. In this mantra, it is described in terms of Time. Anything that exists in the past, present, or the future, is included in Aum. It includes anything that has a beginning and an end, that has qualities and form, that exists in Space as well as Time, and includes subtle as well as gross phenomena, meaning thoughts and feelings as well as physical objects. 

But is this all? The mantra goes on to state that Aum includes that which is beyond this triple conception of Time. To what is the mantra referring? What is That which encompasses the phenomenal world, yet is also beyond the phenomenal world? This is made clear in the next mantra.

Sarvam hyetad Brahma 
Ayam Atma Brahma 
Soyam Atma chatushpat.

All this is verily Brahman. 
This Self is Brahman 
This Self has four quarters.

This next mantra again uses the term idam (this). It states that all this is Brahman. Brahman is the Sanskrit word for Ultimate Reality. It is a neuter noun (beyond gender specificity!) that is difficult to translate. It means, God, Ultimate Sentience, Reality, Infinity, Immensity, and yet much more. Later on, the Upanishad will call it avyapadesham, which means "un-talk-about-able." But what is this Brahman? How do we come to know it? Where can it be found? This is discussed in the next phrase. 

The next statement in the mantra is one of the four Mahavakyas, (Great Utterances) the most profound and concise teachings of the Upanishads, which indicate the essence of Vedanta philosophy. It states 'This Self (Atman) is Brahman." 
What a revolutionary statement! It locates Divinity not in the heavens, not far away from us, not as some unknowable mystery only to be worshiped from afar, but as the very Self of every creature. This Self is not something with which we have some relationship. We will never know the Self as an object of our awareness. Rather, this Self shines as "I," the eternal Subject. Just as a person cannot see his or her eyes, or cannot taste his or her own tongue, so also, we cannot "see" the Self in any objective sense. But even though we have not seen our eyes as objects, we KNOW that we see,. So also, this Self is eternally known, and directly experienced all the time, as "I," the one by whom all else is known. The Self is also swayam bhu, or Self evident. The Self knows Itself, not as an object, but as pure Subjectivity. This eternal Subject, which shines as the light of awareness, is infinite, spacious, without qualities or form, beginningless and endless. It is the Eternal Essence. This is what God is. This Self IS Brahman. 
Now comes the interesting part! The mantra goes on to say that this Self, this Brahman has four quarters (pada). This doesn't mean four quarters like a cow has four feet. It doesn't mean that the Infinite can be divided up. It means that we can discuss it as four topics, trying to understand its nature. Remember, the scriptures do not define Reality, they only indicate it. They point to it using the suggestive language of images. Swami Chinmayananda used to say that a yogi must have the mind and heart of a poet to appreciate the suggestive quality of the sacred mantras of scripture. The Upanishad represents these four areas of discussion by the four matras, or letters of Aum. but wait a minute! Aum seems to have only three! No, it has four. "A," "U," "M," and "SILENCE!" 

The first quarter, "A," represents the waking state. This includes the entire world of matter, from the smallest sub-atomic particle up to the cosmos itself. It is the world we see in our ordinary waking state mentality. 

The second quarter, "U," represents the dream state. This is a metaphor. It stands for the subtle world of thoughts, emotions, images, memories, and the like. It is the interior world, perceived through the mind. 

The third quarter, "M," represents the deep sleep state. This is the state where mind is folded up into complete unconsciousness. In deep sleep, the universal experience is "I know nothing." Yet it is experienced, because upon awakening, we can remember that we have slept. 

The fourth quarter, "SILENCE," represents the Consciousness that illumines the three prior states, and which pervades them all. During the waking state, it is "I" who knows the phenomenal world. During the dream state, it is "I" who knows the various thoughts, emotions, images and the like. During the deep sleep state, it is "I" who illumines the mind submerged in the dark of deep sleep. Though this Consciousness pervades the three states, it is independent and beyond them too. It is the eternal Self, which was before the universe came into being, and which will remain not only after the body dies, but even after the dissolution of the whole creation. 

The great saint, Gaudapada, in his Karika, or commentary on this Upanishad says, "He who knows both the experiencer and the objects of experience that have been described and associated with the three states, is not affected through experiencing the objects." He is referring to the great benefit of Self Realization. By contemplating and meditating on this Self, that is eternally present throughout all of our experiences, and is ever the same, we come to see that this Self is in fact immutable. It never changes. It cannot be improved, and it cannot be diminished. We don't become one with God. We already are what God is! We only need to realize this, as our own direct experience. This realization brings us true peace, and releases the mind from the tyranny of ego. 

So now we have an intellectual understanding of Aum. The next step is to penetrate deeply into it. This takes long and continuous meditation. It also takes renunciation. This does not mean living in some austere life style. It means to give up our attachment to the belief that the world of objects, emotions, and thoughts has any intrinsic reality. It is in truth, like a long dream.... Only the Self is real. Only the Self IS. All else is but fleeting images projected on the Screen of Consciousness. Let them go. Don't get involved with them. Stay home in your Self Nature. Hurry home. Hari Om!
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