Is it “OM” or “AUM”? The syllable AUM is a Sanskrit word and is pronounced as A+U+M (AUM) and while symbol OM is more like English oriented and hence recited as O+M (OM). However, there exists no difference and is part of our most revered religious scriptures. OM is also undeniably the central pillar of Hinduism and the part of its traditions and literature over the ages. It is the essence of all mantras and Vedas and has the sound of infinite Brahman.

AUM has more than hundred meanings and one of them is “Welcome to the God”. Though its origin and history is shrouded in mystery but it is undoubtedly a gift or jewel from the Vedic Rishis (seers). AUM is the name of the divine cosmic spirit. It is not separate or different from the supreme god. The word AUM itself is total divinity manifested, invincible supreme god. This palpable world is an expression of that divinity. It is considered to be the oldest mantras of our time. The word has enormous power and significance, simple recitation dispel all our worldly thoughts and instill a new vigor in our body.

We do not find any specific mention of OM in early Vedic period or Rig-Veda. However, we do come across an indirect reference in one of the hymns in the form of ‘Akshara' meaning Imperishable – and has the same meaning as OM. The world ‘Akshara’ is a synonym for OM in many scriptures including Bhagvad Gita. The possible reason for Omission of syllable OM in early Vedic life could be due to its utmost ‘sanctity and purity’ attached to it and was not allowed to be used outside the text of the Vedic sacrifices. It was used with utmost care and caution and passed on from preceptor to the disciple and from father to the son in strict confidence. However the case may be, recitation of any Vedic hymn would not be complete unless it is prefixed with the syllable OM. Over a period of time, the society became more relaxed and flexible and we find its first mention in Yajur Veda.

History is replete in praise of OM though it had different names and meanings at different periods. Swami Sankarananda alluded it to word Soma and concluded that OM represents Sun. Similarly notion is propounded in Aitareya Brahmana, which says that the object, which glows, illuminates, and give light [sun] is OM. The word ‘Akshara’ which is eternally unchanging and part of the Supreme Being points to OM. In the early Upanishads, it is called ‘Symbol of God’. Another later term for OM is ‘tara’ – meaning crossing the mundane existence. In our earliest Upanishads it was also known as ‘udgitha’. Hence, AUM represents light, which is not other than infinite Brahma. However the case may be, it is symbol of God and on recitation dissolves the mind in the Divinity. It is also strongly believed that OM is the embodiment of all sounds in the universe. The AUM of Hinduism also possibly became the sacred word of “Hum” of the Buddhists, Amin of the Muslims and Amen for Christians.

After a lapse of two millennia an unknown sage who composed the brief Mandukya Upanishad and sought to unfold its importance or expound its metaphysics i.e. Ultimate Nature of Existence. Though it is short but subtle of all the major Upanishads, yet 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. It is the quintessence of Vedanta. OM is spoken in this Upanishad as the primeval word, which stands for the entire universe permeated by Brahman and therefore Brahman itself.

The English translation of the mantra in the Upanishad is something like this:

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.

According to Katha Upanishad also the goal that all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at and which men desire when they lead the life of continence, it is OM. The syllable OM is indeed Brahman. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the highest and best support. Whosoever knows this support is adorned in the world of Brahma.

The significance of OM is wide and deep and has been the subject matter of discussion of the Upanishads, Vedas, Bhagvad Gita and other religious scriptures over the myriad of connotations that they stand for. AUM is made of four-syllable a+u+m and fourth one is Silence. OM has been an important aspect of teaching and represents four stages of Brahman – Ultimate Reality.

A Stands for earth or Creation of the Brahma. It envelops the whole universe including minutest particles and corresponds with our waking state.

U Stands for Preservation and atmosphere. It represents cosmo hemisphere inhabiting all deities, gandharvas, rakshas and pichasas and beyond our mind and thought and is creation of Vishnu. In other words, it is our dreaming state of mind.

M Stands for Dissolution and cessation of all worldly thoughts because we are into complete unconsciousness or deep sleep and is creation of Shiva. Though we are not conscious but still remember in the morning that we went to sleep. The Mandukya Upanishad says that in the state of deep sleep the aatman (soul) has been the witness to the sleep of the body and it is this which brings back the memory. It is the aatman (soul) that is above the three stages and this fourth stage refers to the Silence. The fourth stage ‘Silence’ is present in all of them. It represents Consciousness that illuminates the three above stages and pervades them all and is independent of each of them. It is Eternal, Supreme and Imperishable. Gaudapada in his commentary on this Upanishad said that if we identify three stages with the Silence one and on continuous meditation, one would realize one’s self and there would be no return for a man to the sphere of empirical life as it ushers in true peace, releases the mind from the tyranny of ego, renunciation of worldly thoughts, objects and motions and so on.

The three portions of AUM also represent to the three gunas, which are Rajas, Satvik and Tamas. It also indicates three parts of existence, heaven, earth and netherworld. The syllable OM has endless meaning, explanation and glorification.

Hence AUM is a part of divinity and represents as such to Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. AUM is the sound of Sun, the sound of Light and the sound of assent (affirmation) and ascent as it has an upward movement and uplifts the soul, as the sound of the divine eagle or falcon. It has the sense of totality as is evident from the English word of Omnipresent, Omniscient and Omnipotent.

Thus, OM is the ancient and sacred symbol, which represents the sound of all creation. It symbolizes infinite, eternal and is inclusive of all religions, caste, color and creed. OM is the most sacred syllables, the first sound of Almighty – from which all sounds emanate. If chanted with correct intonation, it can resonate in the whole body and merge in the fourth stage as mentioned above. It is past, present and future.

The efficacy of OM is unbound and limitless. Its recitation absolves us from all errors, sins and removes impediments in the performance of our worship. It is an unending source of energy. This is the highest mantra for mankind. It removes our negative emotions and protects us from all misdeeds.

OM is the power of bliss consciousness. Those who recite it with pure and pious mind are transformed into pure body, speech and mind. Their mind becomes serene, calm and powerful. Its regular chanting brings forth-tremendous power and divine luster on the face. OM is the foundation of all mantras and such is its effect that the wave of bad karma abates and brings forth prosperity and happy life. It is a prefix to all auspicious matters including God names and such is the power of mantra ‘OM’ that all vicissitudes, bad thoughts and actions cease before we take His Name or recite any Mantra. Hence OM a symbol of God. It is the source of entire universe. It is beginning and end encompassing space, time and the entire phenomena meaning thoughts and feelings as well as physical objects. Thus someone has rightly said “He who knows “OM” knows God”.

By: Rajesh Anand