AUM: Sound of the universe

As an Indian and more importantly Hindu, almost all of us are familiar with ‘AUM’. It is almost second nature for us to use it before or at the end of any mantra. Most of us even absent-mindedly chant it or use it without giving much thought to its meaning or why it is so important. AUM is not merely a word or chant but a sound and vibration that resonate throughout the universe. It is only today that scientists in the western world have ‘discovered’ AUM, it being the universal sound and its benefits. But when civilization wasn’t even born in the west, our Rishis had realised what AUM was (is) and that is what made them evolved beings and one with Parabrahman itself.

Om in Hindu scriptures

It is mentioned in all Hindu scriptures. In fact Mandukya Upanishad is entirely dedicated to expounding on this sacred syllable besides explaining the four states of consciousness, nature of the Universal Being, nature of the Supreme God and the concluding part of the Upanishad explains the harmony between the constituents of Om and the four states of consciousness.

The first verse of Mandukya Upanishad says: ओमित्येतदक्षरमिदंसर्वं तस्योपव्याख्यानं।

भुतं भवद् भविष्यदिति सर्वमोंकार एव

यच्चान्यत् त्रिकालातीतं तदप्योंकार एव 1

(Transliteration: Aum iti etad akṣaram idam sarvam, tasyopavyākhyānam bhūtam bhavad bhaviṣyad iti sarvam auṁkāra eva yac cānyat trikālātītaṁ tad apy auṁkāra eva)

It means ‘AUM’, the imperishable word, it everything that is seen in the Universe. Everything that belonged to the past, present and future and also all that is beyond these three states of time is contained within AUM. The Upanishad then explains in detail what AUM means and how it contains the PARABRAHMAN itself. Taittiriya Upanishad, Chandogya Upanishad and Mundaka Upanishad are other Upanishads which elaborately expound on AUM and its significance. Shri Ganesha is venerated as ‘Omkar Swarupa’ meaning one who is shaped like AUM. Sri Nataraja, a manifestation of Mahadev, and His cosmic dance are believed to signify the vibration of the universe. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna “I am the syllable OM” (Chapter 9 verse 17)

Symbolism and its significance

The symbol comprises of three letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. The syllable is known as Udgita or Pranava mantra because it is the primordial sound and also because almost all mantras begin with it. The symbol comprises of three curves, a semi-circle and a dot. The three curves are representative of the three states of human consciousness. While the lower curve represents the waking state, the upper curve stands for deep sleep or unconscious state and the one separating the two denotes the dream state. The dot denotes the Absolute or state of dreamless deep sleep. The fourth state is when an individual transcend the three states of consciousness and experiences non-duality; in other words the individual attains enlightenment.

The semicircle separates the dot from the three curves thereby dividing the three states from the fourth or absolute state which is attained only by realised souls (such as Maharishis). The semicircle is representative of Maya that binds individuals to worldly things and effectively holds them back from realising oneness with PARABRAHMAN. Since the dot stands for absoluteness, which is the only state that is not affected by Maya, it is separated from the other three. What this implies is that an individual has to overcome Maya to attain absoluteness and rise above the three states.

Om in Hindu cosmology and its philosophy

AUM is not only the most sacred syllable in Hinduism but believed to be the very manifestation of PARABRAHMAN. Hindu cosmology states that all life, in fact entire creation itself, comes about due to the vibration of the syllable ‘AUM’. In other words without this the cosmos would disappear. Om is by no means confined to Hinduism alone but all Indic religions consider this to be a holy syllable. ‘Ek Onkar’ forms the core tenet of Sikhism and Om is used by Buddhists as well. All schools of Hinduism give their own explanation for the term. While Advaita connects it with all three being subsumed into one, meaning one needing to transcend this world which is Maya; Dvaita-Advaita believes AUM to be the impersonal sound representation of Sri Hari Vishnu (like Hari nama is the personal sound representation).

Scientific findings

We live in an age of ‘Westernization’. While I’m not opposed to being rational or inquiring before blindly accepting anything (which is what Hinduism also encourages us to do) I find it appalling that we would accept something only if some American or European research corroborates what our Shastras have said. Well, if we just pause a little and make efforts to read our Shastras then we would know that our Maharishis and Rishis were not merely spiritual and religious but scientists and philosophers as well. They were accomplished souls who used spiritual practices to acquire scientific knowledge.

Vedas state that existence emerged from sound (NAD) which is what modern scientists believe in the form of Big Bang theory. Human ears can hear sounds only in the range of 20 to 20000 HZ while the earth produces a sound of 7.83 HZ. This sound produced by the earth is known as ‘earth hum’ and here’s the interesting bit, earth hum corresponds to the frequency of OM. Maharishis could hear sounds which normal humans could not through their spiritual trances. Cymatics (study of visible sound) shows that sounds have distinct geometry and OM takes on an elliptical shape much like the universe. If that sounds interesting and unbelievable there is more in store. Different chants take on more complex shapes that resemble the various Mandalas that find mention in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is not the scope of this article to go into details of Cymatics but do watch the video to learn more.

It is going to be difficult confine AUM to an article alone. There are so many aspects and dimensions of this syllable that we have been mindlessly chanting (our Maharishis knew its significance and benefits). There are many aspects of Hinduism that scientists in the West are now ‘discovering’. Our Shastras are not merely religious scriptures but have many scientific, mathematical, philosophical, phonetical and grammatical principles among others. Let us show a little more appreciation for the knowledge handed down by our ancestors instead of waiting for approval from the west.