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Om in the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras

Posted by Yogendra Nath Yogi on May 16, 2011 at 7:45 AM

Merchandisers of religion or spirituality (and oftentimes yoga) assure their audiences that "you cannot get spirituality from books." They are right. But neither can you get spirituality from their lectures or seminars. (And is it not interesting that they usually have books, audiotapes, and videotapes to sell you?) But spiritual wisdom-in fact everything you need to awaken and develop your spiritual consciousness-can be found in books. You just need to know which ones.

Sanatana Dharma-Eternal Truth-is based on the direct experience of the sages of primeval India as well as the corroborating experiences of yogis throughout thousands of years. Originally all spiritual teachings were committed to memory only, but in time they were written down to ensure their correct preservation. Simple as it is, Sanatana Dharma in its purity is found in twelve basic texts: the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, and Svetasvatara Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, this last one being a digest and exposition of the upanishadic philosophy with emphasis on its practical application.

Although Om is to be found in each upanishad, at least as part of the opening and closing mantras of blessing, eight of them have sections dealing with Om Itself.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

"Om is Brahman, the Primeval Being. This is the Veda which the knowers of Brahman know; through it one knows what is to be known."1

Om is Divinity Itself. This is an incredible truth. To fill the mind and consciousness with Om is to divinize ourself, to evoke that eternal Self which is our real being.

Everything that exists is a manifestation of God. So lest we mistakenly decide that Om is divine because it-like everything else-only symbolizes the Divine or is a part or reflection of the Divine, the upanishad continues, telling us that Om is "the Primeval Being." Om is not a permutation, extension, or evolute of Brahman; It is Brahman in Its absolute, primeval state. Om does not lead us to Brahman, It IS Brahman. We need only realize that, and then we shall have attained Self-realization. For Om is our very Self, since Brahman is our Self.

Those who know Brahman do not bother with the ritualistic hymns of the Vedas to obtain their desires, but chant only Om to obtain fulfillment of their desires-especially the desire for divine knowledge. For "through It one knows what is to be known." "Veda" can mean knowledge or wisdom when found in the scriptures, so we can also consider this statement to mean that Om is the knowledge and wisdom of those who know God-since it is God. Om is that Ishwara of whom Patanjali said: "In Him is the seed of omniscience."

Chandogya Upanishad

If we accept the statements of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad regarding Om we will also readily accept the mandate of the Chandogya Upanishad: "One should meditate on this Syllable [Om]."2 If we do so, we shall certainly come to omniscience, for the upanishad also says regarding Om: "That is the quintessence of the essences, the Supreme, the highest."3 United with Om we are united with ALL. Om, then is not just the seed of omniscience, but of omnipresence as well.

This union does not just produce a theoretical or intellectual result, but rather the mastery of life itself, for a little further on the upanishads says: "Speech [vak] and life force [prana] are joined together in the Syllable Om. Verily, whenever the pair come together, they fulfil each other's desire. He who knowing this thus, meditates on the Syllable, becomes, verily, a fulfiller of desires."4 Here the word prana means the Vishwaprana, the Universal Life Force which is incarnate in every living being in the form of the five pranas that support all the functions of living organisms. Om is more than sound, It is Life Itself. Om is the seed of both vak and prana, which are its expressions. That is why Om is also called Pranava. The major idea here is that Om is not only the seed of omniscience and omnipresence, It is also the seed of omnipotence.

The upanishad continues with the exposition of Om as the power of fulfillment, saying: "Verily, this Syllable is of assent, for whenever one assents to anything he says simply 'Om.' What is assent is fulfillment. He, who knowing this thus, meditates on the Syllable, becomes, verily, a fulfiller of desires."5 Meditation on Om is a guarantor of our wishes being fulfilled. However, since Om is a bestower of wisdom,6 obviously we will not be desiring trivial or harmful things. For Om will illumine us and dispel those illusory desires.

"Saying Om, one recites: saying Om, one orders: saying Om, one sings aloud, in honor of that Syllable, with its greatness and its essence. He who knows this thus, and he who knows not, both perform with It. Knowledge and ignorance, however, are different. What, indeed, one performs with knowledge, faith, and meditation, that, indeed becomes more powerful. This, verily is the explanation of this Syllable."7

A little later the upanishad returns to the power of Om to fulfil desires, saying: "He obtains wishes by singing [intoning], who knowing this, meditates on the udgitha8 [Om] as the syllable. This, with regard to the self."9 The wielders of Om, being made wise, desire only the Self. And Om reveals the Self to them.

Then the upanishad describes how the gods-highly evolved beings-wished to escape death and become immortal. At first they tried to do this through recitation of the Vedas, but they were easily approached by death. So they took refuge in Om. Wherefore the upanishad continues, saying of Om: "This sound is that syllable, the immortal, the fearless. Having entered this, the gods became immortal, fearless. He who knows it thus, praises this Syllable, takes refuge in that Syllable, in the immortal, fearless sound, and having entered it, he becomes immortal, even as the gods became immortal."10

The upanishadic sages had much to say about the sun as the source of life. Even more, they identified it with Om, saying: "Now, verily, what is the udgitha is the Om. What is Om is the udgitha. And so verily, the udgitha is the yonder sun and the Om, for the sun is continually sounding 'Om.'"11

The rishis of India considered that the sun was the origin of the planets of the solar system and that all sentient beings came into the physical plane through the sun which is a gateway to the astral realms. To them the sun was not a ball of flaming gases but a sphere of concentrated life forces (this is also the speculation of some astronomers) through which the souls that have evolved beyond the need for earthly experience pass back through again to higher worlds.

The sun continually vibrates Om according to the upanishads,12 and those who continually intone Om align themselves with its evolutionary energies and greatly quicken their upward development. Having established a profound affinity with the sun through a lifetime of Om meditation, they easily pass upward and through the sun, escaping the compulsion to material rebirth.

To reinforce this, the upanishad goes on: "One should meditate on the breath in the mouth as the udgitha, for it is continually sounding 'Om.'"13 The upward-moving prana which manifests as the breath is continually sounding "Om" in the subtle levels. Yogis who focus on the breath will eventually hear the subtle whispering form of Om being produced deep within them with each breath. This is called ajapa japa by the yogis-spontaneous, automatic japa that is innate in each of us. Since our soul is always breathing Om, by intoning Om we put ourselves in tune with the very wellspring of our existence, linking up with our inmost consciousness. This is why sometimes in meditation we find ourselves naturally intoning Om in time with our breath. How profound is this tiny syllable!

Karma, good or bad, is a major concern of those who seek liberation from rebirth, for both are bonds that tie us to the wheel of constant birth and death. We conduct the "sacrifice" of our life as the director, the "hotri priest." Therefore the upanishad tells us: "Now, verily, what is the udgitha is the Pranava. What is Pranava is the udgitha. [If one knows this], verily, from the seat of the hotri priest, all wrong singing is corrected, yea is corrected."14 Symbolically speaking, we "sing" our life's directions as does the hotri priest. But through Om, "all wrong singing is corrected, yea is corrected." For Om lifts us beyond the sphere of cause and effect and sets us free.

"This is the udgitha [Om], highest and best. This is endless. He who, knowing this, mediates on udgitha, the highest and best, becomes the highest and best and obtains the highest and best worlds. When Atidhanvan Shunaka taught this udgitha to Udara Shandilya, he also said: 'As long as they shall know this udgitha among your descendants, so long their life in this world will be the highest and best.' And so will their state in that other world be. One who thus knows and meditates-his life in this world becomes the highest and best, and so his state in that other world, yea, in that other world.'"15 Om glorifies both this life and the life beyond.

Speech, vak, is the essence of life. Therefore in grave illness and at the time of death the power of speech usually fails. As milk becomes diluted in water, so the consciousness of the departing soul becomes dispersed and wanders, confused. But this is not so for those who cling even in death to the repetition of Om. For that yogi: "As all leaves are held together by the stalk, so is all speech held together by Om. Verily, the Syllable Om is all this, yea, the Syllable Om is all this."16 Om is every aspect of life itself.

Speaking of the final exit of the soul from the body, the upanishad states: "Even as a great extending highway runs between two villages, this one and that yonder, even so the rays of the sun go to both these worlds, this one and that yonder. They start from the yonder sun and enter into the nadis. They start from the nadis and enter into the yonder sun....When a man departs from this body, then he goes upwards by these very rays or he goes up with the thought of Om. As his mind is failing, he goes to the sun. That, verily, is the gateway of the world, an entering in for the knowers, a shutting out for the non-knowers."17

Katha Upanishad

In the Katha Upanishad we find profoundest teachings on the true Self and its destiny. The inquirer asks to be taught the Transcendent Reality. The answer he receives is this: "I will tell you briefly of that Goal which all the Vedas with one voice propound, which all the austerities speak of, and wishing for Which people practice discipline: It is Om."18 To be very colloquial: Om is IT.

Though absolute Unity, God is seemingly dual: transcendent and immanent, with form and formless, with qualities and without qualities. The duality really is only in our way of seeing it. Yet, since it is our minds that we have to work with (and through) the sages speak of "higher" and "lower" Brahman. Obviously there are not two Absolutes, nor is God split in two. It is a matter of perception alone. This must be kept in mind in considering the following.

"Om, indeed, is the Lower Brahman; this is, indeed, the Higher Brahman. Anyone who, meditating on Om, wishes either of the Two [aspects], by him that is attained."19 Om is both transcendent and immanent. In which ever plane we wish to abide, Om is the basis, the illuminator, the key to comprehension and mastery.

There may be various ways to approach the Goal, but Om is the Goal. Logically, then, the upanishad concludes: "This [Om] is the best means [of attainment and realization]; this means is the Higher and Lesser Brahman. Meditating on Om, one becomes worthy of worship in the world of Brahman."20 Om is that which transforms us, elevating our consciousness to the realm of the Divine and establishing it therein.

Mandukya Upanishad

"Om: this Syllable is all this. All that is past, the present and the future, all this is only the Syllable Om. And whatever else there is beyond the threefold time, that too is only the Syllable Om."21 From the original Sound, Om, all things have come into manifestation as Its extension-embodiments. Everything that has ever existed, now exists, or shall exist, is the expansion of Om. Om is all-embracing Eternity, containing and transcending past, present, and future. There is nothing but Om. That being true, the upanishad then says: "The Self [atman] is of the nature of the Syllable Om....Thus the Syllable Om is the very Self. He who knows It thus enters the Self [Supreme Spirit] with his self [individual spirit]."22 By means of Om, the eternal wave merges into the eternal Sea.

Mundaka Upanishad

The Mundaka Upanishad speaks further on meditation.

"Taking as the bow the great weapon of the Upanishads [Om], one should place in It the arrow sharpened by meditation. Drawing It with a mind engaged in the contemplation of That [Brahman], O beloved, know that Imperishable Brahman as the target."23 The power of Om is emphasized by calling it a great weapon. Its intent and effect are serious and mighty-nothing less than union with the Absolute. It is called "the great weapon of the Upanishads" to indicate that Om, and Om alone, is the effective means recommended by the scriptures of Eternal Dharma for the realization of God. The japa and meditation of Om impel the consciousness of the yogi toward the Goal-Brahman. Moreover, it is the meditation of Om that "sharpens" the consciousness and renders it capable of union with Brahman. "The Syllable 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."24 It is Om that ensures we will unerringly ("without a mistake") reach the Goal.

"He in Whom the sky, the earth, and the interspace are woven, as also the mind along with all the pranas, know Him alone as the one Self. Dismiss other utterances. This [Om] is the bridge to immortality."25 The "He" in this verse is Om Itself, which is Brahman. It is the one Self. To drive the point home that Om is the sole means of uniting with Brahman, the upanishad states absolutely and flat-footedly: Dismiss other utterances-all other japa mantras. Why? Because only Om is the bridge to immortality. It is Om that leads us "from death to Immortality."

Yet, we must not sell ourselves short by thinking that we are of small capacity and consequently of little worth, thinking that Om is some kind of separate gimmick or tool that will do for us what we cannot. No: Our realization through Om is accomplished by Om as our own Self. Therefore: "Meditate on Om as the Self. May you be successful in crossing over to the farther shore of darkness."26 It is we ourselves that are to "be successful in crossing over to the farther shore of darkness." We are Om.

Prashna Upanishad

Living in the world of gadgetry, from mousetraps to atom bombs, one of the most frequent questions we (reasonably) ask is: "Does it work?" According to the Prashna Upanishad, "Satyakama, son of Shibi, asked [the Rishi Pippalada]: 'Venerable Sir, what world does he who meditates on Om until the end of his life, win by That?' To him, he said: 'That which is the sound Om, O Satyakama, is verily the higher and the lower Brahman. Therefore, with this support alone does the wise man reach the one or the other.'...If he meditates on the Supreme Being [Parampurusha] with the Syllable Om, he becomes one with the Light, the Sun. He is led to the world of Brahman. He sees the Person that dwells in the body, Who is higher than the highest life....That the wise one attains, even by the mere sound Om as support, That Which is tranquil, unaging, immortal, fearless, and supreme."27 Om does it all.

Svetasvatara Upanishad

"Om is the Supreme Brahman, and in It are the Triad. It is the firm support, the imperishable. The knowers of Brahman by knowing what is therein [in the all-containing Om] become merged in Brahman, intent thereon [i.e., on Om] and freed from birth."28 Two important concepts are introduced here regarding Om.

First is the fact that the Triad (trayam) is contained within Om. These are the three Eternals: the Supreme Spirit, the individual spirit(s), and the divine creative Power (Shakti or Prakriti). These three are all Om. This is the usual interpretation. It would not be amiss, however, to consider the Triad as the entire realm of physical, astral, and causal existence-body, mind, and soul on the individual level. In sum: Om is the totality of being.

Second, although it is implied in previous upanishadic quotes, it is plainly stated that Om frees us from rebirth. More to the point, it frees us from the need for rebirth. Rebirth occurs because we have not fully realized our divine potential. Om unfolds that potential and thereby frees us.

"As the form of fire when latent in its source is not seen and yet its seed is not destroyed, but may be seized again and again in its source by means of the drill [a pointed stick whirled to produce fire for the Vedic sacrifices], so it is in both cases. The Self has to be seized in the body by means of the Syllable Om. By making one's body the lower friction stick and the Syllable Om the upper friction stick, by practicing the friction of meditation one may see the hidden God, as it were."29 Here we may see a hint of the practice of feeling our intonations of Om throughout the body as well as the way our awareness may be drawn to various points in the body during meditation.

"The knower of the real nature of Brahman that is identical with the Pranava, after keeping his body erect, by holding the three parts [the chest, the neck, and the head] in an upright posture, placing all the organs of perception and action along with the mind in his heart, should cross all the formidable streams [of samsara] with the ferryboat of the Pranava."30 "Heart" in this verse means the Self, the core of our being, rather than the physical heart or the "heart chakra." The idea is that through meditating on Om all the "rays" or faculties of our mind become merged in the consciousness of the Self. This is perfect enlightenment, so the upanishad also says: "God is the Syllable Om, out of Him proceeds the Supreme Knowledge."31

Taittiriya Upanishad

"Om is Brahman. Om is all this. He who utters Om with the intention 'I shall attain Brahman' does verily attain Brahman."32 Om is the great empowerer of our will. Whatever we desire or intend, if it is in harmony with the divine order, it shall come about. The supreme aspiration is to attain total union with God. And the upanishad assures us that if we do the japa and meditation of Om with this purpose in mind it will facilitate our attainment. Secondarily this verse informs us that if we continually keep intoning Om throughout all our activities, Om will guarantee their success and fruition, whatever they might be. For Om encompasses the entire range of being, from the material to the spiritual. Those who are proficient in Om Yoga will become proficient in everything.

Bhagavad Gita

The supreme sage, Vyasa, in order to give us a complete picture of the upanishadic wisdom as well as the way to apply it in our life so we may attain the same vision of the sages who authored them, wrote the Bhagavad Gita based on the instructions given by Krishna to Arjuna on the eve of the Great Indian (Mahabharata) War on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Om is a central element in Krishna's exposition of spiritual life and practice.

Speaking from his perspective as the Infinite Being, enumerating his major manifestation-embodiments, Krishna says: "I am the syllable Om."33 He also says the same thing in 9:17 ("I am...the sacred monosyllable") and 10:25 ("Among words I am the monosyllable Om"). The meaning is that Om is not a symbol of God, It is God. So there can be nothing greater or a subject more important.

What to "do" with Om is then outlined by Krishna: "Engaged in the practice of concentration,34 uttering the monosyllable Om--the Brahman--remembering Me always, he...attains to the supreme goal. I am easily attainable by that ever-steadfast Yogi who constantly and daily remembers Me."35

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

God is the beginning, middle, and end of yoga. The beginning, middle, and end of yoga texts is the Yoga Darshan (Yoga Sutras) of Patanjali. It has not only never been superseded, it has never been equalled. It stands alone as the sole authority on yoga outside the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. Here are its words on God and yoga:

"Ishwara [God] is a particular Purusha [Spirit, Person] Who is untouched by the afflictions of life, actions, and the results and impressions produced by these actions. In Him is the highest limit of omniscience.36 Being unconditioned by time He is teacher even of the ancients. His designator [vachaka] is the Pranava [Om].37 Its japa [constant repetition] and bhavanam is the way [or: should be done]. From it result [come] the disappearance of obstacles and the turning inward of consciousness. Disease, languor, doubt, carelessness, laziness, worldly-mindedness, delusion, non-achievement of a stage, instability, these cause the distraction of the mind and they are the obstacles. [Mental] pain, despair, nervousness, and agitation are the symptoms of a distracted condition of mind. For removing these obstacles [there should be] the constant practice of the one principle [the japa and bhavanam of Om]."38

 


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