Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Key Yoga Teachings: OM

OM The Word of Power

From Self-Knowledge Winter 2000

Holy names, or words of power, are like bridges which lead the mind from worldly cares to consciousness of the eternal. The eternal is not set apart from the human mind. It is the unwavering spiritual power which underlies all mental activity. Yet life leads to increasing preoccupation with external matters, until our spiritual roots are entirely forgotten, and the world confronts us as the stern and only reality. The holy names correct this process, and reawaken the more inward and subtler part of the mind, called buddhi, which, when purified, is the organ of spiritual experience.

Spiritual experience has been called awakening to Reality. According to the sages, the inner spiritual realm is the rock-firm basis of all experience. It is called Truth, and when Truth is realized, all else turns out to have been an appearance only. The spirit, Brahman, is the ultimate support of all appearances. The spirit is the imperishable; the realm of appearances is a phenomenal expression of the Lord, a kind of divine illusion, or maya. It is that very same power, all pervading and divine, which enables human beings to think, feel, move and plan. It is the power behind the mind.

What is the method for uncovering Truth? It is to learn how to awaken and develop the spiritual sense within us. Traditionally, this is the function of religion, though religion too can forget its raison d'etre, as proclaimed by its founders, and focus on externals. Still, as Swami Rama Tirtha once said, religion, when freed from narrowness and dogmatism, 'is essentially a mysterious process by which the mind or intellect reaches back and loses itself in the inscrutable source, the great beyond'. Seen in this light, religions are paths to inner discovery. They are variations of a single basic quest to uncover what Christ called the kingdom of heaven within, and what Mohammed referred to in his inspired utterance: 'I am not contained in earth or heaven. But know this for certain: I am contained in the true believer's heart. How wonderful! If you seek me, search in those hearts.'

One of the great gifts of religions is that they provide symbols of the deeper reality, a reality which is too close and too subtle to grasp with our present mental powers. But these symbols given to us by religion have their own special power. That power comes into operation when we learn to meditate on these symbolic forms, words, or images with love and with receptivity. When this practice is established, the material of the mind is gradually transformed. The mind is transformable. This is the foundation of Yoga practice. The mind is greatly influenced and changed by what it absorbs, and especially by the emotional and intellectual atmosphere we place it in. The spiritual symbols carry within them associations of purity, peace and higher knowledge, and these spiritual qualities can be uncovered in us through whole-hearted meditation on the chosen symbol.

What are these symbols? To the Hindus, they include the forms of the incarnations of God, Krishna and Rama, and meditating on incidents in their lives, and the deeper meaning behind them. To the Buddhists, the statue of the Buddha, or the opened lotus flower, are symbols, pointing to the inner peace of enlightenment. To a Christian, the most meaningful symbol is the Cross; meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus also has a profound influence on the mind. All these forms and symbols can bring the mind into touch with what is symbolized: the realm of the imperishable, the Divine Spirit.

One of the great practices especially developed in the East, is the repetition of a name of God. The name presents the Divinity in an approachable form, and yet points beyond itself. Such names are Rama, Krishna, Allah, Christ, even the word Lord, and, not least, the holy syllable OM. Repetition, performed with intensity and love, enables our understanding to penetrate more deeply, and to contact the spiritual realm represented by the Deity. It pierces through the superficial consciousness, and releases the mind from its bondage to the material.

There is a verse by the devotional poet Tulsidas: 'O Rama, thy holy name is father and mother to me! It is my friend, my Guru, my loving companion. It is the shining path.' The saint Shri Dada of Aligarh called repetition of the name of the Lord a sure medicine for the disease of worldliness.

The habit of repetition can be easily established, and has helped countless men and women bear the ups and downs of life with courage and equanimity. Such was the case with one woman, who had been expelled from her homeland due to an inhuman racial policy, and forced to make a new life in another country. In conversation, she was asked about her religion. In response, she pointed to her heart. 'My religion is here', she said. 'I repeat the holy name as I go about my duties, and this brings me strength and peace within'. In this way she kept in mind a higher order of reality, something imperishable which she could hold on to.

In the East, the science of repetition has been developed to perfection in the form of the mantras. These are short, simple combinations of sounds, often embodying a salutation to a particular deity, which are repeated as a central spiritual practice. In the book Echoes of Japan, Dr Shastri told how he visited a Zen monastery and entered into discussion with some of the young monks. The question came up about how to control the mind and deal with unwanted passions. One of the monks said: 'These passions become less frequent as we meditate deeply. If they arise, we stand and walk up and down repeating our mantram. Sometimes our repetition becomes very fast. We do not think of the passions as real for they are phantoms of our past karma, which assume mental forms. We are not afraid of them.'

In order to achieve man's highest purpose, liberation and conscious immortality, the Upanishads have provided the greatest symbol of all. It is the word of power: OM. In Adhyatma Yoga this word OM begins all traditional mantrams, prayers and texts for meditation. OM is the most potent indicator of the divine consciousness, both as the support of the universe, and in pure transcendence. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, OM is called the word which expresses God. The symbol OM denotes what is abstract and impersonal, yet it also symbolizes that divine principle which the devotee can approach in the spirit of worship. Indeed, OM is perhaps the one great name which can appeal to those who feel no attraction to holy names associated with particular religions.

The word OM has grandeur and universality, and is praised in many of the Upanishads. But it is also a spiritual and practical help even for those who have not studied its meaning. OM can be repeated without a deep knowledge of the metaphysical symbolism behind it. Simply take it that this word expresses all that is highest and holiest in the religious traditions, and when we are repeating this word, there comes into operation an inner force, which sets in motion the purest associations within us.

When we first hear about OM it seems to be something outside us, which we learn to apply to the mind as an aid to inner peace. But the more research we do into the meaning of OM, the more we realize that it is not external at all. It is the word of power, which corresponds to the one unchanging reality within us. OM repeated is a revealing power which dissolves the superficial layers of the mental life, and connects us with the highest truth, when uttered with reverence and love.

The pronunciation of the word OM accompanied by spiritual affirmations was given the greatest significance by Swami Rama Tirtha, who recommended positive affirmations pointing to our divine nature within, such as: 'All knowledge I am. All truth I am. All joy I am. Fearless, fearless I am.' But with each of these short sentences, he would recommend the accompaniment of OM, said three times. So it would be: 'OM OM OM All knowledge I am. OM OM OM.' He called OM the sovereign remedy for all ills, echoing Patanjali who called OM the remover of obstacles.

Swami Rama's writings suggest that his mind was constantly focused on OM. Once he tripped while walking on a mountain path, and commented: 'Do you know why Rama slipped? It was because at that moment his mind strayed away from the remembrance of the Lord.' He surely used the incident to demonstrate the spiritual principle that if our mind is not filled to the brim with divine remembrance, worldly considerations will reassert their power, and lead us astray from the spiritual path. On the other hand, continual remembrance of a traditional formula or holy name can draw the mind away from worldliness and establish it in the divine consciousness within.

What is the meaning of OM in the context of the Upanishads? The Upanishads teach that there is an eternal consciousness which remains ever the same and is the basis of all our experience. According to the Mandukya Upanishad, our human experience leads us, day by day, into three very different states of being. All these states are phenomenal and are lit by the light of the eternal consciousness.

The first is called the waking state, which we enter when awakening from sleep. It is characterized by the functioning of the external senses, which receive and respond to the stream of impressions. The waking state appears to be the dominant state for the working of human life.

But each day, this waking state comes to a complete end when we withdraw into ourselves, close the doors and windows of the senses, and let our minds drift into an altogether different realm: the realm of sleep with dreams. Here again there is experience which seems similar to that of the waking state, but our environments in dream, the feel of our bodies, the people we mix with, are often very different to the scenario of our waking life. In dream, we can mingle happily with long lost relatives, somehow the pains of the body in the waking state have disappeared, and laws of time, space and causation, seem curiously flexible. The main thing about the dreaming state is that the outer senses are not operative: the whole spectacle takes place internally.

Then there is a third state, the state of dreamless sleep. This is a condition where dreams come to an end and there is a total absence of mental activity. How do we know? We know in retrospect, when we wake up and feel: 'Ah, I must have slept so well, I remember nothing at all.' The Upanishads say that dreamless sleep is a state of bliss, but such bliss is of a negative nature. It is the bliss of complete absence of the pairs of opposites, limitations and finitude. It is a kind of release and close to liberation, except that it is not a conscious experience. No one becomes liberated by going to sleep each night. This state too is brought to an end by our return to the waking state.

These three states make up the totality of empirical experience. It is clear that these states are passing and cancel each other out. Therefore, in the Vedanta analysis, they do not deserve to be called absolutely real. The vast importance of the waking state comes to a humble and humiliating end when we drift into dream. The fantastic imaginings of dream are more patently unreal, and they are completely dissolved when we wake up, or when we sink into dreamless sleep. And dreamless sleep, however sweet a condition, is rudely broken when we awaken from it, and have to take on all the duties and burdens of waking life once again.

But all the time, alongside these three states, and illumining them from within, is the eternal consciousness, our true Self. It is sometimes called the fourth, or turiya; though far from being one more state like the others, turiya is the witness and support of all the three states. When understood, turiya is realized to be the whole of experience, the Absolute. Without this turiya, this eternal consciousness, the whole phenomenal cycle of waking, dream and dreamless sleep would have nothing to rest on. This eternal consciousness is not broken or interrupted by anything. It is this consciousness, which, reflected in the mind, gives us the sense of continuous identity, of being the same self, in spite of apparently losing ourselves completely in sleep and dream. This is the Self to be realized, to be uncovered, in order to be liberated from the realm of the perishable. It is here that the symbology of OM shows us a path to freedom. OM points to the whole of the phenomenal realm, in its three phases, and also to the transcendent, which is the light behind all experience.

This way of analysing our experience can be shown by the visual symbol OM, with the curves - lower, middle and upper - representing, respectively, the states of waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep.
picture of OM
Above these curves there is another which is set apart from the main form, to denote transcendence, with the point signifying infinity.

Throughout experience, whether external, internal or quiescent as in deep sleep, the divine is always present equally as the turiya, just as the higher curve and the point always accompany and dominate the lower three. Therefore OM is a visual symbol representing the whole of experience both relative and absolute, finite and infinite. The Mandukya Upanishad also shows how the word OM is a great sound symbol. The three states are represented by parts of the sound OM itself. Here the sound OM is depicted as having three phases. They are usually represented in English by the letters A, U and M. The sound A (pronounced as in 'path') is the characteristic sound of the waking state. It is the sound of life and response to outer stimuli. A is the first sound produced when opening the mouth. The middle sound, U (pronounced as the 'oo' in 'soon'), is attributed to the dreaming state, and to states of internal mental activity, where we are withdrawn from outer objects. The sound U is also the natural sound which comes in between the A and the M, the last part of the AUM sound. This sound M indicates the third state of dreamless sleep. Even in our ordinary experience the sound MMM can indicate withdrawn satisfaction and it is a more subtle and inward sound. M is also a sound of finality, the end of all sounds, marked by the closing of the mouth. The A and U seem to sink into the M, just as waking and dream, according to this analysis, are subdued into dreamless sleep.

At the end of the utterance of OM there is a short silence. Although the voiced OM ceases, within that silence there can be a mental clearing in which is glimpsed the deeper reality indicated by the OM.

Once a teacher was approached by a disciple and asked: 'Please teach me the nature of Brahman, the highest Reality.' The sage said nothing. The disciple repeated his question, yet the sage again kept silent. When asked a third time, he said: 'I teach, but you do not understand. Silent is that Self.' Similarly, after each OM, carefully pronounced, there is a meaningful and revealing silence, beyond word and idea, indicative of the nature of the supreme Brahman. But the mind is led to this silence through the dedicated and focused repetition of OM.

The Amritabindu Upanishad draws attention to the soundless OM, which underlies the sound: 'By sound let a man effect Yoga.' This means, by the repetition of OM, let a man learn to still his mind and make it one-pointed. 'Then let him meditate on the soundless. Then by the realization of the soundless, the non-being is seen as being.' Here the sage signifies that the spiritual realm, which in ordinary experience seems to be obscured and non-existent, is realized to be self-evident and the only truly existent principle.

It can be seen that, through its symbolism, the word OM is a golden key to enlightenment. This is because it contains, in symbolic form, the whole range of empirical experience and also the infinite spiritual background behind appearances and limitations. More precisely, the analysis of OM exposes the boundaries of empirical experience with its three states and shows that we need to search for ultimate Truth beyond these transient states.

Imagine a busy market place, where there are hundreds of people absorbed in buying, selling, viewing, talking, arguing, and so on. Then imagine that suddenly there is an announcement on a loudspeaker, saying: 'Ladies and gentlemen! You are now in the waking state. Please carry on enjoying it while it lasts.'

Immediately, the absoluteness of the waking state and the huge importance of our own waking activities, is challenged. Like a lightning flash in a night sky, the hidden boundary of our waking experience is momentarily exposed, and it may give us a galvanizing shock. 'You are now in the waking state. Enjoy it while it lasts!'

Suppose also that in our dream state, in the middle of a dream, we suddenly notice a poster on the wall saying: 'Just to remind you: you are dreaming.' The absoluteness of our involvement in the dream world may also be challenged, and we may even be awakened by the experience.

The states are illumined and energized by a fundamental spiritual light which penetrates them, but which is itself transcendent, eternal and self-luminous. This is what is indicated by the half-circle and the point, called in Sanskrit the bindu, which symbolizes the seed of all sound. This is the reality which has to be realized, in order to experience real freedom. Spiritual freedom can be achieved because the point, the bindu, is within us. It is the innermost Self, and the three states are experiences within our own minds. Like the loudspeaker in the market place, the spiritual teachers remind us: 'The mind is not all. Don't be hypnotized by its promises of lasting peace and happiness. Transcend its limitations by coming into contact with its spiritual substratum, the light and power behind it.'

The path of Yoga is learning to lift our attention from the region of the three lower curves - the phenomenal world - and to fix our gaze on the spiritual principle, the still point above the curves, the bindu. This point corresponds to the divine seed in every man. When this seed is located in inner quietude at the centre of our being, and claims our one-pointed concentration, the mind loses its boundaries, and, as the Katha Upanishad says, 'the Self reveals itself to the self in man'.

Enlightenment is not something that has to be achieved, like learning a new subject. The subject of enlightenment is our own true Self, which is simply covered by spiritual ignorance. It is ignorance alone which promotes the wrong idea that we are limited individuals, separate from the world, from one another, and, above all, separate from the Lord, the Divine, from Brahman. Yoga aims to dissolve these wrong ideas and reveal our true Self as it is. As one sage has declared: 'I am neither bound nor free. I am not separate from Brahman.' OM comes as a great gift to help us in this process of uncovering. Repetition of OM and concentration on its meaning reduces the three states to a spiritual silence. When we are fully absorbed in that silence, and that silence becomes a magnet for our attention and concentration, this is the condition for the realization of our true nature, which is enlightenment.

Here is a text for meditation: