A-U-M or Om
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Om (IAST: Auṃ or Oṃ or ॐ) is a sacred sound and a spiritual symbol in Indian religions. In Hinduism, it signifies the essence of the ultimate reality, consciousness or Atman. More broadly, it is a syllable that is chanted either independently or before a spiritual recitation in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The meaning and connotations of Om vary between the diverse schools within and across the various traditions. It is part of the iconography found in ancient and medieval era manuscripts, temples, monasteries and spiritual retreats in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
In Hinduism, Om is one of the most important spiritual symbols. It refers to Atman (soul, self within) and Brahman (ultimate reality, entirety of the universe, truth, divine, supreme spirit, cosmic principles, knowledge). The syllable is often found at the beginning and the end of chapters in the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other Hindu texts. It is a sacred spiritual incantation made before and during the recitation of spiritual texts, during puja and private prayers, in ceremonies of rites of passages (sanskara) such as weddings, and sometimes during meditative and spiritual activities such as Yoga.
The syllable Om is also referred to as onkara (ओङ्कार, oṅkāra), omkara (ओंकार, oṃkāra) and pranava (प्रणव, praṇava).
Origin and meaning
The syllable Om (Devanagari: ॐ, Kannada: ಓಂ, Tamil: ௐ, Malayalam: ഓം, Telugu: ఓం, Bengali: ওঁ, Odia : ଓଁ or ଓଁ) is referred to as praṇava. Other used terms are akṣara (literally, letter of the alphabet, imperishable, immutable) or ekākṣara (one letter of the alphabet) and omkāra (meaning literally “Om syllable”, and connoting: a beginning and female divine energy). Udgitha, a word found in Sama Veda and bhasya (commentaries) based on it, is also used as a name of the syllable. The word has three phonemes: “a-u-m“, though it is often described as trisyllabic despite this being either archaic or the result of translation.
The syllable Om is first mentioned in the Upanishads, the mystical texts associated with the Vedanta philosophy. It has variously been associated with concepts of “cosmic sound” or “mystical syllable” or “affirmation to something divine”, or as symbolism for abstract spiritual concepts in the Upanishads. In the Aranyaka and the Brahmana layers of Vedic texts, the syllable is so widespread and linked to knowledge, that it stands for the “whole of Veda”. The etymological foundations of Om are repeatedly discussed in the oldest layers of the Vedantic texts (the early Upanishads). The Aitareya Brahmana of Rig Veda, for example suggests that the three phonetic components of Om (pronounced AUM) correspond to the three stages of cosmic creation, and when it is read or said, it celebrates the creative powers of the universe. The Brahmana layer of Vedic texts equate Om with Bhur-bhuvah-Svah, the latter symbolizing “the whole Veda”. They offer various shades of meaning to Om, such as it being “the universe beyond the sun”, or that which is “mysterious and inexhaustible”, or “the infinite language, the infinite knowledge”, or “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”, or that “with which one is liberated”. The Sama Veda, the poetical Veda, orthographically maps Om to the audible, the musical truths in its numerous variations (Oum, Aum, Ovā Ovā Ovā Um, etc.) and then attempts to extract musical meters from it.
The syllable Om evolves to mean many abstract ideas in the earliest Upanishads. Max Müller and other scholars state that these philosophical texts recommend Om as a “tool for meditation”, explain various meanings that the syllable may be in the mind of one meditating, ranging from “artificial and senseless” to “highest concepts such as the cause of the Universe, essence of life, Brahman, Atman, and Self-knowledge”.