Luke Jordan

Aum Sweet Aum

You might not be aware of it but it is likely that even before you have started your daily Aṣṭāñga yoga practice you have probably already reenacted the creation of the universe! In bowing to the guru’s lotus feet and invoking the thousand snake-headed form of Patañjali; in fact, in chanting any mantra which begins and ends with Aum, you have reflected the cosmic full vinyasa that is the arising and passing away of the manifest universe from and into the samasthiti of Aum.

Just as the form of whatever chant you happen to chant arises out of that initial sacred syllable so too is every perceivable phenomena said to arise out of that primordial vibration that exists at the beginning of the universe – Aum. Just as a mantra dissolves into the buzzing mmmm on the lips of its final Aum, so too the manifest universe is said to dissolve back into the pralaya (dissolution) of that primordial resonance. And so another cosmic cycle ends, another yet to begin, the song of the uni-verse (literally, from the Latin, ‘turned out of one’).

The Sound Form of Aum

Even the very form of the sound Aum is a microcosm of the macrocosm of those great aeonic cycles of creation and dissolution. Starting inexplicably, almost imperceptibly, the sound of the sanskrit letter A arises through the open, relaxed vocal chords resonating at the back of the throat and palate. Rather than the sophisticated A of English, Aum’s first letter sounds more like a baby’s first attempts at speech or the sound of prehistoric man’s “uh” (perhaps warning of the advance of a sabre-tooth tiger or wooly mammoth!). It is the first sound. (Human) life’s initial attempt at self-expression.

With the vocal chords remaining relaxed, the jaw slowly closing, this sound begins to make its way forward in the mouth and of its own accord transforms into the sound U. Then, continuing its journey as the jaw closes, it terminates in M as the closing of the lips and the natural expiration of the breath’s prāṇa through the larynx brings about the sound’s gentle passing away back into silence.

Aum as the Trimūrti (Three Forms)

In terms of the grand cosmic cycle, the letter A represents the process of creation carried out by the four-headed Hindu creator deity Brahma (although there is a story that a fifth head was lopped off by Śiva in a moment of wrath.) At the beginning of time Brahma dreams the universe into existence while sitting perched on a lotus flower born out of the recently re-awoken Viṣṇu’s navel (well, at least that’s one version of the story.) This sound is the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet (and of course many others,) the first sound out of which all others follow. Even Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad Gītā declares that of letters he is the letter ‘A’ (BhG 10:33.)

Viṣṇu (of whom Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra, incarnation) is represented by the sound of the U. He is the preserver god, responsible for maintaining the balance of the universe while it exists in time. All things that arise, however, must also pass away and so the sealing of the lips seals too Aum’s predestined fate just as this manifest universe is fated to dissolve again into the stuff that Brahma’s dreams are made of. This sound, M, represents the last of the trimūrti, Mahādeva or Śiva, considered to be the destroyer (or perhaps, more kindly, transformer.) At the end of time he dances his his final dance, the Tāṇḍava, dissolving the universe back into its unmanifest form. This trimūrti, this three-in-one/one-in-three holy trinity of Brahma (Generator), Vishnu (Operator) and Siva (Dissolver), oversees the universe’s complete cosmic cycle and all that is contained therein.

Aum as Brahman – The Alpha and the Omega

Between the open sound A at the back of the mouth and the M at the lips too lie all of language’s possibilities. Nothing arises in a place before that initial sound in the larynx and, try as you might, no sound is produced beyond the lips. All language occurs between these two points. In the same way that we say “A to Z” to refer also to what comes in between so it is that Aum represents the totality of language’s potential, the whole world of nāmarūpa (name and form) as we know it. A is Sanskrit’s Alpha and M its Omega (Greek’s first and last).

Perhaps you can recall from your Sunday School classes that, in the Bible, that western yogi known as Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev 22:13). What they didn’t tell you, perhaps so as not to blow your young mind, was that Jesus was thus referring to himself as the infinity of all possibility and the eternal, everlasting, imperishable essence out of which it arises. Vedāntic Hinduism calls this Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma) and had Jesus been in India he would probably have instead declared, like the Upaniṣadic sages, “aham brahmāsmi” (I am Brahman).

Brahman is the cosmic ocean, out of which the appearance of the manifest universe arises as waves. The waves arising on the surface of the ocean, although appearing separate, never have an existence separate from that of the ocean itself. The appearance of that separateness and, more importantly, the belief that such a thing as separateness exists is the māyā (illusion) that in Vedāntic Yoga is the cause of suffering, the removal of which results in liberation (mokṣa). According to the Upaniṣads Brahman is none other than Aum itself. Thus declares the Taittrīya Upaniṣad (1.8), “Omiti brahma, omitīdaṁ sarvam,” ‘Om is Brahman, Om is everything.’ Since the ocean is Aum, the waves are nothing other than Aum too. Everything, indeed is Aum!

Aum – The Word

As a western yogi called St. John (1:1,3) once said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being”. And so the West, in its more esoterically minded moments concurs with the East. That one sound vibration (Aum, the Word) that exists in the beginning is co-identified as being God (Īśvara, Brahman) and all things are said to arise out of it/Him. According to this idea, whatever is happening, however it is happening and whoever is apparently doing it, it is all the Song of God, a manifestation of that primordial Aum, all turned out of one.

I am That. You are That and everybody else too. We are all, indeed everything is, nothing other than different waves of that eternal ocean of Aum manifesting as this. Knowing, seeing and understanding that is liberation. Believing in the separateness of all the individual waves as apart from the ocean of Aum is to suffer. 

The Practise of Aum in Patañjali

Saying this is all very well, but how can we remove our suffering and come to know this state of Yoga for ourselves? According to Pañtajali, in his Yogasūtra, the state of realisation which we are naturally at one with what is has been veiled by layers of ignorance (2.3) and obstacles to knowing (1.30). Who we are is already ‘That’. There just needs to be a little undoing of the various misidentifications in order to truly know it.

Patañjali presents many different methods to help us with our undoing. But out of all the ways Patanjali presents there is one seemingly so simple as to be easily dismissed. Repeat and meditate on Aum, he says (1.28). Then you will realise its sweetness. The obstacles that prevent true seeing will be dissolved and one’s consciousness will move inwards towards the in-sight (rather than out-sight) of who and what one truly is (1.29).

This is because Aum is not just a word. An Aum by any other name would just not be as sweet. According to Vyāsa (see Bryant 2009:106), in his commentary on Patañjali, there is an inherent relationship between the sound form of Aum and Īśvara, Patañjali’s more user-friendly notion of a personal god that replaces the difficult-to-get-your-head-around abstract idea of the Upaniṣadic Brahman. Thus by chanting Aum you are in some way intoning the sound that actually is Īśvara. But don’t take my word for it, he says. Give it go! In typical Patañjalian style, instead of being encouraged to quibble over philosophical theories or even beliefs, we are invited to realise/become (bhāvanam) Aum’s purpose or meaning (artha) through actual practise and its resulting experience.

The Transcendent Fourth.

In doing so we are led beyond ourselves to something that transcends our regular state of consciousness, something beyond the states of waking, sleeping, and dreamless sleep that are said, by the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, also to be represented by the A, U and M of Aum. That state beyond, simply called turīya, the fourth, is the state of mokṣa (liberation). 

It is a common phenomenon in Indian philosophy. Often we find a group of three things that are said to account for a totality (three-in-one/one-in-three) that are nevertheless transcended by a fourth aspect. In the Sāṃkhya philosophy the three guṇas (qualities) of sattva, rajas and tamas (which in themselves make up the totality of the manifest world) are transcended by the principle of witnessing consciousness (puruṣa). The worldly aims of artha (purpose), dharma (duty) and kāma (pleasure) are relegated to secondary position alongside mokṣa (liberation). The trimūrti of Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva are transcended ultimately by Brahman. All these threes can be represented by the letters of Aum yet nevertheless have a fourth transcendent part.

So it is too that Aum has a fourth transcendent part – the silence which prefigures and outlasts it. Even amidst the arising of Aum’s sound (or for that matter any sound), silence is the existent base out of which the sound itself arises and into which it will again pass away. The silence is nirguṇa Brahman (without qualities) and that which arises within the silence is saguṇa Brahman (with qualities). Silence is the ocean, the appearance of the sound, the waves. Anything that exists exists within existence as the ever-existing backdrop!

The Journey Aum

‘What is the face you had before you were born,’ asks one Zen koan designed to enlighten. Like the sound of Aum out of silence, like the appearance of the universe itself, we arise out of that ‘original face’, manifest as ‘ourselves’ and after a pretty short time in the grand scheme of things pass away again into that Who-Knows-What that is both Aum and beyond. A wave arises out of the ocean, an apparently separate stream of consciousness destined to merge completely again with the ocean of existence. A whole arises out of the whole to later become the whole again.

In our identification as being separate, however, we often kick, scream and fight against what reality presents. We think we know what is for the best. We do not consider the possibility that we are not seeing the proverbial wood for the trees, the ocean for the waves. We suffer in our apparent separation. It is from this place of separation, too, that we begin the journey of Yoga trying to seek a return to some imagined ‘home’. Little do we know, however, that this is not a journey that we will get to survive, for in Yoga our cherished separate sense of self will, eventually, be led to the ocean and drowned. And so to help us on our way, the ancient ṛṣi’s (seers), like the jungle physicians (shamans) of our opening mantra, extend the invitation for us to contemplate deeply that seemingly innocuous seed sound in the knowledge that, if we do, our minds will be dissolved back into their source and we too will complete the journey, just like these words, back into Aum.

Texts referred to.

The Bible, New American Standard Edition. The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Bryant, Edwin F. The yoga sutras of Patanjali: A new edition, translation, and commentary. North Point Press, 2015.

Chapple, Christopher Key, ed. The Bhagavad Gita: Twenty-fifth–Anniversary Edition. SUNY Press, 2009.

Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: an alternative history. Penguin, 2009.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, ‘The Meaning of the Om symbol’, http://www.avgsatsang.org/hhpsds/pdf/the_meaning_of_om.pdf, accessed 5/9/17

Swami Lokeswarananda (trans.), Taittrīya Upaniṣad, Ramakrishna Mission, 1996.