Ch. 8 Yoga of the Meaning of Om (Part 1)

This article is part 61 of 134 in the series Jīvana-dharma-yoga


Brahmavadeṃ jīvavadeṃ
Karmavadeṃ bhautadaivayajñaṃgaḻadeṃ
Gamyavadeṃ dhyeyamadeṃ
Samyagbodhanéyanintu pārthaṃ beḍal

What is Brahma? What is the jīva?
What is karma? What are the bhauta, daiva and yajñas?
What should the destination be? What should the goal be?
Asked thus Pārtha, for guidance full.


uttaravanéṃṭu keḻkéga-
mittu baḻikkéṃtu jīvamīśa-smṛtiyoḻ
nuttama-gati-gervudéṃdu hari bittaripaṃ

Hari answered these eight question, and
Explained how a jīva can ascend
To the supreme state by meditating
upon Īśvara, through the practice of concentration.



The svāmī instructs Arjuna on the greatness of meditating upon the letter Om in the eighth chapter. Om is the essence, the representation of everything. The practice of meditation is predominantly emotional. The fundamental principle explained here is that such an emotional state can be reached with regular practice.




Chapter 8. Akṣarabrahmayoga or Praṇavārthayoga

(The Yoga of the meaning of Om)

In the previous chapters was discussed the practice of karma as an external means of sādhanā. From the second to the sixth chapter, karma is important. Bhakti and jñāna are only incidentally mentioned. Chapters nine to eighteen discuss the internal sādhanā of bhakti and jñāna. The eighth chapter is like a bridge between these two stages. The previous chapters have demonstrated the principle of ātmā and the greatness of Bhagavān. To realise this principle, the practice of an inward-looking sādhanā becomes necessary. This sādhanā is dhyāna. Swāmī is now ready to show the way to bring the form of the divine in the mind, by meditating upon profound symbols such as the praṇava. It is only fit that this chapter has been called ‘Brahmākṣaranirdeśa’ by ancient philosophers because praṇava is verily the letter that denotes Brahma.  

The important topics discussed in this chapter are -

  1. Some terminology
  2. Importance of the moment of death
  3. Upāsanā of the letter denoting the Brahma
  4. Adherence to karma with constant remembrance of Brahma
  5. The two ways open for the jīva

It appears that Arjuna had not clearly understood the full meaning of some technical terms used by Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa earlier. Sometimes, our understanding of a word might be enough for us to roughly recognise the meaning but might fall short of the rigour required to explain it to someone else. We all use the word ‘man’. If someone asks us the meaning of this word, we will find it difficult to explain. It is not enough to say, “man is a kind of animal”. Similarly, when asked what rice is, it is not enough to answer that rice is a kind of grain. A proper, scientific answer can be provided for these questions by the dictionary. When this is the case with ordinary words, the terms used in advanced śāstras must be much more difficult. However, continuing with the study of śāstras without fully understanding these terms is meaningless. Such terms used in śāstras are collectively known as paribhāṣā. The common meaning of karma is work — any work. The śāstric meaning of the word is “specific action that is ordained by Śruti and Smṛti, and results in gaining better worlds”.

Arjuna’s questions about the meanings of the technical terms are in the first two verses. Commentators have counted them variously as seven and eight, though there is no real difference between the two groups. Let us look at these questions, one by one.

1. Question: Kiṃ tad-brahma? — What is that Brahma?

In this question, ‘that’ — ‘Tat’ implies an earlier reference. Arjuna is asking the meaning of “brahmākṣara-samudbhavam” in the third chapter, and “brahmārpaṇaṃ braḥmahaviḥ” in the fourth chapter.

Answer: Akṣaraṃ brahma paramaṃ

Brahma is that which cannot be destroyed and is most supreme.

The word ‘akṣaraṃ’ means both eternal and omnipresent. ‘Kṣara’ is destruction. Akṣara means indestructible with respect to time and also with respect to place. ‘Paramaṃ’ means the basis of all that is desired by man, and yet above it it all. “Aṇoraṇīyān mahato mahīyān ।”, “avyakto’yamacintyo’yaṃ |”, “acalo’yaṃ sanātanaḥ”.


2. Question: Kim adhyātmaṃ?

What is adhyātma?

Answer: Svabhāvo’dhyātmam-ucyate

“Human nature – its entire structure - is called adhyātma

A human being is the sum total of his body, senses, mind, intellect, ego, jīva, and ātmā. This is collectively known as adhyātma. The collection of the means and channels through which a jīva can connect with the world and is able to conduct its activities is adhyātma.

It is said in the bhāṣya of Śrī Śaṅkarācārya — “parasya brahmaṇaḥ pratidehaṃ pratyagātma-bhāvaḥ svabhāvaḥ … ātmānaṃ dehamadhikṛtya pratyagātmatayā pravṛttaṃ paramārtha-brahmāvasānaṃ vastu”.

“The nature of Brahma is to exist in every body as the indwelling self. The thing that is the indwelling self of the body which is ultimately the same as the Supreme Brahma is adhyātma.

a. The ātmā that is in the state of the jīva is adhyātma. The jīva includes attributes like the body, mind, etc.
b. The state where ātmā takes the form of the jīva is adhyātma. All relationships created by a man for himself are adhyātma.

3. Question: kiṃ karma? “What is karma?”

Answer: bhūtabhāvodbhavakaro visargaḥ karmasaṃjñitaḥ

Karma is the agglomeration of all the ways in which all beings use their energies and wealth in tasks that result in their rebirth”.

Our transaction with the world is in the form of giving and taking. In every moment, through his body, speech, and mind, man constantly releases parts of himself into the world around him. This constant giving is karma. Since a part of him spreads itself out in the world, its results and reactions come back to him in different forms, as the fruit of his karma. He is reborn again and again to reap these fruits — to discharge his debts and to experience the impressions of his past. Thus, karma is the collective name for all dealings with the world that cause rebirth. In short puṇya and pāpa constitute karma.

4. Question: Adhibhūtaṃ ca kiṃ? “What is adhibhūta?”

Answer: Adhibhūtaṃ kṣaro bhāvaḥ

“All destructible things in this world are adhibhūta.”

Kṣaro bhāvaḥ” means destructibility or the characteristic of destruction. ‘Bhūta’ refers to something that has become or has happened. Here, we should pay attention to the difference between the words ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. Whatever becomes or happens, goes. Therefore it is kṣara. Thus, kṣara is something that lives for a short while and perishes later.

5. Question: Adhidaivaṃ kimucyate? “What is called adhi-daiva?”

Answer: “Puruṣaś-cādhi-daivatam|”  “(The virāṭ) puruṣa is adhidaivata

Brahma’s energy is present in every being, causing it to engage in various activities. The aggregated energy of all those beings in its most exalted state (the state of Brahma) is the Virāṭ Puruṣa. This form has been described in the Puruṣasūkta of the Vedas and in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgītā. Puruṣa is the Brahma in the form of the world. That is adhidaiva. This meaning has to be connected with

daivaṃ caivātra pañcamaṃ ।” (BG 18.14)

Adhidaiva is the fundamental energy that is the basis of all actions in the universe. It is the energy of Brahma, the universal consciousness, that creates the universe and controls it. Brahma in action is adhidaiva. That indeed is Īśvara.

6. Question: “ādhiyajñaḥ kathaṃ?” “What is the nature of adhiyajña?”

Answer: “adhiyajño’hameva” “That to which the yajña is addressed is adhiyajña. I am that (Bhagavān= Īśvara).”

Yajña is worship. There should be an object for worship. Different types of yajñas are expounded in the fourth chapter. Yajñas can have different objects of worship such as Indra, Varuṇa, Soma, or Agni. Thus, when there are different devatās, are the presiding deities different and yajñas different or are they all one and the same? The answer is that even though the names of the devatās are different, it is only Brahma that is worshipped.

ekaṃ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti, indraṃ yamaṃ mātariśvānamāhuḥ ।”

sarvadeva-namaskāraḥ keahavaṃ pratigacchati ।”

7. Question: “ko’tra dehe’smin?” “Who is in this body?”

Answer: “Ahamevātra dehe|” “I (the divine) am the one in this body”.

The body comprises five sheaths. These sheaths are like a Russian doll - one inside another, yet another inside it and so on. Well-dressed men in the early twentieth century would wear five or six layers of clothes on them — an overcoat, a short coat within it, a waistcoat inside that, and then a shirt and a vest inside, and further a jubba also. Similarly, the human body has five layers. The first is annamaya kosha. This is made of flesh, blood, skin, and bone. Within that is the prāṇamaya kośa, comprising prāṇa, apāna and other vital airs. The third is manomaya, consisting of experiences such as pleasure and pain. The fifth is vijñānamaya, comprising the intellect and decision making abilities. The fifth is ānandamaya, which comprises bliss. Within this resides the ātmā, the basis and origin of all layers. The five kośas are only its attributes. Paramātmā is that consciousness which resides within these five kośas.

tāsmāt sarvagataṃ brahma” (Therefore is Brahma all-pervading) (BG 3.15)

Īśvaraḥ sarvabhūtānāṃ hṛddeśe”, (Īśvara is situated in the heart of all beings) (BG 18.61)

eko devaḥ sarvabhūteṣu gūḍhaḥ sarvavyāpī sarvabhūtāntarātmā”  (There is one deva concealed in all beings who is omnipresent and is the inner self of all beings) (Śvetāśvataropaniṣad 6.11)

It has to be noted that the object of worship in the sixth question is the same as the worshipper in the seventh question, the only difference between them being their state.

8. Question “prayāṇakāle ca kathaṃ jñeyo’si?” “How is a man to know you at the time of the final journey?”

“At that time of departure, how should one meditate upon you? You have countless forms; your līlās are infinite. Which of them should we remember when our end is nigh?”

A: “antakāle ca māmeva smaran … madbhāvaṃ yāti

“In those last moments, it is enough to meditate upon me in any form. My real nature will be understood.”.

Meditating upon any form among the infinite forms, any līlā among the infinite līlās of the divine can show us the presence of the divine.

The sixth verse of this chapter has to be contemplated upon here.

yaṃ yaṃ vāpi smaran bhāvaṃ tyajatyante kalevaraṃ
taṃ tamevaiti kaunteya sadā tadbhāvabhāvitaḥ ॥ (BG 8.6)

“Whichever form the devotee is meditating upon at the time of his end,
Bhagavān shows himself to his devotee in the same form”.

This is the reason for our practice of naming children after devatās or Gurus. It is natural for humans to think of their loved ones at the time of death. Our ancients thought that divine names would be called out and the greatness of the divine would come to mind at least under this pretext.

Who knows when the end is going to arrive? Death does not give us prior notice to make an appointment with us. It can come without any warning. Therefore, a wise man is always prepared for it. Constant contemplation of the divine is the preparation.

tasmāt sarveṣu kāleṣu māmanusmara yuddhya ca” (BG 8.7)

“Remember me at all times; Fight as you remember me.”

The Object of Dhyāna

Ordinary people require a symbol or a form for dhyāna. However, the supreme Brahma-tattva is ‘acintyarūpam’ (beyond description) and ‘anirdeśyavapuḥ’ (with a form that cannot be pointed out). Even so, Bhagavān has pointed out two characteristics -

sarvasya dhātāram-acintyarūpam ādityavarṇaṃ tamasaḥ parastāt ॥ (BG 8.9)

  1. Sarvasya dhātāram — One who rules over everything and protects everyone.
  2. Ādityavarṇaṃ — Bright like the Sun.

These are the main characteristics. The marks of Brahma have been discussed extensively earlier; such as “raso’ham apsu” and “prabhāsmi śaśi-sūryayoḥ”. We can bring to mind any of these features: “yaṃ yaṃ vāpi smaran bhāvaṃ”. It is important to concentrate the mind.

The praṇava has to be meditated upon during dhyāna. Praṇava means “prakṛṣṭā nutiḥ” [Most excellent praise] (from the root ṇu stutau) – the praise of Parabrahma.

Omityekākṣaraṃ brahma vyāharan māmanusmaran । (BG 8.13)
The japa of Om has to be performed while meditating upon Bhagavān.

Omityekākṣaraṃ brahma | (Om the letter denotes Brahma) (Gāyatrī-mantra)

Omiti brahma | Omitīdagm sarvam (Taittirīyopaniṣad 1.8)
“Om itself is Parabrahma. Om is all this (the entire universe)” 

Thus, Upaniṣads like Kaṭha, Māṇḍūkya, Chāndogya and Bṛhadāraṇyaka extol the greatness of the Praṇava.

There are three letters in Om — a, u and m. These three letters denote the following, respectively -

  1. aSat (existence), the gross universe, the earthly plane, the male animal, the waking state, sattvaguṇa, Bhagavān Brahmā [Not to be confused with Brahman]
  2. uCit (consciousness), jīva, the subtle universe, the atmosphere, the female animal, the dream state,  rajoguṇa, Bhagavān Viṣṇu
  3. mĀnanda (bliss), Īśvara, the causal universe (kāraṇa-prapañca), the sky, an animal of the neuter gender, the state of deep sleep, tamoguṇa, Bhagavān Rudra.
  4. Om — (the union of all of the above) = Peaceful, Paramātmā, the unmanifested, genderless, the universe, the infinite prakṛti, virāṭ-puruṣa, transcending the three guṇas, Parabrahma.

Thus, the letter om is a symbol that denotes everything. It denotes all existence, all knowledge and all powers and energies. The hidden meaning of this great mantra should be learnt from experienced people. I am not one.

The mantras that have been passed to us through tradition — like Om Namah Śivāya, Om Namo Nārāyaṇāya — show us one of the infinite forms of Bhagavān. It is difficult to visualise the infinite. Visualising an image of Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Someśvara, Gaṇapati or Āñjaneya is not that difficult. Mūrtis and pictures help with that. Therefore, ordinary people hold on to dhyāna-mantras of a specific deity and engage themselves in its worship. However, the Praṇava is not specific to any form; contemplation is its mainstay. It includes both manifest and unmanifest, single and manifold. The three worlds, the three guṇas, the three states (jāgrat, svapna and suṣupti), the three deities — the essence of the universe is thus evinced in threes as the separate letters a, u and m — and brings to mind one group among the three. Then, the combined letter Om establishes in the mind — that the union of these three is greater than the sum of its parts. Initially, such contemplation seems impossible. It becomes possible gradually - little by little - with continuous effort and practice.

To be continued...

The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.


Mother of two. Engineer. Worshiper of Indian music, poetry, and art.

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Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...