The Primordial Sound

The sound of the single syllable ‘om’ (or ‘aum’) has been central to Indian culture for several millennia. Om is made up of four parts – ‘a’, ‘u’, ‘m’, and silence. It is also called 'pranava' since it pervades life and runs through our prana (breath, vital breath, life). The four parts of om can also mean to represent birth, growth, letting go, and immortality.

An interesting comparison can be made with the four seasons and a tree. We can think of ‘a’ as spring (tree budding with fresh leaves), ‘u’ as summer (tree is rich with leaves), ‘m’ as autumn (graceful fall), and silence as winter (leafless but not lifeless). The tree that seems dead in winter springs back in due course. That silence represents eternity.

Om is used to represent brahman, the supreme being — all-powerful, all-pervading, and the source of all existence. The concept of brahman cannot be understood intellectually and has to be learned by experience. While we are constantly trying to understand the nature of this nameless, formless being, a symbol helps us relate it to the physical world with which we are familiar. Om, therefore, represents both the unseen, formless (nirguna) and manifest (saguna) aspects of brahman. Om is held sacred by the four major Indian faiths: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.

Every hymn from the Vedas begin and end with om, for it is the supreme mantra in itself. There are a few important references to om in the Bhagavad-Gita:

‘‘Arjuna, know me as... om in all the Vedas...’’ (7.8)
‘‘...I am the sacred syllable om...’’ (9.17)
‘‘...among words, I am the single syllable om...’’ (10.25)

A good way to chant om is:
first take a deep breath and start the chant
keep chanting ‘o’ (a-u) as long as you can
finally end with ‘m’
followed by silence.

As we hit ‘m’, we can feel the resonance in our brain; we will have exhausted our breath so fully that silence becomes inevitable. The chant runs through every part of our vocal chord. All the primary vowel sounds including silence (no sound) are contained within the single syllable om. So if we learn to chant om properly, we can articulate our words better and also have greater vocal clarity.

During meditation, when we chant om, we create within ourselves a vibration that is in tune with the rhythm of the universe. This creates the ideal environment for us to start thinking universally. The momentary silence between each chant becomes palpable. The mind moves between the opposites of sound and silence until, at last, the sound stops. In the silence, the single thought—om—is quenched; there is no thought. It is a rare moment where one finds perfect connection with the universe.

Om is at your finger-tips: go to Microsoft Word, choose the Wingdings font, and key in ‘\’ (back slash) to get the om symbol on your computer screen. For a more elaborate explanation of om, you can read the Mandukya Upanishad.



Dr. Koti Sreekrishna is a senior scientist in the Global Biotechnology division at the Procter & Gamble Company. His interests include philosophy, inter-religious dialogue, and studying the Hindu scriptures. He has previously co-authored three books and several articles on the Bhagavad-Gita. He currently serves as the Religious Counselor in the Hindu Society of Greater Cincinnati (HSGC).