"Repeated with correct intonation aum is said to echo to the core of our being thereby cleansing cells, balancing chakras, calming the mind and awakening the spirit."
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The Omniscient Aum
Caroline Robertson ND • firstname.lastname@example.org • email@example.com
Praised as the password to enlightenment, aum is a sacred syllable and symbol encapsulating secrets of the universe that enhance all areas of life. If you had to choose one archetypical image or word associated with Eastern philosophy what would it be? A word that encompasses everything. You'll find it on Yoga room walls, in scriptures, on incense packets and even as a mystical tattoo. Not just confined to Eastern religions, you'll also hear it chanted during Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian ceremonies. Aum (and its synonyms Amen, Ameen, Omkar and Alm) is the omniscient pulse that beats at the heart of every molecule in the universe. Adopted as the monosyllabic answer for everything past, present and future, aum is the decoder to life's mysterious message. Aum is also the primordial hum from which all sounds and forms arise and return to as Swami Sivananda explained "the whole world has come from aum, rests in aum and dissolves in aum."
So what's the big deal about aum? Though many chant it and are familiar with its script, few understand the deeper significance of this sanctified symbol. The linguistics and phonetics of aum offer some clues to its inherent power. Statements regarding aum as the trigger for material manifestation and dissolution can be related to the letters "a" and "m". "A" has first pride of place in all alphabets and "m" is the last letter in the oldest language- Sanskrit. Also denoting something from start to end are the terms from alpha to omega and from A to Z. It's been noted that the first sound uttered as babies emerge from the womb is often "Ahhh." Hence the letters "a" and "m" are symbolic of the continuous cycle of birth, life and death, known as samsara in Sanskrit.
To explain earth's origin, science's big bang theory is paralleled by the Vedas' `big aum theory'. Vedic scriptures say that when aum was first chanted it entered the causal ocean creating ripples of sound vibration that swelled into a cosmic soup. The resulting waves created the five successive elements of ether, air, fire, water and earth. As to how subtle sound vibrations can cause dense matter to form, quantum physics offers some insights. According to this science the universe consists of practically nothing, with each molecule 99.9 percent empty except for miniscule particles vibrating at high frequencies within them. This proves that though everything appears to be dense matter in reality it is essentially space.
Our bodies are 99.9 percent space or ether with a dynamic dance of electrons whirling around in a dervish pas-de-deux creating the illusion of solid matter. It is said that these resonating molecules
create a vibrating hum.
To guess what this musical matrix might sound like imagine placing a stethoscope to a cellular molecule. As the electron whizzes past like a racing car- it plays the soundtrack of the self. Vedantists hypothesise that this is the distinctive drone of aum. Like a universal electrical transformer this hum is the music of spiritual energy animating and orchestrating gross matter on a universal scale. It is the self-sustaining continuum that composes the substrate of the universe also known as the unified field. Aum is synonymous with life as it generates the universal bio-rhythms that harmonise the cycles of creation, preservation and destruction.
Phonetically, aum is a very natural and effortless sound to form. Inhale deeply, then exhaling notice the sound "A" rising easily from the chest. Meeting the roof of the mouth it becomes "au," reverberating through the cranium. As a finale the mouth closes with the buzzing sound of "mmm." Repeated with correct intonation aum is said to echo to the core of our being thereby cleansing cells, balancing chakras, calming the mind and awakening the spirit. Listening to aum is also very soothing and healing. The sound of aum is inherent in all sounds but is clearly recognisable in the tolling of church bells, donging of temple gongs and blowing of a conch shell.
Transcending divisions of race or creed, aum is a universal term known as "Mahavakya" or the great sound of divinity. Swami Sivananda said "aum is the property and spiritual heritage of all people throughout the world." An anecdote illustrating the global acceptance of aum occurred in Moscow in 1989 when it was the first religious chant permitted at a conference attended by the Russian Head of State after seven years of the communist suppression of spirituality. Aum's non-sectarian connotations make it an ideal unifying force for all religions. Swami Vivekananda's vision to build a temple where only aum was worshipped rather than denominational deities was inspired by his desire to promote interfaith harmony. Though the infamous aum shrinkyo of Japan acted under the banner of aum to commit destructive acts, it would take more than a crazy cult to tarnish its 5,000 years of documented efficacy. Aum is most prominently noted in the Vedic scriptures but other versions of it include the Christen "Amen," Islamic "Ameen" and "Alm," the Buddhist "Om," the Sikh "Omkara" and the Egyptian/Judaic "Amen." The widespread references to aum not only point to the common origins of religion but suggests that all scripts grew from similar roots. Variations of the aum script are evident worldwide. The oldest known are carved on ancient Ujjain coins, engraved on the Sohugara copper plate, painted in India's prehistoric cave walls and inscripted on artefacts from Khajuharo. Traces of aum can be seen in much of the iconography, sculpture, paintings and other art forms of India, Burma, Tibet and Nepal.
Tantric scholars have related aum to prayer as when the symbol is turned on its side, with a little imagination, it depicts a person in the prayer pose.
Another interpretation says the "3" represents the three trilogies of aum explained later, the wave symbolises an energy wave and the dot a particle of matter. Various references to the symbol are strewn throughout ancient vedic texts, most notably in the Aitreya Brahmana, Kanshitaki Brahmana and the Ashwalayam Shrout Sutra. An entire treatise glorifying aum called the "Mandukya Upanishad" details its esoteric significance. Crowned as the cream of Vedic wisdom, aum is mentioned in the Kathopanishad as "the goal of all the Vedas and the result of all penances." Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita even says "I am the aumkar in the Vedas." Considering this, the scripture Panini-ashtadyayi advises students to chant aum twice for every mantra and the ancient lawgiver Manu warns that one must recite aum at the start and finish of every lecture or else all knowledge will be lost. Hence aum is routinely chanted as a potentising prefix to Upanishads, shlokas and mantras. Common examples of this include "aum shanti," "om mani padme hum," "aum namah shivaya" and "aum namo narayana."
Aum is the common thread woven through the complex tapestry of the Hindu pantheon. As an all-inclusive term it can be used to address anything or anyone but is commonly linked with Brahma, Shakti, Shiva, Uma, Vishnu, Rama, Surya and Narayana. Ganesh is also known as "om-kaara-svaroopa" or "the aum-figured one," as he is sometimes depicted within an artistic aum swirl. Aum has even emerged in modern times as the highly revered symbol of East Africa's Ivory Coast and in Bali, Indonesia where it represents strength. The English terms omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and omen are examples of how aum has filtered into everyday western life.
The semantics of aum are all-encompassing. As South Indian tantric scholar Dr Raghavan insisted, "you can't limit the definition of aum, it is beyond the confines of language. Everything about aum is correct whether sacred or profane because aum is unlimited." To heighten one's appreciation of aum and open deeper dimensions of perception, Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras states "aum must be repeated during meditation only whilst understanding its meaning." Remaining mindful of aum's symbology during practice magnifies the forces it activates. The Vedas explain that sound is an expression of form therefore when we say a word all its related characteristics spring to mind. The traits of aum portray a picture of eternal truths often grouped as trilogies linked to each letter. As Parmahamsa Yogananda wrote "each time one utters a word he puts into operation the three qualities of aum." Vedic scriptures also say that whatever we meditate on we will unite with. Therefore when we comprehend the depth of aum we connect with our essential origins, life purpose and destination. Aum can also link us with both the formless divinity (nirguna brahma) as well as the embodied divinity (saguna brahma), transcending religious differences.
The three inherent letters (triyakshari) of aum are visas allowing passage through the main checkpoints of our consciousness towards enlightenment. This transcendental tour occurs simultaneously on a physical and metaphysical platform. Physically when we chant aum it travels from the navel bouncing off the sounding board of the hard palate to dissolve after the lip tingling `m.' Energetically, aum originates at the subtle body's lower chakras, uncoiling like the kundalini snake to peak at the crown chakra. When repeated with clear intonation aum aligns us at all three levels- physically, mentally and spiritually.
The `A' awakens consciousness
The `U' uplifts awareness
The `M' merges one with the supreme reality.
The silent vibration remaining called sabda brahma is when true transcendence is said to take place, the silent and still gap between our thoughts. This last lingering tone is like an etheric electrical transformer empowering the spirit to animate matter.
Aum meditation is useful for both personal and planetary upliftment. It facilitates an internalising process that quietens the senses (pratyahara), improves focus (dharana) and connects the consciousness with higher truths (dhyana). This ultimately leads to enlightenment or samadhi, a state of unconditional love and bliss. Sri Sankaracharya likened aum to sulphur which binds restless mercury into a stable unit, just as aum meditation brings the restless mind to a single focus. The honed mind is like a laser beam, burning up negative karma and destructive tendencies. Hindus and Buddhists teach that this is the path to enlightenment. As Krishna states in the Bhagavad-Gita, "one who has perfected yoga and chants aum thinking of god at the time of death will attain my spiritual abode." Ramdas of Anandashram assures that one who chants aum 60,000,000 times will attain spiritual salvation. The word mantra means to cleanse or free the mind so chanting aum gives one clarity and calm in challenging situations.
Experiments conducted by Trascendental Meditators en masse proved this when one percent of the population chanted aum and crime rates decreased. Perhaps it is the consistent chanting in temples, mosques and churches that creates such a peaceful environment within these sanctums. On a recent visit to Mata Amritanandamayi's modern hospital in India every PA message was prefaced by a soothing "Aum Namah Shivaya," softening the generally sterile and morose mood of a hospital.
More immediate benefits of aum meditation include an improved memory, concentration, voice, lustrous face, regulated breathing and a heightened mood. People I spoke to mentioned a significant increase in energy, even after chanting aum only three times. Swami Sivananda supports this, claiming "when chanted with faith and rhythm, aum fills one with a spiritual strength, new vigour and energy."
In the words of the Sufi Saadi "however much you study you cannot know without action." So it is that one can only appreciate aum's potency through practical experience. There are many ways to meditate using aum. Options include visualising it, listening to it, chanting it, wearing it and depicting it through art. A traditional Hindu rite of passage uses aum to initiate children into learning. Each baby is ushered into the world by painting an aum symbol on its tongue with a gold implement to ensure a life of auspicious communication and education. Chanting is widely recommended as the easiest way to employ aum to still the mind.
Aum expert Dr Nagendra outlines three phases when chanting aum:
1) The descending phase where one feels aum waves engulfing the body
2) The ascending phase where one feels uplifted, lighter and expansive
3) The silent interval when a deep serenity may be felt
There are also four levels of chanting styles that often progress naturally over time:
1) Vaikari: Aum is repeated audibly to reinforce the vibration mentally
2) Madhyama: Aum is recited in the mind while mouthing it silently
3) Pashyanti: Aum is chanted silently without moving the mouth
4) Para: Aum is crystalised in the cellular memory and naturally vibrates in the body without conscious effort. At this stage it is even repeated during sleep.
When chanting aum it should flow as one continuous sound rather than three separate letters. On exhaling the `a' rises from the navel becoming `au' as it enters the throat and concludes in an effortless aum. All three phases should be roughly equal in duration. Initially on practicing aum it is conducive to find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Sitting straight, still and comfortably be aware of your breathing. Closing the eyes relax all tension from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. Inhale slowly and deeply then on the exhalation allow the sound aum to flow from the abdomen to the cranium. As you inhale visualise and sense all positive energies entering your being. The vibration initially invigorates every cell then quietens the body and mind.
A more detailed six-step sequence devised by Dr Nagendra is as follows:
1) Kapala Bhati: Deep breaths for one minute
2) Nadi Shodhana: Alternate nostril breathing for five rounds
3) Brahmari: Bee's breath for five rounds
4) Trataka: Unfocused gaze on the aum symbol three times with eyes tearing
5) Chanting aum for 15 minutes
6) Silence for five minutes
Another way of utilising aum is through the following chakra balancing exercise. Standing, sitting or lying in a relaxed state place your hand over the region whilst chanting the corresponding mantra.
1) Lam: pubic bone, coccyx (mooladhara chakra)
2) Vam: lower abdomen, sacrum (swadhisthana chakra)
3) Ram: solar plexus (manipura chakra)
4) Yam: heart area (anahata chakra)
5) Hum: throat (vishuddhi chakra)
6) Sham: eyebrow centre (ajna chakra)
7) Aum: crown fontanelle (sahasrara chakra)
Irrespective of individual faith, aum is an all-person, all-purpose mantra. It can be used by itself or as a powerful adjunct to other spiritual practices. Aspirants from all faiths recommend using aum for spiritual progress as Sri Sankarachaya said "one who has embraced the path of self-realisation should meditate incessantly on aum."