When I was young, I used to see the OM symbol in Hindu temples. I used to wonder at its meaning. It is only later that I learnt that OM is clearly explained in Mandukya Upanishad (MU). MU is one of the ancient classical Upanishads commented upon by Acharya Shankara. It comprises of only 12 shlokas (verses). It is also one of the most fascinating for reasons that will become clear as we go through the short text. I found, however, that the significance of OM was not clear to me even after going through MU. I fully understood only after reading Vivekananda on OM. I will first of all go through the text of MU and then discuss the significance of OM as explained by Vivekananda.
OM DEFINED in MU
MU opens with a startling claim:
This letter that is OM is all this. All that is past, present, or future is verily OM. And whatever is beyond the three periods is also verily OM.
One question arises in the mind of a reader when faced with such a claim. How
can a mere word be all this, past, present, future and even beyond these periods? Before we can have any answer to this question, let us see what else does MU say.
BRAHMAN AND SELF IN MU
All this is surely Brahman. This Self is Brahman. The Self, such as It is, is possessed of four quarters.
The first quarter is Vaisvanara whose sphere of action is the waking state, whose consciousness relates to things external, who is possessed of seven limbs and nineteen mouths, and who enjoys gross things.
Taijasa is the second quarter, whose sphere of activity is the dream state, whose consciousness is internal, who is possessed of seven limbs and nineteen mouths, and who enjoys subtle objects.
That state is deep sleep where the sleeper does not desire any enjoyable thing and does not see any dream. The third quarter is Prajna who has deep sleep as his sphere, in whom everything becomes undifferentiated, who is a mass of mere consciousness, who abounds in bliss, who is surely an enjoyer of bliss, and who is the doorway to
the experience (of the dream and waking states).
This one is the Lord of all; this one is Omniscient; this one is the inner Director of all; this one is the Source of all; this one is verily the place of origin and dissolution of all beings.
They consider the Fourth to be that which is not conscious of the internal world, nor conscious of the external world, nor conscious of both the worlds, nor a mass of consciousness, nor conscious, nor unconscious; which is unseen, beyond empirical dealings, beyond the grasp of the organs of action, uninferable, unthinkable, indescribable; whose valid proof consists in the single belief in the Self; in which all phenomena cease; and which is unchanging, auspicious and non-dual; That is the Self, and That is to be known.
In these 6 shlokas, MU describes the various states of the Self or Brahman. These various states are the waking, dreaming, deep sleep state and what it says is the uninferable, unthinkable, fourth state. MU uses significant terms to describe these states. For example, it calls the dream state as Taijasa which means radiant. Why does it call the Self in its dream state as Taijasa? I asked this question to a Swami of the Ramakrishna Order. He told me that the dream state of the Self shines like the Sun.
RELATION BETWEEN OM AND SELF
That very Self, considered from the standpoint of the syllable denoting It is OM. Considered from the standpoint of letters constituting OM, the quarters of the Self are the letters of OM, and the letters are the quarters. The letters are a, u. and m.
Vaisvanara, having the waking state as his sphere, is the first letter a, because of the similarity of pervasive or being the first. Who knows thus, does verily attain all desirable things, and becomes the foremost.
He who is Taijasa with the state of dream as his sphere of activity is the second letter u of OM; because of the similarity of excellence and intermediateness. He who knows thus increases the current of knowledge and becomes equal to all. None is born in his line who is not a knower of Brahman.
Prajna with his sphere of activity in the sleep state is m, the third letter of OM, because of measuring or because of absorption. Anyone who knows thus measures all this, and he becomes the place of absorption.
The partless OM is Turiya - beyond all conventional dealings, the limit of the negation of the phenomenal world, the auspicious, and the non-dual. OM is thus the Self to be sure. He who knows thus enters the Self through his self.
MU now connects the dots and shows how the various states of the Self are described by OM. MU does not answer, however, why OM was chosen by the Rishis to describe all.
Vivekananda on OM
We still do not have the answers to the question raised previously. How can a mere word be all this? I looked next at what Vivekananda has written on OM in the hope of getting an answer. Vivekananda has written the following in his free translation and commentary of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.27:
The commentator says the manifesting word of God is Om. Why does he
emphasize this word? There are hundreds of words for God. One thought
is connected with a thousand words; the idea "God" is connected with
hundreds of words, and each one stands as a symbol for God. Very good.
But there must be a generalization among all these words, some
substratum, some common ground of all these symbols, and that which is
the common symbol will be the best, and will really represent them
In making a sound we use the larynx and the palate as a sounding
board. Is there any material sound of which all other sounds must be
manifestations, one which is the natural sound? Om (Aum) is such a
sound, the basis of all sounds.
The first letter, A, is the root sound, the key, pronounced without
touching any part of the tongue or palate; M represents the last sound
in the series, being produced by the closed lips, and the U rolls from
the very root to the end of the sounding board of the mouth. Thus, Om
represents the whole phenomena of sound-producing. As such, it must be
the natural symbol, the matrix of all the various sounds. It denotes
the whole range and possibility of all the words that can be made.
Apart from these speculations, we see that around this word Om are
centered all the different religious ideas in India; all the various
religious ideas of the Vedas have gathered themselves round this word
Om. What has that to do with America and England, or any other
country? Simply this, that the word has been retained at every stage
of religious growth in India, and it has been manipulated to mean all
the various ideas about God. Monists, dualists, mono-dualists,
separatists, and even atheists took up this Om. Om has become the one
symbol for the religious aspiration of the vast majority of human
Take, for instance, the English word God. It covers only a limited
function, and if you go beyond it, you have to add adjectives, to make
it Personal, or Impersonal, or Absolute God. So with the words for God
in every other language; their signification is very small. This word
Om, however, has around it all the various significances. As such it
should be accepted by everyone.
It is after reading Vivekananda that the significance of OM became clear to me. Om signifies the totality of all possible sounds. Om stands for the infinite possibility. So it was chosen by the Rishis to signify the Self and its waking states.