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Om: Its Power and Secrets

Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba is the embodiment of Om, the supreme Parabrahman (supreme Godhead). In this auspicious month of October, as we celebrate Avatar Declaration Day, let us dive deep into the significance, power and secrets of Om.

Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba proclaimed that Omkar is the correct address of the Lord and we get Self-realization by chanting Om.

Om, also called Pranava is the primordial sound that indicates Brahman, the supreme reality that is beyond name, form, attributes, time, space, and causation. Om is the direct method to attain Brahman. Om is considered indicative of Brahman, but the scriptures emphasize that ultimately Om is Brahman. Brahman is the goal and is attained by chanting Om.

Om is the source of all creation and creation is sustained by Om. Om is the source of all the manifest and unmanifest universe. All sounds, symbols, and letters in the universe are derived from the syllable Om.

Hence, it is important to dwell on the teachings of the great Avatars about the significance of Om.

Why Chant Om Twenty-one Times?

The day’s program in Prasanthi Nilayam starts with the recitation of Om 21 times in the morning, followed by Suprabhatam (morning awakening prayer to the Lord). The chanting of Om is called Omkar. The chanting of Om helps to purify the five organs of action, five organs of perception, five vital airs, and five sheaths as noted below:

  • Five organs of action (karmendriyas): speech (vaak), hands (pani), feet (pada), or-gans of excretion (payuh), organs of procreation (upastha).
  • Five organs of sense perception (jnanendriyas): Eyes (chakshu)–organ of sight, Ears (karna)–organ of hearing, Tongue (jihva)–organ of taste, Nose (ghrana)–organ of smell, and Skin (tvak)–organ of touch.
  • Five vital airs (vayus): vital airs associated with the lungs and heart (prana), abdo-men (apana), whole body (vyana), throat (udana), and navel (samana).
  • Five sheaths (koshas):
    • food sheath (annamaya kosha)
    • vital air sheath (pranamaya kosha)
    • mental sheath (manomaya kosha)
    • intellectual sheath (vijnanamaya kosha)
    • bliss sheath (anandamaya kosha)
  • Thus, when all the indriyas (ten senses), pranas (five vital airs), and koshas (five sheaths) are purified, by chanting the Om 20 times, then the twenty-first Om, which represents Brahman or Atman, is realized.

Events and functions in the Sathya Sai organization always begin with the chanting of the Om and conclude by chanting Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Thus, Omkar is an integral part and source of all spiritual practices. In fact, when we sing the Aarthi to Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, we say, “Omkara Roopa Ojaswi” which means He is the brilliant embodiment of Om.

It may be noted that Om represents the attribute-less, formless Brahman (Nirguna Nirakaara Brahman). However, followers of theistic religions like Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains who worship God with name, form, and attributes (nama, rupa, and guna), also add Om as an epithet to mantras they chant.

When Lord Rama was asked by Hanuman, His dearest devotee, “What is the way to Self-realization?” He replied, “The only scripture one needs to know is the Mandukya Upanishad,” where the main focus is on the citation and the significance of Om, namely Pranava.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna declares that “Amongst vibrations, I am the syllable Om.” He is Om; He is the Pranava. Sri Krishna also says, “Om is Brahman (Om ityekākṣharam Brahma), and, anyone who leaves the body while chanting Om will be liberated from the cycle of birth and death (Bhagavad Gita, Ch 8:13).”

What Scriptures Say About Om

The Upanishads also extol Om. The Mandukya Upanishad is the shortest Upanishad with only 12 verses. The first verse of the Mandukya Upanishad starts with “Harihi Om.” This proclaims that Om is Brahman, and how one can realize the Self through Om.

The very first sentence of the Chandogya Upanishad, a part of the Sama Veda says, “One should meditate on the letter Om to realize Brahman.” Also, many other Upanishads, including the Mundaka Upanishad, Shvetashvatara Upanishad, Taitriya Upanishad, Prashna Upanishad, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, all extol the significance of Omkar and proclaim that Om is Brahman.

In the Yoga Sutras, Sage Patanjali proclaimed in sutra 1:27, “Om is the word that denotes God (Tasya Vachaka Pranava).”

How to chant Om?

Om, is a composite of the phonetic sounds, A, U and M. ‘A’ emanates from the back of the throat (gullet), ‘U' from the palate in the interior of the mouth, and ‘M’ from the closing lips. But when Om is uttered, the sound truly emanates from the region of the navel.

One should not utter Omkar in two stages because of fear of failing to hold the breath long enough. One should persevere and hold the breath until one can chant it one sweep with a steady ascent (‘A’), crescendo (‘U’), and descent (‘M’) of a curve, and the intervening silence equally. Swami says we should undertake this Pranava sadhana by watching the breath as it goes in and out listening in silence to the Soham (I am that) and pondering over the meaning of Soham.

Om Represents Triads

Three types of knowledge:

Om enables one to listen (shravyadi)

Om enables one to recite (samshadi)

Om enables singing (udgayati)

Thus, by listening, reciting, and singing, one’s mind gradually merges into Om. Thus, Om is the essence of all essences.

The three sounds of A, U, M:

  1. A, U, and M, represent the three worlds, the physical (bhuloka), astral (bhuvarloka), and solar worlds (suvarloka).
  2. It represents three Vedas, Rig, Yajur, and Sama, which elaborate on what is contained in Om.
  3. It also represents the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara. BRAHMA is represented by the sound ‘A’. The sound ‘U’ is the manifested form of VISHNU and the sound ‘M’ is the form of MAHESHWARA or Shiva, representing the principles of creation, sustenance, and dissolution respectively.

Swami says that the three forms comprising the Trinity are not permanent because they have taken form. Anything which has a form cannot be permanent. In the worship of the divine with the attributes, the trinity exists in each individual as the witnesses. But there’s only one syllable consisting of A, U, and M, which is the One underlying all three forms, and that is Omkara, Pranava. It is an expression of the attributeless divine principle. Any number of births we may take and however long we worship these three forms, we will never free ourselves from the cycle of birth and death. If one wants to get rid of birth forever, one must worship the formless and attributeless principle, which Omkar represents.

Pranava as the Source of Eight Divine Treasures

Om is an integral syllable that stands for the eight divine treasures (Ashta-Aishwaryas), namely the audible form of Brahman (shabdabrahma-mayi), that which pervades the universe of the animate and inanimate things (charachara-mayi), that which is the resplendent, divine light (jyothirmayi), that which is the master of speech (vang-mayi), that which grants eternal bliss (nithyananda-mayi), that which is the transcendental reality (paratpara-mayi), that which is the mother of illusion or maya (maya-mayi), and the eighth that is auspiciousness itself (Sri-Mayi).

Pranava – the Controller of Spiritual Centers (Chakras)

In the human body, there are spiritual energy centers in the form of a lotus flower at each center. These are also called Chakras. These are centers of divine energy and chanting of OM helps in gradual movement of the divine energy from the lower chakras to higher ones till one gets Self-realization.

Four States of Consciousness

The direct method of realizing Brahman is by chanting Om, the Pranava, which grants us enlightenment.

The Mandukya Upanishad beautifully explains that Om has four states represented by the letters A, U, M, and the silence that follows. The Upanishad refers to these three states, as waking, dreaming, and deep sleep that are common to everyone. Then there is a fourth state that is called the turiya, the stage of consciousness of the Self that is represented by the concluding silence in Om.

Following is a brief description of these four states:

  1. ‘A’ represents the waking state (Jagrat).In this state, consciousness is turned outward to the external world, it is about experiencing gross material objects through the senses.
  2. ‘U’ represents the dream state (Swapna). In this state, consciousness is turned toward the inner world. The mind can work out its unfulfilled wants, wishes, desires, and attractions that are not allowed to play out in the external world.
  3. ‘M’ represents the deep-sleep state (Sushupthi). In this deep-sleep state, there exists neither the desire for any gross or subtle object nor any dream sequence; the deep impressions of the mind are stored here in latent form like seeds. When certain conditions are met, they can play out in dreams or grow into actions in the waking stage.
  4. Finally, the important state, pure consciousness, turiya is the fourth state. Herein the consciousness is neither turned outward nor inward; it permeates everything and just observes. It is the state of consciousness that is present through all the other states, waking, dream, and deep sleep. It is the unchanging reality.

Once Swami explained to me that what we go through in the daytime is ‘day-dream,' just like what we dream at night is the ‘night dream.’ Then I asked Swami, “If everything is a dream, then aren’t You also a dream?” Swami beautifully replied that He is present in all the states, including the waking, dreaming, deep-sleep, and even beyond in the turiya. That is divinity, which is divine consciousness. This is what we experience when we get Self-realization. We see the same consciousness, which is pervading all states, in all places, at all times, and in everything as the eternal reality. That is the supreme goal of chanting Omkar, or Pranavopasana.

Benefits of Chanting Omkar or Pranavopasana

The greatest and ultimate benefit and experience is to be liberated or get Self-realization. However, there are other benefits too.

The Mandukya Upanishad directs the spiritual seeker to divide ‘Om’ into its three syllables, A, U, and M, followed by silence.

The seeker should contemplate in the waking state when uttering the syllable ‘A’. This is the most pervasive and common stage, and the experiencer of this waking state is called Vaiswanara. The one who meditates on this state fulfills all desires and becomes a leader.

Next, the dream state represented the syllable ‘U’. The experiencer of dream state is called Taijasa and one who meditates on it attains superior knowledge and is treated fairly by all. His progeny and his descendants in his lineage all attain Self-knowledge.

Third, the one who meditates on the deep sleep state as represented by ‘M’, wherein all things become one, will realize the nature of things and beings and becomes the knower of all things. The experiencer of the deep sleep state is called Prajna.

Finally, the silence between the chanting of two consecutive Omkars is used to contemplate on the turiya state, the Atma, or consciousness. This state is soundless, formless, incomprehensible by the mind, beyond the senses, blissful, and non-dual. This fourth state is the Self. The one who knows it merges in the Self, which means one attains Self-realization. The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman (Brahmavid Brahmaiva Bhavati).

Once we realize Brahman, we experience Brahman in everything, everywhere, ever, and thus live in Love and Bliss.

Jai Sai Ram.