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Chapter Nine
 OM
What does it mean? 
Where does it come from?


The sacred syllable Om which form a central core of modern Hinduism turns out to be more enigmatic as one studies its origin.  Inspite of all the claims of its prehistoric origin and vedic origin, om cannot be found in any document or archeological object which antedate the Christian Era.

 Om is not mentioned in the ancient Rig-Veda.   The only possible indirect reference is  in hymns 1.164.39  which speaks of the syllable (akshara) that exists in the divine and is in no way definitive or even indicative.  

“What,” asks the composer of this hymn, “can one who does not know this do with the chant?” He adds, “Only those who know it sit together here.” That is, only initiates gather to delight in the mystery of the sacred syllable and the company of the deities.

Since the syllable and the mantra are so important, the fact that Vedic religion did not mention about it anywhere is significant.   The earliest direct reference to Om is found in  the opening hymn of the Shukla-Yajur-Veda (1.1), the “white” recension of the Vedic hymnody dealing strictly with the performance of the sacrifices (yajus). But historians consider this as a later addition.. For the Taittirîya-Samhitâ (5.2.8), which is appended to the Yajur-Veda, still cryptically speaks of the “divine sign” (deva-lakshana) that is written threefold (try-alikhita).  . The threefold constituents of om – A U M -  are referred to, in the Prashna-Upanishad (V.5). and the symbolic elaboration of this is found in the Mândűkya-Upanishad.

Even the early Upanishads written in Sanskrit, refer to it only indirectly as the udgîtha (“up sound”) and the pranava (“pronouncing”).  In the Yoga-Sűtra (1.27),it is called the Word (vâcaka) of the Lord (îshvara). Patanjali further states (in 1.28) that in order to realize the mystery of the Lord, the om sound should be recited and contemplated. In the earliest Upanishads,  (Brihad-Âranyaka, Chândogya, and Taittirîya)aum is mentioned many times  both as aum and om-kâra

Thus apparently the symbol and mantra Om emerged in Indian scene soon after the mission of St.Thomas the Apostle and seen only after that time.  Surprisingly all early churches in the Malankara had used this as the Christian symbol and appear at the entrance of the seven original churches. Even when these churches were remodeled and reconstructed the aum was retained.   It was clearly part of the Malankara Christian tradition from the first century.  They however associate it with the Christian Trinity and to Christ – the word who became flesh  which we will discuss later.  An objective conclusion would be that Aum was indeed the original Christian concept as introduced by Thomas

The Meaning of Om.

A century ago, the German scholar Max Müller, ( M. Müller, Three Lectures on the Vedânta Philosophy, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894) who introduced the Indian Scriptures to the west, had the idea that om might be a contraction of the word avam, “a prehistoric pronominal stem, pointing to distant objects, while ayam pointed to nearer objects.,,,, Avam may have become the affirmative particle om, just as the French oui arose from hoc illud.” This follows the common everyday use of a syllable produced by the “up sound” or exhalation producing  om to mean  “Yes, I agree” with the same meaning as “Amen” . Chândogya Upanishad clearly spells out the equation between the words udgîtha and pranava.   The first record of this usage is in the Brihad-Âranyaka-Upanishad (3.9.1) itself, where om is employed seven times in this manner. Indeed, the Chândogya-Upanishad (1.1.8) clearly states: “That syllable is a syllable of assent, for whenever we assent to anything we say aum [= om].”  “If, then, om meant originally that and yes, we can understand that, like Amen, it may have assumed a more general meaning, something like tat sat, and that it may have been used as representing all that human language can express.” (Max Muller)

Swami Sankarananda, (Swami Sankarananda, The Rigvedic Culture of the Pre-Historic Indus, Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1942),  proposes that om is derived from the Vedic word soma. Through the influence of the Persians, who did not pronounce the letter s, the word soma was changed to homa and subsequently was shortened to om.  This is only a conjecture to find a meaning in connection with Vedic religion. Earlier Sankara also hung on to this relation.. Swami considers sacred syllable om as a symbol of  Sun since  Aitareya-Brâhmana (5.32)says: “That which glows is om.”  Evidently it is a weak argument.

However the historic development of the meaning goes far beyond the Vedic gods and common Amen to identify Om with  the shabda-brahman.   In this the unknowable indescribable God expresses himself in creation through the Word.  The cosmos was created by the Word. “And God said,….. and it was so” Chândogya-Upanishad (2.23.3), calls this creation as extension of God, since there is nothing except God, even the creation is his expression and the immanence of God.  The Chândogya-Upanishad (1.9.4) also quotes Atidhanvan Shaunaka,  as saying, “So long as your descendants will know this udgîtha, their life in this world will be the highest and best.”  .

 Mândűkya-Upanishad   explained the three constituent parts (mâtrâ) of the syllable—namely A U M—as  past, present, and future; as the states of  waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. The  fourth part the silence that follows as the inexpressible Brahman.  

 Atharva-Shikhâ-Upanishad expounds the syllables and associate them for easy memorization and interpretation.  These are only to be considered as mnemographic techniques for teaching to those who sit beside. (Upanishad)

The Word became Flesh

The Christian interpretation of Aum had always been based on John 1:1
”In the beginning was the Aum.  This Aum was with God.  This Aum was indeed God.”

It also introduces the fullness or the substance of God as represented by the silence that follows or the totality of the syllable.  Word was the first expression of God through which the whole cosmos – living and the nonliving – visible and the invisible – were created.  If one looks even deeper, the whole of Kabballa and the threefold tree reaching into the unknown darkness encased in the ineffable name of YHVH can be seen.  It goes far deeper than the simple logos of the Greek.  While the Hindu trinity with its intricate mythologies is based on the dialectics of good and evil and their interaction, ( A feature borrowed from the Gnosticism after the coming of Mani) Christian trinity is based on Love. This was the basic conflict on which Manichaens were declared heretics by the early churches everywhere in the world.  Surprisingly  this is reflected in the Saivism  in its pure form and is maintained by the pure saivites of the south which is finding a resurgence.  With it the demise of the myths where the gods fight with each other will have to be discarded along with all the heresies that came into the church later through the influence of Manichaenism. 

This is recited in India thus:

Before time began there was no heaven, no earth and no space between. A vast dark ocean washed upon the shores of nothingness and licked the edges of night. A giant cobra floated on the waters. Asleep within its endless coils lay the Lord Vishnu. He was watched over by the mighty serpent. Everything was so peaceful and silent that Vishnu slept undisturbed by dreams or motion.

From the depths a humming sound began to tremble, Om. It grew and spread, filling the emptiness and throbbing with energy. The night had ended. Vishnu awoke. As the dawn began to break, from Vishnu's navel grew a magnificent lotus flower. In the middle of the blossom sat Vishnu's servant, Brahma. He awaited the Lord's command.

Vishnu spoke to his servant: 'It is time to begin.' Brahma bowed. Vishnu commanded: 'Create the world.'

A wind swept up the waters. Vishnu and the serpent vanished. Brahma remained in the lotus flower, floating and tossing on the sea. He lifted up his arms and calmed the wind and the ocean. Then Brahma split the lotus flower into three. He stretched one part into the heavens. He made another part into the earth. With the third part of the flower he created the skies.

The earth was bare. Brahma set to work. He created grass, flowers, trees and plants of all kinds. To these he gave feeling. Next he created the animals and the insects to live on the land. He made birds to fly in the air and many fish to swim in the sea. To all these creatures, he gave the senses of touch and smell. He gave them power to see, hear and move.

The world was soon bristling with life and the air was filled with the sounds of Brahma's creation.