1.27 tasya vachakah pranavah
Bouanchaud: Its expression is the sacred syllable.
Desikachar: In the way most appropriate to the qualities of God.
Swami J: The sacred word designating this creative source is the sound OM, called pranava.
What in the name of blue blazes is a girl from backwoods New Brunswick Canada supposed to do with OM? I’ve spend a week kicking the tires on this one because I’m at a loss as to what to write. Nevertheless, in the continuing tradition of this column, why should mere lack of understanding, insight or knowledge dissuade me from setting forth with an opinion? Buckle up, folks, because here we go again.
In this section of the Sutras, we’re moving away from the descriptions and definitions of “God” aka Supreme and Universal Consciousness and moving into a discussion on one of the techniques Patanjali talks about that will facilitate our union with same. Mantra repetition looks like exceptionally foreign and exotic territory from my perch on the banks of the Nashwaak River.
What is mantra anyway?
A mantra is a sacred or significant verbal formula that is repeated in prayer and meditation. It can be the invocation of the name of a God, a sacred symbol, a phrase of great significance, or a portion of scripture with mystical associations. There are a lot of different mantras that people use: “Holy Mary, Mother of God”, “Peace”. In many spiritual traditions, people are given a mantra by a teacher. Alternatively, they chose something that has meaning to them and ‘rings true’.
OM, if you will, is the king of the mantras. This symbol ,, is sacred to a good chunk of the planet’s population. And there’s the crux of the matter for me – I appreciate that this symbol is enriched with a great deal of meaning to many people and I want to always remain respectful of that. The sticky bit arises because it’s not sacred to me, personally. OM is one of the sacred images of Hinduism which is a point I think we have a tendency to forget in this country. It’s not just some cool Indian bumper sticker graphic. I remember looking at an ad in a yoga magazine and seeing a set of shorts for sale with that emblazoned across the backside.
So. Not. Cool. Ever.
So what does OM mean anyway? Well, first off, it’s not a word. There’s no translation for OM. It’s a sound.
For the devout Hindu, this sacred symbol represents Brahman, the Absolute. It’s easy for someone like me to get tripped up by thinking of Brahman as the Hindu version of God, or at least the anthropomorphic version of God that exists in my head as a left-over from Sunday school classes. Brahman is not a He, or a She, for that matter. This is a concept that by definition transcends all discernable categories and limitiations. Brahman is the truth and is the ultimate source of reality. Pretty heavy stuff for me and I suspect I don’t fully get it in spite of my best intentions.
OM represents the four divine states of Brahman: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. There’s ideas packed into this symbol that were nice to know when I’m looking at it. The larger curve on the lower left hand side of the symbol represents the human consciousness, turned towards the gate of sense. The upper left hand curve represents the state of dreamless sleep, the unconscious state where we are free of desire for anything. The central curve, towards the right hand side, represents the dream states.
Above these three linked curves, there is a dot with an arc beneath it. The dot is the bindu and represents a fourth state of absolute, pure, unchanging consciousness known as turiya. It is a foundational state that both underlies and encompasses the three previous states: waking consciousness, dreaming and dreamless sleep. The arc symbolizes Maya or illusion that prevents us from achieving the state of yoga. Illusion is what separates our “normal” mind with our ultimate consciousness.
No wonder this is such a powerful meditation device. There’s a lot to think about packed into it and that’s just at the visual level. There’s a lot there from an auditory perspective and for most of us, I think we associate OM with something that is chanted as a mantra. It is considered to be the purest name of God in that it is the sound of existence itself. In a cosmology where the whole universe is seen as being fundamental vibrating and pulsating energy, OM is the hum of the universe itself. The idea that God is manifest in sound is not a strictly Eastern proposition. The Christian Bible (John 1: 1-2) states “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.
By this point in the Sutras, we should be getting Patanjali’s main theme: the state of yoga is synonymous with the state of meditation. Mantra is well-established mediation technique. It’s a means of stabilizing our inner state by the repetition of significant phonetic units. In my own personal practice, I’m just starting to work with mantra. I can say that so far, in my own experience, mantra repetition has been very clarifying. It’s a way of cutting through a lot of my mind chatter and getting past the obsessive cycles of thinking: past-future, past-future, past-future..SQUIRREL!!!…past…. you get the drift.
It also brings a great deal of inner peace. I used to say that chant, particularly Sanskrit chant, did nothing for me. My teacher likes chant. In our advanced training, she’s always leading us in a chant and some of my fellow students LOVE it. Me, not so much. I’ve always taken the viewpoint of “when in Rome” when it comes to the chanting parts in the trainings. I’ll be honest – most of the time, it feels artificial, and stupid. It makes me feel like I’m emulating something that I’m not – namely Indian, Hindu and Sanskrit-literate. I don’t make a fuss about it but really, I don’t like it in public spaces but then again, I’m not a big fan of public displays of worship in any form – a personal idiosyncrasy of mine.
That said, when I was on a silent retreat last October, about day 5 of not having anyone to talk to, I found myself really agitated about 1:30 in the morning. My little retreat cell was very private and there were no noises around. Even the wind was still and the ocean was calm. The silence took on an oppressive feel and i felt this compulsion come over me to chant. For about 45 minutes or so, I OM’d for all I was worth. The exercise left me with sore vocal chords and a deep sense of connection and security. For me, it was very powerful although I suspect I would never have that same sense of release in a public venue.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading and Namaste,