The Meaning of Om

Om Painting by Omkari

My Guru appears to me in the most unexpected places and moments! 

Yesterday I was given a pop quiz on Om by a gas station attendant. 

He looked at me intently as I paid, and then gesturing to his own throat and my necklace asked, "You are knowing the meaning of this?"

Yak bone Tibetan Om necklace from Nepal

"Yes", I said "It's an Om, a Tibetan Om."

"Ok..." he grinned with a slight Indian head wobble, "but you are knowing the meaning?"

I said the first thing that came to my mind.  "Well, it depends who you ask."

"It's very good for concentration."  he stated matter-of-factly as he took the next customer's payment.

"Yes, very sacred.  Thank you!", I replied and scurried out. 

The whole way home I pondered the meaning of Om and how to express it in a nutshell. 
  • Om is the echoing hum of the universe.  Some astronomers refer to this as "interplanetary harmonics".
  • Om is Pranava, the breath of the Divine.  Religious folks might call it the Name of God.
  • Om is the Bija mantra, the seed of all creation.  Yogic cosmologists compare it to the Big bang theory.
  • Om is the fullness of the range of human vocalization.  Linguists consider it a progression of enunciation.
  • Om is the essence of the Vedas.  Vedantins believe chanting this mantra is as powerful as chanting all of the Vedas. 
Om represents the multitude of sacred trinities.  For example:
  • past, present and future
  • body, mind and spirit
  • Brahma shakti (creation), Vishnu shakti (preservation) and Shiva shakti (transformation or dissolution)
  • the three states of awareness; waking state, dreaming state and unconscious state

But how to best express what it means?

Om sticker from India

Ultimately the true meaning of Om cannot be expressed in words. 

At best, words can only point the yogini toward the direct experience like the teacher who points at the moon and admonishes the student for staring at his finger.

I heard a story in South India about the difficulty of expressing the meaning of Om: 

Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva approached Brahma, the Lord of Creation and asked him to explain Om.  Although Brahma claimed to understand and recited twelve thousand verses, Kartikeya found his explanation insufficient and was displeased. 

He approached his father, Lord Shiva who readily admitted to not fully understanding Om, and submitted himself humbly as a student to his son to receive the teachings on Om.

Om plate from India
So the real answer to the gas station attendant's question is in the heart of each individual to be revealed through practice over time.

Ramakrishna said that people immersed in the world cannot know the full meaning of Om, in fact, cannot even hear it.

As it says in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras 1.27-1.29:  (Please forgive my liberal translating!) 

The sacred word representing the Source of All is Om, or Pranava. (1.27)
Repeat this sound with deep reflection on its meaning. (1.28)
From this (repetition with reflection) comes Self-awareness and the removal of the obstacles to bliss. (1.29)

So, repeat Om.  Concentrate with reverence on all of the auspicious aspects of its significance and we will discover its true meaning for our Selves. 

Thank you, Gas Station Guru!  Your observation was a gentle and timely prompt!
 
Namaste!

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