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The Hidden Symbolism of OM Mantra

If there is an aspect of the traditions of Yoga and Buddhism that has reached the mainstream to become part of everyday culture, then, this is the mantra OM/AUM.

A staple of most yogic traditions, OM mantra is often sung on its own or else used to open and/or close other mantras devoted to different deities. Still, few people out there are aware of the proper meaning and the kind of realities that OM/AUM mantra is actually speaking of. For in its heart, OM mantra holds not just the seed of universal oneness —the absolute totality not just of all sound, but of everything there is in the universe– but also a very detailed reference to the transition of human awareness through the four realms and the seven levels of consciousness.

More than Just a Sound

We’ve mentioned it before: the Yoga Sutra of sage Patanjali place a great deal of importance on the practice of mantra japa as a means of removing obstacles on the road to self-realization; and there is no mantra as powerful and universal as that of OM/AUM. Indeed, the mantra OM is not just human invention —the result of the whims of a particular ethnic group, religion, or culture at a certain point in time. On the contrary, this mantra was there all along and we humans have had to learn to develop our subtle listening skills in order to be able to listen to it. It was sages in the deepest state of meditation that first realized the presence of this mantra; so think of OM as the symbol we use to refer to a series of realities that, much like the air we breathe, exist whether we are aware of it or not.

But —you may be wondering— what are those realities??? Well, according to the scriptures, the realities OM/AUM refers to are familiar to all of us, even if we remain for the most part unaware or unconscious of it. The mantra OM is at the same time a symbol for these deeper realities and a map meant to help us get there once again but this time consciously. This is the reason why its very symbol (see the picture above) and its extended sound form (AUM) make for excellent meditation vehicles or meditation support, as they echo a variety of subtle aspects worth exploring in more detail, which is exactly what we do in the paragraphs below.

One Sign, Four States, Seven Levels

From the first sound or vowel to the last, OM/A-U-M alludes not just to the four realms of experience of gross (A), subtle (U), causal (M) and absolute (the vibration that lies beyond M sound and that would equate to absolute stillness), but also to the different states of waking (A), dreaming (U), deep sleep (M), and the state that lies beyond deep sleep; a state we can never recall.

The study of human brain activity and brain waves already suggests the existence of a fourth state after deep sleep where the conscious mind is switched off, our unconscious mind is also deactivated or latent, and we venture into the unknown. This would be the part of our rest we always experience, yet have no recollection of. It is precisely this last one the state that OM mantra is supposed to help us get to: the state that lies beyond what can be known with the tools (the mind, the senses) that we normally use to gather information about this world.

Nevertheless, OM/AUM refers to much more than just these four states or realms. It describes in depth the seven levels of consciousness we move through daily, if unconsciously, and that we must learn to also move through consciously if we want to attain self-realization. According to the Mandukya Upanishad the transition would be as follows

  1. A. Waking state. Gross plane. Conscious state

  2. Transition phase known as Unmani

  3. U. Dreaming state. Subtle plane. Unconscious state

  4. Transition phase known as Aladani

  5. M. Deep sleep. Causal plane. Subconscious state.

  6. Transition phase known as Samadhi

  7. Turiya. Absolute plane. Absolute or SuperConsciousness.

All of these levels, planes, and states are mirrored in the Sanskrit symbol of OM mantra as noted in the illustration at the beginning. And so, if we were to practice OM mantra with sustained attention to its meaning and to the realms and states it is describing, we would be embarking on a journey through consciousness itself meant to help us realize the beyond once we manage to properly absorb our entire consciousness into the sound of OM.

A Full Sadhana

Tradition tells us that, each of these different states, levels and realms is like a container that our consciousness must traverse and pierce through (in fact, become) in order to reach into the next. When we fall asleep, the mechanism is automatic and we pass from level to level in a rather unconscious way. But it is precisely because we pass through it unconsciously that we then have no memory of it. We may notice how we fall asleep, or even how we dream, but rarely do we recall anything beyond this.

During meditation on the OM mantra, however, our consciousness is progressively trained to maintain awareness also during the transitioning phases, so that, by remembering not just the meaning but also the main realities echoed at every single level, we may be able to pass through the different layers as many times as needed and eventually enter into the beyond (or Turiya) consciously and for good.

Hence, at each level and in each realm, we train our awareness to observe the dynamics inherent in, for example, the waking state as referenced by A, with the workings of the conscious mind and its never ending ability to produce new images and thoughts; or the dreaming state as referenced by the sound of U and the nature of our unconscious processes, full of symbolism and erratic, wandering images, but also more subtle in nature. Or the deep sleep state as we sing M, with all the latent contents it houses in the form of Samskaras, and how it leads to a state beyond: a state void of sound but full with the seed of everything; the state from where everything springs from and to which everything returns.

By meditating on OM/AUM, by chanting the OM mantra first externally and then internally, we thus progressively become more aware of how the latent content of the deepest reaches of our soul, of our consciousness gives rise to impressions (Samskaras) that then determine our thoughts and also, eventually, our actions. And so, by meditating on OM Mantra we progressively become better able to break the loop of vicious patterns, get rid of Samskaras, stop the inertia of our thoughts, and even attain self-realization.