By Swami Harshananda
Praṇava literally means ‘that by which God is effectively praised,’ ‘that which is ever new’.
Praṇava or Om is the universally accepted symbol of the religion. All sections, sects and groups honor this and use this. Even Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism have adopted this. It is both an auricular and a visual symbol for Brahman, the Absolute of philosophy and God of religion. Literally the word ‘Praṇava’ means ‘that by which God is effectively praised’. It also means ‘that which is ever new’. The word ‘Om’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘ava’ which has nineteen different senses. From these it is possible to construe that Om represents that Power which is:
- Rules over the entire universe
- Protects one from the evils of life
- Fulfills the cherished desires of its devotees
- Destroys ignorance and gives enlightenment
References About Praṇava
Praṇava has been extolled highly in the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, the Gitā and also in other scriptures.
- The Gopatha-brāhmaṇa of the Atharvaveda relates a story according to which god Indra successfully overcame the demons with the help of Om. The story can be interpreted to mean that man can conquer his beastly nature by having recourse to the repetition of Om.
- The Yajurveda exhorts us to try to realize Brahman through repeating and remembering Om.
- The Kathopaniṣad declares that Om is Parabrahman itself.
- The Mundakopaniṣad advises the spiritual aspirant to meditate on the unity of the ātman with Brahman using Om for japa.
- Śrī Kṛṣṇa avers in the Gitā that he is Om among words and that all religious rites are started with the repetition of Om. Not only that, if anyone succeeds in reciting the word Om at the time of his death, simultaneously thinking of God, he will attain the highest Truth.
- The Yogasutras of Patañjali declares that Praṇava is the symbol of God and that one can get samādhi on him by its repetition and meditation of him.
Representation of Om
Actually Om comprises three independent letters a, u and m, each of which has its own meaning and significance. It can be explained as the following:
- The letter ‘a’ represents ‘beginning’ - ādimatva
- ‘U’ represents ‘progress’ - utkarṣa
- ‘M’ represents ‘limit or dissolution’ - miti
Hence the word Om represents that power responsible for creation, development and dissolution of this universe, i.e., God Himself.
Praṇava as per Svāmi Vivekānanda
Svāmi Vivekānanda has given a very simple but interesting and instructive explanation of the three letters comprising Om thereby bringing out the uniqueness
of this great symbol:
‘The first letter A is the root-sound, the key, pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or the palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by closed lips; and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding-board of the mouth.
Thus Om represents the whole phenomenon of sound-producing. As such it must be the natural symbol, the matrix of all the various sounds. It denotes the whole range and possibility of all the words that can be made.’
Theory of Creation
The full significance of this statement becomes unfolded only when we understand the theory of creation as mentioned in the Vedas and other scriptures. This theory is summed up as follows:
- Creation is not a linear process, beginning and ending at particular points of time, but it is a cyclic process going on eternally
- God creates this universe out of Himself by Himself. To put it in a technical language, He is both the material cause and the efficient cause
- Before beginning any particular cycle of creation, He utters the Vedic words denoting the various classes of beings and objects, conceives of the corresponding forms and creates them.
Contrary to the general understanding, this means that forms are preceded by names. Names are composed of letters which are sounds. All sounds are included in Om. Hence, the entire creation which proceeds from Vedic words or sounds, proceeds from the basic matrix of all sounds, viz., Om. Since God is the origin of this universe Om and God are identical. Or, at least, Om is the best symbol of God. God is one. Sages call Him by various names. Though these various names differ from one another, all of them have sprung from the same basic source of all the sounds, viz., Om. Hence Om represents all the names of God or it is the best name of God.
- Ātman means the Self.
- He means God.
- It happens by remembering them from the previous cycles of creation.
- Forms means rupa.
- Names means nāma.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore