Hindu mantras often begin or end with OM, which is usually defined as an impersonal sonic representation of the Supreme. To truly appreciate the creative depth of this Sanskrit syllable, however, one must go back to the ancient Indic texts known as the Vedic literature, to the seed mantra, “Omkara.” But before doing this, it would be worthwhile to know that OM is not a sectarian sound, nor is it peculiar to Hindu notions of divine mantras.
Indeed, the sacred syllable is evoked by the well-known Judeo-Christian utterance “Amen,” which has been described as a variation on OM. Simi- larly, Muslims say “Amin.” Many of our English descriptions of God, too, begin with OM—omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. The prefix omni is a slightly disguised version of the Sanskrit syllable.
Although the divine OM is recognized in nearly all spiritual traditions originating in the East—from the Buddhists of Tibet to the Vedantistsof Benares—few have penetrated its actual mystery, at least as it was originally expressed in the Vedic literature:
The goal, as declared in all the Vedas, at which all austerities aim, and which humans desire when they live a life of continence, can be summarized in one word: OM. This syllable is indeed Brahman, the highest spiritual truth. Whosoever chants this obtains all that he desires. This is the best support, the highest support, the ultimate end. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahman. (Katha Upanishad 1.2.15–17)
The origins of OM, in fact, can be traced to the Rig Veda, the earliest of India’s sacred texts:
One who chants OM, the sonic form of Brahman, Spirit, quickly approaches ultimate reality.4
Still, most practitioners today see the mantra merely as an exotic, imper- sonal utterance—an abstract feature of the Absolute, chanted by yogis and swamis in India (or by Westerners adopting an Eastern form of spirituality).
If one looks a little beneath the surface, however, one finds that OM is really so much more than this. It is described throughout the Vedic literature and by the great spiritual masters of India as the seed conception of theism. That is to say, as a tree or fruit begins with a seed, so, too, does everything begin with OM; even the Gayatri Mantra, considered by many as the ultimate mantra of Hindu Brahminism, begins with OM—the Vedas begin with OM, the Upanishads begin with OM, the Vedanta begins with OM, and the Bhagavata Purana, the cream of Vedic texts, begins with OM. Therefore, it can safely be said that the divine journey, or the search for transcendental knowledge, begins with OM.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (7.8), Krishna himself says, “I am nondifferent from the syllable OM.” As such, this sacred syllable is known as the maha- mantra, or the supreme mantra, of the Vedas, and, in certain ways, can be considered equal to the more commonly known maha-mantra (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”), at least if it is bestowed upon an aspiring disciple by one who is self-realized.
Thus, according to the most ancient texts on the subject, OM should never be thought of as impersonal. Rather, it is a sonic representation of the Supreme, identical to the Lord in both essence and character. It is not just sound, but it is God himself in the form of sound.
It is also said that OM is the sound of Krishna’s flute: The ancient text known as the Brahma-Samhita reveals that when Brahma, the first created being, tried to articulate or verbally recreate what he heard when Krishna played his legendary instrument, Brahma uttered “OM.”
The Gopal-Tapani Upanishad (2.54–55), another ancient text, also dis- cusses OM—reinforcing its identity as the Supreme Divinity:
The letter “A” denotes Balarama, the divine son of Rohini, who is the substratum of the entire universe. The letter “U” denotes Pradyumna who is the supersoul of the universe. The letter “M” denotes Aniruddha, who is the supersoul of each individual being in the universe. And the “dot” above the “M” denotes Sri Krishna, the fountainhead of all Vishnu incarnations.5
Here readers are introduced to the original Sanskritic form of the mantra, which is actually AUM, as opposed to OM. The latter version of the word is really a loose transliteration.
The Gopal-Tapani Upanishad begins by interpreting OM as described above, but it moves on from there (2.56):
The wise and enlightened sages declare that the pleasure potency of God, Sri Radha, and all living beings are also contained in OM.
Jiva Goswami, one of India’s greatest philosophers, elaborates: “OM is a combination of the letters, A,U,M. The letter ‘A’ refers to Krishna. The Letter ‘U’ refers to Radha, and the letter ‘M’ refers to the ordinary living soul.” Here, then, is the most evolved understanding of the mantra, at least according to many generations of Vaishnava savants. The mantra is thus summed up by Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada:
Omkara is a combination of the letters a, u, and m. . . .The letter a (a-kara) refers to Krishna, who is…the master of all living entities and planets, material and spiritual. . . . The letter u (u-kara) indicates Srimati Radharani, the pleasure potency of Krishna, and m (ma-kara) indicates the living entities ( jivas). Thus, OM is the complete combination of Krishna, His potency, and His eternal servitors. In other words, Omkara represents Krishna, His name, fame, pastimes, entourage, expansions, devotees, potencies and everything else pertaining to Him. . . . Omkara is the resting place of everything, just as Krishna is the resting place of everything.7
While OM is clearly afforded a special place in the chanting of Hindu mantras, it is usually considered secondary when compared to actual names of the deity. Devotees of Shiva, for example, will recite their Lord’s names more readily than chanting OM. Those who venerate the Goddess will pre- fer chanting her numerous appellations, and Vaishnavas, of course, would prefer the Thousand Names of Vishnu, a popular litany of holy names chanted regularly in Hindu temples, or other Vishnu-centered mantras.