Pranava or Om is central to Sanatana Dharma. It is regarded and experienced as the manifestation of the Paramatman Himself by the Rishis and Yogis. Several Upanishads hail Pranava as the Lord Himself. As an example, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has this statement “Om Kham Brahma” which means the Eternal Ether is the Brahman, which is of the form of Om. The Vedas are also regarded as the evolution of Om. Some Upanishads treat it as not only the Goal of all living beings, but also the means to reach this Goal. Just as the forms of Lord Vishnu/Shiva are regarded as identical with the Lord, so also Om is treated as the Paramatman Himself. Because the Paramatman is beyond the reach of all senses, mind, and intellect, a Sadhaka (aspirant) with true faith and devotion can get a glimpse of the Lord through the Upasana of Om.
Mundaka Upanishad stresses this aspect through the statement “Pranavo dhanuh, sharohyatma, brahmatat lakshyamuchyate” meaning, Om is the bow, the individual self the arrow, and Brahman the target. Taittiriya Upanishad also mentions the goal-means aspect of Om in “Omiti Brahamanah pravakshannaha brahmopaapnavaneeti”, meaning, the Brahmajnani says Om and attains the Brahman. Chandogya Upanishad vividly describes how a realized soul attains Brahman at the time of death/leaving the body by chanting Om - athaitaireva rasmibhir-urdhvam akramate, sa om iti va ha uktva miyate sa yavat ksipyen manah, tavad-adityam gacchati, etad-vai khalu loka-dvaram vidusam prapadanam – the true refuge for the realized souls is indeed this Om which leads them to the Brahman (here Aditya = Brahman). It may be noted that everyone will not chant Om at this crucial end moment. Those who are accustomed to such a practice throughout life, who have led a very disciplined life of spiritual contemplation alone are blessed with that frame of mind and soulful involvement.
There is a famous sloka on Pranava, as follows:
Chaturvimshati tattvaanam yadekam tattvamuttamam | Anupaadhi param brahma tatparamjyotiromiti ||
This means that among the 24 tattvas (including the 5 Bhootas – Earth, Water, Light, Air and Sky, 5 Tanmatras – sound, touch, sight, taste, smell, 5 Jnanendriyas – Eyes, ears, skin, tongue, nose, 5 Karmendriyas – tongue, hands, legs, excretory organs and reproductory organs, 4 antah karanas – mind, intellect, ahamkara, and the Atman, the highest tattva is the Paramatman, which is also Paramjyoti (Eternal Light) and Om. Thus, the real Swaroopam of Om is Paramjyoti or Divine Light itself.
Further allusions of Om to Iswara Himself, can be found in Patanajali Yoga Sutras thus:
“ishvara pranidhana va; tatra niratishayam sarvajna bijam; tasya vachakah pranavah.” Meaning that the seeker realizes the fruit of Yoga even by Surrender to the Lord, who is the Knower of everything. Indeed, His manifestation (in sound form) is the Pranava itself.
Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita Chapter 10 Vibhuti yoga, says thus:
“Maharshinam Bhriguraham Giramasmyekamaksharam”, meaning, “I am Bhrigu Maharshi among all Maharshis, and am indeed the Pranava or Omkara among all the Vedas”. This informs us that the seed of all Vedas is the Omkara which is the Lord Himself.
Interestingly, in the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram, Bheeshma alludes to Pranava in two places thus: “vaikuṇṭhaḥ puruṣaḥ prāṇaḥ prāṇadaḥ praṇavaḥ pṛthuḥ, and, ūrdhvagassatpathācāraḥ prāṇadaḥ praṇavaḥ paṇaḥ”. The Lord has Pranava as one of His Names itself. In the first instance, Pranava is mentioned alongside Vaikuntha, indicating that Pranava represents the ultimate destination of all human beings. In the second instance, Pranava is referenced along side Urdhvaga, which hints us that it is in an Upward path for those on the Truthful way of life. Interestingly, in both the slokas, Pranava is preceded by the word Pranadah, which means the Giver of Prana or Life Force. Thus Pranava is associated with the Life Force within our body -–Prana.
A reference to this can also be found in the famous song “Mokshamu galada” by Saint Tyagaraja thus:
“prANanAla sam-yOgamu valla praNava nAdamu sapta svaramulai bAraga
vINA vAdana lOluDau shivamanO vidha merugaru tyAgarAja vinuta”
The meaning here is that Pranava naada emanates due to the coming together of Prana and Agni (or Apana), and is the root of the 7 swaras. Lord Shiva Himself relishes this Nada through Veena vadana or playing of Veena.
Thus, Pranava does not only have a formless state (Eternal Light), it has a Form and also has shabda or naada associated with it. This is verily experienced by pure Yogis in their state of Samadhi as Anaahata Dhwani. Pranava or Om has 5 parts: Akaara + Ukaara + Makaara + Bindu + Naada. This Naada can be obtained externally through various means like the Ghanta (bell), Shankham (Conch), Veena, Flute, Mridangam, etc.
No wonder then that this primordial syllable is revered by the rishis of yore and is the root of all Mantras. Also, all manifest aspects that produce this sound, are indeed divine too. May this Omkara lead our minds to the Lotus Feet of our Guru and the Eternal Lord, who is Truth, Bliss and Consciousness (sat-chit-ananda) personified.
N. R. Srinivasa Raghavan, PhD (email@example.com)