Om (Aum): the Hindu Symbol of the Absolute

OM symbol on wall
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The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence… is Om. This syllable Om is indeed Brahman. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma.
—​Katha Upanishad I

The syllable "Om" or "Aum" is of paramount importance in Hinduism.

This symbol (as seen in the adjoining image) is a sacred syllable representing Brahman, the impersonal Absolute of Hinduism—omnipotent, omnipresent, and the source of all manifest existence. Brahman, in itself, is incomprehensible,  so some kind of symbol is essential to help us conceptualize the Unknowable. Om, therefore, represents both the unmanifest (nirguna) and manifest (saguna) aspects of God. That is why it is called pranava—meaning that it pervades life and runs through our prana or breath.

Om in Hindu Daily Life

Although Om symbolizes the most profound concepts of Hindu belief, it is in use daily by most followers of Hinduism. Many Hindus begin their day or any work or journey by uttering Om. The sacred symbol is often found at the head of letters, at the beginning of examination papers and so on. Many Hindus, as an expression of spiritual perfection, wear the sign of Om as a pendant.

This symbol is enshrined in every Hindu temple, and in some form or another on family shrines.

It is interesting to note that a newly born child is ushered into the world with this holy sign. After birth, the child is ritually cleansed, and the sacred syllable Om is written on its tongue with honey.

Thus, it is right from the time of birth that the syllable Om is introduced into the life of a Hindu, and it ever remains with him as the symbol of piety for the rest of his life.  Om is also a popular symbol used in contemporary body art and tattoos.

The Eternal Syllable

According to the Mandukya Upanishad

Om is the one eternal syllable of which all that exists is but the development. The past, the present, and the future are all included in this one sound, and all that exists beyond the three forms of time is also implied in it.

The Music of Om

For Hindus, Om is not a word exactly, but rather an intonation. Like music, it transcends the barriers of age, race, culture, and even species. It is made up of three Sanskrit letters, aa, au and ma which, when combined together, make the sound "Aum" or "Om." For Hindus, it is believed to be the basic sound of the world and to contain all other sounds within it. It is a mantra or prayer in itself, and if it is repeated with the correct intonation, it can resonate throughout the body so that the sound penetrates to the center of one's being, the atman or soul.

There is harmony, peace, and bliss in this simple but deeply philosophical sound. According to the Bhagavad Gita, by vibrating the sacred syllable Om, the supreme combination of letters, while contemplating the Ultimate Personality of Godhead and quitting one's  body, a believer will certainly reach the highest state of "stateless" eternity.

The power of Om is paradoxical and two-fold.  On one hand, it projects the mind beyond the immediate to a metaphysical state that is abstract and inexpressible. On the other hand, though, it brings the absolute down to a level that is more tangible and comprehensive. It encompasses all potentialities and possibilities; it is everything that was, is, or yet to be.

Om in Practice

When we chant Om during meditation, we create within ourselves a vibration that attunes in sympathy with the cosmic vibration, and we begin thinking universally. The momentary silence between each chant becomes palpable. Mind moves between the opposites of sound and silence until, at last, the sound ceases to be. In the ensuing silence, even the single thought of Om is itself quenched, and there is no longer even the presence of thought to interrupt pure awareness.

This is the state of trance, where the mind and the intellect are transcended as the individual self-merges with the Infinite Self in a pious moment of absolute realization. It is a moment when petty worldly affairs are lost in the desire for, and experience of, the universal. Such is the immeasurable power of Om.

  • Tip: To type the Om symbol with your computer in MS Word, use the backslash (\) key while using the Wingdings font. The Om character will appear.