by Swami Krishnananda
In one of the Sutras of Patanjali, we are told that God is Pranava or Omkara, by which significant symbol God's presence, Isvara's existence, can be invoked in meditation – Tasya vachakah pranavah. The great mystical symbol Om is well known in all religious circles and mystical organisations. It is known as Omkara, generally speaking; otherwise, as Pranava. We chant Om in the beginning, as well as towards the conclusion, of any worship, Satsanga or prayer meeting. This is considered auspicious. Omkara, we are told, is the best connotation of God's characteristics, and God is most effectively invoked in this divine symbol or mark.
One has to be able to appreciate the deep meaning hidden behind the symbol Pranava in order that one may utilise it successfully in meditation. God is omnipresence, all-pervading completeness. And a name of God, therefore, should have some similarity to the nature of God Himself. A name designates a form. In India, particularly, the name of a person is supposed to be a description of the characteristics of that person. The idea is that a name is a word-symbol or a sound-symbol of a form which it connotes or denotes. So much so, the utterance of a word or a name brings into one's consciousness or mind the form which it is supposed to indicate or designate. Every particular form, personality or thing in this world has a name attached to it. Besides name and form, we also have an idea of the form. So, we have these three components of internal cognition and external perception, namely, sound, idea and form.
The name designates a form. Every finite object has a name corresponding to it in this world, and therefore, the name also is finite in its descriptive capacity. We may carry this name and form relationship to its logical limits and bring to our consciousness the supreme idea of a universal name to connote the universal form. God is universal existence, or we may say, the universal form for all practical purposes of our conception. Whatever may be our notion of God, it has to be acceded that the term God signifies something which is everywhere, infinite and unbounded. Therefore, to designate such a mighty Being which is infinite, without limits of space or time, we must have a word-symbol which absorbs into itself every other language-symbol or word-symbol, available in the world.
There are letters in the alphabet in every language. And these letters are uttered by the functioning of certain parts of the sound-box or the vocal organ. When a particular letter is uttered, some part of the sound-box begins to vibrate, and the particular sound corresponding to that letter is produced. When a particular word or name is uttered, the sound so produced by the vocal organ is supposed to connote the object corresponding to that name. God being universality, His name also should have a universal comprehensiveness. This is the idea behind the teaching that Om is the name of God.
The recitation or the chanting or the pronunciation of Om involves such an operation of the vocal organ that the whole apparatus is set in motion. This is something which has to be examined carefully, each for oneself, either experimentally or by inward investigative perception. Right from the root up to the topmost and outermost part of the vocal organ, everything begins to vibrate when Om is chanted. Hence, Om can thus be regarded as a sound which includes every other sound. And, language is nothing but sound. Hence, in a sense, every language is invoked when Om is chanted. Whether it is Sanskrit, English or Arabic, it makes no difference. Inasmuch as all languages are only expressions of certain sounds or sound formulations, and inasmuch as sound production is complete in the utterance of Om, we may safely say that Om is a complete symbol, a super-linguistic symbol, as it were, which does not belong to any language. Om belongs neither to Sanskrit nor to any other tongue. It is an impersonal vibration that is set up by the sound-box or the vocal organ within us. Hence, the completeness that characterises the production of this impersonal sound called Om is what makes it the most appropriate designation of God, the Universality. When we chant Om, we ourselves will feel a kind of transformation taking place within us; but, to experience this, we should chant Om with a concentrated feeling and not like a mechanical routine.
The scriptures dealing with the subject of Nada tell us that there are many varieties in the pronunciation or chant of Om. Upanishads, such as the Prasna Upanishad, speak of three types of Intonation in the chanting of Om, as a Mantra or as an invocation of Divinity – the short, the middling and the elongated. The different types of chanting of Om produce different effects, too. The Upanishad goes to the extent of telling us that a continued practice of this recitation of Om, as a Sadhana by itself, can take the seeker to higher regions, even up to Brahma-Loka itself. The short modulation of Om is somewhat like this: "O..m, O..m, O..m". The middling chant is a little longer: "0....m, 0....m, 0....m". The elongated chant of Om, known as the Dhirga Pranava, is longer still: "0.......m, 0.......m, 0.......m". In any of these chants, the sound can be seen to taper off gradually into thinner and thinner vibrations. It is the recognition of a system of Yoga, called Nada Yoga, that the sound actually starts from the region of the navel, where it has its root, and gradually rises up into more and more audible forms, until it is expressed through the physical sound-box and the lips, the tongue, and the mouth. These various stages of the manifestation or the development of sound, right from the navel onwards, are known in Sanskrit as Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari. Para is a soundless seed, as it were, the very possibility of the production of sound. Pasyanti is a little more pronounced. And the more intensified form is Madhyama; and the audible manifestation of it is Vaikhari. Often, these stages are identified, in the cosmical context, with the four metaphysical realities advanced in the Vedanta Philosophy, namely Brahma, Isvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat. We may identify the four stages of sound with other quartets also of the cosmological process.
When we chant Om in the proper manner, we set up an all-comprehensive, all-inclusive vibration in our system. By chanting Om, we do not create a jarring sound, but a harmonious sound which creeps into the entire nervous system slowly and soothingly. It is as if we smear all the ramifications of nerves with honey. In contrast, ordinary cries and shouts are distracting. The nerves are violently disturbed, kicked up, by cries and shouts which are Rajasic in nature. Whereas a very harmonious, all-inclusive sound like an Om chant, is Sattvic in its nature. It sets up an all-inclusive vibration in the whole nervous system and in the Pranas that flow through the nerves. It is almost like administering a gentle massage to the whole system of nerves and Pranas. The Pranas feel satisfied and one feels happy as a consequence. One has only to practise this Om chanting everyday for ten or fifteen minutes to see what a difference it makes to one's well-being. The person who practises Om chanting regularly will soon become a calm, sober and controlled person.... automatically. He will not fly into a fit of rage, anger or outburst of any kind, because of the daily massage that he gives to the nerves and the Pranas in a very, very affectionate manner through Om chanting. The harmonious vibration that is set up in the system has an effect upon the muscles, the nerves, and the Pranas, and finally upon the mind itself – because, all these are interconnected.
The Om that we speak of is not merely a sound in the ordinary sense. It is not some noise that we make. Om appears to be a sound only in its outermost expression, in its Vaikhari form, but in its internal structure, it has a deeper relationship with things. The whole universe is vibration ultimately, and not made up of objects, segregated from one another. Modern science tells us today that the whole universe is energy. There are no objects. There are no brick walls. There is not even the sun, moon and stars. There is only a continuum of equilibrated, spread-out energy everywhere, a four-dimensional continuum, they say. What is all this but a vibration that they are speaking of? The universe originated from a vibration, The terms Nada, Bindu and Kala which one hears of in Tantric and Hatha Yoga circles are only certain ways of mentioning the same process of the manifestation of this original impersonal vibration gradually solidifying itself, condensing more and more into concrete forms of visible objects, bodies and personalities. So, the universe is a vibration, and not a bundle of things, persons and objects. In the ultimate analysis, the universe does not exist at all as it appears to our eyes; because, ultimately, in the Samadhi state, it vanishes like a dream. And great scientists today have gone even to that farthest limit of saying that the world is only a thought. It is not even a vibration in any externalised manner. The vibrations are only mathematical concepts. A terrifying conclusion, indeed, for a person who cannot understand what all these mean! Om is cosmic essentially, and it is not merely a sound produced through the mouth. The so-called sound that the Yoga student manifests, through his vocal organs as the chant of Om, is only an attempt on his part to set himself in tune with the cosmic vibration that is already there, even before he was born into this world.
All Yoga is nothing but an endeavour, on our part, to set ourselves in tune with things as they really are. In, Yoga, we do not try to modify things, or change things, in any way whatsoever. Everything is perfect and all right in itself. The creation of God is complete in every minute detail. It does not require any change. But, the change is required on our side, because we are distracted individuals, completely severed from this harmony of the Whole; and, divinity, spirituality, religion, Yoga, whatever they may call it, is nothing but the art of our self-attunement with this universal set-up of things. By the chant of Om, we put forth an effort to subdue the distractions of our mind and nerves and our entire personality. The whole personality of the individual normally tries to run away from Reality. We are every minute running away from God in our perceptions of things and in our desires especially. And this running away is visible in the interest that we take in the forms external, believing that everything is different from everything else, so that we have got particularised ideals and ideologies and interests in respect of different persons and things. This externalising habit of the mind is restrained gradually by various methods. And all these methods constitute Yoga. And one method, among the many, is the chanting of Om.
The universe includes us. We are not outside it. So, in our chant of Om, we try only to set up a vibration within ourselves, at the root of our personality, a vibration corresponding to that which is already there in the universe outside, so that in a very accurate pronunciation of Om, deeply conducted with profound feeling, we become one with all things for a second, as it were. That is why we feel such a joy. Joy is the outcome of unity with objects, and when we are outside them, we are in grief. So, we feel a sensation of identity of ourselves with the subliminal realities at the back of all things by this profound and feelingful chant of Om that we have to conduct everyday, for a protracted period, as a very regular Sadhana, as a very essential part of our Sadhana.
Tasya vuchakuh pranavah: This is a small Sutra of Patanjali. It means that the designation of God or Isvara is Pranava or Om. In another Sutra, Patanjali says: Tajjapas tad-artha-bhavanam. The contemplation of the meaning of Om is to follow the chant of Om. When we recite or chant Om, it does not mean that our mind will be remaining idle. No, it concentrates itself: it feels the presence of a harmony with the whole universe. One can do Japa of Om itself in any of the forms mentioned. It is the highest of Mantras, and all the Mantras are included in Om: all languages themselves are inside Om. So, in one place, the great author says that when we go deep, very deep into the structure of sound, we may be able to know every language in the world, even the languages of animals and birds. These are all very difficult to achieve, but not impossible, if we are persistent and are able to go beneath the level of our outer, physical and psychic personality.
That concentration of the mind can be conducted, and has to be conducted in various ways, is a repeated instruction of Patanjali. One should not go on taking to one method only right from the beginning, because it is possible that the mind may get tired. So, as a very, very compassionate mother speaking to a child which does not want to go to school, and which resents any kind of educational step, Patanjali tells us that we may concentrate our mind on anything that we like, on anything that is pleasing to us, that attracts us. The object of concentration may be even a cow, the only property that a person may have, whose milk sustains him, without which he cannot exist. He goes on thinking of his cow. Even that cow is a fit object of concentration for him.
A devotee went to see Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and requested to be initiated into meditation. "What is it that you love most?" asked the great master. The devotee thought for a while and said finally: "Well, I have my granddaughter. I am always thinking of her". "Well, meditate on your granddaughter" advised Sri Ramakrishna, "There is nothing else that you can do at this time... For you, meditation on your granddaughter is a Yoga practice by itself". There is a lesson in this. To wrench oneself or try to wrench oneself from that in which one's mind is stuck, would be like trying to peel one's skin, which is not possible and which is not advisable also. The person who tries so may go crazy one day. So, one should not be too anxious about Yoga, and one should not try to be too pious a man or too holy a man, when his mind is not prepared for that at the particular stage of evolution in which he may be. "Go slowly" is a good rule in Yoga practice.
Sthiti-nibandhini, says Patanjali. This is something very pertinent to the mental condition of a beginner in Yoga. When the mind is grossly concentrated or fixed upon some external object of perception for some reason or the other, a psycho-analytical study of this connection has to be conducted with the help of a teacher, and then the mind has to be withdrawn from that object gradually. It is not possible to run away suddenly from that which one loves deeply in one's heart. Otherwise, one might go mad. So, the Guru's instructions, advice, or personal guidance is again necessary here, when the Yoga practitioner is drowned, as it were, in a state of emotion, which he feels is something undesirable, but from which he cannot extricate himself.
If a person is fond of tea, it is better to drink tea than take to sudden austerities and say, "I drink only cow's milk". As long as the desire to drink tea is there, tea should not be cut off. It is better for the person to continue with tea for three months, or even one year, until he is able to understand that something better is there. Smoking is a wretched thing, but even smoking cannot be cut off suddenly. Many wretched things may be there in the world, but how can anyone run away from them when one is in them?
Vishayavati va pravrittir utpanna manasah sthiti-nibandhini: A very interesting instruction is contained in this Sutra of Patanjali, an instruction which cannot be found in many other Yoga texts. Mind can be tied down to concentration even by thinking of an object which a person loves most. That is the essence of the meaning of the above Sutra. We do not enjoy the objects of the world in order that we may indulge in them forever. The purpose of enjoyment of things is to get control over them, and to transcend them finally. The idea behind any kind of relationship in this world is not to perpetuate that relationship, but to free oneself from that relationship through that relationship itself, like the action of a homeopathic medicine. That which is going to kill can also save, provided the drug is administered in the proper proportion and in a particular manner. In fact, the whole of the Tantra Sastra can be summed up in one sentence: "That which can make you fall, can also make you rise". But this is a very difficult thing to understand, and here again, comes the repeated injunction that the student of Yoga has to be with his Guru all the time.
The mind can be concentrated on that object which we adore as the most divine of things: Vita-raga-vishayam va chittam. When we think of great minds like Vyasa, Vasishtha, Krishna, Rama, Suka-Deva, or Dattatreya, our mind is transported into a mood of intense spirituality and holiness. The very remembrance of these great Masters brings our mind into concentration in the required manner. The emotions of the mind get stimulated in particular directions, depending upon the objects on which the mind may concentrate. The thought of a policeman may swing the mind in one direction, while the thought of a Chief Justice may sway it in another direction. Remembrance of Hitler and Gandhi may evoke totally different moods in the mind. Different ideas stir up different types of emotion, on account of the association of those ideas with particular objects and their characteristics. This being so, if we think of great sages, or of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, or if we meditate on the Father in Heaven, the Almighty Creator, we will be shaken by our roots at the very thought of the Almighty. So, Vita-raga-vishayam. Any object that can stimulate in our feelings a concentration on desirelessness, consequent upon inclusiveness and holiness due to spirituality, will be an aid.