Meditation on Aum
The Vedic tradition has prescribed the symbol ‘aum’ for meditating on the formless Brahman (nirgu?a Brahman) as well as on a God with form (sagu?a Brahma). Mandukya Upanishad has attached great significance to this symbol and the same is seen in Brihadranyaka, Katha and other Upanishads.
When Mandukya says “whatever is seen is aum” one may question as to whether you and I are also aum and whether all objects around us are aum. The answer is ‘yes’. It is explained by studying the names and forms conceivable in the human mind and by showing how they fit into aum.
The most primary sound made by a human being as soon as he opens his mouth and releases air from the vocal chords, is the sound ‘a’ (pronounced as ‘a’ in ‘bath’). That is the primary cry of a child too. The end of all sounds is when the person closes the lips and still makes a humming sound with his nose and that sound is ‘m’ (as in ‘dime’, ‘mime’, etc., ). The transition between ‘a’ and ‘m’ is achieved by slowly closing the mouth while at the same time releasing air and this produces the sound ‘u’ (as in ‘zoo’). All human expressions start with opening of mouth and closing it. All words which we utter are modifications within the ‘a – u – m’. All the verbal activity of human being in all languages is contained in this. In other words, all the names and sounds associated with them form part of this combination ‘aum’, which has been a symbol to denote all sounds for all describable things.
Let us analyze the form (r?pa) of an object. When we say the word ‘pen’, the image of a pen appears in the mind. It is an experience in mind. If I eat an ice-cream, it is an experience in the mind, when I smell a perfume, it is an experience in the mind. All the objects exist in the mind as experiences.
Vedantins analyze the objects from the cause-effect point of view. When you take a pot, it is only a modification of clay. When the pot is destroyed, what remains is clay and as the Upanishads say the name is only for name-sake, but the truth is clay (v?c?ra?bha?a? vik?ro n?madheyam). Clay itself is a modification (pari??ma) in maya which again is an appearance (vivarta) in the consciousness. All forms are but modifications of m?y? and appearances (vivarta) of consciousness. Objects may differ from one another. A pot is not a cloth and vice versa but behind all objects, the principle of existence is common. Thus the vedantins conclude that all forms are appearances in consciousness (caitanya) and all sensory experiences of such forms / objects are modifications in awareness.
Thus we see that all names and sounds can be taken as modifications of ‘aum’ and all forms can be taken as appearances in Atman. The name and form of an object are inseparably linked. In Vedantic terms ‘abhidheya’, the object (form) is not something different from ‘abhidh?na’, the name. Hence for the purpose of meditation, the word ‘aum’ is equated with atman. The practitioner is supposed to meditate on ‘aum’ as comprising of all conceivable objects and slowly deny the content of the same and concentrate on the caitanya (consciousness) which ‘aum’ symbolizes. The practitioner gradually becomes stabilized in such consciousness. He meditates on the only one reality which is behind all names, forms and their experiences.
The Mandukya also adds – ‘past, present and future, all is aum’. It means that all the human experiences of names and forms are contained in the one and only consciousness, that is, Brahman.
Another way in which the symbol ‘aum’ is explained in the Upanishads is like this. All human experience is at three levels – waking, dream and deep sleep. We are conscious of the presence of the intelligence during waking and dream states but we are not conscious of the same during the deep sleep. We become aware of it only when we wake up. For purpose of meditation, the word ‘aum’ is used to cover all the three states of experience and also to indicate the consciousness beyond the three states. It is done as follows.
‘a’ represents j?grad avasth? called vi?va
“u’ represents swapna called taijasa
‘m’ represents su?upti called pr?jña
‘am?tra’ beyond the three states called tur?ya
We are aware that during the dream state, it is the mind which is active and which creates a universe of its own. Mind is called ‘taijasa’, which means ‘fiery and active’. In deep sleep, however, it is in a state of ignorance and hence called ‘pr?jña’. These three states are but up?dhi-s i.e., delimiting factors for consciousness which in fact is beyond the three stages and called ‘tur?ya’. The word literally means a fourth stage but it is not exactly a fourth stage but a stage in which all the three other stages merge. Thus meditation on ‘aum’ is done as the consciousness in all the three stages and also beyond the three stages. The practitioner meditates that there is only one reality in all states of existence.
Meditation on ‘aum’ involves a continuous chanting of the sound and each sound merges into the other, resulting in a continuous humming voice. This is compared to the continuous ringing of a gong in temples where the ringing of the bell is merging into the continuous chiming sound. This is to discard all other sounds and concentrate on the continuous chining sound. This represents the pure consciousness on which the practitioner is supposed to meditate.
The Gayatri mantra mentions seven loka-s – bh??, bhuvah and so on. The sequence mentions the loka-s in increasing degree of importance. The satya loka is the closest to supreme Brahman. We have to remind ourselves that Sri Shankara points out that all these loka-s are not some three dimensional places in the spaces but they are our own states of nobler and exalted experience. When we utter the Gayatri mantra, we are reminding ourselves that all these loka-s are contained in ‘aum’. In other words, ‘aum’ represents all these loka-s.
The Kathopanishad says that this is the most commended ‘aalambanam’, a support in order to know either the supreme Brahman or attain any desired God form. The Upanishad says that you may stop at whatever stage you want. You may stop at a lower level i.e. at the level of sagu?a worship or you can go up to the end of the journey and reach the thought-free state.
The sagu?a mode is the mode of duality where the worshipper thinks he is different from the deity and seeks the blessings of the deity. He worships God saying ‘aum nama??iv?ya’ ‘aum namo n?r?yan?ya’ and so on and equates the symbol ‘aum’ with the particular God.
The nirgu?a mode is the mode of non-duality where the objective of the petitioner is to negate his ego or dissolve his limited wave-consciousness in the ocean of consciousness.
At this level, the practitioner negates all the names and forms. Whatever is name, is not a name but consciousness. Whatever is a form (rupa), is not a form, but consciousness. This negation of nama-r?pa enables the practitioner to dissolve the whole jagat in au?k?ra. Hence the upanishadic saying – ‘sarvam au?k?ra eva’.
Aum is used in a more practical context during the yajña-s, as we see in the Gita (17:24). Krishna says how when the mantras are recited by the scholars of the concerned Veda, the main priest says ‘aum’, which is a sign of approval. It is meant to mean – ‘so be it’. The mantra-s commence with aum and their approval at the end is also by aum.
We see the similarity of aum with the holy word of Christians – ‘amen’, which also means ‘so be it’ in a tone of approval. A curious coincidence one can note.