The Om Symbol and Its Meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism

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Having its origins from the sacred texts of the religion, the Om symbol is mostly associated with Hinduism. Rest assured, there is so much more to it than that. Here in this post, we will try to examine the Om symbol, the meaning and symbolism behind it in detail.

In the West, the Om symbol is most commonly associated with yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices, yet, do we really know where it comes from and what it means?

For example, did you know that the Om is not just a symbol but also a sound? It is chanted at the end of yoga sessions (and sometimes at the beginning of them also). More on that later, through the end of the article in the section titled ‘Om and Yoga Practices’

The Origins of the Om

The fact of the matter is that the Om symbol is used in many different spiritual practices and religions throughout the world.

You can find this particular symbol in many places of the world, especially in Asian countries where Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are practiced. You can find the Om symbol in various Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist temples, monasteries, religious retreats, and spiritual manuscripts.

Many people associate the Om symbol with Buddhism, especially in terms of meditation, however the Om symbol actually has its origins in Hinduism.

The first mention of the Om is in the Mandukya Upanishad, which is a very sacred Hindu text, one that was written around the year 800 BC.

The Upanishads are sacred and mystical texts of Hindu religion and they are associated with the Vedanta philosophy. Within the Upanishads, the Om symbol is often used for abstract spiritual concepts. It is also often associated with many other concepts such as the mystic syllable, the cosmic sound, and the affirmation to something divine.

Within the Upanishads, there are also other meanings and concepts associated with Om. For example, the oldest parts of the Upanishads, the Vedenta, suggest that the Om symbol refers to 3 different phonetic components, those being ‘A’, ‘U’ and ‘M’, (which actually comprises the correct pronunciation of the word, ‘AUM’), and is associated with the 3 main stages of cosmic creation.

There are also many other parts of these Upanishads associating the Om with different meanings, such as how when Om is read or said, it can refer to the creative powers of the universe.

Some parts of the Upanishads suggest that the Om is the “universe beyond the sun,” or something that is “mysterious and inexhaustible,” “the essence of breath, life, and everything that exists,” “that with which one is liberated,” “the infinite language,” or the “infinite knowledge.”

On a side note, the meaning of Om might vary depending on whom you ask, especially when it comes to Buddhism and Hinduism.

In a sense, it is a fairly vague symbol that has several different meanings depending on the context.

As it could be understood from the short explanation regarding the origins of the symbol, even the most dedicated and practiced of spiritual folk still debate the true meaning of the Ohm.

According to Hinduism, Om is the first sound of creation, and therefore very sacred to the whole world as we know it. Interestingly, although the Om symbol is said to be the first sound of creation, or something that would seem to be very loud, it is also seen as the sound of silence that lets you be at peace, block out everything else, and turn your thoughts to the inside world.

Om and Its Meaning in Hinduism

As we mentioned before, the Om symbol has various meanings and uses throughout Hinduism. Now, we will have a look at some of the most common and well-known meanings of the Om symbol in the religion.

According to Hindu beliefs, “the essence of all beings on earth, the essence of earth is water, the essence of water are plants, the essence of plants are men, the essence of men is the speech, the essence of speech is the Rig Veda, the essence of the Rig Veda is the Sama Veda, and the essence of Sama Veda is Om.”

The older Upanishads also state that the Om symbol represents the struggle between the gods and demons. This is not actually meant to represent true gods and demons, but the inclinations of good and evil within humans. In other words, it is allegorical in nature.

Also, the Om symbol is implied to be that thing in humans which inspires good and altruistic actions and thoughts.

On a side note, within the Mandukya Upanishad, Om is mentioned as “the syllable of the whole world.”

In the first verse of this Upanishad, it states that time is made of three parts, the past, present, and future, or in other words A, U and M.

Subsequent verses suggest that the Om is something like an “acknowledgment, a melodic confirmation, and something that gives energy to a hymn”.

Om as the States of Consciousness

When it comes to meditation and spiritual enlightenment, the Om symbol is often used as a sacred representation of the 4 different states of consciousness.

These states of consciousness are the ones that all humans experience or go through at one point or another. In fact, you could say that these 4 states of consciousness exist at the very same time, working in harmony with each other. However, it would seem as though they are not all totally 100% compatible.

It is believed that these states must be achieved one by one to get to the final stage, which is the ultimate goal of Hindu meditation.

The long curve on the bottom of the Om symbol is Vaishvanara and it represents the first state of consciousness. This is the waking state of consciousness which is focused on the outside material world.

The second curve, the one that comes from the center is Taijasa, the second state of consciousness. This is the state of consciousness which is the dreaming state, the one that is focused inward on the mind.

The upper curve of the Om symbol is Prajna, the third state of consciousness. This is the state of dreamlessness which is revealed by deep meditation.

There is a state in between the third and fourth state, the veil of material illusion, a state which needs to be passed before the fourth stage can be achieved. This mid-stage is represented by the crescent seen in the Om symbol.

The fourth state of consciousness is known as Turiya, which is the state of the transcendental self, which is the ultimate and final goal of Hindu meditation. This is represented by the small dot in the upper right hand of the Om symbol.

Om and Its Meaning in Buddhism

Buddhism is another religion within which the Om symbol plays an important role. Now, the earlier forms of Buddhism did not have much to do with the Om symbol, but this did change over time. This is especially true with Tibetan Buddhism, which was greatly influenced by Hinduism.

The Om symbol is often placed at the beginning and/or end of Buddhist mantras and texts. One of the most commonly known mantras is Om mani padme hum, the mantra of compassion. Many people interpret this mantra as the “totality of sound, existence, and consciousness.”

During the 14th century, the Dalai Lama described Om as consisting of 3 separate letters, these being A, U, and M. There are various symbolizations associated with these 3 letters including the “pure exalted body, speech, and mind of the enlightened Buddha.

The Om also symbolizes “wholeness, perfection, and the infinite.” On many statues and Eastern Asian monuments, the Buddhist Om is featured by a pair of fierce guardian kings, one which pronounces the A part while the other pronounces the UM. Together, these kings are considered to be saying “the absolute.”

Om and Its Use in Yoga Practices

Before talking about how Om relates to yoga practices, perhaps we should provide some general information regarding yoga.

Yoga has its origins in Hinduism, of course, and is a widely acknowledged spiritual practice. It is a combination of physical, spiritual, and mental practices with the aim of improving both physical and mental health, as well as making the practitioner more spiritually connected.

There are four main goals in yoga. The first goal is to use the meditative means to discover bad perception and cognition and overcome that for the purpose of the relief of suffering. It is the discovery of inner peace and salvation.

The second goal of yoga is to expand the consciousness from oneself to be connected and coexistent with everything and everyone in the world.

The third goal of yoga is to create a path to omniscience, and enlightened consciousness, and the knowledge of both impermanent and permanent realities.

The final, more accurately, the ultimate goal of yoga is to enter other bodies, create multiple bodies, and being able to attain other supernatural accomplishments.

Now, in relation to yoga, the Om symbol and, more importantly, the Om sound are quite important.

You might be aware that at the beginning and end of Yoga sessions, the teacher and the students engage in an Om chant, but what is this really for?

It is intended to make the Yoga session more peaceful, relaxed, and the ultimate goal is to help increase the benefits you seek to gain from practicing Yoga.

The belief is that an Om chant helps to connect the teacher and the students, as well as connect the students with one another.

Also, it is believed that the Om chant helps to align the chanter’s vibration with the vibration of the universe. The aim here is to create a peaceful and calming effect which helps to make each and every Yoga session that much easier and more beneficial.

The Om probably is the most important symbol when it comes to Yoga, which is why you can find it on yoga t-shirts, mats, and pretty much everything else found inside a yoga studio.

We examined the Om symbol, its origins, meanings within Buddhism and Hinduism as well as the symbolism behind it. Hope you liked it, share the post if you did, many thanks in advance!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the information but something about spelling the sacred sound as “Ohm” is off-putting. It is generally spelled “Om.” Occasionally I have seen it spelled “Aum,” but “ohm” is so rarely used in this context – I wonder why you chose to do so?

    “O-h-m” makes me think of the unit of measurement in physics.

    • Hi Kofi, there is no special purpose. I realized it right after I posted the article that “om” is the most common variation and “ohm” could confuse people. It is a mistake I have been meaning to correct for a while, but I have not got the time to. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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