Friday, 23 November 2012

The Meaning of ``OM'' and Purpose of Life

The sound ``OM'' is associated with Hinduism. Before I get to this topic, I should clarify that this is not a religious topic for you to shut your mind and eyes. As I have said in one of my earlier blog, ancient Indian science got intertwined with religion for political reasons. Thus, due to invasions, the way of living of the local people of  India was referred to, by the invaders, as Hindu (as an indication to its geography crossing Sindhu river/region) to distinguish it from their way of living. So keeping religion apart, the question we should address is how much of ancient science is right, sensible, useful etc. irrespective of our religion. Clash/division is human nature. Even if you had one religion, there will be clashes within the religion. Note that the division within the religion as Vaishnavites vs Shaivites, Shia vs Sunni, and Protestants vs Catholics are all politically motivated. So, please keep your religion aside. You can read this if you have a body that modern science categorises as homo sapiens.

The sound ``OM'' is in reality a reference to the three sounds ``A'', ``U'' and ``M''.  Ancient texts usually refer to it as Pranav mantra, meaning the sound of life or syllable of life. It is called so because it is the meaning of life. The verse 10.53.6 of Rig veda may be regarded as putting forth the purpose of life:

manur bhava janaya daivyam janam

which means ``be the human and create divine beings''. But what does ``becoming human and creating being'' mean? How should one understand this as the purpose of life? There is a common agreement that the human mind, by its nature, is constantly in search of eternal peace. If this is taken as the purpose of life then the Mandukya upanishad contains the answer on how to attain this purpose of life by answering the question  ``Who am I?'' and introduces and explains the notion of ``OM''. The answer to the question of ``Who am I?'' is kind of hinted at four places in the upanishads (the four important mahavaakyas or highlights):
  1.  prajnaanam brahma in verse 6.3.3 of Aitareya upanishad (Rig Veda).
  2. Aham brahmaasmi in verse 1.4.10 of brihad aranyak upanishad (Yajur Veda).
  3. Tat tvam asi in verse 6.8.4 of chandogya upanishad (Sama Veda).
  4.  Ayamaatmaa brahma in verse 1.2 of mandukya upanishad (Atharva Veda). 
However, the Mandukya upanishad explains this elaborately. The mandukya upanishad is the smallest of all upanishad, containing 12 verses, and is considered the most difficult. The difficulty is in terms of the maturity to accept, grasp and verify it. Depending on one's maturity, it may sound totally trash, like the answer 42 of Douglas Adams or might truly reveal something to you.

The first verse of Mandukya upanishad states that ``OM'' is the only thing that existed, exists and will exists. The second verse describes all these are supreme being, including us and we exist in four stages. The third verse describes our first stage as the jagrat or waking state. This state of consciousness is outward. The fourth verse describes the second stage as the svapna or dreaming state whose state of consciousness is inward. The fifth verse describes the third stage as susupti or deep sleep state where he has no experiences; state of bliss. No activity of body and mind. This state of bliss is not the same as mukti. A person has no control (at least directly) over his/her dream and deep sleep state. (S)He has some control in the waking state. I say ``some control'' because even in waking state one has no control over your heart beat or absolute control over breathing etc. The Mandukya upanishad conjectures that there is a fourth state of consciousness, a state of eternal peace and tranquility, called turiyam,  from where one is able to observe all the three states of consciousness, very similar to the way you observe dream and deep sleep state from waking state. This fourth stage is described in the seventh verse. Of course, you are aware that you dreamt only after you come back to waking state. Similarly, it is very difficult to realise the state of turiyam being in waking state. These concepts have been adapted into fictional movies such as the Matrix series and Inception.

As per the eighth verse, the three sounds ``A'', ``U'' and ``M'' represent the three states of consciousness viz., waking state (jagrat), dreaming state (svapna) and deep sleep state (susupti), respectively.  The ninth, tenth and eleventh verse explains why these three sounds are primal and related to the three states of consciousness. The twelfth verse   states that the entire concept of achieving turiyam state is encoded in a single word ``OM or AUM'' seen as combination of  ``A'', ``U'' and ``M''.  The state of turiyam represents the soundless (or still) state. 

These three basic sounds are precisely those that one can make without using tongue. The sounds are a result of the successive deformation of the lips (without moving your tongue) while creating sound from throat. Start making sound from your throat. While doing so, open lips wide apart you get the sound ``A''. Without stopping, squeeze your lips to form a ``O'', you make the sound ``U''. Still without stopping close the lips, you get ``M''. Therefore, ``OM'' is just a convolution of the natural sounds you can make by moving your mouth. Every other sound needs movement of tongue. I'm just conjecturing, you prove for yourself and negate me. I will be happy to correct myself.

The first sound ``A'' is similar to the sound of ``a'' when you pronounce ``china''. In English, the alphabet ``A'' takes two sounds. For example, when you pronounce ``Asia'', the first ``a'' has a different sound and the second ``a'' has another. The sound we are referring to is the second sound of ``a''. The sound ``A'' is the first sound to come into existence from silence (or nothing). No body has to teach a kid to utter the sound ``A''! Thus, it naturally gets connected to the supreme (or first) being and this is emphasised both in the Bhagavat Gita and the first kural of Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar:

agara muthala ezhuthellam;
aathi bhagavan muthare ulagu.

The sound ``A"" is primal included in all other sounds that can be made by us. The ``A''  sound is made by opening your mouth (upper and lower jaw opening wide) and releasing the air from the throat. Try making this sound at a stretch, you will notice that your stomach vibrates. This sound is associated to your belly region. You may have noticed that people who have severe stomach ache, will generally make the sound ``A''. We think the person is crying out of pain. But the body naturally induces this sound to give the person the strength to overcome the pain till he receives medication.

The second sound is ``U''  similar to the ``oo'' in words like boom, cool, goose etc. This sound is made by making the shape ``O'' out your lips and then blowing air out. This is intermediary and advanced than ``A'' sound. Try making this sound at a stretch, you will notice vibration in your chest now. Start observing in future that people who have severe chest ache will make the sound ``U''. We think the person is crying out of pain. In reality, the body naturally induces this sound to help the person overcome the pain till he receives medication. This sound is associated to your chest region.

The third sound is ``M'' similar to the ``m'' in words like sum, come etc. This sound is made by closing the lips tight and making sound from throat. This represents the final sound. Silence can be achieved only after attaining this as the final sound. Try making this sound at a stretch, you will feel vibration in your head. You now know what I'm going to say. Yes, start observing that people who have head-ache will make the sound ``M''. We think he is crying out of pain. But the body naturally induces this sound to help the person overcome the pain till he receives medication. This sound is associated to your head region.

The convolution of these three sounds is what was referred to as ``OM'', also written as ``AUM'' to denote this meaning. The real meaning behind the instruction ``Chant OM everyday'', actually meant chant the three different sounds individually for your  well-being. Note that all the organ systems in our body is above the hip region. The three sounds activates the region above your hip.

If jogging, walking, running and every other sport is religion independent then why  is chanting``OM'' religious? Just because the inventors and followers of this exercise were termed Hindus? To summarise, ``OM'' is an encoding to remind oneself that we have to search within us to answer the question ``Who am I?'' and purpose of life.