Though the sacred sound om is often associated with impersonalists, only the devotees understand its full import.
THROUGHOUT THE VEDAS there is much mention of the syllabel om. This spiritual vibration, which is sometimes called omkara or pranava, comprises three Sanskrit sounds - a, u, and ma (the a in ma is silent). When these three sounds are combined, the result is the single-syllabled vibration om.
An unusual attribute of om is that it has no direct translation from Sanskrit into English. And though every Vedantist will accept om to be a representation of God, exactly how om is viewed differs according to various schools to thought. These schools can be classified into two main categories, the Mayavadi, or impersonalist, and the Vaisnava, or devotee.
The impersonalist, as the name suggests, is happy to treat om as an impersonal, formless, representation of the Absolute Truth. Therefore, the Mayavadi will very openly chant om, being careful to avoid names such as Krsna and Rama, which according to them, are limited. A Mayavadi might explain his theory of pranava om like this: "Since this whole universe has been created by Him (God), whatever there is in the universe is Him alone. As such, He has no name. But if He has to have a name, then all names are His, for He alone is appearing in all forms. The first sound in most languages is a; the last sound to leave as our mouth closes is m; u is the center of the two. Together, they represent all the basic sounds from which words are produced. And threfore, these three sounds, making up the syllable om, represent the entire universe of names and forms."
Using such reasoning, the impersonalist concludes that the holy name Krsna is ultimately no different from any other word one can dream up. Om, says the impersonalist, contains all sounds, and so it is the universal sound, whereas "Krsna" and "Rama" are limited.
All Vaisnavas know, however, that such speculation on the Lord's holy name is one of the ten worst offenses one can commit at His lotus feet (tathartha vadah). Lord Caitanya, therefore, has repeatedly warned us to steer clear of such offenders, or pasandis.
WHAT DOES OMKARA MEAN TO THE VAISNAVAS?
The Gosvamis of Vrndavana have analyzed om (a-u-m) as follows: The letter a refers to Krsna, the master of all planets and all living entities. The letter u indicates Srimati Radharani, the pleasure potency of Krsna, and m indicates the living entities. Thus omkara represents Krsna; His name, fame, pastimes, potencies, and devotees; and everything else pertaining to Him.
To the devotees of the Lord, thereis no differnece between chanting His holy name and reciting omkara, for Krsna has stated in Bhagavad-gita (7.8, 9.17, 10.25) that omkara is He Himself in the form of sound. Just as omkara is non-different from the Lord's holy name, it is also inseparable from the Lord's beautiful tow-armed form as Syamasundara. Pranava om is therefore used in the Vedas and Upanisads to address the Supreme Person -Vaasudeva, or Krsna.
Thus, omkara serves no other purpose than to remind the devotee of Krsna. Srila Prabhupada confirms this fact in a purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.14.48) wherein he states that just as Hare Krsna addresses the Lord together with His energy, so too does omkara.
It is therefore clearly evident that om refers to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. Yet, surprisingly enough, the Mayavadis are not altogether wrong in thinking that omkara possesses no form. Where's the catch?
THREE ANGLES FROM WHICH OM MAY BE VIEWED
Omkara, like Krsna, can be realized or viewed from three angles, as Brahman, Pramatma, and Bhagavan. The speculative Mayavadi knows omkara to be nothing beyond Brahman, or spiritual, and at the same time without shape or form. The mystic yogi sees whatever the Mayavadi sees but also realized that omkara is situated within the heart of everyone as Paramatma, or the supersoul. And the Vaisnava knows all that the other two transcendentalists know, but he also realized that it is the personal aspect of omkara, Bhagavan, that makes the other two aspects possible.
Srila Prabhupada likened these three features of the Lord to the sunlight, the sun globe, and the sun-god residing within the sun. If I were studying the sun, would my knowledge be complete if I could research no further than the sunlight or the sun globe? Some material scientist might answer yes, but a more intelligent person would want to know, "Where does the sunlight come from?" or "What gives the sun its power to shine?" Just as one automatically knows about the sunlight and sun globe the moment he learns that the sun-god, Vivasvan, is the source of both, so one realizes omkara completely when oen understands that om ultimately possesses form. Srila Prabhupada highlights this important fact in a purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.3.2)
The understanding of the impersonalist philosopher, though not altogether incorrect, is therefore incomplete. The devotee or Vaisnava, however, knows omkara in truth.
HARE KRSNA AND OM - THE SAME IN ALL RESPECTS?
Though Hare Krsna and om are equally potent sound forms fo the Lord, there is one difference. If at the time of death one chants Hare Krsna, even though unintentionally, one attains the spiritual Vaikuntha planets without a doubt. This is a universal truth that has been accepted by all great authorities. If, however, one similiarly chants om, not thinking of Krsna, one attains to the impersonal brahmajyoti sky of the spiritual world but does not associate with Krsna. This fact is confirmed in Bhagavad-gita (8.11).
One may ask why, if omkara is ultimately personal, one shouldn't reciprocate with Krsna personally on leaving one's body withe om on one's tongue. The answer is that it is possible to chant om and go to Krsna but the process involves much more than simply externally uttering om.
According to the Gita (8.13), those who chant om and at the same time remember Krsna while leaving the body do indeed go to the Vaikuntha planets:
om ity ekaksaram brahma- vyaharan man anusmaran yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim
"After being situated in this yoga practice and vibrating the sacred syllable om, the supreme combination of letters, if one thinks of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and quits his body, he will certainly reach the spiritual planetes."
In a purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.15.31) Srila Prabhupada informs us that to fix the turbulent, restless mind upon Krsna at the moment of death while thus uttering om, there are certain rules one must follow. These rules are listed in Bhagavad-gita (6.11, 8.12). For example, one must sit in a certain precise posture, cease all the activities of the senses, fix the mind on the heart, and fix the life air at the top of the head.
In addition to all this, Prabhupada points out that only brahmanas, or those in the mode of goodness, can properly recite om. When one chants om after having fulfilled all these prerequisites, only then can he reap the same result as he would have received from inadvertently chanting Hare Krsna.
THEN WHY SUCH A THING AS OM?
Since both the Lord's holy name and omkara are transcendental sound vibrations, what then is the purpose of omkara?
Krsna, being all-knowing, could clearly understand that there will always be a class of people called avyaktasakta cetasam, or those attached to His impersonal aspect. Since such impersonalists have no solid name or form to fix their minds upon, Krsna has provided them with pranava om.
Since om has no direct meaning or refers to no particualr form, the Mayavadis assume, without complete knowledge, that the Absolute Truth is beyond all names and forms. To make the Mayavadis thinking this way is Krsna's intention, for not everyone is capable of acknowledging the Lord's transcendental name and form. Thus, their minds being absorbed in impersonal om, the Mayavadis ultimately merge with the unmanifest brahmajyoti effulgence of the Lord, a type of liberation called sayujya-mukti.
Though sayujya-mukti ensures freedom from material misery, the Vaisnavas consider it no better than hell, for in such a state there is no reciprocation with the lotus feet of the Lord. Consequently, the pure devotees are very careful to see omkara in the light of His beautiful form.
DEVOTEES SPREAD ONLY THE HOLY NAME
The pure devotee, whose mind is fixed twenty-gour hours a day on the form of the Lord, rises above all rules and requirements for chanting om. Such a devotee, having transcended the three modes of material nature, goes beyond even the qualifications of a brahmana. Thus the devotee's chanting of om is pure, whereas a Mayavadi, who cannot relate omkara to Krsna, chants om becoming submerged, to a certain extent, in ignorance. Those who actually follow every prerequiseite and recite om as directed by Krsna are generally those mystic yogis who, as previously discussed, are more inclined to inner meditation on Krsna as Paramatma than to pure devotional service.
Although all Vaisnavas are more than qualified to freely chant om, the Gaudiya Vaisnavas, devotees of Lord Caitanya, seldom do so. As mentioned earlier, one must be a qualified brahmana to chant om properly. Most people in this Age of Kali are no better than sudras (kalau sudra-sambhavah). Therefore, the Vaisnavas, who care only for the welfare of others, do not very much promote the chanting of omkara. Instead, they particularly promote the chanting of Hare Krsna.
As explained by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, niyamitah smarane na kalah: the requirements for chanting Hare Krsna are absolutely none. Therefore, the only practical means of spiritual advancement for all of us fallen souls of Kali-yuga turns out, once again, to be the chanting of the maha-mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Kuruppiah Chockalingam, an eighteen-year-old student from Melbourne, Australia, is an active member of Bhaktivedanta Yourh Services, which holds weekly programs for children and adults at the Melbourne ISKCON temple.
BTG (Jul/Aug 1994)