For a simple-looking symbol, Om packs in a whole lot of meaning. With roots in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the Om can now be seen and heard in spiritual spaces around the world. But what does it mean, and how can we use it in a way that's respectful to its roots?
Here's what Om stands for, plus how to integrate it into your spiritual practice.
What does the Om symbol mean and what is its history?
Om is a foundation of Hinduism, where it is considered the very first sound of the universe. "Before the sound Om, there was nothing," Vasavi Kumar, LMSW, MSEd, a RYT-200 ashtanga yoga teacher, tells mbg.
When said aloud, Om (or Aum) actually sounds like a three-part word. "The A represents creation, U is manifestation, and M is destruction," explains Kumar. "It's basically all-encompassing—the whole universe joined into a single sound. It represents the union of the mind, body, and the spirit."
Deepha Sundaram, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, adds, "The Om symbol represents unification within Hinduism. People think about Om as a way to bring those three parts of your self—the mind the body and the spirit—together." Om also has ties to Buddhism, where it refers to compassion and connection. And in Jainism, it's often used in reference to Pañca-Parameṣṭhi, or the five supreme beings of the ancient Indian religion. As far as the physical symbol of Om, its various curves and lines represent five states of consciousness:
The lower left curve represents the conscious, waking state of being.
The top left curve is the unconscious state.
The lower right curve is the dream state—the state between the waking and the unconscious.
The semicircle at the top is the maya state. "Maya means "illusion"; the biggest obstacle to spiritual development," explains Kumar.
The dot at the top represents the absolute state. "It's the highest state of consciousness; the ultimate state of spiritual bliss when you can just be," she says.
Why is the Om symbol so important?
Om is considered sacred in the Hindu religion. Kumar notes, "We say Om before every Sanskrit prayer, text, any recitation of anything sacred. It's considered the highest sacred symbol of Hinduism." Repeating Om as a mantra can have powerful effects on one's overall state. Doing so is thought to help center the mind, body, and spirit, elevate consciousness, deepen focus, and build compassion.
How can I respectfully use it in my practice?
If you are not traditionally Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain but appreciate the meaning behind Om, you can still integrate the sound and symbol into your spiritual practice. But when you're using something so sacred, it's important to do so with respect. Here are two ways to use Om that acknowledges its history and significance:
1. As a chant
As we now know, chanting Om can have powerful effects on the body and mind. If you want to try it, Kumar recommends first recognizing its history and context, then saying it either silently or aloud while meditating or doing yoga. "It's meant to be said slowly," she notes. "It's meant to increase your mental and emotional vibration. You can repeat Om while meditating [to help with] focus, or you can chant it three times before yoga."
2. As a symbol
If learning about the symbol for Om and what it represents makes you want to incorporate it into your life, feel free to add it to your at-home meditation or prayer space. Let it serve as a reminder of your connection to the universe, as well as the unification of the mind, body, and spirit.
Article by Sarah Regan