by LJ Frank*
“Om,” is considered a primordial sound of the infinite and the pervasive vibration emanating at the beginning of the visible universe. The syllable enunciated in various ancient oral traditions was later written by scribes/monks in texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It’s spiritually significant and found a home in Vedic (Sanskrit) texts, hymns and myths.
“OM” is complicated to say the least with numberless experts as to its possibilities affecting human existence. It signifies in one sense, creation and Supreme Being or Beingness itself as well as serving as a therapeutic mantra and a method of enhancing the depth of concentration “beyond time” in meditation and becomes a force within the context of prayer and chanting. And that’s just the tip of its influence. Chanted at various international ecclesiastical gatherings it served as a symbol of diverse human beliefs as one.
How can one know the unknowable – who was the first person(s) that uttered “Om” among the ancients? What did he or she know that led them to uttering the haunting sound? How did the myth evolve surrounding “OM” or did it occur suddenly? I knew the word was Sanskrit and found in written form first in the Vedas around 1500 BCE though it existed as noted in oral tradition previous to the Vedas for uncountable centuries.
My own interest has existed for decades. While visiting a bookshop several yards from a Vedanta Temple where I was meditating, on the side of mountain overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific and just below the Santa Ynez Mountains I came across a book that further opened a door.
The title of the book was The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. This scholarly academic study is about the various perspectives concerning the Indo-Aryan Migration Debate and what came first. It is a complicated read. Where and how did the Vedic language and culture originate? Professor Edwin Bryant who wrote the book offers an analysis to the various perspectives in an ongoing intense debate (archaeologically, the quest continues). The author with insight to the debate about origins states in his conclusion that care is needed to discern the actual data and the interpretations of that data. If anything his work inspired me to dig deeper which for me was the point of the text.
The more I pursued the more I thought Occam’s or Ockham’s razor or philosophical principle might be applicable. That is, the answer I sought was probably found in the fewest assumptions or perhaps the philosopher Bertrand Russell correctly observed, “whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.”
In his work From Primitive to Zen, Mircea Eliade writes about beginnings, “OM” being the most sacred word of Hinduism and found in the Upanishads both at the beginning and end of prayers – it expresses the concept of Ishvara or Supreme Soul or God, among other labels and descriptions depending on the context. Eliade understood nature’s influence in the formation of religions, theologies and myths.
“In the beginning was a vibration consisting of the sound,” a Hindu friend of mine from Varanasi, India suggested, “It’s about the vibration a person feels within when he utters the syllable “OM” rather than the meanings ascribed to it.” It was how the ancients came to terms with existence and their roles in life. By saying it repeatedly one feels an inner force of energy. If I apply the simplest assumption could it be the sound of nature itself such as the rumbling of a distant thunder among other sounds of the natural world?
Were ancient nomadic tribes thousands of years ago in the Middle East in touch with their physical world to such a degree that they inherently (if not genetically) understood the sound vibrations attendant to the cycles of life and death? Did the ancient nomads gazing up at the stars at night in awe of nature’s splendor and power, understand it’s vibration of life and death – it’s suffering, sensuality and cycles to the degree they were able to utter, “OM?”
Who are you that first uttered or chanted “OM” and under what circumstances? Were you sitting around a fire at night or crossing a vast savannah contemplating the nature of ultimate reality and the syllable “OM” became the sound that expressed the ultimate reality of all existence? Was it a mystical experience based on nature’s sounds?
Centuries of oral tradition of the Absolute, the Relative and the Relationship between them are three parts of “One”- the whole. The syllable was representative of the whole and was eventually written down and “OM” found its way into texts later pronounced as sacred and inspired.
Whatever answer one arrives at, my experience suggests that one can find the impact of “OM” by chanting it over a period of time. Perhaps it’s an ancient genetic stirring deep within each of us, if we carefully listen.
*from The Edges is a biographical work in its early stages