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The great mystery that 'Om' points to || Acharya Prashant, on Katha Upanishad (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
11 min
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Acharya Prashant (AP): This question has been quoted from the Katha Upanishad:

अन्यत्र धर्मादन्यत्राधर्मादन्यत्रास्मात्कृताकृतात् ।

अन्यत्र भूताच्च भव्याच्च यत्तत्पश्यसि तद्वद ॥ 1.2.१४ ॥

anyatra dharmādanyatrādharmādanyatrāsmātkṛtākṛtāt

anyatra bhūtācca bhavyācca yattatpaśyasi tadvada || 1.2.14 ||

“Nachiketa said: That which you see as other than righteousness and unrighteousness,

Other than all this cause and effect,

Other than what has been and what is to be – tell me, That.”

~ Katha Upanishad, Chapter 1, Valli 2, Verse 14

सर्वे वेदा यत्पदमामनन्ति तपाँ सि सर्वाणि च यद्वदन्ति ।

यदिच्छन्तो ब्रह्मचर्यं चरन्ति तत्ते पद्ँ संग्रहेण ब्रवीम्योमित्येतत् ॥ 1.2.१५ ॥

एतद्ध्येवाक्शरं ब्रह्म एतद्ध्येवाक्शरं परम् ।

एतद्ध्येवाक्शरं ज्ञात्वा यो यदिच्छति तस्य तत् ॥ 1.2.१६ ॥

एतदालम्बनँ श्रेष्ठमेतदालम्बनं परं ।

एतदालम्बनं ज्ञात्वा ब्रह्मलोके महीयते ॥ 1.2.१७ ॥

sarve vedā yatpadamāmananti tapām̐si sarvāṇi ca yadvadanti

yadicchanto brahmacaryaṃ caranti tatte padm̐ saṃgraheṇa bravīmyomityetat || 1.2.15 ||

etaddhyevākśaraṃ brahma etaddhyevākśaraṃ param

etaddhyevākśaraṃ jñātvā yo yadicchati tasya tat || 1.2.16 ||

etadālambanam̐ śreṣṭhametadālambanaṃ paraṃ

etadālambanaṃ jñātvā brahmaloke mahīyate ॥ 1.2.17 ॥

Yama said: “The goal which all the Vedas declare,

which all austerities aim at,

and which all men desire when they lead the life of continence,

I will tell you briefly: it is Om

This syllable Om is indeed Brahm.

The syllable is the highest

Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires.

This is the best support; this is the highest support,

whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahm.”

~ Katha Upanishad, Chapter 1, Valli 2, Verses 15, 16, 17

Question: Can you please elaborate on what the Rishi refers to as ‘Om’ and what he means by ‘Om’ being the best and highest support?

Acharya Prashant (AP): In the Upanishads, "Om" is used as a powerful symbol of transcendence. It consists of three sounds: "A", "U" and "M". These correspond to the three states of consciousness.

"Om" begins where one currently is—obviously, there can be no other place to begin with. You can only begin from where you are. So "Om' begins with "A", which is your current state of consciousness.

What is your current state of consciousness?

The one in which you perceive the facts of the world, the one which you call as the waking state of consciousness, the one in which you perceive yourself as the body, are body identified, and the body is the consumer of the various objects in the world—that is "A". "A" is the beginning whether in the Alphabet, Varnamaala (Hindi Alphabets), or in "Om". "A" pertains to your current state of consciousness. So, the journey begins from "A".

Then "Om" says, "Transcend "A"." And how do you transcend "A"? You transcend any state of consciousness only by knowing it well. That is the way of the seeker. Know your waking state of consciousness, know the material, know the facts of the world, know your gross actions because they are the easiest to know.

The world is perceivable, your actions too are perceivable; know them. "A" refers to your most easily accessible layer of consciousness, the most superficial layer of consciousness, and hence "A" is most easily available to be known.

And then you move to "U". "U" refers to that state of consciousness which remains unavailable to your usual conscious self, but nevertheless deeply impacts your functioning, your life, your mind. This is the state of consciousness that manifests itself when you go to sleep.

In the Upanishadic parlance, "U" would pertain to your identity as ' Taijas ' (which means endowed with light) and obviously that means "A" pertains to your identity as ' Vaishvanara '. Or you could take a slightly different route and you could say that "A" pertains to all that which is ' Sthool ' (which means gross material). "A" pertains to the domain of ' Sthool Shareer ' (which means Gross Body) and correspondingly "U" pertains to the domain of ' Sukshma Shareer ' (which means Subtle Body).

Whichever way you look at it, one thing is obvious: the domain of "U"—which is the deeper level of mind—is more difficult to know than the domain of "A".

It's easier to watch your actions than to watch your thoughts. It's easier to watch your thoughts than to watch your dreams.

One who has transcended "A", enters "U". And if you can transcend the "U" mind as well, then a greater challenge awaits you: "M", which is the ' Kaaran Shareer ' (which means Causal Body), which is the domain of the mind in which your identity is that of ' Pragya ', which is the level of consciousness in which the world is gone, the various branch ' Vrittis ' (tendencies) are also transcended, and all that remains is the ' Mool aham vritti ' (which mean fundamental tendency of the ego), the deepest ‘I’ instinct.

So, in the course of "Om", in his journey through "Om", what is the seeker doing? The seeker is penetrating to deeper and deeper levels of his mind.

He started off from where he was—which was the most superficial level, the waking state of consciousness in which the ' Samsaar ' (which means world) is there, the world is there; the ' Vishwa ' (meaning world) is there and the ' Vaishvanara ' is there—and then he went deeper into his mind and what did he encounter? "U".

What does "U" refer to? All that stuff that you do not usually come to see; it remains hidden. And it presents itself sometimes only in dreams, and then you are shocked. Don't your dreams surprise you sometimes? You say, "Where did this come from?" It didn't come from anywhere outside of you; it was always present in your mind. It's just that it existed a bit deeply, so you were not cognizant of it. When the state of consciousness changed, when he went to sleep, then that which was a little deeper in the mind presented itself. What is the symbol used to represent that? "U".

"A" says, "Watch your visible actions, watch your gross thoughts." "U" says, "Now come on, can you be a watcher of your various latent tendencies as well? What are the latent tendencies that you usually cannot watch, but show up in dreams? Anger, fear, lust, insecurity, greed—many of these remain suppressed in the conscious mind. But once they find that the guard of consciousness has been lowered, then they merrily come forth and start dancing. So, "U" says, now overcome that which is deeply hidden in your mind, and then the challenge is "M".

"M" says, "Now encounter the fundamental problem, the final challenge, which is the pure ‘I’ tendency itself; ‘I’ tendency bereft of everything else. The moment the ‘I’ tendency does not have anything else; you start enjoying. You know what is happening as you are graduating from "A" to "U" to "M"; you are leaving the world behind. When you come to "M", the world has indeed been left totally behind.

In deep sleep, there is no world at all. However, the potential for the world to spring back still exists. That is why ' Sushupti ' is not ' Samadhi '. That is why ' Sushupti ' is not final; that is why that enjoyment does not last. You're woken up and the world comes back to you, and grips you, and arrests you. Nevertheless, it gives you a taste of what it means to be world-less. That is why deep sleep is so relaxing; you become world-less. The world is gone and because the world is gone, you are in bliss.

"M" says, "Overcome this bliss also, because this bliss is deceptive." Why is it deceptive? It's not going to last. Every night you experience that bliss—does it last? It deceives you. So "M" says that even the blissful experiences that you get in the path of spirituality has to be overcome. All great experiences are a barrier. "M" is the most blissful experience you can ever get. There is no experience more relaxing, more soothing, more tempting than the experience of deep sleep. You can craft and design the most alluring experiences for yourself, whether through the worldly root or through the spiritual root, but no experience can beat the experience of deep and relaxing sleep. 'Om' says, "Overcome that as well. You cannot stop at "M"."

"M" is a great and final hurdle—you cannot stop there. So even "Maa" has to keep bittering away. And then you enter the fourth beyond these three, that is the message of "Om".

"Om" is both the method and the destination. When you say, “Om,” you are on one hand reaffirming your commitment to move beyond "A", at the same time you are journeying as you utter "Om". Every time you say, “Om,” you're actually saying, "I'm starting from "A", going to "M", and then leaping beyond. That beyondness, the transcendence is the purpose of all spirituality.

Go deeper-deeper-deeper into yourself and then disappear. That is "Om". "A", "U", "M" and then gone, nothing. So, 'Om' resonates, resonates and resonates; there's an echo, there is an echo, there is an echo and then—nothing is left. The echo keeps getting fainter-fainter and fainter. The world is going-going-going-going-going-going-going… gone! That is "Om".

“A”, “U”, “Maaaa….” and gone! Now nothing remains, not even "M" remains, not even the final shred of 'I' remains. You have gathered what “M” stands for, right? “M” stands for 'Aham', the final 'I' tendency. That does not just disappear usually in one stroke. How does it go? “Mmm…” This is you melting away. This is your own disappearance. It's you who is now going away.

That is the reason why the worship of “Om” and repeated recitation of “Om” has so much been advised and favoured. Every time “Om” disappears into nothing, something about you also melts and disappears. “Mmm…”—where did the sound go? It's not the sound that is fading away; it's you who is fading away.

You're asking: "What does the Rishi refer to as “Om”?" I spoke on it. And then you ask: "What he means by “Om” being the best and highest support?"

When you are stuck in “A”, what does it refer to? The state of consciousness you are contained in, the state of consciousness you are identified with the world that you live in, that's where you start from “A”. So, when you are contained and arrested, withheld, chained in “A”, then what is your only hope? Freedom. “Om” is the sound of that Freedom. “Om” says, "Freedom in three steps: “A”, “U”, “M”, and gone—and free."

Therefore, the Rishis are saying that “Om” is your best and highest support, because after all what support does a prisoner need? What is the only support that a prisoner wants? That which will take him to.....? Freedom.

So, “Om” is the route, “Om” is the method, “Om” is the way, “Om” is the reminder. You are at “A”, but you need not stay at “A”. Move deeper into yourself, deeper into yourself. The more you will know yourself, the more you'll be free of yourself. Knowledge of self is Freedom from the self. And finally, the knower of the self himself vanishes, dissolves away.

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