Like lots of people, one of my favourite daily practices is chanting Sanskrit mantras. Even my most sceptical students quickly feel the benefits of chanting once they get over any initial embarrassment at using their voice. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing well because Mantra chanting is not intended to be a musical practice, even though many people these days make beautiful music with mantras.
The real benefit lies in the vibrations created by the sound of the voice, and the calming, peaceful energy that arises from silent repetition, which is profoundly healing. All ancient languages are powerful in this way, so chanting in Hebrew, or Ancient Greek for example, can also be enormously beneficial. Although there’s no direct evidence of this, it’s very likely that the Judeo-Christian word Amen and the Islamic Amin are derived from the more ancient AUM.
OM, or AUM, is considered by ancient texts to be the most auspicious mantra, the primordial sound known as adi nāda; it’s also known as anāhata nāda – the “un-struck” sound. It’s referred to as pranava, which can be interpreted as the cosmic hum. It’s symbol is known as Omkāra, the sound of AUM.
But it’s so much more than a sound! The mantra AUM also represents the four levels of consciousness, with the three audible syllables also representing the three gunas – rajas, sattva and tamas – and the three aspects of divine energy, or Maha Shakti – Brahma Shakti, the power of creation, Vishnu Shakti, the power of preservation and Shiva Shakti, the power of dissolution or liberation.
Because AUM relates to all aspects of life and nature, the it can be chanted to resonate with the particular guna, or quality of energy, that dominates at certain times of the day by sustaining the relevant syllable for a longer duration than the others.
So around dawn, from an hour or two before sunrise until the sun has visibly risen in the sky, the energy of creation is the strongest, as epitomised by Brahma. This means the A-kāra, which is the first syllable of Sanskrit and represents form or shape, like earth – is chanted longest. ‘A’ is pronounced in the throat, and relates to rajas guna – passion and dynamism – and to the waking or conscious state, called jagrat. In this state, subject and object are perceived as separate entities just like they appear to be in the outer world, and change is slow to happen.
So the pranava in the early morning is chanted: AAAUM. AAAUM. AAAUM.
U-kāra means formless or shapeless, like water, air or fire, and relates to sattva guna – light, clarity and harmony – and swapna, the subconscious or dream state. This is the subtle realm of our inner world, where subject and object are perceived as intertwined, and matter becomes more subtle and fluid, and changes quickly. The most active part of the day carries the energy of Vishnu, representing preservation and continuity, so the vowel ‘U’, pronounced in the mouth, is sustained the longest.
The pranava during the daytime is chanted: AUUUM. AUUUM. AUUUM.
Ma-kāra means that which is neither formed nor formless, and represents space, or ākash. It relates to tamas guna – ignorance, darkness and inertia – and shushupti, the deep sleep or unconscious state.
By the end of the day, at sunset, we experience the energy of dissolution and deconstruction, traditionally the domain of Shiva. This resonates in the Ma-kāra, which is heard when the mouth closes and the ‘Mmm’ dissolves while moving up into the nasal cavity, hinting at the coming silence that allows us to move ever more deeply inward.
The sound of pranava after dark is: AUMMM. AUMMM. AUMMM.
The silence that follows AUM is known as turya nāda, signifying the fourth state of pure consciousness, the trigunatita that both transcends and encompasses the three prior states of consciousness. Resting in the silence carries a subtle vibration that is peaceful and calm. Slide into this feeling of peace as often as you can each day.
Hari om tat sat