With its threefold nature, special shape and unique sound, Om lends itself to a variety of detailed symbolic interpretations. The symbol of AUM consists of three curves (curves 1, 2, and 3), one semicircle (curve 4), and a dot.
The large lower curve 1 symbolizes the waking state (jagrat), in this state the consciousness is turned outwards through the gates of the senses. The larger size signifies that this is the most common ('majority') state of the human consciousness.
The upper curve 2 denotes the state of deep sleep (sushupti) or the unconscious state. This is a state where the sleeper desires nothing nor beholds any dream.
The middle curve 3 (which lies between deep sleep and the waking state) signifies the dream state (swapna). In this state the consciousness of the individual is turned inwards, and the dreaming self-beholds an enthralling view of the world behind the lids of the eyes.
These are the three states of an individual's consciousness, and since Indian mystic thought believes the entire manifested reality to spring from this consciousness, these three curves therefore represent the entire physical phenomenon.
The dot signifies the fourth state of consciousness, known in Sanskrit as turiya. In this state the consciousness looks neither outwards nor inwards, nor the two together. It signifies the coming to rest of all differentiated, relative existence. This utterly quiet, peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity. This Absolute (non-relative) state illuminates the other three states.
Finally, the semi-circle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. Thus it is the illusion of maya that prevents us from the realization of this highest state of bliss.
The semi-circle is open at the top, and when ideally drawn does not touch the dot. This means that this highest state is not affected by maya. Maya only affects the manifested phenomenon. This effect is that of preventing the seeker from reaching his ultimate goal, the realization of the One, all-pervading, unmanifest, absolute principle. In this manner, the form of OM represents both the unmanifest and the manifest, the noumenon and the phenomenon.
As a sacred sound also, the pronunciation of the three-syllabled AUM is open to a rich logical analysis. The first alphabet A is regarded as the primal sound, independent of cultural contexts. It is produced at the back of the open mouth, and is therefore said to include, and to be included in, every other sound produced by the human vocal organs. Indeed A is the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.
The open mouth of A moves toward the closure of M. Between is U, formed of the openness of A but shaped by the closing lips. Here it must be recalled that as interpreted in relation to the three curves, the three syllables making up AUM are susceptible to the same metaphorical decipherment. The dream state (symbolized by U), lies between the waking state (A) and the state of deep sleep (M). Indeed a dream is but the compound of the consciousness of waking life shaped by the unconsciousness of sleep.
AUM thus also encompasses within itself the complete alphabet, since its utterance proceeds from the back of the mouth (A), travelling in between (U), and finally reaching the lips (M). Now all alphabets can be classified under various heads depending upon the area of the mouth from which they are uttered. The two ends between which the complete alphabet oscillates are the back of the mouth to the lips; both embraced in the simple act of uttering of AUM.
The last part of the sound AUM (the M) known as ma or makar, when pronounced makes the lips close. This is like locking the door to the outside world and instead reaching deep inside our own selves, in search for the Ultimate truth.
But over and above the threefold nature of OM as a sacred sound is the invisible fourth dimension which cannot be distinguished by our sense organs restricted as they are to material observations. This fourth state is the unutterable, soundless silence that follows the uttering of OM. A quieting down of all the differentiated manifestations, i.e. a peaceful-blissful and non-dual state. Indeed this is the state symbolized by the dot in the traditional iconography of AUM.
According to the Upanishads and the Ramayana, AUM represents three things:
A - signifies the Creator/Paramatma
M - signifies the Jivatma, the normal soul inside each entity
U - signifies the eternal cord between the Paramatma and the Jivatma.
In the Ramayana and its popular interpretative texts, the scene of Rama, Lakshma and Sita walking in the forests is often interpreted as a live example of AUM.
AUM – CREATOR, PRESERVER, DESTROYER
Each of the three letters, and sounds, corresponds to a different aspect of the divine. The first sound, A, invokes Brahma, the creative aspect. The U sound invokes Vishnu, the preserver. And the M sound, Shiva, represents the destructive aspect of God. So the three sounds in this one syllable remind us of these three aspects of the Divine, without which nothing exists, everything is sustained, and all things dissolve back into the void. After one chants AUM and has taken this journey through the transformation of the cosmos, it is traditional to pause, and sit in silence, and experience that creative void, vibrating with that primordial vibration.
Past, Present and Future:
There is a depth of philosophical meaning in AUM and reciting it correctly has a profound effect on the mind and body.
One of the reasons why we can understand AUM to be the universal sound is because it covers the entire spectrum of sound that human speech is capable of. The first sound of AUM is ‘A’ (as in around), which originates from the lowest point of the throat. The remainder of the word requires the involvement of every region of our speech-apparatus up to the closing of the lips, where the word terminates with ‘M’.
Because AUM starts very low in the diaphragm and travels upward, it has an ascending (uplifting) effect on the one who chants it. Energy is transferred in an upward motion all the way up to the highest centres of consciousness in the head, enhancing the upward movement from our lower centres of consciousness (chakras) to the higher ones, which is an important part of spiritual practice.
The three sounds that make up AUM correspond to the entire cycle of the universe. ‘A’ corresponds to the creation, ‘U’ to the preservation and ‘M’ to the destruction and dissolution of the universe. Therefore the three stages of AUM, ‘A’, ‘U’ and ‘M’ are connected with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. The silence that occurs between two repetitions of AUM represents that which is beyond the universe and inexpressible in human speech. This is why the scriptures say: ‘The past, the present and the future are AUM and that beyond these three is also AUM’.
Benefits of reciting AUM:
The benefits are tremendous with contemplation upon the AUM. From an Ayurveda standpoint, it can increase lightness to the mind and body. It can be used to cleanse and open the flow of the nadi’s of the body. It is also energizing to the mind, and body. Additionally, it can increase peace and clarity of mind. This is also the view of several yoga systems.
From a Vedantic perspective it begins to teach the student about the three states of consciousness (waking, dream, and deep sleep states), and three worlds in the Vedic system (earth, atmosphere, heaven). Repetition of AUM increases our ability to properly function in these three states and worlds. From a yogic standpoint, it increases sattva or harmony within the student.
Chanting of the sacred sound will most importantly aid in experiencing the actual hearing of the cosmic sound AUM. This will bring a student much closer to realization of the ultimate truth or reality. The experience of the sound does not immediately lead to self-realization, but with repetition of the AUM experience, it will bring the student to self-realization. The chanting of AUM also has a cleansing or purifying effect on the body as well. For those that resonate with mantra, AUM gives additional power to mantras. This is why it is placed at the beginning of so many mantras from India. As it clears and opens the channels of the body and mind, allowing for an experience of the mantra.
This is just a sampling of the benefits of repetition of the sacred sound. There are numerous benefits hidden in many of the ancient texts, and philosophies and systems that evolved from them. To directly experience the AUM is a tremendous accomplishment, as few students of meditation directly experience it. But it is not the end of the journey, but rather marks the beginning of serious and advanced practice of meditation leading to the highest level of experience-Brahman.