In this commentary I will be mostly using the translation of Swami Prabhavananda. However, Prabhavananda omitted some passages that I think are extremely important. So I will be supplementing his translation.
Meditation on Om
“One should meditate on the syllable Om, the Udgitha. Of this, the explanation follows” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.1).
This leaves us little doubt as to what the author (or authors) of the Chandogya Upanishad consider the subject of prime importance: meditation on Om. “Udgitha” is the technical, ritual term for Om when It is sung aloud in Vedic recitation. So in the subsequent verses I am just going to put Om wherever Udgitha occurs.
The supreme essence
“The essence of man is speech. The essence of speech is the hymns of the Rig Veda. Their essence is the hymns of the Sama Veda. The essence of the Sama Veda is Om” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.2).
That which marks human beings out from the lesser forms of evolution is the power of vak–of symbolic, creative speech. Most animals make some kinds of sounds that indicate their feelings, but only humans have symbolic words that recount and stimulate both thought and behavior. This is the power of logos spoken of in Greek philosophy and Eastern Christian writings. It is not just a simple trait, but a virtual intellectual ocean that separates us from other sentient beings on earth. It is, as said, a product of evolution, and skill in speech is the mark of an evolved human being, though the most important ability is that of creative thought/conceptualization. Vak is what makes us human.
The highest form of Speech is that of the hymns of the Rig Veda that were revealed in meditation untold thousands of years ago to the Vedic Rishis (Seers). The highest of those hymns were collected into the Sama Veda, whose text is marked (pointed) for devotional singing. And the supreme essence of the Sama Veda hymns is the single syllable: Om. In many texts it is stated that to intone Om is to recite all the Vedic hymns. Therefore:
“The syllable Om which is called Udgitha, is the quintessence of the essences, the supreme, deserving of the highest place” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.3). This can be said, because Om is the Primal Word, the Original Sound, the First Word “spoken” by God, and by which all that exists was created, and is being sustained and evolved at this very moment. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1, 2).
Brahma the creator concentrated his awareness on the worlds he had projected and: “From them, thus brooded upon, issued forth [as their essence] the syllable Om. Just as all the parts of the leaf, are permeated by the ribs of the leaf, so are all the words permeated by the syllable Om. Verily, the syllable Om is all this–yea, the syllable Om is verily all this” (Chandogya Upanishad 2.23.3).
The upanishadic teaching is that Om is identical with Brahman Itself. How then can we regard It as anything other than “the quintessence of the essences, the supreme, deserving of the highest place”?
Fulfiller of desires
“Speech [Vak] and Breath [Prana] taken together form a couple. This couple is joined together in the syllable Om. Whenever a couple come together, they, indeed, fulfill each other’s desire.
“He who meditates upon Om knowing it thus (as the fulfiller), verily becomes a fulfiller of all the desirable ends. That verily is the syllable of assent, for whenever one assents to a thing, one says only ‘Om’. Assent alone is prosperity. He who meditates upon Om, knowing it thus (as endowed with the quality of prosperity), verily becomes one who increases all the desirable ends” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.5-8).
This is important for two reasons. First, that Om contains within Itself creative power, and IS Creative Power. Naturally, we must both know how to employ It and to be of such a level of consciousness that we can do with It what God does with It. This is certainly possible. I have known yogis who could heal with Om and do many other “magical” things that were really quite normal for the person who knew how. That is why this section is concluded with these words:
“Whatever is performed with knowledge, faith and meditation becomes more effective. Up to this truly is the explanation of (the greatness of) this syllable Om” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.10).
The second important point is that the yogi need not be a person who lives in a bare subsistence manner, unworldly, impractical and indifferent to all material things including his body. The opposite is true. In the eighth chapter of this upanishad we find these verses: “If the sage desires to see his fathers of the spirit-world, lo, his fathers come to meet him. In their company he is happy. And if he desires to see his mothers of the spirit-world, lo, his mothers come to meet him. In their company he is happy. And if he desires to see his brothers of the spirit-world, lo, his brothers come to meet him. In their company he is happy. And if he desires to see his sisters of the spirit-world, lo, his sisters come to meet him. In their company he is happy. And if he desires to see his friends of the spirit-world, lo, his friends come to meet him. In their company he is happy. And if he desires heavenly perfumes and garlands, lo, heavenly perfumes and garlands come to him. In their possession he is happy. And if he desires heavenly food and drink, lo, heavenly food and drink come to him. In their possession he is happy. And if he desires heavenly song and music, lo, heavenly song and music come to him. In their possession he is happy. Indeed, whatsoever such a knower of Brahman may desire, straightway it is his; and having obtained it, he is exalted of men” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.2.1-10).
Such is the real yogi, the true adept. I remember a recording of Paramhansa Yogananda in which he spoke about how many mortgages he had paid off, how much property he had bought, and how large a “family” he had supported for decades. “I could have kept away a million dollars and no one would have known,” he said, speaking of the abundance that had come to him after enduring great hardship and remaining faithful to the ideals he had been sent to America to teach and practice. (A Bengali song in his honor says: “Going far away you taught dharma. And that dharma which you taught, you showed perfectly in your life.”) Then he told his hearers that despite all the financial outlay, he only had a little box that was never empty by God’s grace, and he never bothered to count how much was in it. One of India’s greatest yogis was Janaka, whose name is invoked as the symbol of tremendous wealth as well as wisdom. They speak of Janaka in India as we do of Midas in the West.
Such is Om; such are those that meditate upon It.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Gods and Om