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The Shabda Brahman: Om

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Section 62 of the Upanishads for Awakening

“The syllable Om, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is Om. And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is Om” (Mandukya Upanishad 1).

This is so vast, and yet at the same time so simple, that it renders comment impossible and unnecessary. The essential point is the infinity of Om, because It is the infinite Brahman.

The four aspects of the Self

“All this that we see without is Brahman. This Self that is within is Brahman. This Self, which is one with Om, has three aspects, and beyond these three, different from them and indefinable–The Fourth” (Mandukya Upanishad 2).

The three aspects of those within relativity are waking, dreaming sleep, and dreamless sleep. Beyond these three is the pure consciousness itself known as turiya. This fourth state is the sole state of the liberated consciousness. Even if a liberated being reenters into relative existence for the upliftment of those still caught in that net, he remains consciously centered in turiya and experiences the three lower states only peripherally. When the turiya level overwhelms such a one we say he has gone into samadhi, but in actuality he has simply become absorbed in his continual state, having momentarily dropped the flimsy dreams of relative existence which we think are so real and binding. I have heard more than one disciple tell of their having to hold Yogananda up and help him walk when toward the end of his earthly time he was continually flying upward into his true state. Often he would see his body moving along far below, as though he were soaring high in the sky.

“As above, so below” is a fundamental truth of the cosmos. What can be said of the macrocosm can also be said of the microcosm. And since the Infinite and the finite are essentially one, the upanishad now begins analyzing the three levels of the Cosmic Man.


“The first aspect of the Self is the universal person, the collective symbol of created beings, in his physical nature–Vaishvanara. Vaishvanara is awake, and is conscious only of external objects. He has seven members. The heavens are his head, the sun his eyes, air his breath, fire his heart, water his belly, earth his feet, and space his body. He has nineteen instruments of knowledge: five organs of sense, five organs of action, five functions of the breath, together with mind, intellect, heart, and ego. He is the enjoyer of the pleasures of sense” (Mandukya Upanishad 3). This is an extremely explanatory translation, but all correct. The last statement: “He is the enjoyer of the pleasures of sense” should really be: “He is the experiencer of material things.” Other than that, all is well, the idea being that God encompasses all perceptible being.


“The second aspect of the Self is the universal person in his mental nature–Taijasa. Taijasa has seven members and nineteen instruments of knowledge. He is dreaming, and is conscious only of his dreams. In this state he is the enjoyer of the subtle impressions in his mind of the deeds he has done in the past” (Mandukya Upanishad 4). Subconsciousness is the springboard from which all present action stems. We speak of karma and samskara, the deeds of past lives and their effects, as producing all that we now experience. Actually the field of the subconscious is sown with the seeds of the past that are destined to germinate and manifest on the Vaishvanara level. So to separate Taijasa and Vaishvanara is impossible. They are really only two aspects of a single thing. Further, there is a third aspect through which the unity of consciousness manifests itself: Prajna.


“The third aspect of the Self is the universal person in dreamless sleep–Prajna. Prajna dreams not. He is without desire. As the darkness of night covers the day, and the visible world seems to disappear, so in dreamless sleep the veil of unconsciousness envelops his thought and knowledge, and the subtle impressions of his mind apparently vanish. Since he experiences neither strife nor anxiety, he is said to be blissful, and the experiencer of bliss” (Mandukya Upanishad 5). Gambhirananda’s translation brings out some more aspects of this: “That state is deep sleep where the sleeper does not desire any enjoyable thing and does not see any dream. The third quarter is Prajna who has deep sleep as his sphere, in whom everything becomes undifferentiated, who is a mass of mere consciousness, who abounds in bliss, who is surely an enjoyer of bliss, and who is the doorway to the experience [of the dream and waking states].”

What we have here is a picture of the third layer of experience that underlies the conscious and subconscious levels of the mind. Not only is this layer undifferentiated because it is the raw material out of which the other two emerge, it is also the level of assimilation in which the changes of the two resolve back into their basic constituents.

Therefore: “Prajna is the lord of all. He knows all things. He is the dweller in the hearts of all. He is the origin of all. He is the end of all” (Mandukya Upanishad 6). This is all true, and is a very exact description of our own personal level of prajna as well as the universal Prajna. This verse really sounds like a eulogistic definition of God in ordinary theistic religion. But the dharma of the upanishads is not ordinary religion, so it goes much further, far beyond the vistas of “the world’s religions”–a kind of Freudian slip in its way, indicating that they spring from the world, from world-based consciousness. Rather the upanishad tells us of a fourth level of Being.

Turiya: The Self

“The Fourth, say the wise, is not subjective experience, nor objective experience, nor experience intermediate between these two, nor is it a negative condition which is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. It is not the knowledge of the senses, nor is it relative knowledge, nor yet inferential knowledge. Beyond the senses, beyond the understanding, beyond all expression, is The Fourth. It is pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is the supreme good. It is One without a second. It is the Self. Know it alone!” (Mandukya Upanishad 7). This is rather a huge lump for the intellect to chew, swallow, and assimilate, because it mostly consists of what the mysterious Fourth–the Turiya–is not.


There is one point that for some reason is omitted or ignored by Prabhavananda and other translators. In this verse the Self is said to be eka atma pratyaya saram. Some translators have rendered it to mean that the Turiya is the essence, the sole factor, of the Self. And of course this is the truth. But Shankara says something quite interesting. He says this phrase means that the proof or evidence of this Fourth is the very belief in its existence! What he means is that when the deep conviction arises from within the consciousness that the Turiya exists it is not a matter of reason–for reason stops at the stage of verse six. Rather, it is a manifestation of the Self as well as the dawning in the individual’s awareness of the Turiya’s reality. It is the awareness of awareness itself, a kind of primary or preliminary vision of the Self, and not at all a matter of the intellect (buddhi). Obviously, then, the truth about Turiya cannot really be taught to anyone–it has to arise own its own as a result of the individual drawing near to the Self. It is a matter of spiritual evolution alone.

And here is the essence of the subject: “It is the Self. Know it alone!”


The upanishad is not dispensing mere theory to us, but knowledge meant to be put into practice and proven by that practice. So it continues: “This Self, beyond all words, is the syllable Om. This syllable, though indivisible, consists of three letters–A-U-M” (Mandukya Upanishad 8).

The Self, the Atman, is Om. If we knew only this fact and none other, we would possess the key to liberation. All the philosophy in the world, however profound or true, means absolutely nothing unless we can experience the truth and be freed from the effects of ignorance: karma and rebirth. Om is the means of experience and freedom.

Om is also considered to be formed of the three letters a, u, and m, which represent the three states of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep respectively, as well as the physical, astral, and causal levels of existence. In Sanskrit, when a and u are combined they produce the sound of o. Om contains within Itself the three states of conscious that have been discussed, and Om is the way to access and unify the three.

“Vaishvanara, the Self as the universal person in his physical being, corresponds to the first letter–A. Whosoever knows Vaishvanara obtains what he desires, and becomes the first among men” (Mandukya Upanishad 9). He who masters the waking state through Om also masters the material world and becomes himself a master among men–not of men, but among men, for sages have no wish to control others though they gladly tell us how to control ourselves. The desires of such masters are fulfilled because they are intimately connected with the very essence of creation and whatever they think can be realized. This is how they work miracles, even creating things if needed.

“Taijasa, the Self as the universal person in his mental being, corresponds to the second letter–U. Taijasa and the letter U both stand in dream, between waking and sleeping. Whosoever knows Taijasa grows in wisdom, and is highly honored” (Mandukya Upanishad 10). Sanskrit is capable of more than one interpretation, and this verse can also say two very interesting things: 1) Such a master increases the knowledge of humanity and even gives inner momentum to assist questing souls to access knowledge, and 2) he becomes one with all human beings in the sense that when they meet him they feel that his is one with them–one of them–and they are so attuned and comfortable with him that they feel he is virtually their own self. This is seen in the great saints. Whether a beggar or a king approaches them, they feel that they are their dear and their own. I saw and experienced this for myself with Swami Sivananda. His greatness was cosmic; he was a virtual god upon the earth; and yet, I felt so at ease with him–even though I was always in awe of him. How many times I have sat looking at his radiant countenance and thought: “If there is anyone in this world who loves me, it is this man.” Of course he was “man” only in form. Within he was the divine Self. Yet he was so accessible and so easy to communicate with. He was as close to me as my Self–for he was one with That Which is my Self.

It is important for us in the West to understand this aspect of holy people because we are so brainwashed with the idea of power and control and much more impressed with the power to curse than the power to bless. Rebuking, cursing, deprecating, punishing, tormenting and destroying–these are the ways of the Western “God” who fortunately is a blasphemy and not a reality. No wonder Jesus said: “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:22, 23).

Om is the key to the subconscious, just as it is to the conscious, so through Om the master yogi knows all about himself and has no illusions about himself. He also knows all about others and understands them. No one can fool him. I saw this in Sivananda, as well. He was always so kind, and often humorous, but he went right to the truth of things in relation to people’s foibles.

“Prajna, the Self as the universal person in dreamless sleep, corresponds to the third letter–M. He is the origin and the end of all. Whosoever knows Prajna knows all things” (Mandukya Upanishad 11). Being one with the source and the ultimate goal of all, a Self-realized being is omniscient because he ever dwells at the core of all–past, present, and future.

In conclusion

Having said all these amazing things, the upanishad brings us back to the heart of it all: Om.

“The Fourth, the Self, is Om, the indivisible syllable. This syllable is unutterable, and beyond mind. In it the manifold universe disappears. It is the supreme good–One without a second. Whosoever knows Om, the Self, becomes the Self” (Mandukya Upanishad 12). Gambhirananda: “The partless Om is Turiya–beyond all conventional dealings, the limit of the negation of the phenomenal world, the auspicious, and the non-dual. Om is thus the Self to be sure. He who knows thus enters the Self through his Self.”

The partless Om. In its attempt to convey to our human intellects a bit of the glory of Om, the upanishad has considered It as having four aspects or parts, but in reality It is without parts, being absolutely unitary in Its nature. So the upanishad reminds us of this lest we mistake its intent and meaning. Just as we sometimes have to speak inaccurately to children to get our ideas across, so has the upanishad done with us. But now it corrects any wrong impression we may have gotten.

Beyond all conventional dealings. Swami Nikhilananda renders this: “without relationship,” meaning that we cannot “deal” with God as we do with a material object or another human being. Nor can it be spoken about as It really is, for It lies beyond phenomena–although It is the source of phenomena. We cannot “relate” to God, but we can know our oneness with God when we ourselves pass beyond all dual relationships.

The limit of the negation of the phenomenal world. We must realize that the Self is absolutely like nothing we know in relative existence, and therefore It is beyond the reach of any words. That is the intellectual side of the situation. On the metaphysical side we have to negate all “things” from our consciousness that we find in the phenomenal world.

The auspicious. Lest we think this is a losing or a giving up of something worthwhile, the upanishad tells us that the Self is the truly auspicious, the truly fortunate, and producing good fortune. We really only give up and negate a mirage in exchange for The Real.

The non-dual. The Real being non-dual, we discover that It is us. So we not only gain everything, we experience it as being us. We recognize ourselves as truly being “the kingdom, the power and the glory.”

Om is thus the Self to be sure. Om reveals the truth of what the upanishad is telling us. Om is not a symbol or designator of the Self, It IS the Self. This can be known.

He who knows thus enters the Self through his Self. We enter into our true Being through the japa and meditation of Om–which is our eternal Self. There is no greater or higher knowledge than the knowledge of Om. And now the upanishad has given us that knowledge.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Reflections On Brahman

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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