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Meditation on Om

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Section 51 of the Upanishads for Awakening

So far the questions put to Pippalada have been about the components of the human organism which both empower and limit it. In the last section the subject of the Self was considered–specifically the nature of the Self and the results of knowing the Self. Now we approach the subject of the way in which the Self is known. Without knowing this, all the foregoing teaching is pointless.

Life and death

“Whereupon Satyakama, coming near to the master, said: Venerable sir, if a man meditate upon the syllable Om all his life, what shall be his reward after death?” (Prashna Upanishad 5:1).

Satyakama understood that what really mattered was not short-term gain in this life, but the state of consciousness that would determine where the individual would go after death when stripped of body, possessions, relationships, and all that is “of the earth, earthly”–when he has nothing but his degree of evolution to determine his future.

So he wants to know what will be the result of meditating on Om throughout one’s life. Literally, the Sanskrit texts asks what will be the result of intense meditation (abhidhyana) on Om, and what world (loka) will be won (jayati) by means of that meditation. For the world in which we find ourselves after death reveals our fundamental state of consciousness.

The supreme attainment

“And the master answered him thus: Satyakama, Om is Brahman–both the conditioned and the unconditioned, the personal and the impersonal. By meditating upon it the wise man may attain either the one or the other” (Prashna Upanishad 5:2).

Brahman is absolutely one, but from our present perspective seems to be of a dual character. In this verse the expressions higher (para) and lower (apara) are used, though Prabhavananda has used the explanatory translations “conditioned and the unconditioned” and “the personal and the impersonal.” It is more usual to use the terms nirguna (without attributes or qualities–guna) and saguna (with attributes or qualities) in relation to Brahman. In A Brief Sanskrit Glossary Nirguna Brahman is defined as: “The impersonal, attributeless Absolute beyond all description or designation.” Saguna Brahman is defined as: “The supreme Absolute conceived of as endowed with qualities like mercy, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc., as distinguished from the undifferentiated Absolute–Nirguna Brahman.” Nirguna Brahman is the “higher” Brahman and Saguna Brahman is the “lower” or lesser. Again, this distinction is just a means of expression adopted for the limitations of our human intellects.

Presently it is commonly assumed–erroneously–that there is one way to meditate on Nirguna Brahman and another way to meditate on Saguna Brahman. But this was not so in the upanishadic era, as can be seen from this verse. It was understood that Om is all-inclusive, since It is Brahman Itself. Consequently, meditation on Om is meditation on both Nirguna and Saguna Brahman. Our perceptions will be according to whichever aspect we wish to contact.

According to our knowing

It also depends on our experience-knowlege of Om, not mere intellectual ideas. For Pippalada then says: “If he meditate upon Om with but little knowledge of its meaning, but nevertheless is enlightened thereby, upon his death he will be immediately born again on this earth, and during his new life he will be devoted to austerity, continence, and faith, and will attain to spiritual greatness” (Prashna Upanishad 5:3). That is, if for whatever reasons the yogi gains but little experience-knowledge of Om, still he will be enlightened by it to some degree. This being so, he will not spend a long period in the astral world, but will quickly be reborn so he can take up yoga again and make better progress than he did before. To ensure this, in his new life “he will be devoted to austerity, continence, and faith, and will attain to spiritual greatness.”

“If, again, he meditate upon Om with a greater knowledge of its meaning, upon his death he will ascend to the lunar heaven, and after he has partaken of its pleasures will return again to earth” (Prashna Upanishad 5:4). “The lunar heaven” is the astral world in which the yogi experiences great happiness and even power according to the immense strength of positive karma which is engendered by the practice of yoga. Yet he will in time take birth again on the earth.

“But if he meditate upon Om in the full consciousness that it is one with God, upon his death he will be united with the light that is in the sun, he will be freed from evil, even as a snake is freed from its slough, and he will ascend to God’s dwelling place. There he will realize Brahman, who evermore abides in the heart of all beings–Brahman Supreme!” (Prashna Upanishad 5:5). Those who experience in meditation that Om truly is Divinity Itself–is their own Divine Self–will be freed from the compulsion to earthly rebirth as well as all that has bound them to lower things and, united with the Light of Spirit that invisibly shines upon us through the intermediary of the sun, will ascend to the heights of existence and beyond into the transcendent Being of Nirguna Brahman.

Then Pippalada cites two verses even older than the upanishads that encapsulate all this:

“Concerning the sacred syllable Om it is written: “The syllable Om, when it is not fully understood, does not lead beyond mortality. When it is fully understood, and meditation is therefore rightly directed, a man is freed from fear, whether he be awake, dreaming, or sleeping the dreamless sleep, and attains to Brahman.

“By virtue of a little understanding of Om a man returns to earth after death. By virtue of a greater understanding he attains to the celestial sphere. By virtue of a complete understanding he learns what is known only to the seers. The sage, with the help of Om, reaches Brahman, the fearless, the undecaying, the immortal!” Prashna Upanishad 5:6, 7).

As Sri Ramana Maharshi said: Om ever shines within us as the Self. May we all realize this.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Where is the Self?

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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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