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I recall reading somewhere that Om has a certain significance in Indian philosophy; is this due to it being the first vowel in the Sanskrit alphabet (which in Sanskrit is also the first letter, as all vowels are usually placed first)? Or is the significance part of a religious praxis?

And does it also have anything to do with breath, or prana?

(A parallel in Hebrew might be the sentence 'I am the alpha...' (in Revelations); but it may be a common enough parallel in languages that use or have the notion of an alphabet).

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    I know it roughly translates to perfection in English. I also think most, if not all, mantras start with the word. Its symbol looks as such : goo.gl/7iKscq – hellyale Jul 19 '15 at 23:47
  • @hellyale: Interesting. Yeats & Purohits translation of the Isha Upanishad uses 'perfection' in its first stanza for both relative and absolute Brahman (adah/idam); I've also seen it translated as fullness. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 25 '15 at 21:15
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The Vedas say that the Om (pronounced AUM, and better represented as AUM) is the sound (vibration) that was first projected out of Brahman. It is from this initial vibration that the entire universe is created. As it is the manifestation of Brahman in the universe it is equated with Brahman. It is referred to as such throughout many many places in the Vedas. As it is equated with Brahman, both literally and figuratively, prayers are always started by first pronouncing AUM. Some examples are first the Prasna Upanishad fifth chapter. A few verses from this chapter:

  1. He replied: O Satyakama, the syllable AUM is the Supreme Brahman [Nirguna Brahman] and also the other Brahman [Saguna Brahman]. Therefore he who knows it attains, with its support, the one or the other.

  2. Again, he who meditates on the Highest Person [Saguna Brahman] through this syllable AUM consisting of three letters, becomes united with the effulgent sun. As a snake is freed from its skin, even so he is freed from sin.

  3. ...And also through the syllable AUM he realizes that which is tranquil, free from decay, death, and fear, and which is the Highest.

and the Mandukya Upanishad (I.) says:

Harih AUM! AUM, the word, is all this [i.e. the whole universe]. A clear explanation of it is as follows: All that is past, present, and future is, indeed, AUM. And whatever else there is, beyond the three-fold division of time--that also is truly AUM.

other examples include Katha Upanishad (I. ii. 15) "It is AUM"; Katha Upanishad (I. ii. 17) "This AUM is the best support"; Taittiriya Upanishad (I. viii. 1) "AUM this word is Brahman."

Swami Nikhilananda says (The Upanishads, V2, pp 223-224):

The ultimate identity of AUM is thus explained: The phenomenal world consists of ideas or mental states. Ideas depend upon words fpr their expression. The utterance of the word AUM (A,U,M) gives the clue to the pronunciation of all words or sounds uttered by human beings. The various parts of the vocal organ that are used in the utterance of all sounds are also used in the pronunciation of AUM. Therefore AUM is the matrix of all sounds, which in their diversified forms give rise to the words used in language. The sound A, coming from the throat when the mouth opens to utter any word, is the beginning of all sounds. The sound M is the final sound when the lips are closed. And the sound U is the rolling forward of the impulse which has been created in the throat and which ends with the closing of the lips. Thus when AUM is uttered, all the various parts of the vocal organ needed for uttering words are used. Therefore AUM is said to include all sounds. The substratum of all sound is AUM, and the substratum of phenomena is Brahman. The sounds signifying the phenomena are non-different from the phenomena, since both are illusory. When the illusion disappears. there remains only the substratum, which is one and admits no difference. Therefore it is said that Brahman is AUM.

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"[A]ll the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life...then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om - perfection." Chapter 11, pg. 110-11 of Sidhartha by Hermann Hesse.

Om is not directly linked to prana, but all prana would be part of Om. There are practices of saying Om on your breath, which are considered to be beneficial.

Om is essentially Brahman.

Om and what it represents is a very positive and optimistic view of the universe and its totality. It accepts nor rejects anything, it is all that exists, and it is perfection.

Om also has influence in Tibetan cultures and philosophies. In the mantra

OM AH HUM

Om stands for the body, Ah for the speech, and Hum for the mind.

The Tibetan Om looks like this

The Sanskrit Om looks like this

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The verse in John Coltrane's album Om is vividly descriptive.

Quoting from 'The Dawn of Indian Music in the West' by Peter Lavezzoli:

enter image description here

enter image description here

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To start with the easy answer: OM is not the first letter in Devanagari script, the script of Sanskrit. The first letter in Devanagari is the short vowel 'a'. OM is composed by two letters, the vowel 'au' followed by the consonant 'ma'.

One of the first records of the syllable in a written text is the beginning of Chandogya Upanishad:

OM - one should venerate the High Chant as this syllable, for one begins the High Chant with OM.

The context of this passage is a certain Vedic ritual. The Chandogya Upanishad is one of the oldest Upanishads and dates from 7./6. century BCE. It is part of the Samaveda, one of the four Vedas. Apparently, OM as a distinguished syllable is much older than this textual evidence.

The meaning of OM is unknown. Probably just on account of this, OM is the object of many speculations. The syllable is highly ranked by both Hindus and Mahayana Buddhists.

Considered from a rational point of view, OM is an example of magic speech.

Added. The Mandukya Upanishad is a prominent work which speculates exclusively about the meaning of OM. Its speculations are neither supported by etymology nor backed by philosophical arguments. The Mandukya Upanishad starts

OM - this whole world is that syllable!

The Upanishad is a late work, from about the end of the first century BCE or the beginning of the common era.

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    An interesting and unfortunate misinterpretation of Chhandogya I. i. 1. which is not in line with any of the commentators (except perhaps some of the Western neo-orientalists). I would suggest you read Sankaracharya's commentary and also the follow on verses in I. i. as well as the complete Upanishad. – Swami Vishwananda Jul 31 '15 at 11:45
  • Actually I have read some more than just verse 1 of Chandogya Upanishad. But what I find here and similar in Mandukya Upanishad, is a series of theses, no arguments. I see speculation but no philosophical argumentation. Could you please add some interpretation from Adi Shankara together with his arguments? As I see from your post, we have totally different views on the topic. That's OK for a philosophical blog. But now we need arguments to proceed. – Jo Wehler Jul 31 '15 at 15:11
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    You are correct, the Upanishads themselves are not argumentation, and wern't meant to be. However, all the commentators have objections and counter-arguments built into their commentaries. In Sanskrit argumentation one view is called the Siddhanta, conclusions to be established; while the objections raised is called the Purvapaksha, objections to be raised. I don't know of an online resource for the Chandogya with Sankara commentary. To see some of the commentary by Sankara on the Udgitha (Om) see the Brahma Sutras with Sankaracharya's commentary... – Swami Vishwananda Aug 5 '15 at 7:13
  • which is available here - wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/brahma-sutras/index.html Specifically verses 3.3.6 - 3.3.9, 3.3.41, and 3.3.59 - 3.3.63. The Sri-Bhasya, which is Ramanuja's commentary on the Brahma Sutras for the same verses is also good, but I am not aware of it being online. A good translation of the Chandogya without commentary is here - celextel.org/upanishads/sama_veda/chandogya.html – Swami Vishwananda Aug 5 '15 at 7:23
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    It is a vocalization, I agree. Om is the origin of all word etymologies as it's vocalization runs the gamut of human vocalizations. It is the sound vocalization of Brahman. It is a saying that all the Vedas and the Upanishads are only an explanation of the Om. I would suggest that you read the Upanishads from Indian translators as the Westerners have never had the necessary training in the nuances of Sanskrit. The rule for word meanings in Sanskrit is everything is an exception, something that can't be learned in the West. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 7 '15 at 11:40

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