Monday, October 18, 2010

Yoga and Christianity: OM

This is the second article in my Yoga and Christianity series. As stated before, I am a practicing Catholic, and these articles are meant to be both an introduction to the philosophy of yoga and proof that that philosophy is not entirely incompatible with Christianity. Today we will discuss the sacred syllable OM.


Symbolism is the language of spirituality. And Language itself is of course a symbol-words symbolize concepts and things. In the Book of Genesis, God says “Let there be light,” and of course the light appears. The point seems to be that God didn’t have to do anything. He isn’t tinkering with photons or determining the speed that light will travel-He just has to say something and it is. The ancient authors of Genesis are saying something profound about both the nature of God and the awesome power of language. Mothers may tell their children “it’s just words” when a bully teases them, but both the bully and his victim know words have the potential to wield great power.

Saint John calls Jesus Christ the Logos, or Word. “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God (John 1:1).” Christ is both the Thing (God) and the symbol of the Thing. Greek philosophers had long speculated on the concept of Logos, and early Church leaders like Justin Martyr used the Logos philosophies to bring people who were already familiar with these concepts into the Church.

Speaking of words and symbolism, one of the most familiar words to the yogi is “Om,” pronounced Aum. Words are the symbol of their underlying concepts, and yoga philosophy takes this a step further. Words can be symbols of other words. These symbolic words are usually only one syllable and are usually referred to as “seed sounds.” The word “Hatha,” as in Hatha Yoga, combines the seed sounds “ha” and “tha,” or “sun” and “moon.” The Sanskrit word for “sun” is of course surya, as in surya namaskar. Ha is the symbol of surya. In Hinduism and yoga philosophies you can find seed sounds for deities, abstract concepts, and more. Om is one such seed sound. Each of the chakras has a seed sound, and Om corresponds to the 6th (ajna) chakra, the Third Eye. The Third Eye is considered the “eye of knowledge” and “the teacher within.” It is our bridge between the physical and spiritual, between the bodily chakras and the crown chakra, which is not physical.

In yoga philosophy, the sound Om was literally the first thing. The vibrations of that first spoken Om emanated outward from the divine and led eventually to the created order. Sounds an awful lot like the Genesis account, in which the sound of God’s voice is the driving force behind creation, doesn’t it? Om is a profound symbol to meditate upon, and is the basic mantra of yoga, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Even the short syllable “om” is broken down in such meditation into something like “ah-oo-um,” A-U-M. The three syllables within the syllable provide further meditation. They are seen as symbols of the Hindu triad Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, of mind-body-soul, of creation-preservation-destruction. I would dare say it could be meditated upon as symbols of Father-Son-Holy Spirit.

Etymologically, Om may be related to the Hebrew word “Amen.” “Amen” is used to mean “verily,” “truly,” or “so be it.” “Om” is often part of longer mantras in which is has the same meanings. Because it is considered the sacred sound and the agent of creation, Om is sometimes said in yoga or Hinduism to be the name of God. In the Book of Revelation, Christ is referred to as “the Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the beginning of God’s creation. (Rev. 3:14)” In this context, Amen is a lot like Om, no?

This article is just a taste of the many meanings of Om. Only by meditating on the sacred syllable can we truly understand the symbolism contained in it. I encourage you, next time your yoga teacher chants Om in class, make the most of it. Chant along, feeling the vibrations of the word, knowing that one small sound can have a world of meaning. Namaste!

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