Om, sumo, and the universality of sound

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From Zihan Guo:

A Japanese expression I came upon in a reading from Takami sensei's class reminded me of the "om" you mentioned weeks ago in our class.

阿吽の呼吸(aun'nokokyū あうんのこきゅう)
 
It refers to the synchronization of breathing of sumo opponents before a match. I read about this in an article about an interview with a sumo wrestler. But the "aun あうん" part lingered in my mind. Then I realized that it was the Japanese transliteration of the "om" that you were telling the class that encompassed all sounds:  "a" and "un" signify the beginning and end of the cosmos respectively, or so wikipedia explains. The Japanese phrase means a harmonious, non-verbal communication.

Since om is the vocable that encompasses all sounds (and, indeed, all reality), I will provide extensive, encyclopedic descriptions of its phonology, etymology, and morphology.
 
Basic background

Ōṁ (or Aum) (About this soundlisten ; Sanskrit: ॐ, ओम्, romanizedŌṁ; Tamil: ௐ, ஓம்) is the sound of a sacred spiritual symbol in Indian religions, mainly in Hinduism, wherein it signifies the essence of the Ultimate Reality (parabrahman) which is consciousness (paramatman). More broadly, it is a syllable that is chanted either independently or before a spiritual recitation in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The meaning and connotations of Om vary between the diverse schools within and across the various traditions. It is also part of the iconography found in ancient and medieval era manuscripts, temples, monasteries and spiritual retreats in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

In Hinduism, Om is one of the most important spiritual symbols. It refers to Atman (Self within) and Brahman (ultimate reality, entirety of the universe, truth, divine, supreme spirit, cosmic principles, knowledge). The syllable is often found at the beginning and the end of chapters in the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other Hindu texts. It is a sacred spiritual incantation made before and during the recitation of spiritual texts, during puja and private prayers, in ceremonies of rites of passage (sanskara) such as weddings, and sometimes during meditative and spiritual activities such as Yoga.

The syllable Om is also referred to as Onkara/Omkara and Pranav/Pranava among many other names.

Common names and synonyms

The syllable Om is referred to by many names, including:

    • Praṇava (प्रणव); literally, "fore-sound", referring to Om as the primeval sound.
    • Oṅkāra (ओङ्कार) or oṃkāra (ओंकार); literally, "Om-maker", denoting the first source of the sound Om and connoting the act of creation.
    • Udgītha (उद्गीथ); meaning "song, chant", a word found in Samaveda and bhasya (commentaries) based on it, which is also used as a name of the syllable.
    • Akṣara (अक्षर); literally, "imperishable, immutable", and also "letter of the alphabet" or "syllable".
      • Ekākṣara; literally, "one letter of the alphabet", referring to its representation as a single ligature.
Origin and meaning

The etymological origins of ōm/āum have long been discussed and disputed, with even the Upanishads having proposed multiple Sanskrit etymologies for āum, including: from "ām" (आम्; "yes"), from "ávam" (आवम्; "that, thus, yes"), and from the Sanskrit roots "āv-" (अव्; "to urge") or "āp-" (आप्; "to attain"). In 1889, Maurice Blumfield proposed an origin from a Proto-Indo-European introductory particle "*au" with a function similar to the Sanskrit particle "atha" (अथ). However, contemporary Indologist Asko Parpola proposes a borrowing from Dravidian "*ām" meaning "'it is so', 'let it be so', 'yes'", a contraction of "*ākum", cognate with modern Tamil "ām" (ஆம்) meaning "yes".

Regardless of its original meaning, the syllable Om evolves to mean many abstract ideas even in the earliest Upanishads. Max Müller and other scholars state that these philosophical texts recommend Om as a "tool for meditation", explain various meanings that the syllable may be in the mind of one meditating, ranging from "artificial and senseless" to "highest concepts such as the cause of the Universe, essence of life, Brahman, Atman, and Self-knowledge".

The syllable Om is first mentioned in the Upanishads, the mystical texts associated with the Vedanta philosophy. It has variously been associated with concepts of "cosmic sound" or "mystical syllable" or "affirmation to something divine", or as symbolism for abstract spiritual concepts in the Upanishads. In the Aranyaka and the Brahmana layers of Vedic texts, the syllable is so widespread and linked to knowledge, that it stands for the "whole of Veda". The symbolic foundations of Om are repeatedly discussed in the oldest layers of the early Upanishads. The Aitareya Brahmana of Rig Veda, in section 5.32, for example suggests that the three phonetic components of Om (a + u + m) correspond to the three stages of cosmic creation, and when it is read or said, it celebrates the creative powers of the universe. The Brahmana layer of Vedic texts equate Om with bhur-bhuvah-svah, the latter symbolising "the whole Veda". They offer various shades of meaning to Om, such as it being "the universe beyond the sun", or that which is "mysterious and inexhaustible", or "the infinite language, the infinite knowledge", or "essence of breath, life, everything that exists", or that "with which one is liberated". The Samaveda, the poetical Veda, orthographically maps Om to the audible, the musical truths in its numerous variations (Oum, Aum, Ovā Ovā Ovā Um, etc.) and then attempts to extract musical meters from it.

Pronunciation

When occurring within spoken Classical Sanskrit, the syllable is subject to the normal rules of sandhi in Sanskrit grammar, with the additional peculiarity that after preceding a or ā, the au of aum does not form vriddhi (au) but guna (o) and is therefore pronounced as a monophthong with a long vowel ([oː]), ie. ōm not āum. Furthermore, the final m is often assimilated into the preceding vowel as nasalisation. As a result, Om regularly pronounced [õː] in the context of Sanskrit.

In the context of the Vedas, the vowel is pluta ("three times as long"), indicating a length of three morae (that is, the time it takes to say three syllables) — often interpreted as an overlong close-mid back rounded vowel (ō̄m [oːːm]). This extended duration is emphasised by denominations who regard it as more authentically Vedic, such as Arya Samaj.

The initial phonemic o of "Om" is the guna vowel grade of u, which reflects the older Vedic Sanskrit diphthong au. This being so, the syllable Om is often archaically considered as consisting of three phonemes: "a-u-m". Accordingly, some denominations maintain the archaic diphthong au viewing it to be more authentic.

Many languages related to or influenced by Classical Sanskrit, such as Hindustani, share its pronunciation of Om ([õː] or [oːm]).

(source of the above four sections)
 
I always say that om begins at the back / bottom of the vocal tract and progresses upward through its entire length, ending at the lips, from ārambh आरंभ ("inception")* to nirvāṇa निर्वाण ("extinction").
 
*I honestly do not know the correct / proper antonym for nirvana.  Suggestions welcome.
 
 

Selected readings



13 Comments »

  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 2:08 pm

    One of the wikipedia articles you link to gives a Japanese version as オーム, which is rather notably different from あうん separate and apart from the choice between hiragana and katakana. Perhaps these reflect different chains of historical transmission and/or different contexts of current use within Japan?

  2. Tim Lubin said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 3:00 pm

    You may be interested in a recent Harvard dissertation on OM:
    https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/17467527
    by Finnian Gerety (now at Brown):
    http://finniangerety.com/publications

    As Finnian points out, pra-nu- means "to sound, resonate, hum" and Caland according translates the noun praṇava "humming"; I tend to use "the resonance."

  3. Ronan Maye said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 6:41 pm

    Hi Dr. Mair, what do you think about "being" or "existence" as an antonym to nibbana/nirvana? Since nibbana/nirvana literally means "blowing out" and figuratively means "ceasing to exist," I thought that might be a good antonym for the figurative sense of the word.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:16 am

    Good suggestion, Ronan.

    I'd love to hear what others think about it, also an appropriate Sanskrit antonym.

  5. John Swindle said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:54 am

    Amen.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 8:23 am

    @John Swindle

    Clever!

    but

    amen (interj.)

    Old English, from Late Latin amen, from Ecclesiastical Greek amen, from Hebrew amen "truth," used adverbially as an expression of agreement (as in Deuteronomy xxvii.26, I Kings i.36), from Semitic root a-m-n "to be trustworthy, confirm, support."

    Compare similar use of Modern English certainly, absolutely. Used in Old English only at the end of Gospels, otherwise translated as Soðlic! or Swa hit ys, or Sy! As an expression of concurrence after prayers, it is recorded from early 13c.

    (source)

    For additional etymologies, back to the Semitic root, see:

    "Awoman: gender-free language in Congress" (1/4/21)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 11:44 am

    From Zhang He:

    Sharing a little story about Om.

    Some years ago when I was visiting Allahabad, India, after having gone in and out so many living Hindu temples, I asked the tour guide how a Hindu would recite a mantra. He said there were many of them, but he could try a simple one for me.

    Far out of my expectation, he started with a long O…..m with an extremely good baritone, followed by words like singing. I was very impressed and asked him if the first word om meant anything among the Hindus because I had also heard Tibetan recitation of O ma ni pad me hum. The guide told me simply as: "That's the beginning of everything , like baby's first cry, and sacred."

    The guide told me that he happened to be a leading voice in a Hindu society for mantra reciting / singing practice for many years.

  8. Gokul Madhavan said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    Nirvāṇa is usually contrasted with saṃsāra so that's the first antomym that comes to mind. Whether or not the one means "existence" and the other means "non-existence" is a much more complex question and one that has been answered in very different ways by different Buddhists across time and space and cultural/philosophical affiliation.

    Ronan is also correct that nirvāṇa literally means "blowing / puffing out" (as in to blow out or extinguish a flame). In that literal sense, any word that means "kindling a flame" would be an appropriate antonym: indhana is the first word that comes to mind.

    Another, somewhat more fanciful, possibility for "lighting a flame" would be uddīpana, since that is also used as a technical term in Sanskrit aesthetic theory to refer to any factor that "inflames" or "excites" a particular emotional state. That would provide a nice contrast to the emotional serenity suggested by nirvāṇa.

  9. Chris Button said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 1:14 pm

    Regarding オーム versus あうん, I wonder if the former could have fallen out of favor because of the オウム in the first part of Aum Shinrikyo?

  10. Dara Connolly said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 3:42 pm

    Japanese or Okinawan "lion dog" statues (komainu or shiisaa) are mounted in pairs at the gate of a shrine, one with its mouth open saying "a" and the other with closed mouth saying "un".

    From Wikipedia:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komainu
    This is a very common characteristic in religious statue pairs at both temples and shrines. The pattern is Buddhist in origin (see the article about the Niō, human-form guardians of Buddhist temples) and has a symbolic meaning: The open mouth is pronouncing the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced "a", while the closed one is uttering the last letter, which is pronounced "um", to represent the beginning and the end of all things.[4] Together they form the sound Aum, a syllable sacred in several religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

  11. Dara Connolly said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 3:44 pm

    Here is the source referenced in the Wikipedia article:
    http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/a/aun.htm

  12. David Marjanović said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:05 pm

    Vedic Sanskrit as recited here has [ɛː] & [ɔː] instead of [eː] & [oː].

    You'd expect the former pair to turn into the latter over time, though.

  13. Josh R. said,

    October 14, 2021 @ 7:53 pm

    J.W. Brewer said,
    "One of the wikipedia articles you link to gives a Japanese version as オーム, which is rather notably different from あうん separate and apart from the choice between hiragana and katakana. Perhaps these reflect different chains of historical transmission and/or different contexts of current use within Japan?"

    阿吽 is the older, created long before Japan had formed its current conventions on the transliteration of foreign words using katakana.

    I cannot speak to current Buddhist practices in Japan, other than to note that the cult religion Aum Shinrikyo used オウム to represent the sound. In the vernacular, 阿吽 is primarily (almost exclusively) used in the aforementioned "a-un no kokyuu" idiom, and occasionally in other, similar idioms.

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