Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge

The Word which expresses Him is Om

“In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel according to St. John, and “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This statement echoes, almost exactly, a verse from the Rig Veda: “In the beginning was Brahman, with whom was the Word; and the Word was truly the supreme Brahman.” The philosophy of the Word may be traced, in its various forms and modifications, down from the ancient Hindu scriptures through the teachings of Plato and· the Stoics to Philo of Alexandria and the author of the Fourth Gospel. Perhaps an actual historical link can be proved to exist between all these succeeding schools of thought, or perhaps it cannot. The point is not very important for our purposes. Truth may be rediscovered independently, in many different epochs and places. The power of the Word, for good and for evil, has been recognized by mankind since the dawn of history. Primitive tribes enshrined it in their taboos and secret cults. Twentieth-century cultures have prostituted it to the uses of politics and commercial advertisement.

Words and ideas are inseparable. You cannot have the idea of God without the word which expresses God. But why necessarily use the word OM? The Hindus reply that, because God is the basic fact of the universe, he must be represented by the most basic, the most natural, the most comprehensive of all sounds. And they claim that this sound is OM (or AUM as it should be properly pronounced). To quote Swami Vivekananda: “The first letter, A, is the root sound, the key pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by the closed lip, and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding-board of the mouth. Thus, OM represents the whole phenomena of sound-producing.” .

If any of us feel that a mere argument from phonetics is insufficient to establish this claim, we should remember, also, that OM. is almost certainly the most ancient word for God that has come down to us through the ages. It has been used by countless millions of worshippers — always in the most universal sense; implying no special attribute, referring to no one particular deity. If such use can confer sanctity, then OM is the most sacred word of all.

But what really matters is that we should appreciate the power of the Word in our spiritual life; and this appreciation can come only through practical experience. People who have never tried the practice of repeating the name of God are apt to scoff at it. To them it seems so empty, so mechanical. “Just repeating the same word over and over!” they exclaim scornfully. “What possible good can that do?”

The truth is that we are all inclined to flatter ourselves — despite our daily experience to the contrary — that we spend our time thinking logical, consecutive thoughts. In fact, most of us do no such thing. Consecutive thoughts about any one problem occupy a very small proportion of our waking hours. More usually, we are in a state of reverie — a mental fog of disconnected sense-impressions, irrelevant memories, nonsensical scraps of sentences from books and newspapers, little darting fears and resentments, physical sensations of discomfort, excitement or ease. If, at any given moment, we could take twenty human minds and inspect their workings, we would probably find one, or at most two, which were functioning rationally. The remaining eighteen or nineteen minds would look more like this: “Ink-bottle. That time I saw him; in love with the night mysterious. Jimmy is trying to get my job, Mary says I’m fat. Big toe hurts… Soup good… etc., etc.” Because we do nothing to control this reverie, it is largely conditions by external circumstances. The weather is cloudy, so our mood is sad. The sun comes out, our mood brightens. Insects begin to buzz around us, and we turn irritable and nervous. Often it is as simple as that. Similarly, the name of God will change the climate of your mind. It cannot do otherwise.

In the Hindu scriptures we often find the phrase: “To take refuge in His name.” (See also the Book of Proverbs, xviii, 10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe.”) This phrase, which at first may sound rather too poetical, comes to have a very real and literal significance in our spiritual life. When the mind is so violently disturbed by pain or fear or the necessities of some physical emergency that it cannot possibly be used for meditation or even rational thought, there is still one thing that you can always do; you can repeat His name, over and over. You can hold fast to that throughout all the tumult. Once you have really tested and proved the power of the holy Word, you will rely upon it increasingly. Through constant practice, the repetition becomes automatic. It no longer has to be consciously willed. It is rather like the thermostat on a water heater or a refrigerator. Whenever the mind reaches an undesirable “temperature” you will find that the repetition begins of itself and continues as long as it is necessary.

Mere repetition of God’s name is, of course, insufficient — as Patanjali points out. We must also meditate upon its meaning. But the one process follows naturally upon the other. If we persevere in our repetition, it will lead us inevitably into meditation. Gradually, our confused reverie will give way to concentrated thought. We cannot long continue to repeat any word without beginning to think about the reality which it represents. Unless we are far advanced in spiritual practice, this concentration will not be maintained for more than a few moments; the mind will slip back into reverie again. But it will be a higher kind of reverie — a reverie dominated by sattwa rather than by rajas or tamas. And the Name, perpetually uttered within it, will be like a gentle plucking at our sleeve, demanding and finally recapturing our attention.  


In India, when a disciple comes to his teacher for initiation, he is given what is called a mantram. The mantram consists of one or more holy names which the disciple is to repeat and meditate upon, throughout the rest of his life. It is regarded as very private and very sacred — the essence, as it were, of the teacher’s instructions to that particular disciple, and the seed within which spiritual wisdom is passed down from one generation to another. You must never tell your mantram to any other human being. The act of repeating it is called japam. You can make japam aloud if you are alone, or silently if you are with other people. It is convenient to do this with a rosary — thus linking thought with physical action (which is one of the great advantages of all ritual) and providing a small but sufficient outlet for the nervous energy of the body, which might otherwise accumulate and disturb the mind. Most spiritual aspirants resolve to make a certain fixed amount of japam everyday. The rosary serves to measure this — one bead to each repetition of the mantram so that you are not distracted by having to count.

Needless to add, the practice of making japam is not confined to the Hindu religion. The Catholics teach it also. “Hail Mary” is a mantram. A form of mantram is also recognized by the Greek Orthodox Church. Many so-called enlightened people regard this frequent offering of one and the same prayer as useless and even trifling, calling it mechanical and a thoughtless occupation of simple people. But unfortunately they do not know the secret which is revealed as a result of this mechanical exercise, they do not know how this frequent service of the lips imperceptibly becomes a genuine appeal of the heart, sinks down into the inward life, becomes a delight, becomes as it were, natural to the soul, bringing it light and nourishment and leading it on to union with God.

Source: ‘Patanjali Yoga Sutras’, Swami Prabhavananda

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