The Science of AUM in the Tradition of Tantric Shaivism

Posted on in On Our Radar by Christopher Tompkins

The 3,000+-year yoga tradition represents a chronicle of spiritual evolution, one that documents the search by humankind for lasting happiness, contentment, and peace. Gradually, innovations surfaced within the practice of yoga that were allegedly powerful enough not only to eliminate fear, but also to defeat death itself.

The Sound of Liberation

Nearly all of the yoga lineage streams derive from the early Tantras (6th century A.D.). These were the first texts to develop a sequence of practices meant to attune the subtlest layers of our objective awareness with our own ivinity. This yoga was based on a subtle body science derived from the Bhagavad Gita, which dates to the 3rd century BC. Prior to this text, spiritual awakening was thought to be something a yogi could attain only at death, and only after many lifetimes of practice. The idea was that after mastering a disciplined practice—which included breath control, sense withdrawal, and concentration on the third eye—a yogi could attune his awareness to a particular sound as his soul exited his body. If heard, this sound, the resonance (nāda) of the divine Self, would theoretically draw his soul into a state of reunion with that universal Self. This resonance was that of the sacred syllable “AUM,” celebrated in yoga texts and traditions as the unbroken cosmic vibration of the universal soul.

Experiencing Yoga: The Song of Life

For the first time in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna, who personifies the Universal “soul” or “self,” presents a picture of the subtle body that radically shifted the theology. In the seventh chapter of the Gita, Krishna declares that the “primal” syllable (pranava) AUM is not just something a lucky yogi attunes with at the moment of death. Rather, Krishna declares that this resonance is the foundation of life.

Krishna explains that the soul, as it enters the body at birth through the crown of the head, is propelled into the body by the feminine “power which creates life” (jīvabhūtā). This sacred syllable AUM itself is the personification of the divine as the unborn or “unstruck” (anāhata) resonance that unites all souls—always. He moreover teaches that this incredible resonance, though it extends beyond (para) the range of our ordinary hearing, can be attuned to by tracing the audible parts of AUM to their source.

Illustrating the 5 continuous sounds of "OM" in Tantric Practice

In other words, when we attune our inner ear with the subtle parts of the syllable, we discover an enticing resonance that penetrates both within and beyond this reality. The experience of attuning to this phenomenal sound is referred to as paratantra, “the extension of awareness from here to [what is] beyond.”

Those yogis who sought to experience the full range and power of this sound beyond the range of normal hearing became known as Tantrikās, or Tantrics for short. A Tantrik yogi is one who attunes with the arising power of AUM’s universal resonance in this very body, resulting in the experience of jīvanmukti, “embodied liberation.”

The Rising of AUM: The Revolutionary Practice of Ucchara

In the Vedas and other pre-tantric texts, the “un-struck” syllable was thought to have three letters: A, U, and MA. The letter A represented creation and U the middle phase of what has been created, while MA was said to represent dissolution or death. But later the Tantrics argued that this is not a sound that ever dies. Moreover, as the un-struck sound, it is comprised only of vowels, since consonants are caused by the lips, tongue, or teeth striking and thus breaking up the flow of vowels. Therefore, the arising sequence of “Aaahhhh…” plus “Oooo…” cannot, they argued, be followed by “MA,” which represents the death of the syllable’s vibration on the lips.

Attuning to the Honey Bee—the Resonance of the Divine Self.

Instead, the Tantrics introduced the defining practice of Tantric Yoga. Known as the Ucchāra, “utterance” or “elevation” practice, its goal was to unite the audible parts of AUM when uttered with a long exhale as one continuous, unbroken syllable. Choreographed with an innovative three-part breath regulation technique (pranayama), and a disciplined concentration practice, the sound of H is to rise from the navel into the heart, join with the vowel A (“aaaahhh…”) in the heart, then the vowel U (“ooohhh…”) in the mouth before coalescing as a dynamic, ascending auditory vibration into the final letter, celebrated as the resonance of the honey bee.

This is the all-powerful vowel that resonates from the upper palate, just below the third eye center, into and beyond the crown of the head. Spelled properly, the letter looks like our M except that it has a dot or “seed point” (bindu) above or below it (M), which indicates the vowel sound (“nnnngggg”). It is this sound, the “endless resonance” (nāda) of the “seed of life,” that becomes the target for the Tantric yogi.

The liberating power of this final letter may also be found at the end of the so-called “chakra seed mantras.” The daily practice applied with these mantras, still unknown to modern yogis, is given to us in countless unpublished Tantric texts. Thus we stand at the edge of great discovery, that which was celebrated by the Tantrics of old as the birthright of all human beings to experience—the resonance of embodied liberation.

Christopher Tompkins earned three advanced degrees from Harvard and UC Berkeley in Sanskrit studies and is working toward his PhD by poring over tens of thousands of rare Tantric texts ( A thoughtful and charismatic educator, Chris will present at the first Om Rising Yoga Festival taking place at Camp Navarro in Mendocino County on Oct. 5-8.

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