Oṁ, the supreme combination of letters, denotes the supreme entities Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa and indicates the acme of spiritual tendency inherent in all jīva souls. Although oṁ is known and recognized widely in the majority of spiritual cultures of Eastern philosophy, from the Buddhists of Tibet to the Vedantists of Benares to the Theosophists of Los Angeles, at present only the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sampradāya has actually understood the full transcendental meaning of oṁ given in the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, the Vedānta, and the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
In the Ṛg Veda we find the following information:
oṁ ity etad brahmaṇo nediṣṭaṁ nāma yasmād uccāryamāna
eva saṁsāra-bhayāt tārayati tasmād-ucyate tāra iti
oṁ āsya jānanto nāma cid-viviktan mahaste viṣṇo
sumatiṁ bhajāmahe oṁ tat sat
tato ‘bhūt trivṛd-oṁkāro yo ‘vyakta prabhavaḥ svarāṭ
yat tal-liṅgaṁ bhagavato brahmaṇaḥ paramātmānaḥ
“One who chants oṁ, which is the closest form of Brahman, approaches Brahman. This liberates one from the fear of the material world; therefore, it is known as tāraka-brahman. O Viṣṇu, Your self-manifest name, oṁ, is the eternal form of cognizance. Even if my knowledge about the glories of reciting this name is incomplete, still, by the practice of reciting this name I will achieve that perfect knowledge. He who has unmanifested potencies and is fully independent manifests the vibration oṁkāra, which indicates Himself. Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān are the three forms He manifests.” (Ṛg Veda)
Oṁ is described throughout the Vedic literature and by the ācāryas, great spiritual masters, as the seed conception of theism. In the words of Śrīla Śrīdhara Deva Gosvāmī:
Oṁ means ‘Yes.’ Always, wherever we cast our glance to search, in one word the answer is ‘yes.’ Yes, what you are searching for, is. You are searching for happiness, pleasure, joy, fulfilment. You are in want, and in one word—yes—fulfilment is there. Oṁ takes the form of gāyatrī, then the Vedas and Vedānta-sūtra, then it takes the shape of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and the līlā, the divine pastimes of the Lord.
As a tree or fruit-bearing creeper begins with a seed, so everything begins with oṁ; the gāyatrī mantra begins with oṁ; the Vedas begin with oṁ; the Upaniṣads begin with oṁ; the Vedānta begins with oṁ; and the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam begins with oṁ. Therefore, it can safely be said that our search for Śrī Kṛṣṇa begins with oṁ.
Oṁ is the seed of theism. Nonetheless, there is a class of philosophers known as māyāvādīs who suggest that oṁ denotes Brahman, or the impersonal aspect of the absolute truth. This, however, does not correspond with the conclusion of the Vedas or the statements of the Supreme Brahman Himself. In Bhagavad-gītā, Kṛṣṇa Himself says, vedyaṁ pavitram oṁkāra. “I am the syllable oṁ.” As such, oṁ is known as the mahā-vākya (mahā-mantra) in the Vedas.
Oṁ clearly denotes Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and the Vedānta-sutra begins with oṁ. Yet the māyāvādī philosophers stress the mantra, “tat tvam asi,” which they interpret to mean “I am that, or I am God,” and they try to give less importance to oṁ.
Oṁ should never be thought of as impersonal. That is perhaps the greatest misconception among many philosophers of transcendence since the time of Śaṅkarācārya. The impersonal misconception of oṁ has become so popular that even personalist philosophers at the stage of practice are sometimes found to have developed an aversion to oṁ thinking it a means to impersonal realization.
Oṁ for that matter is non-different than the sound of Kṛṣṇa’s flute. Oṁ is never impersonal at any time—all that can be impersonal about oṁ is the misconception that one chooses to attach to it. The Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad discusses oṁ, and clearly establishes its nondifference from the Supreme Personality of Godhead:
catuh-śabdo bhavedeko hyoṁkāraḥ samudāhṛtaḥ
tamāddevaḥ paro rajas eti so-ahamityavad
hāryātmānam gopālo-ahamiti bhāvayet
“The sound vibration oṁ denotes the catur-vyuha-tattva of Śrī Balārama, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, and Śrī Kṛṣṇa. As oṁ transcends the three qualities of material nature, so also one should know oneself to be beyond the identification with the material body. ‘I am the eternal servitor of Gopāla (Śrī Kṛṣṇa the cowherd boy at Vṛndāvana)’—this consciousness must be maintained at all times.” (Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad 41-42)
The Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad further enlightens us that from the Devanāgarī script of oṁ we find the conjunct of four sounds to form one sound—A U Ṁ:
rohiṇī-tanayo rāmo a-kārākṣara-sambhavaḥ
taijasātmakaḥ pradyumno u-kārākṣara-sambhavaḥ
ardha-mātrātmakaḥ kṛṣṇo yasmin viśvaṁ pratiṣṭhitam
“The letter ‘A’ denotes Balārama, the son of Rohiṇī, who is the substratum of the entire universe. The letter ‘U’ denotes Pradyumna, who is the supersoul of the universe. The letter ‘M’ denotes Aniruddha, who is the Supersoul of each individual being in the universe. And the bindu (dot) above the ‘Ṁ’ denotes Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the fountainhead of all Viṣṇu incarnations.” (Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad 55-56)
Meditation on oṁ begins in this way and one who has realized knowledge knows oṁ to be identical with Kṛṣṇa, vāsudevaḥ sarvam iti sa mahātmā su-durlabhaḥ. Such a great soul is very rare and can be understood to be the true knower of the Vedas.
Yet a further enlightened idea found in the Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad establishes the conception of oṁ as connotative of the supreme entities Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa:
praṇavatvena prakṛtiṁ vadanti brahma-vādinaḥ
tasmād oṁkāra-sambhūto gopālo viśva-sambhavaḥ
“The wise and enlightened sages declare that the svarūpa-śakti of Bhagavān, Śrī Rādhā, being the prime mūla-prakṛti, is non-different from oṁ. Gopāla, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the universe, is also non0different from oṁ.” (Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad 58)
To emphasize that the seed of līlā, or eternal pastimes, is inherent in the seed mantra oṁ, the next verse of Gopāla-tāpanī states that oṁ and the kāma-bīja-mantra, ‘klīṁ,’ are also non-different.
kliṁ-aum-kārasyaikyatvam pathyate brahmavādibhiḥ
mathurāyām viśeśena mām dhyāyan mokṣam aṣnute
“The brahmavādīs, men of transcendental wisdom, know it for certain that the kāma-bīja-mantra, klīṁ, and the monosyllable oṁ are one and the same. One who goes to Mathurā Purī and meditates on Vraja Gopāla, by uttering either klīṁ or oṁ, attains the ultimate destination of the soul after giving up this present material body.” (Gopāla–tāpanī Upaniṣad 59)
Since oṁ and klīṁ have been established by the Upaniṣads as non-different, we can thus examine the nature of the klīṁ mantra to better understand the conception of the rasa-tattva, divine mellows, in oṁ. Oṁ is complete with rasa, mellows, but it is in a seed form. It is also a fact that mantras such as the Gopāla-mantra and the Kāma-gāyatrī-mantra, both of which begin with klīṁ, are properly chanted by first uttering oṁ.
Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura, a most highly qualified, realized devotee, has given a substantial illumination of the kāma-bīja-mantra, klīṁ, so let us try to understand oṁ from that realized standpoint. Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura explains the meaning of kāma-bīja thus: klīṁ is the seed, kāma-bīja, or the primary cause, of all-love. Kāma-bīja is connotative of the entities Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, the predominated and predominating Moieties of the Absolute Truth. (Klīṁ—that which denotes a subject and gives its attributes by implication.)
“K” is Kṛṣṇa, the leading hero, with His personal form of eternity, knowledge, and bliss, ka-kāraḥ puruṣaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ. “L” is celebrated as the blissful happiness of love, the beauty of the pleasure of the divine couple, “L” is also celebrated as Lalitā, la-kāro lalitā para. “I” is Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, the leading heroine, who is the eternal queen of Vṛndāvana, i-kārāḥ prakṛti rādhā. “M” is the sweetness of bliss occurring when the divine couple kiss. The bindu (dot) above the “Ṁ” is said to be their kissing, the half-moon shape of the Devanāgri nasal letter is their embracing.
If one chants oṁ remembering the words of Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad and the words of Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura, then one can attain all spiritual perfection. But if one insists on considering oṁ as a manifestation of the impersonal brahman, then one certainly cheats oneself of the chance of being reinstated as an eternal servant of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa. The impersonal conception as is preached by many of the so-called followers of Śaṅkarācārya has simply caused a great confusion in the spiritual field and such way of thinking should be strictly avoided by all aspiring devotees.
Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu has personally said:
māyāvādī-bhāṣya śunile haya sarva nāśa
“Anyone who hears the impersonal commentary of the māyāvāda school is completely doomed.” (C.c. Madhya-līlā 6.196)
If one comes under the sway of the impersonal conception, one certainly becomes no better than an atheist. Where is the question of theism if one says that God has no form or that he himself is God? Theism means that there is God, His pleasure potency, Śrī Rādhā, and Their eternal servants, the jīva souls.
Śrīla A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmī Prabhupāda has said:
The sound of oṁ in the beginning of every Vedic hymn addresses the Supreme Lord. Because the impersonalists are very much afraid of addressing the Supreme Lord Kṛṣṇa by His innumerable names, they prefer to vibrate the transcendental sound oṁkāra. But they do not realize that oṁkāra is the sound representation of Kṛṣṇa. The jurisdiction of Kṛṣṇa consciousness extends everywhere and one who knows Kṛṣṇa consciousness is blessed. Those who do not know Kṛṣṇa are in illusion, and so knowledge of Kṛṣṇa is liberation, and ignorance of Him is bondage.
The goal of meditation on oṁ is never to give up one’s individual identity and merge with the Supreme. That is inherent in the mantra as I have stated in my opening paragraph. The inherent identity of the jīva soul as the eternal servant of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa is included in the oṁ mantra. This is given support by Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī in his description of the alphabetical constituents of the mantra as follows:
a-kāreṇocyate kṛṣṇaḥ sarva-lokaika-nāyakaḥ
u-kārenocyate rādhā ma-kāro jīva-vācakaḥ
“Oṁ is a combination of the letters A, U, and Ṁ. The letter ‘A’ refers to Śrī Kṛṣṇa. The Letter ‘U’ refers to Śrī Rādhā, and the letter ‘Ṁ’ refers to the jīva soul.”
Thus, according to Jīva Gosvāmī, the inherent position of the jīva soul in the oṁ mantra is that of a maidservant of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa. Now one may ask the question that if even the service of Śrī Śrī Rādh- Kṛṣṇa is inherent in oṁ as in klīṁ, then what need is there to chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra?
kṛṣṇa-mantra haite habe saṁsāra-mocana
kṛṣṇa-nāma haite pābe kṛṣṇera caraṇa
“The Kṛṣṇa gāyatrī mantra, or oṁ, liberates one from repeated birth and death in this world; the holy name of Kṛṣṇa gives one shelter at the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa.” (C.c. Ādi-līlā 7.73)
pañcama puruṣārtha sei prema-mahādhana
kṛṣṇera mādhurya-rasa karāya āsvādana
“Love of Godhead is so exalted that it is considered to be the fifth goal of human life. By awakening one’s love of Godhead, one can attain the platform of conjugal love, tasting it even during the present span of life.” (C.c. Ādi-līlā 7.144)
The gāyatrī mantra, or oṁ, helps us up to the stage of liberation, and then the mantra retires. The holy name of Kṛṣṇa however continues even after liberation. In fact, it is the holy name of Kṛṣṇa that enables us to develop spontaneous love of Kṛṣṇa.
Oṁ is considered the bīja, or seed, whereas kṛṣṇa–nāma is considered the phalaṁ, or fruit. The fruit, which is sweet and palatable to our taste, has the seed within. Thus oṁ is considered to be present in kṛṣṇa–nāma. One can say that kṛṣṇa–nāma is also present in oṁ. That is true, but one cannot taste the sweetness of kṛṣṇa–nāma in oṁ. Chewing the seed is not comparable to chewing the fruits. The juice of the fruit of the holy name of Kṛṣṇa is the sweet taste of pure love of Godhead.
Oṁ emanates from the flute of Śrī Kṛṣṇa; it then manifests as gāyatrī, then as the Vedas, Vedānta, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and the last verse of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam recommends the chanting of the holy names.
praṇāmo duḥkha-śamanas taṁ namāmi hariṁ param
“Kṛṣṇa’s holy name can relieve us from all undesirable sinfulness, all filthy characteristics, and all miseries. Chant the name of Kṛṣṇa! Do this; nothing else is necessary. Take this! Chant the holy name of Kṛṣṇa and begin your real life in this dark age with the most broad and wide theistic conception. Let us all bow down to Him.” (Bhāg. 12.13.23)
Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu used to pass His days and nights at Jagannātha Purī in the company of His intimate devotees tasting the unlimited mellow sweetness of love of Godhead by constantly chanting the holy names:
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma rāma rāma hare hare
Caitanya Mahāprabhu has composed the Śikṣāṣṭaka, eight essential verses, in which He describes the complete development of pure devotion from beginning to end. From these verses we can fully understand the necessity for chanting the mahā-mantra. In the first verse of Śikṣāṣṭaka, the Lord says:
ānandāmbudhi-vardhanaṁ prati-padaṁ pūrṇāmṛtāsvādanaṁ
sarvātma-snapanaṁ paraṁ vijayate śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtanam
“The holy name of Kṛṣṇa cleanses the mirror of the heart and extinguishes the fire of misery in the forest of birth and death. As the evening lotus blooms in the moon’s cooling rays, the heart begins to blossom in the nectar of the name. And at last the soul awakens to its real treasure –– a life of love with Kṛṣṇa. Again and again tasting nectar, the soul dives and surfaces in the ever-increasing ocean of ecstatic joy. All phases of the self of which we may conceive are fully satisfied and purified and at last conquered by the all-auspicious influence of the holy name of Kṛṣṇa.” (Śikṣāṣṭaka 1)
In his Vivṛti commentary on Śrī Śikṣāṣṭaka, Śrī Siddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura lists seven transcendental glories of chanting kṛṣṇa-nāma that are contained in this first verse of Śikṣāṣṭaka. He lists them as follows:
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma cleanses the mirror of the heart.
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma extinguishes the fire of material existence.
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma bestows the supreme goal of life.
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma prepares us for wholesale surrender in mādhurya-rasa.
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma gives us a taste of the infinite ocean of ecstasy.
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma fully satisfies and purifies all phases of the self.
- Kṛṣṇa-nāma is the essential ingredient in all devotional service.
In the subsequent verses of the Śikṣāṣṭaka, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu describes the processes of devotional service, namely, sādhu-saṅga, bhajana-kriyā, anartha-nivṛtti, niṣṭhā, ruci, kṛṣṇāśakti, bhāva, vipralambha-prema, and prema-bhajana––vipralambha-sambhoga. Those who have realized knowledge of the holy name of Kṛṣṇa, by the grace of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, know the Śikṣāṣṭaka to be a description of chanting the holy name.
The Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra is actually mādhurya-mantra. It is filled with the most inconceivable sweet nectar of the mādhurya-rasa. The mādhurya-rasa means the sweetest rasa in which all other rasas are accommodated. The mādhurya-rasa is called the mukhya-rasa, or the chief rasa. It is the sweetest and most accommodating rasa.
Śrīla A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmī Prabhupāda often used to say that everything is there in the mahā-mantra. Yes, that is a fact. Not only is oṁ present in the mahā-mantra, but the twenty-four hour līlā of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, known as aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā, is also non-different from the mahā-mantra. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura has explained this in his Bhajana–rahasya with reference to the Śikṣāṣṭaka prayers:
In the sixteen-word Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra there are eight pairs of names. Corresponding to these eight pairs, Caitanya Mahāprabhu has recited the eight verses of Śikṣāṣṭaka.
The first pair of names—Hare Kṛṣṇa—signifies the subduer of ignorance and the performance of nāma-saṅkīrtana with faith.
The second pair—Hare Kṛṣṇa—means Kṛṣṇa’s names are invested with all potencies. One should have attachment for bhajana by taking shelter of the holy names in the association of sādhus. Gradually, by performing bhajana, anarthas (unwanted contamination) are destroyed. As anarthas are removed, niṣṭhā (firm faith) develops.
The third pair—Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa—indicates the company of pure devotees and becoming fixed in firm faith throughout the day and night.
By the fourth pair—Hare Hare—unmotivated devotion is awakened along with a taste for nāma-saṅkīrtana.
The fifth pair—Hare Rāma—represents the taste for pure service along with remembrance of the holy names as prescribed in the Śikṣāṣṭaka.
In the sixth pair—Hare Rāma—chanting in the beginning stage of transcendental emotion leads to material detachment and complete attachment to Kṛṣṇa.
The seventh pair—Rāma Rāma—awakens attachment for the mellow of conjugal rasa, the shelter of Śrī Rādhā’s lotus feet, and feelings of separation.
The eighth pair—Hare Hare—leads to attainment of the goal of life—loving service to Śrī Śrī Rādhā Kṛṣṇa following in the mood of the gopīs of Vṛndāvana throughout the eight divisions of day and night pastimes, aṣṭa-kālīya-līlā.
The conclusion is that one who knows the meaning of oṁ is a real student of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and one who knows the meaning of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam certainly chants the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra as directed by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu in His Śikṣāṣṭaka. Paraṁ vijayate śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtanaṁ!