I had been wanting to get back to the Pranava sutra for years, and finally in January the time came to dive back into the Sanskrit of this sutra, which is about OM and listening to mantras. Pranava is the word used in the Upanishads and the Yoga Sutras to refer to OM as the hum of creation, and as a mantra you can say and think. There are many forms of mantras, they are all OM in essence, and the particular sound to use is the one that supports your life, your health, and your path through the world.
By the way, you can listen to this as a podcast here:
The universe is an expanding shout of joy. Tune in, feel it humming in your body, hear it in the sounds of life all around you. In yoga, listen to the deep and blissful currents of life evolving itself. This is just one of the meanings of the mantra OM. Om is the original shout, a cry of such exuberance that galaxies were set spinning and suns were sparked into light. This astonishing thought permeates the Upanishads and other texts that serve as the inspiration for our practice of yoga.
The mantra OM is shorthand for, “The cosmos is song.” The Yoga Sutras (I.29) refers to OM as Pranava, from pra (before, forward) + nava, (sound, shout, exult)*; the primal shout of exultation. In other words, OM is the original OMG!
In The Radiance Sutras, Shiva is conversing with his beloved, the Goddess Devi, on the mystery inside pranava. In Sutra 16, Shiva says:
Here is the basic glossary of the words in the Sutra.
Clearly, this is an instruction in mantra yoga. For years, my version of Sutra 16 read like this, as a straightforward instruction in mantra:
pranava adi sam uccharat plutante shunya bhavanat shunyaya paraya shaktya shunyatam eti bhairavi
Hum a sound, such as ahhhhh . . . uuuuuuu . . . mmmmmm, or hreeeeemmmm, Or even the sound hum itself.
Bathe in the sound with infinite leisure . . .
Continue to listen while the sound Dissolves into silence.
As the vibration fades Into an imperceptible hum, Follow it Into the hum of the universe.
Here is the sutra if I listen to Pranava according to its root structure, Pra + nava.
“The primal sound is vibrating within you, my Beloved. Find that exuberant shout resounding in your interior spaces, the sacred spaces of your heart and central nerve channels of your body. Float with the sound, know you are flooded by it always. Let it carry you upwards, like the rising of the sun, and melt with it into divine silence and infinite spaciousness. The shakti, the sacred power of space, will carry you into the dancing radiant emptiness that is the source of all.”
When yogis really love a word, they make up lots of nifty etymologies for it. In various texts, Pranava is parsed as:
- pra, “the Prakriti the world evolved out of,” + nava, new, fresh – “The eternal that is always new.” - pra, to evolve, + navam, boat, “the excellent boat to travel the ocean of infinity.” - pra, the “spontaneous generosity of divinity;” prasad, + nava, new, “every time you chant the mantra you are taken to a new level of divinity.” - prana + va, the voice of prana. - Pranava, the breath of creation.
These all make sense in terms of the dynamics of practice. In the mantra yoga tradition I was trained in, beginning in 1968, the teaching was to let the mantra arise fresh and sound different each time. Let it have its own rhythm, let it find its own level. Don’t do anything; Be with the mantra, and allow it to carry you beyond itself into the embrace of space.
This is a very jazz-like approach, in which you let the shimmering power of space and silence play your body like an instrument . This feels like listening to music while getting a massage and floating in a hot tub. Pranava adi samuccara plutante all the way.
Later, in the 70’s, when I started coaching other meditation teachers and advanced practitioners, I was amazed to discover that many of them did not get the memo about improvisation. There was no playfulness in their practice. They were diligently working at the mantra, trying to pronounce it clearly, and sort of boring a hole in their brain, and boring themselves to death. And wondering why their lives had become arid and their health was suffering.
Depending on how you engage with pranava, the flow of prana in your body is shaped. The style with which you listen to the mantra shapes the vibratory relationship between your annamaya kosha (your physical body,) and your pranamaya kosha (your life force or body of prana.) If you improvise with the mantra, it will change continually, make up its own meter, and in so doing, become endlessly interesting. It will also tend to change itself into the perfect sound to balance your body energies in this exact moment, enhancing your health and joy. The mantra will be always rising fresh. The free flow of pranava strengthens the free flow of prana.
One word of caution. If you use the mantra to block out thoughts, you may succeed – and as a result, lose track of where you are on the path of your life. If you use the mantra to dissolve desires, you might become passionless and lose your motivation. This might be just the ticket if you are a monk or nun, and have taken vows of obedience, poverty and celibacy, and cannot live your desires. But if you are not a nun or monk (clue: look down, are you wearing robes?) you need to stay in close touch with desire as your compass and motor.
One exciting realm where improvisation meets mantra is in the new wave of kirtan music pulsing around the world. I delight in the way the musicians are taking the ancient mantras and, with a daring spirit of innovation, finding the rock ‘n roll, the jazz, the hip hop in them. Each artist, each song, unfolds a different aspect of pranava and teaches me something new about listening to infinity.
* Dr. Christopher Key Chapple uses this etymology of Pranava in his translation of the Yoga Sutras, Yoga and the Luminous.
You can order The Radiance Sutras here. . . . and read the first part of the book here. Or you can just click here: