Here is the Sanskrit for the Pranava Bhavana, Sutra 16 of The Radiance Sutras, and verse number 39 of the text. ( because there are 23 verses of Devi’s questions and banter back and forth between Devi and Bhairava, which I do not number.) pranavādisamuccārāt plutante sūnyabhāvānāt sūnyayā paraya saktyā sūnyatām eti bhairavi Keep in mind that this text was composed to be chanted. It was never intended to be written down, that came later. Opening up the Sanskrit a little we see and hear:
pranava adi sam uccharat plutante shunya bhavanatshunyaya paraya shaktya shunyatam eti bhairavi pranava- pra (“pre,” before) + nava, (roar or shout of joy). The primal sound of the universe continually and exuberantly singing itself into existence. Nava also means boat (to travel the ocean of infinity). OM for short. adi – beginning with, commencement. Adi also means “etcetera” and refers to the other pranavas. Vedic pranava is AUM; Shiva pranava is Hum; Shakti pranava is Hrim. samuccara - to go out together, to go upwards, ascend, rise (as the Sun), issue forth; utter, pronounce, to talk together. Ucchara is rising, the rising of pranava from verbal to subtle vibration - spandana - to spaciousness. plutante - pluta: “floating, swimming, bathing, submerged, protracted, flooded with, overflowing, prolonged, prolated or lengthened (as a vowel). Plu is also to navigate, and to vanish by degree. sunya - vacuum, emptiness. The radiant spaciousness. Heaven. bhavana - meditating, feeling, reflecting, contemplating, imagining, cultivating. (also, becoming, and passion, the 8 or 9 bhava-rasa pairs). sunyaya - by that sacred emptiness. paraya- by the transcendental, by the supreme. shaktya - shakti, divine power or energy. sunyatam – the emptiness. bhairavi - O beloved.
*definitions are from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, the usage of adi to refer to the pranavas is from Swami Lakshmanjoo’s teachings. My first thought when I look at this is, 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.
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! Going toward the most literal translation, we could say: “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.”
In terms of pure instruction - how to chant or practice japa with pranava, we could say, Hum a sound, such as ahhhhh . . . uuuuuuu . . . mmmmmm, or hreeeeemmmm, or eemmm, or even the sound hum itself. Bathe in the sound with infinite leisure . . .
As the sound fades into an imperceptible hum, it will carry you into the hum of the universe. This is how the Sutra is humming itself to me lately:
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 annamayakosha (your physical body,) and your pranamayakosha (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.
There is a lot more meaning encoded in the Sanskrit. My notes include 30 or so pages of versions of Sutra 16, using various definitions and associations of pranava suggested in the Upanishads and Tantras.
I have benefitted greatly by the work of Jaideva Singh, who worked closely with Lakshman Joo on a translation of the VBT. Here is a page from his version: