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  • Amit Majmudar

Aumcoming: Meditations on a Sound

Amit Majmudar on the divine Aum


The distinctive line that overhangs Devanagri script is the visible, that is, the deceptive linearity of time. The Sanskrit letters underneath that line speak of cycles of creation and destruction, the recurrences of karma, the return of the soul into embodiment: time as a circle, not a line. Time is a circle that seems to be a unidirectional line in the same way the earth looks flat to the eye while actually a sphere.


Devanagari, incidentally, is a compound word, literally, Godcity: the script with which civilization writes the divine. No word, no syllable is as divine as Aum. Its shape on the page, you will notice, links no less than six interrupted circles. That is the liberatory nature of the meditation-syllable, given visible expression, like a pictograph: The breaking of the circle, freedom from the cycles of time, karma, rebirth. Above it, highest, cradled in the topmost crescent, a dot: The iota of the I, the third eye, the point without depth or breadth that is the self dissolving in Brahman.

 

“Aum” opens hymns, prayers, sutras, and even some Upanishads. It has the same function as hwaet! in an epic like Beowulf, or the mysterious syllables (like alif lam mim) that sometimes crackle like static before individual Qur’anic suras. The syllable Aum, in that position, does not carry a specific meaning. The vibration clears the pipes, readies the reciter. Ritual adores preliminaries: the intricate preparation of the Vedic mandala before the sacrifice, the Brahmin’s morning ablutions before praying at sunrise; the washing before prayers or wudu, the unrolling of the mat; clearing off the desk before studying, and marshalling of pencils and textbooks; stocking up the house with a cradle, diapers, and baby clothes before the due date.


Aum serves there as the let before the theorem, the sapient-incipient echo recapitulating the Big Bang in miniature. Just as Once upon a time primes the mind to receive a fairy tale, Aum primes the mind to receive transcendence and peace.

 

Peace. The hallmark of a society in a late stage of rot is how only the worst words are experienced as charged with power: Racial slurs and expressions of hate, in our society. In other societies, in other eras, phrases such as God is great or God wills it have warped into murderous war cries. In modern India, even Jai Shri Rama, “Victory to Rama,” carries an aggressive, political connotation in some contexts.


Aum has resisted that transformation for millennia. Even now, in the ever-deepening nadir of the Kali yuga, its lingering hum enforces peace in its hearers and in its speaker, mysteriously canceling out the sonic jaggedness of noise, ordering chaos in real time. It cannot be dragooned into service as a war cry or slogan. Its uncanny power strikes up a daily chorus in yoga classes in countries where everything else in the Dharmic tradition is unknown or disregarded. To experience Aum is to get an insight into the earlier worlds of Celtic spell-casting and ancient shamanic faith healing, in which the right words could bring about bounteous harvests or transformative cures.


In our time, only poets retain this faith in the positive powers of language, holdouts on solitary islands, barricaded behind books, still believing in the cause long after the war against the corruption of speech has been lost.       

 

Because Aum is a syllable, there is nothing to translate. But even the transliteration is eloquent. “Om” is also commonly used, but less accurate than the three letters. This is because the syllable is dynamic, bringing the voice and breath from the back of the throat to the mouth to the lips in a single exhalation of sound, combining aah, ooo, muh in that sequence. Three subatomic quarks shiver within the atom of the sacred syllable: hence A-U-M. The tongue never gets involved; the sound precedes and excludes the wagging pink muscle that shapes the voice into logos and lying, sophia and sophistry with equal ease.

 

The people who invented or discovered Aum were terrified of amnesia, corruption, and the transience of all things. They were so hyperaware of impermanence that they went to war against it. The weapon they chose was unique to their civilization. The Vedic Hindus decided they would not build pyramids or Nazca-like earth-engravings visible from the sky hundreds of years later. They chose not stone but voice, not architecture but poetry.


They did not write their poems down—palm leaves and birch bark decayed, too, and like Plato they believed that writing was the crutch that taught memory never to walk on its own two legs. Instead the Vedic Hindus would pass down poems from generation to generation, orally, precisely intoned and recited. These poems would be a mechanism to communicate with the Gods. Their poems became the Vedic hymns, the oldest, continuously orally transmitted corpus of poetry in existence. They called the language Sanskrit, “perfected.” Not a letter or syllable was to be altered from then on. By taking a vow of poverty, by dedicating their teens and twenties to relentless memorization, a small group, the Brahmins of India (actually only a small percentage of that much larger group), managed that feat. To listen to a Vedic hymn recited on YouTube is to hear something coeval with Sumeria and Egypt, exactly as it sounded—not some scholarly reconstruction, but the thing itself.


Aum is part of that tradition, too. They gave that syllable special status because it preceded and excluded Sanskrit while still being a part of Sanskrit. Aum is the perfect transmittable unit of the perfected language, not a word but a syllable, capable of escaping linguistic drift entirely.


The yogi speaks this syllable to enter meditation—and has been doing so for millennia, unbothered by foreign invasions and their inevitable vernacular hybridizations. Aum is a skeleton key into samadhi. In the Kali yuga, all that is beautiful and true is destined, some say, to decay and be forgotten. Sanskrit itself remains, even for many devout Hindus, a Mount Kailasa—sacred, but never scaled.

 

Sanskrit’s hymns, plays, poems, Upanishads, commentaries, and story collections may all vanish in the fires of history, like Nalanda, or the fires of time, like modern-day palm-leaf manuscript collections turning to slime on humid shelves, or the far more conclusive fires of civilizational amnesia. On the eve of the Tandava, when Shiva Nataraja will dance the cataclysm in a sphere of fire, one last indestructible remnant will thrum under his foot, spore and sphota, nidus and neuron, stem-cell syllable, perfected ovum: Aum.


 

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. Majmudar’s essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, the New York Times, and the Times of India, among several other publications. His most recent collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Twin A: A Memoir (Slant Books, 2023) is the title of a recently published memoir, in prose and verse, about his son’s struggle with congenital heart disease. His volume of literary essays, The Great Game: Essays on Poetics, is forthcoming from Acre Books in November 2024. Learn more at www.amitmajmudar.com. Tweets @AmitMajmudar

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