Pranava



Sutra 16, Verse 39 From the Radiance Sutras, A New Translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra

The universe is an expanding shout of joy. A jam session is vibrating throughout creation – tune in. Feel it humming in your body. Hear it in the sounds of nature all around you. Listen to the deep, blissful currents of life evolving itself. This is just a small part of the meaning 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. OM is the original OMG! In The Radiance Sutras, Shiva says of pranava:

The roar of joy
That set the worlds in motion
Is reverberating in your body
And the space between all bodies.

It’s the breath of creation
Rising fresh in every moment –
The Sun breathing forth its light,
The waves on all waters of the world,
The blood flowing in your veins,
The whisper of inhale and exhale.
Every moan of sorrow
and ripple of laughter,
Each sigh of Ahhh and Mmmm,
Is a note in that vast chord.

Every vibration that touches your ears
Is unfolding the original ecstasy.
Here in the music you never tire of,
In the enchantment of holy hymns,

The ocean of sound invites you
Into its spacious embrace.
Listen.
The great hum is calling you home.




प्रणवादिसमुच्चारात्प्लुतान्ते शून्यभावानात्।
शून्यया परया शक्त्या शून्यताम् एति भैरवि॥ ३९॥
praṇavādisamuccārātplutānte śūnyabhāvānāt|
śūnyayā parayā śaktyā śūnyatām eti bhairavi || 39 ||

Pranava aadi sam uch chaaraat
Plutaante shoonya bhaavanaat
Shoonyayaa parayaa shaktyaa
Shoonyataam eti Bhairavi 39


In the superb Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary, we see:

pranava - pra (“pre,” before) + nava, (shout of joy). The primal sound of the universe continually and ecstatically singing itself into existence. OM for short.

adi - beginning with, commencement.

samuccara - to go upwards, ascend, rise (as the Sun), issue forth; to emit sounds, utter, pronounce.

plutante - floating, swimming, bathing, submerged, protracted, flooded with, prolonged.

sunya - vacuum, emptiness. The radiant spaciousness. Heaven.

bhavana - meditating, feeling, reflecting, contemplating, imagining, cultivating.

sunyaya - by that sacred emptiness.

paraya - by the transcendental, by the supreme.

shaktya - shakti, divine power or energy.

sunyatam - the emptiness.

bhairavi - O beloved.

“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;” and -prana + va, the voice of prana.

All of these meanings make sense in terms of the dynamics of practice. In the mantra Yoga tradition in which I was trained, 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. If the mantra fades away into silence, cool. This approach is a bit like the performance of jazz. 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.

In the 1970s, when I began coaching other meditation teachers and advanced practitioners, I was amazed to discover that some of them did not get the memo about improvisation. There was no playfulness in their practice. They were diligently working at the mantra, forcing it, trying to pronounce it clearly and in the process boring a hole in their brain while simultaneously boring themselves to death and wondering why their lives had become arid and their health was suffering.

The style with which you engage with pranava shapes the flow of prana in your body. The way 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 continuously and make up its own meter. In so doing, it becomes endlessly interesting. The mantra 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 always be rising fresh. The free flow of pranava strengthens the free flow of prana.

The opposite is also true – if you use the mantra to block out thoughts, you may create blockage, and lose track of where you are on the path of your life. If you use the mantra to dissolve desires, you could 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 and each song unfolds a different aspect of pranava and teaches me something new about listening to infinity.



Dr. Lorin Roche holds a PhD from the University of California at Irvine, where his research focused on the language meditators generate to describe their inner experiences. He does one-to-one coaching and trains Yoga teachers in how to teach meditation. The Radiance Sutras, a new version of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, is available from Lorin’s website: lorinroche.com. If you would like coaching on your mantra Yoga practice, feel free to email lorin@lorinroche.com or call (310) 570 - 2803 (Google voice).