What is pranava?

in the context of Patanjali’s yoga sutra

We found this concept soon enough in the very first chapter, the one about enlightenment (Samādhi-Pāda), sutra 1.27 reads :
tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ ॥27॥
The name designating him is the mystical syllable om.

Praṇava means OM. And OM is a symbol for īśvara. In order to understand praṇava, we will need to understand īśvara and this will take us to the beginning of this set of sutras, which is:

īśvara-praṇidhānād-vā ॥23॥

In this chapter we are talking about how to obtain Samādhi and what this sutra states is you could also achieve it by devoting yourself to the Supreme Being. But lets leave this for the end.


So, what or who is īśvara?

īśvara is the Supreme Being; one could say it’s an aspect of or an special kind of puruṣa (puruṣa-viśeṣa), which remains unaffected by ignorance, the causes of suffering (kleśa), actions (karma), results of its (his/her) actions (vipāka), or residues from past actions (āśayaiḥ).
kleśa karma vipāka-āśayaiḥ-aparāmr̥ṣṭaḥ puruṣa-viśeṣa īśvaraḥ ॥24॥

īśvara remains always free. Basically, it seems (he or she) is not one of us, right? Well, yes and no. We practice to set us free. Like īśvara is. To set ourselves free, we have to do it through samādhi. But  īśvara was never bound to start with. So if we practice to set us free we could have īśvara as an inspiration, as a Guru.

pūrveṣām-api-guruḥ kālenaanavacchedāt ॥26॥

Teacher could be a word here but Guru seemed more appropriate because of specifically the idea of removing darkness and bringing into the light (gu-ru). But, we too are puruṣa (consciousness) within us, it is within us,  we just can not see it, clearly. We are bound because of the ignorance it is covering us that refrain us from experience ourselves as we truly are.
tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajña-bījam ॥25॥

We can not comprehend it. We can not experience it. Directly at least. We can not even grasp its true meaning because it takes a perfect sattvic mind to identify another one, right? But we can enquirer and study to experience self realization study about the Self  (svadhyaya, fourth niyama and a requisite for kriya yoga) through representations as in the sacred texts (2.44) or through the repetition of the sacred syllable OM.


And why do we need a symbol for it?

While the meaning of  īśvara in its wholeness is not graspable by the limited capacities of a human mind , we can get a taste of it through its representation in the holy syllable om (I.27), an expression of its meaning we can relate to. Since īśvara is a type of purusa, is beyond prakrti, and therefore beyond conceptualization. That is why we need means to perceive it and that is the mystical syllable om, since om has an inherent (eternal and not dependant on social usage) relationship with īśvara. This relationship between word and meaning (vācaka and vācya) is called abhidhā. In this relationship, īśvara invests his qualities in the sound of om and it becomes permeated by It such that it manifests His qualities. In this way is om so special, so sacred. Because it carries the sacred qualities of īśvara being a prakrti element.

This is why how our mind (prakrti) can absorb itself on īśvara (non-prakrti: puruṣa-viśeṣa).

Practice practice practice

Devotion. Bhakti Yoga. That is the practice. īśvara-praṇidhānā is the last niyama of the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga. One technique to achieve devotion is repeating the syllable OM (pranava) and meditating on its meaning.

taj-japaḥ tad-artha-bhāvanam ॥28॥

Following this approach, the results is effortless, it is only given by grace.
Something not to be underestimated is the use of the particle va; in the sutra 1.23 means it is not the only way nor either mandatory but taking in mind Patanjali has a very concise and brief method of presenting ideas, it’s rather important he is using so many sutras to talk about this. It is clear he is definitely encouraging it. Further on, he will be more determinated when listing īśvara-praṇidhānā as one of the ingredients of kriya yoga and as one of the niyamas. In both cases, it is mandatory, a requirement to achieve the goal of yoga. And it goes through it again in the second chapter saying the same thing all over again, just in case you forgot it before; the samadhi you will obtain through īśvara as an object of meditation will be perfect (2.45).

It is the repetition which will turn it into a habit and this will change patterns, removing the obstacles.
tataḥ pratyak-cetana-adhigamo-‘py-antarāya-abhavaś-ca ॥29॥

tat-pratiṣedha-artham-eka-tattva-abhyāsaḥ ॥32॥


All is coming

When we chant om, there is a reverberance which remains in our mind after the chanting.
This is said to be anagata, unspoken sound. Within us there is a humming sound that can never be destroyed. Sometimes it’s easier to notice it after the practice when we are set to take rest. We clearly feel the vibration in the body and the mind. That murmur is called pranava too because it is connected with prana. Prana is the basic vibration that always exists whether it is manifesting or not. Like  īśvara, it will always be there, no matter if you are aware or not.


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