Friday, May 17, 2013

The origin of Aum


The following thesis is likely to scandalize many Hindus. It concerns the venerable sound Om, or Aum. This was chosen by the Vedic editor, known only as “editor” (Vyasa), to be the very first word of the Rg-Veda: Aum agnim ile…, “I worship the Fire…” Its written form, the Aum sign, is universally recognized as the symbol of Hinduism. So, a lot is at stake when we open the discussion on its origin.

What I will be saying here is essentially that Hindu spirituality, which since Swami Vivekananda calls itself “scientific”, has evolved just like science. The truth was not revealed by a supernatural being at the beginning. Instead, the first discoveries were humble and then a gradual progress was made.



Thus, the doctrine of reincarnation and karma was not there since the beginning. On the contrary, the Rg-Veda is silent about it, and the Chandogya Upanishad explicitly describes how it was newly introduced. Attention, please: it is not the much-maligned “Western Orientalists” who invented this, but the most venerated Hindu scripture itself that says it.

This does not imply that the belief in reincarnation didn’t exist in Vedic times. Just like Vedic Sanskrit was only one among several Indo-Aryan dialects (which have brought forth the present North-Indian languages),  and just like the Vedic religious tradition was but one among several (preserved in the much later recorded Puranas), beliefs about the afterlife were several and coexisted. We similarly find belief in reincarnation, belief in an afterlife and the belief that everything ended at death existed side by side among the Greeks and Romans and other peoples.

But fact remains that in the Rg-Veda, the belief in reincarnation is absent. Instead, there was an explicit belief, informing a funeral ritual, that human souls went to a specific area of the starry sky. Hindus have e-mailed me many verses from the Rg-Veda which in their opinion contained a reference to reincarnation – mostly the very verses about which I had shown that they are about something else, usually about the restoration of health and vitality after an illness, rather than about a new body after death. Closer analysis has so far failed to find any clear mention of reincarnation – thus proving the Upanishadic information about reincarnation as a new doctrine.

Those who read reincarnation into Rg-Vedic verses display a very typical phenomenon among religious types the world over: they project their present beliefs onto the whole tradition. In reality, their present beliefs have a historical origin, and were not present in early stages of their tradition. In this case, the belief in reincarnation was newly introduced and proved very convincing. People who practiced meditation reported that one side-effect of it was the remembering of past lives. The Buddha even claimed to know all his past lives and recounted past events with the additional information that back then, he himself was in this or that incarnation.

Then it was further developed, and a difference with widespread tribal beliefs in reincarnation set in, by the combination with the Vedic notion of karma, “action”, in particular “action at a distance”. Just as a Vedic sacrifice set in motion a subtle mechanic that caused the materialization of the desired event (victory on the battlefield, restoration of health, a woman’s favours), the ethical contents of your life set in motion a subtle mechanic causing the events of your next life.

We are not concerned here with whether this belief is true or false, only with the fact that it was a historical development. First the doctrine of reincarnation and karma did not exist, then it was adopted, then it was further developed. It was not revealed at the beginning and then preserved as best as possible; no, it was gradually discovered. There was progress inside India’s religious traditions. 



The spiritual significance of the syllable Om or Aum is described in the Mandukya Upanishad and in many more recent works. Its phonetic components A, U and M are said to correspond to the three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, sleeping. Similarly, it should correspond to other threesomes, such as Earth-Atmosphere-Heaven and Sattvas-Rajas-Tamas (the three qualities: Transparency-Energy-Mass).

Its origin is said to lie with yogis who, immersed in meditation, heard this sound. In different forms of yoga, known collectively as Nada-yoga, this internal hearing of sounds is deemed a mark of yogic accomplishment. The humming sound or temple-bell sound was vocalized as Aum. This way, the origin of Aum is linked with the origin of yoga.

Our general thesis will therefore be that yoga, like Aum, has a historical origin and development. We do not believe that it was age-old, revealed at the beginning of creation. It was a human discovery, that grew from its childhood forms to reach maturity in its classical form as laid down in parts of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Since then, it has also undergone transformations, such as the development of Hatha Yoga, and unfortunately also senile distortions.

Western scholars, convinced of the Aryan invasion theory, accepted that the spiritual sense of Aum has become established, but denied that this was were it originated. They preferred something down-to-earth which later got reinterpreted in a spiritual sense. So far, so good: I also think this is a realistic scenario, satisfying the demands of our generally evolutionist view of mankind. But because of the Aryan invasion theory, they perforce wanted to bring the ethnic confrontation with the “native Dravidians” in. So they decided the origin of Aum lay with a Dravidian word for “yes”, Aam.

This sounds convincing for those eager to be convinced, but there is no indication for it at all. Note that the first Dravidian writings are a thousand or more years younger than the first appearance of Aum in the Rg-Veda, and were produced in coastal Southeast India, thousands of kilometers from the cradle of the Rg-Veda: the Saraswati basin west of in present-day Haryana. Note also that Vedic Sanskrit shows some borrowing of words from unknown languages, but that borrowing from Dravidian (e.g. Mina, “fish”) picked up only later. So, that the Vedic seers would have borrowed such a central term from Dravidian is unlikely. It is not more than an ad hoc hypothesis, and not a very persuasive one either.



Dirghatamas is believed to have been the court-priest of the early Vedic king Bharata. This king patronized the origin of the Vedic tradition. He was a descendent of Puru, hence his tribe is called Paurava, and the clan of which he was the ancestor, is called Bharata. The Mahabharata describes a fraternal fight within this royal clan. India itself is named Bharat after him. The name Dirghatamas, “long darkness”, may be a nickname chosen for its descriptive aptness: he was known as a star-gazer, and some of his astronomical findings are mentioned in the hymns attributed to him, Rg-Veda 1:140-164. He is also said to be the brother of Bharadwaj, known as the principal author of Rg-Vedic book 6 and leader of the earliest clan of seers, the Angiras.

In the history of religion, everybody knows big names like the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. Few people know the lesser names, and if you ask the average man on the street in the West, none will know the name Dirghatamas. Even in India, only a minority will know it. But, together with Yajnavalkya, first formulator of the all-important doctrine of the Self (Atmavada), Dirghatamas was one of the key thinkers of mankind.

His most famous hymn is Rg-Veda 1:164. Among the celebrated elements from it, most people will know the simile of the two birds, one eating and the other just looking on (later a parable for the ego and the Self); the first division of the circle in 12 and in 360; the concept of creation through sacrifice; and the much-quoted (and sometimes abused) phrase Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti, “truth is one, but the wise ones give it many names”. It is this hymn that also gave me the clue to the real origin of Aum.


The cow

What, then, does Dirghatamas say about the origin of Aum? Nothing explicit, for then it would be too clear and easy, and Hindus themselves could have been reminded of it on the best authority. As later explained in the Upanishads, the gods are fond of enigmatic expression, so you have to read between the lines for the true story. The juxtaposition of two elements is, in this case, significant.

On the one hand, verse 39 asks for the “syllable” of praise to the gods. The composer says it is a mystery, though known to the select people present. But the whole hymn talks of a sound not longer than a syllable.

On the other, in the preceding verses, the sound made by the cows is repeatedly mentioned, as well as the care of the cow for her young. The root  vat- means “year” (Latin vetus, “having years”, “old”), the word vatsa means “yearling”, “dependent child”, hence “calf”. What goes on between cow and calf is vatsalya, still the Hindi word for “tenderness”, “affection”. This affection is uttered by the cow’s lowing and the calf’s lowing back. Repeatedly, the cow is praised and the sound of the cow is invoked.

So my penny dropped: the syllable that encompasses all Vedic hymns, that is also used in the beginning of the opening hymn, Aum, is nothing but a human vocalization of the sound made by the cow. In English it is usually rendered as Mooh.

In some religions, it would be blasphemous to explain the most sacred sound as nothing but the lowing of the cow. Not so in Vedic Hinduism. The cow may or may not always have been inviolable, but she has always been held sacred. The cow was the centre of the Vedic cowherd’s economy. A Vedic boy grew up tending the cattle, like Krishna, a fulltime activity punctuated by the sound of cows lowing. Long before the yogi heard a sound during his meditation, the Vedic or pre-Vedic cowherd was familiar with the lowing of his cattle. This he vocalized as Aum and he imitated the sound in what he held most sacred: the hymns to the gods assembled in the Veda collections.


sandalwood said...

"Aum, is nothing but a human vocalization of the sound made by the cow."

Its the 'nothing but' reductionism which is misplaced here. Your analysis is too reductionist. Cow (go) is also the word for ray of light in the Rg Veda. There is a play of words here. Light, along with a humming/buzzing sound are both mentioned as inner experiences. 'go' cleverly subsumes both.

You could say that the author of the hymn was saying that this secret sound, heard, sounds like... whatever (cow sounds in this case). This is not at all the same thing as having deciphered the origin of this sound in the Vedic context.

I think this is a rare case of your speculating not being on the mark, or near it.

Koenraad Elst said...

Primitive people had spirituality, but yogic discipline grew only gradually. Cow-herding and hearing the cows low definitely preceded yogically listening tyo inner sounds. However, this article is still in the stage of "thinking aloud". The input from the audience is more than welcome.

Unknown said...

KE, the disease of searching for everything in one book and taking that as criterion for its existence is something that pervades your writings. The same mistake pervades most of your theses including Karma and Rebirth. If you do not have the books available, how do you say "it did not exist"? How different is this from the AIT school's lack of evidence claim?

Aum is the cosmic hiss, which pervades the sound made by not just cow but by birds, the clouds, the entire manifest and unmanifest. The four levels of nada are well attested in Rigveda itself (Saraswati Sukta).

ysv_rao said...

Dr Elst,

Im afraid I have to agree with the other posters sandalwood and ShankaraBharadwaj. This is probably the silliest thing you are written so far and I have read pretty much every one of your books and articles.

Like the AIT people you make the mistake of assuming that Hindu rituals and traditions are essentially reenactments of the Aryan experiences in the great outdoors.Hence havans and homas are reminiscent of campfires. Vedic chants are war ballads against opposing tribes and so on

You have done yeoman's work against the AIT. However the method of analyzing Hindu religion is structurally pure AIT.

Very little in Hindu imagery or iconography is accidental due to random external imagery and audio or internal psychedelic trips as hippies would like to imagine.

Hindu imagery,sounds,chants,sculpture, architecture have very precise and detailed rules ,etymologies and sciences for being the way they are.

Aum is further elaborated in the Upanishads as being associated with Surya,Soma and Agni.

It is not so simple that just because he heard it from a cow and the cow is sacred,the sage would therefore associated the moo(it doesnt sound like aum to me but lets leave that for now) with the sacred.

So many things wrong with this logic..

Firstly if it was associated with a cow,then aum would be specifically associated with a bovine deity.

This is not the case.

Secondly it was not cows which were divine but the Divine Cow which was worthy or worship.
Earthly cow and Divine cow are two different things.
Yes Hindus did confuse the two later on and still do to this day.
In the past Vedic Hindus did consume beef and occasionally horse.

Thirdly as mentioned Vedic sounds and imagery are neither accidents due to excessive soma intake neither do they plainly recounting more earthy pastoral histories.

All Hindu rituals to some extant trace their origins to Ikshvaku and Sagara Manthana,which was just a vigorous debate between scholars of opposing school of thought.

Please keep the above thoughts in mind when you ponder relgious matters in Hinduism the next time


Anonymous said...

Much as I admire you, I feel you are applying materialistic, sense-oriented criteria for your speculations, Dr. Elst.

With your keen research and reasoning skills, you may want to study more about Pranava and Ajapa. These are sounds heard by "more realized" souls during meditation, in the heart. Without doing Yogic practices for years, perhaps over many lives, these things cannot be perceived.

You had written earlier about Patanjali to which blogger Bharatendu gave a detailed response . I wonder if the fact that you still use European categories of thought, cause the Carvaka stance you take on these issues.

sandalwood said...

Dr. Elst, here is an example of 'hearing/seeing'... from the life of the mathematician S. Ramanujan:

"When asked about the methods employed by Ramanujan to arrive at his solutions, Hardy said that they were "arrived at by a process of mingled argument, intuition, and induction, of which he was entirely unable to give any coherent account."[97] He also stated that he had "never met his equal, and can compare him only with Euler or Jacobi.""

"Ramanujan credited his acumen to his family Goddess, Namagiri of Namakkal. He looked to her for inspiration in his work,[84] and claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolised her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes." (from the wiki article on Ramanuan).

*** Yogic discipline is a codification of what is naturally occurring in human inner experience. The depths of this are always available in reaching stillness, in transcending thought. What happens to self-experience then is codified in maps made in the Vedic tradition, which are not clear cut to the uninitiated, partly due to the symbology of language used in the maps, partly due to the faulty metaphysical assumptions in place in the modern reader, and partly due to being far from the self-experience being described.

The Western default position is materialism, and even the questions which arise in this context can lead one astray. Thankfully, Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos" is challenging this materialist conception. And in reading the book I noted that Nagel wants a worldview where atoms, evolution, mind and values are all primary, rather than the first two leading to the last two... Nagel is looking for something like the Vedic concept of Rta... this bears watching! Others are already jumping on the bandwagon, like the physicist Lee Smolin here... (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False)

Koenraad Elst said...

The good and indispensible thing about the Orientalists was that they read the Vedas afresh, without the baggage of later tradition accumulated by present Hindus. Hindus flatter themselves that Hinduism is scientific. Without number are the Hindus who told me that the idea of evolution is already present in the Dashavatara series. They also refer to Sri Aurobindo, who fused yoga with evolution by positing the rise of the Supramental. Alright, but evolution implies that at the other end, its beginning was quite crude and primitive.

I choose to take Hindus seriously, and thus to apply evolution to Hindu history. Just as lower species preceded higher species, simple practices preceded sophisticated practices. Imitating the sound of the precious cow preceded Nada Yoga. So, Aum did not originate in anything spiritual, which was only gradually developed later.

Hindus think they are different from everyone else, but they are not. Projecting later developments onto earlier texts is universal. Thus, Confucians projected their moralism on the Thousand years older oracle tekst of the Book of Changes. The Jewish Kabbala came about as an application of (neo)Platonic thought onto Judaism, and gave its own readings to old Biblical pasages. So likewise, Hindus read their own Puranic tradition onto the Vedas.

ysv_rao said...

Dr Elst,

I think you missed the point of my posts.
I do believe that Vedic religion has evolved from the mundane matters of politics and war to something religious as I elaborated in my other posts due to the physical nature of kings and penance of the sages.

Words,images,rituals have powers which are not accidental.

Aum is not used because it is sounds like the cows moo. But because the sound is associated with vibrations that physically accomplished yogis feel when they achieve some boons in their penance.

I am not reading any Puranic tradition in the Vedas because there is a false dichotomy between the Vedas and Puranas.

Puranas are but developments of the 33 dieties which were mentioned in the Vedas.

By dieties, I mean concepts,ideas and philosophy.

So while Shiva is not mentioned in the Vedas, his prototype Rudra is.
Vishnu and Savitri are but glints in the eyes of Vedic rishis but are now full fledged dieties of the authors of the Vishnu Purana

Similarly incarnation as discussed in a previous post is not mentioned specifically in the Vedas but the seeds of that idea are there to germinate in later texts.

sandalwood said...

Dr. Elst, I agree with your criticism of Hindus who take the 10 avatars as indicative of the theory of evolution, and some other similar silly conceptions based upon uncritical thinking.

I am not saying that Hinduism is 'scientific'. I am saying that Hinduism demarcates the limits of science, which is a particular epistemic approach, whereas moderns uncritically take positivist science as a complete approach to knowledge, particularly self-knowledge. This is a huge error.

Thus Neils Bohr wrote: "For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory regarding the limited applicability of such customary idealizations, we must in fact turn to quite other branches of science, such as psychology, or even to that kind of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence."

*** Yes there are Hindus who say that quantum physics is present in Hinduism. This is silly too, but the epistemic lessons being learned in the West due to QM... these have already been learned in India at least since the Upanishads and portions of the Veda indicate as much. As Nagel is pointing out, the modern West in its purely scientific, historical approach has run into a cul de sac. And now, I do believe, this is where the Dharmic approach can help fill the gap in Western knowledge as it has recognized the limits now being seen in the West. And to the question of 'what now?'... this is correctly being found in looking at Dharmic literature and praxis.

Anonymous said...

@Dr. Elst,

"Orientalists read Vedas afresh". Now you'd not include Max Mueller and Abbe Dubois in it would you? Aren't you generalizing backwards to all orientalists then?

Your point about evolution and Dashavatara is well-taken. I have heard it explained by orthodox scholars without adequate scientific justification. That is because they have not studied Darwin. However, it is possible that Dashavatara is a vague, unscientific metaphor for evolution. I see similar serious articles on Jesus, Moses and the Red Sea parting, and taken seriously by religion researchers.

Nice to see you interacting with readers of your blog.

Unknown said...

That Hindu knowledge evolved over time is not something disputed at all. The main issue is whether RV is a part of an evolved knowledge system or a primal text which evolved into a knowledge system. For Hindus the RV Samhita itself marks an evolved phase while for orientalists it is a beginning for the absurd reason that they cannot trace its antecedents from available texts.

The four levels of nada are attested in RV itself, so the assertion that the yogic significance of pranava does not hold ground. Not just Aum, there are several beeja-s attested in the RV Samhita.

Unknown said...

Sorry the sentence was incomplete.
The four levels of nada are attested in RV itself, so the assertion that the yogic significance of pranava is post-RV does not hold ground. Not just Aum, there are several beeja-s attested in the RV Samhita.

Rajasankar said...

Hi Koenraad Elst,

You dont have to go lot of this way to find aum is sound of Cow. It is there already, that if you have read of upanishads and puranas.

In Devi purana, sound of boar is taken as mantra to praise Goddess. In Hamsa upanishad, hum-sa is the mantra to attain god.

I am not contesting or affirming that AUM is the sound of Cow. Even if that is sound of cow, there is nothing primitive nor unscientific about that. Why? Because even animals and fire can teach me about brhaman. That is from Chandogya upanishad.

Well, observing the nature and finding laws that govern can't be a primitive or unscientific thing.


Rajasankar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Koenraad Elst said...

That the four levels of sound/Nada are mentioned from the beginning, only confirms my point. The same sound that is hear by Nada yogis is heard in material form: the lowing of the cow. In Hinduism, there is a perfect resonance between higher and lower planes, so anything "spiritual" also materializes at the physical level. As the civilization of Pancatantra and Hitopadesa knows, even animals can be our teachers. Let wisdom come to us from all sides!

Phillip said...

[I wonder if the fact that you still use European categories of thought, cause the Carvaka stance you take on these issues.]

Did the Charvakas use European categories of thought? Time to reexamine your categories.

ysv_rao said...

Did the Charvakas use European categories of thought? Time to reexamine your categories."

No need to be snide. You know what he means.

Muse (# 01429798200730556938) said...

Apple helped Newton identify gravitational force. Why not a cow ?

அரவிந்தன் நீலகண்டன் said...

Dr.Elst I will not that easily brush aside the 'Aum' 'Aam' connection. In Sri Lanka even today the Tamils use 'Aum' as word for affirmation. And fish -star (Min) has been found in Harappa and the symbolism is also found in Iranian texts according to an eminent epigraphist here. This actually complicates the issue. It is very well possible that the Dravidian and Indo-European had their roots in a common linguistic tree in India though the PNAS paper says differently. I have my reasons. That said, at least I know of one poster - which the seer Nitya Chaitanya Yati had where in one panel a Yogi says 'Ohmmm' and in the next the cow goes 'Mmmho..' :)

Karthikrajan said...

A very interesting topic u have chosen for discussion. Different cultures view animal’s sound in different ways. For eg. the dog’s bark is ‘bow-wow’ in US, ‘woof-woof’ in UK, ‘knaf-knaf’ in france, ‘jung-jung’ in japan (i remember reading this in reader’s digest decades ago). In india, the cow’s mooing sound is more similar to ‘maa’ or ‘ammaa’, one reason why cows were considered very sacred as this word got associated with mother. Killing a mother is the worst sin, and i have seen some hindus who don’t throw stones or beat with sticks to chase stray cows , instead they shoo it away.
If sacredness is a source for inspiration , it is quite possible that aum’s evolution started with the cow’s lowing. If star gazing was a favorite activity of vedhic people (and people all over the world) then these spiritual minds were looking for something else : The sound-of-life which pervades the entire universe. Lying under a starry night in pin drop silence, the only sound they could hear is the sound of their breath. A yogi seated in meditation and seeking answers from the gods around/above , could come to the conclusion that the answer can come only from the gods within him (aathmavaadha ? ). A striking feature in the rig vedha is that it doesn’t show the gods talking to humans. So if the gods were to answer the yogi’s queries, would it be an elaborate answer or just an yes/no answer ? It should be only the latter. The simplest sound to give such an answer is the ‘mmm...’ sound thro his breath coupled with minimum contribution from his vocal chords with variation in pitch. Later it evolved to ‘om’ to ease the breathing.
But how did it become ‘aum’ ? It was my maths teacher in 10th grade who gave this explanation that ‘a’ stands for sanskrit ‘अ’, ‘U’ for ‘उ’ and ‘m’ for ‘ म्’. So, what started as vocalisation of the lowing sound got intellectualised to ‘om’ and finally to ‘aum’. Given the penchant of the vedhic seers to understand the fundamentals of nature, this is only logical. A , u and m are the simplest syllables that can be uttered with the mouth fully open, half open and fully closed. These were combined to form the syllable dedicated to the gods, or the all pervading sound of life, or cosmic hiss or whatever. Incidentally , it is the yes/no logic denoted by 1 and 0 of the binary number system used in the Boolean algebra which has revolutionised digital electronics, which in turn has turned the world on its head thro the internet.
I have read a newspaper article where the term ‘neti neti’ found in the upanishads is used to give answer to the question whether gods exist. I don’t know if this is correct , but the meaning is given as : neither this, nor that. It further explains that the Upanishad assumes that gods exist in everything and then tries to find evidence for it. Unable to find one it declares ‘nothing’ is also god !! In binary number system, ‘1’ stands for everything and ‘0’ for nothing. Now, Is this coincidence ?
What strikes me is, how come the meditating vedhic seer didn’t hear the ‘dhak-dhak’ sound of his heart beat and dedicate it as the sound-of-life to the gods ? Were they ignorant of the importance of heart , or were they only looking for visible evidence of life ? (visible breathing action + sound Vs invisible heart beat ?) Probably later, the heart beat got manifested in Siva’s drums (dholak).
Problem with Hinduism is nothing is explicit.

Phillip said...

मू तत्सत्।

Koenraad Elst said...

Indeed: Mooh tat sat.

Gururaj B N said...

Agree or disagree with him, Dr.Koenraad Elst's comments and views are honest and emerge out of diligent application of mind. He is one of the avowed sympathisers of Hinduism, though he need not agree and uphold all that the Hindus and Hinduism stand for. Excellent and highly original analysis.

paras said...

The sound mentioned in the earlier verses, the sound of a cow, calling her calf is vocalized as 'hiñ'. It doesn't seem likely that they would mention the sound as 'hiñ' more than once and then take up 'auṃ' as the vocalization of cow calling her calf. It just doesn't add up.

Also 'āṃ' is 'yes' in classical sanskrit. It's more likely that 'āṃ' in Tamil comes from Sanskrit, rather than it being related to 'auṃ'.

CHAKRAM said...

@ B.N.Guruji, Disagreeing with him doesnot mean suspecting his intentions or disowning his greatest contributions. All the disagreeing is topic wise.

Koenraad Elst said...

Interesting input here. About "hin" as vocalization of the cow sound, let us not forget that the Vedic hymns were written over many centuries, and the whole of Vedic literature including the Upanishads over a large area. Therefore, different vocalizations were possible. I should also report the discovery that a few years ago, both Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer made the comparison Aum/Mooh on the Indo-Eurasian Research List, jocularly. But in the Vedic culture, jokes and seriousness could shade over into each other.

Karthikrajan said...

@PARAS: Interesting observation you have made about ‘hin’. Did it later become ‘haan/aam’ for yes in hindi/tamil and ‘nahin’ for no ? I can find another similarity in tamil regarding the evolution of ‘aum’ , where we find three types of syllables for ‘La’ : ல , ள , & ழ, i.e pronunciation without folding the tongue, half folded, and fully folded respectively. I am not sure if any such intellectualisation exists in other languages.
It is possible that all vocalisations of the cow sound were tried out since the vedhas were composed by a number of seers belonging to different schools of thought, and finally ‘aum’ triumphed.

American said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
American said...

What about the origin of the sign for aum?

If the sound is lowing of cow, the sign for "aum" must also be related to cow somehow. No?

One can speculate that the sign for aum, is the shape of a cow (the horn and tail in the symbol is perhaps obvious, but what is that decoration at the top - moon and sun?). That perhaps is wishful thinking.

The sign could be just be a merger of sanskrit letters for "A" and "M".

Regardless, you see the form of "aum" symbol preserved in many languages (not all), and it is instantly recognizable in temples from Baku (Azerbaijan) to those in Tibet.

Turbolag Panja said...

The Ones who have heard Aum say it takes various forms in various times---My Guru used two synonyms: One the airconditioner on the roof of an hig rise officebuliding huming away in a summer afternoon, another time it was like a full blown jet engine inside a Hanger

I believe you are right but may be have you got it backwards? Like the "heard" Aum was being likened to Cow's moo and not the cow's moo being superimposed on Aum? Do you think People of 1500BC Haryana were doing Yoga(meditation as we know it today)? or as it come as a leter development?

pro_scribe said...

Dear Dr. Elst,

Indeed, a very interesting debate has been triggered by your post. I have three alternative scenarios to add to your hypothesis that Aum is a vocalisation of a cow's moo.

1) Aum could well be the vocalisation of the natural sound of the unsophisticated wind instruments that Vedic Aryans would surely have handled.

Primitive trumpets fashioned from bovine horns as well as conch shells have been employed by mankind since Neolithic times. Vedic Aryans, being a pastoral community would have most certainly known blowing horns and might have even deployed them during the occasional war.

Vedic Aryans also most certainly knew their sea (and likely ocean - the Witzel-Frawley Samudra debate at the beginning of the last decade was an interesting one, with Kazanas interjecting decisively, to my mind at least)so their access to a sea-shell fashioned into a blowing instrument isn't a huge stretch of imagination.

Strictly on accord of my own experience, I'd put the sound from a conch, a Shankha, to be the most approximate to Aum, although, to my knowledge, RV doesn't mention any form of Shankha. But the access of Vedic Aryans to Shankha is a logical certainty.

2) A simple exhalation through the vocal cords while keeping the mouth shut itself sounds very approximate to Om. Since almost every human being, right from childhood, knows this sound, it is also a likely candidate. Doesn't take attestation from the Vedas for it to be so. In fact, the very commonplace nature of this original sound might well have contributed to it not even being referred to in connection with Om. Vedic Aryans would certainly not have cared whether we would be interested in the origins of Aum a few thousand years down the road.

3) Apart from the crying and the giggle, one of the first sound a child makes, which is the reason why Ma and its variants are the root of the word across the various languages spawned by the proto-Indo-European. That first sound is not so much unlike the Moo of a cow itself. So, if a cow's moo may be considered purely on the basis of sound, the child's mmmm...may also qualify, although again, it is deficient when it comes to attestation in RV.

Admittedly, all the alternative scenarios I can think up only attest to the central feature of your own hypothesis, that Aum may have quite mundane origins.

Best regards,

NordaVinci said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NordaVinci said...

This exact thing occurred to me today - that the origin of AUM or OM is related to the sound that the cow makes. Undoubtedly it was received as a revelation from God. At the Fall of Man, human beings became less pure than all things that did not fall. Thus human beings came to God through symbolic offerings of things that were more pure than themselves - thus animal offerings. Even the things of creation were groaning in travail awaiting the revealing of the children of God [to be their true masters and owners] - thus even the animals wanted to facilitate the restoration of Fallen Humankind to their original unfallen state.

The AUM is described as a process that relates the four states of consciousness as participating in the existence of all things. See my couple diagrams - note that some attribute the different parts of the graphic differently, but it amounts to the same thing - that the graphic symbol represents the 4 states of consciousness and further relates them to saying AUM and the silence afterword as one breathes in returning to one body with God in the turiya or 4th state of consciousness.

Muktananda of Siddha Yoga described the turiya state as existing between the in-breath and the out-breath. It is a fact of martial arts as well that between the in-breath and the out-breath, one can contact special chi power to break bricks or heal people.
which relates to the Jewish Natural Array Tree-of-Life of Kabbalah

Prasad said...

I appreciate the effort of the author. But this article did not convince me. This syllable might have something to do with some original syllable of indo-european root syllables. We may probably find the answer seeing from that angle. I am looking for the scientific and purely historic explanation for the origin of the word "Aum". What was the need for them to start the verses with "Aum"? Why "Aum" was used as the affirmation? There may be some history of "Aum" before Rigveda.

Unknown said...

Vedas contains "History", now that is news to me. When did Vedas start telling history.
Don't understand why Vedas is said "to be composed by different authors at different times". Vedas is ever existing and eternal. It was first revealed to four Rishis "Agni, A'ditya, Angira, Vayu". For the greater part of unrecorded and recorded history Vedas was transferred from one generation to other "ORALLY". The original way of tradition of "Vedas" is called "Shruti". So "composed" is a wrong term Vedas was never composed it was only "documented/compiled" later that which existed since time immemorial in oral form. Refer this

Secondly Vedas contains no history(the only history that can be said to be in Vedas is the process of creation and dissolution but then again it is not history but cyclical), Vedas is not history book, Ramayana, Mahabharat other epics and Puranas are "Itihas"/History barring the corruptions, adulterations, interpolation in Puranas. Vedas contains only "Truth"/Dharma/Eternal knowledge which is unchangeable.

La ku uma said...

ॐ The three subsumed curves represent A at the bottom U the middle and M at the top. These symbolize birth, death and life in between. There are two more component parts of ॐ known as bindu the dot and nadam the raif under bindu seperating it from AUM subsumed curves. Bindu and nadam are the un-manifest vibrations. Next stage in the evolution of AUM is Subramanya teaching his father Lord Shiva the correct pronunciation of AUM with six sounds which included silence.

Vitalstatistix said...

Namaste. What a wonderful blog...Your point about Aum being inspired by the mooing of the cow struck an immediate chord: I remember one of the first Konkani baby-talk words introduced to me as a child was `Humba', which was an onomatopoeic word substitute for the `cow'.

Curiously the lowing or mooing of the cow is called `humbarane' in Marathi. There is aso a lovely Marathi lyric which talks about cows bellowing for their calves; eager to suckle them...Humbarati dhenu vatsa devu pannah....which also makes a significant allusion to the point you make about vatsa and vatsyala...

As for Aum emanating as a sound yogic meditation; it sounds quite plausible for this is exactly what several texts claim too...particularly the strand of thinking which dubs the syllable as `Ajapa' Gayatri and splits the sound into `Hum' and `Sa' as being derived from the sibilant sound of the breath as it goes in an and out of the body.

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Unknown said...

This comment is posted for discussion purposes and is an observation. It is by no means meant to hurt any faith. My apologies if any reader who may be offended by this.

Search in the internet reveals that Om is attributed to the Rig (Rg) Veda. And Konrad Elst says this was the first word of the Rig Veda.

The teaching of Rig Veda originated around 1500-1000 BCE in Vedic language (ancient Sanskrit). The Vedas were written in text format around 13th-18th century CE. Sources state they were passed down through the word of mouth until written down. Speculations exist that state that the Vedas were modified up to modern times.

Konrad Elst also points that the sound made by cows is repeatedly mentioned in Rig Veda. The sound made by the cow is repeatedly invoked. Therefore the Om (Aum) is a “human vocalization of the sound made by the cow”. In view of this comment by Konrad Elst note the following.

In this discussion the origin of the symbol is explored and this sort of concurs with Konrad Elst belief that Om Aum is likely the vocalisation of made by a cow.

Copper tablets with “Indus script based Sanskrit language” found in the Indus valley civilization show the cow goddess (Kamadeva - who gives the material wealth, whatever desired by devotee) as follows.

Link: “”
The representation of the Cow Goddess in the picture under “Kamadenu” above is very interesting.

The picture at the link is referred to in the following discussion.

Now consider the as follows. Refer to the picture (from the link) left cell. If we just consider the horns eye and the mouth of the cow (see red markup on cows head) and move the red markup as shown by the arrows we get the red drawing on the right side (this is sort of side view of the cow showing the horns and eye on the top, and the mouth and tongue lower down. This would be a good way to represent the cow pictorially for reverence purposes. Notice the resemblance of the red symbol to the Om symbol on the right cell.

So at the beginning the spiritual thought is that this symbol represents Cow Goddess who will give material wealth and everything I need. I must repeat the sound Om in reverence so that I will get what I want.

Roddy said...

Perhaps not a cow but a water buffalo. There is early harappan imagery which shows what may appear to be a 3 faced meditating man with water buffalo horns. The symbol itself bears a certain resemblance to water buffalo horns above a head.

Parveen said...

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