Understanding “Om”

The Om symbol

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s a tattoo your friend chose to get, or a focal point of your roommate’s tapestry, the “Om” symbol has become a part of the West’s popular culture.  In my last post I gave a brief introduction into my topic and the various examples I would be covering in my blog.  To begin this journey I am first going to shed some thought on the status of Om in Western Pop Culture and its traditional usage and meaning.

A few of my friends have a tattoo of the om symbol, and one of the full Buddhist mantra of which it is associated.  My housemate also has the bookstore tapestry that is a psychedelic mixture of blue and purple and has a massive om symbol at the center hanging in our living room.  While I have no issue with the usage of the symbol, I find it interesting how the symbol has been used and adapted since its arrival into Western pop culture.

The Om symbol has tremendous meaning to various Southeast Asia religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.  Each culture places rich meaning with the symbol that plays a role into some myth and belief of that religion.  For example, in Hinduism, the creation of the universe is thought to have all began with the vibration of OM resembling the formation of God within the universe of nothing in which the world was a latent state. In Buddhism, it has many roles, but is mainly associated with the Om Mantra which is the fundamental mantra used to achieve enlightenment.

However, in the West, unless one is a follower of one of these original traditions, the symbol has a different meaning and purpose.  It is a commodity, something to be bought in exchange for its physical appreciation.  However, while there is certainly a symbolic meaning generated with its “purchase,” it is generated through its physical attainment.  For example, the use of Om in the west is not through language or in spiritual practice unless one is trained or has studied the language and religion it is associated with.  Rather, it is purchased as a tattoo as a symbol for someone who appreciates its meaning, wants to appear spiritual, or to appear a worldly being.  It can also be purchased on merchandise like the tapestry in my living room.  But at no point has that tapestry been used as a centerpiece for religious prayer, observation, or for meditative practice.  It is merely a decor feature to use up space within our home.  Now, I will admit that there are people in Western cultures who do observe Om in the traditional meaning, but they have usually had a personal experience or encounter with the symbol in its original environment via cultural heritage, travel abroad, or cultural exchange.

I do not mean this to lessen the significance of Om in Western Pop Culture, but simply to compare its meaning and usage within the world’s East and West hemispheres.

To incorporate this exploration into our Barthes reading, I can give an example of Om as a sign within the Eastern Buddhist Tradition and compare it to the sign it is in Western Pop Culture.  In Buddhism, the signifier is the written symbol Om.  Om itself has no definition but is rather a simple sound or vibration.  While this may appear to have meaning to some, the signifier is the empty written components of the symbol: the A, U, and M syllables.  The signified is its meaning within the Buddhist mantra, “Om Mane Padme Hum,” in which it is given a significant meaning.  The individual syllables, A; U; and M, represent the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind.  They also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.  Put together, the sign of om is more than just a symbol, it is the written expression of the journey a being embarks upon to become a Buddha and achieve spiritual nirvana.

However, in the west, the equation is different.  The signifier is not the individual syllables, it is merely the written symbol “Om.” However it is not the written symbol as it is with Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other culture, it is the combination of curved lines that comprise the Om symbol.  The signified is the ownership of the symbol in some way.  The appreciation, usage, and portrayal of the symbol in the west is through a sense of belonging and ownership specific to the consumer.  The tattoo is a permanent ownership of the symbol and its specific meaning to the individual. Any representation of Om in the west is consistent with a form of ownership.  In essence, the existence of Om in the West cannot be without the simultaneous existence of an owner to attribute to the symbol.  In religious traditions and cultures, the symbol exists externally in the language and belief systems.  But without that language and belief system as a significant presence in Western culture, the symbol loses its independent meaning.  Therefore, the sign is the Om symbol with its meaning of attributed ownership.

This analysis poses interesting questions.  Such as, how can the Om symbol serve as two different signs? Why do different cultures attribute the symbol differently? Is the meaning lessened with its usage in Western culture? Feel free to leave feedback or to even argue your own case whether in support or opposition to this post.


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