Book 1, Sutra 27: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“ISWARA’S NAME IS THE EXULTATION OF HIS GREATNESS.”
I am departing a bit from the common translation of this sutra for a number of reasons. First of all, most of the versions of this sutra involve the word, “OM.” Satchidananda’s translation is typical: “The word expressive of Iswara is OM. OM is God’s name as well as form.” The problem is that this sutra doesn’t actually contain the word “OM” (or “AUM,” its alternative spelling). The Sanskrt of this sutra reads, “Tasya vacakah prananva.” Almost all translators are translating “pranava” as “om” but why? “Pranava” is most commonly translated as “his word” or “his name.” So, loosely translated in this way, this sutra would read “His [Iswara’s] signifier is his name.” This is a bit redundant because both “vacakah” and “pranava” are given similar meanings. Translators solve this redundancy by assuming that “pranava” equals “OM.”
Of all translations I have read only Vishnudevananda explains this substitution. The rest just make the substitution as if it was written in stone somewhere. Vishnudevananda writes “OM (AUM), the sacred word of the Hindus, is one of the oldest known words. Over 5000 years ago, and probably earlier in ancient Sumer, OM was known and used as a secret word by Sumerian mystics and priests. When the Indo-Aryan tribes wandered east from Sumer, they carried the precious and sacred word OM with them. In the oldest known Indian scriptures, OM has always had a place of prominence. Nearly all mantras and hymns begin and end with OM. OM is also used alone as a mantra and is considered the most powerful one.”
Okay, but the question still remains, why didn’t Patanjali write “OM” instead of “pranava?” There is a special character for “OM” in Sanskrt. Why didn’t he use that character?
My explanation is that Patanjali used the word “pranava” and not “OM” purposely because of its subtle meaning. In breaking down the Sanskrit word, “pranava,” Zambito writes that it means “to shout/to exult” in a “forward, onward” way. KN Saraswathy explains that “prananva” indicates the words or sounds that extol the “infinite, immeasurable qualities of the Lord” and “consequently, blessings accrue.” So, my interpretation is that Patanjali is saying that such a powerful praising of God IS His name. Sure, “OM” has been used in that way for thousands of years as Vishnudevananda says but Patanjali is identifying God’s name beyond even the limitations of the word, “OM.” In other words, whatever words are used to express a profound, genuine and forceful expression of faith in God’s Unlimited Greatness and Goodness is His name.
There may be a special mystic power to the word, “OM” or “AUM,” that many of Patanjali’s translators claim but technically Patanjali doesn’t mention that connection. His instruction concerning how to call God is so subtle and powerful that it goes beyond even the Hindu tradition and its use of “OM.”