Little over 5 years ago, I was in the middle of law school finals in Philadelphia and in my spare time I decided to get my first tattoo. I spent weeks going back and forth with my tattoo artist to draw and customize a design that I could make part of my body and carry with me for life. Now, years later, as a married woman, people ask me just as often with surprise when they hear about the tattoo covering my right shoulder blade. “Oh, you have an Om tattoo?” they ask. I begin to explain the significance of the blooming lotus beneath the Om, how my father drew lotus flowers for my sister and me throughout our childhood, that its color signifies an eternal search for knowledge, and that the Om rises in negative smoke from the lotus because my rashi (zodiac) is a fire sign. One day my wife pointed out that I never tell people why the Om itself means so much to me. I paused. She was right.
I kept thinking about my wife’s comment and kept thinking about the traditions and values that I fought throughout life to preserve. After 35 years of Om being so central in my life, and central to the lives of my family and friends, I realized that at moments I had taken for granted the opportunity to express my own deep-rooted sentiment about Om and its strength.
This is my connection to Om.
1. Harmony With The World
“Om” is an ancient Sanskrit word, that isn’t really a word at all. It is a vibration, feeling, and harmony originally deriving from the experience of meditation. Have you ever heard that the simplest explanation for something is usually the correct explanation? Ever wonder why life coaches tell us to simplify our lives because the more complicated we make things the more stressful or confusing they become? Om is the ultimate simplification and concentration of power in the universe. Lucky for me, I come from a culture where this concept is weaved into the very fabric of our families, thoughts, and actions. The Mandukya Upanishad states that Om is itself a perfect state, or superconscious state – creation, energy of the universe, transformation, and the vibration of life itself.
I used to shake my head and laugh when I saw products claiming to harness a great ancient Indian secret. The power of Om is the worst kept secret in the world. It is there for anyone who is open to its meaning. My nana (maternal grandfather) taught me about Om from a very early age, but it took years for me to understand how important Om is as life ages us, as the world speeds up around us, and as harmony becomes harder and harder to find in our complex lifestyles.
2. Not Just for Yogis
I don’t do Yoga. I try here and there, but nope. I am thirty-something desi woman and I have no shame stating that the most meaningful yoga class I took was in pre-school. My teacher’s name was Sunflower and at the start and end of each class, she had us sit still in a circle and chant Om. God bless this woman’s heart for getting a bunch of preschoolers to find calm and quiet! There was one day where Sunflower handed me a bell and asked me to stand still holding it so it would not ring. As an adult, I think of this exercise not as a waste of pre-school tuition fees, but as a lifelong lesson in awareness. No matter what our age, Om is a moment of stillness, of clarity, and of mindfulness. I may not do yoga regularly as an adult, but I do meditate. A lot of us meditate and utilize the power of Om without even realizing it. As my grandfather continued teaching me about Om throughout my life, I began to understand how Om allows me to reflect on the universe and all of its movement. We are on a planet, spinning on its axis, rotating around a sun, whirling in a galaxy, and hurdling through the infinity of space towards eternity. Over my life, I have come to recognize that Om is the mantra of being mindful of my place in the world.
Om is part of my family and many South Asian families I know. I am first-generation, meaning I am part of the first-generation of my family to be born in America. Growing up, my grandfather told me that he didn’t bring our family halfway across the world to have us lose one another. My family is Hindu, but I have always self-identified as a spiritual person. I’ve read more by the Aga Khan than passages in the Gita. Om, however, transcends religion. Om has been like the nutrients in the soil surrounding my family tree, like the rain and lightning crashing down on it in hard times, and like the sunlight giving lush green leaves to its beauty.
Om is a constant. It does not weaken, it does not gain intensity. It simply is and always will be. Family can, at many times, feel like the opposite. Bonds might weaken after a fight, after realizing that unconditional love is not so unconditional after all, or even just from distance and getting busy. Family may not always be easy; but, at its core, family is a constant and filled with power and balance just as Om.
There is a great South Asian tradition of tradition itself. At its most basic level, tradition is about knowledge being passed down from teacher to student, from the knower to the learner, from generation to generation. The Sanskrit word "parampara” translates to mean an uninterrupted row or series, order, succession, continuation, mediation, tradition. Every culture and society from the beginning of time have found ways to transfer knowledge. Many of our families, regardless of nationality or religion, have traditions and values that surpass generations and time. These traditions may take modernized forms, but their essence and meaning stay true to form. The essence of Om transcends mere tradition but becomes a way of thinking that has been passed down for thousands of years. I won’t pretend that I understand Om at a level that gurus and yogis do, but I continue to deepen my understanding of self through the timeless traditions of the knowledge Om brings. Like many traditions, Om is a powerful example of so many other aspects of culture that pass through generations. It is a point of pride in who we are, collectively, as much as who we are as individuals.
5. Generational Connection
My generation has the responsibility to bridge the cultural knowledge of our parents down to our children. We strengthen our self-awareness and traditions by sharing this knowledge and perspective with our friends, family, and environment around us. I see how my peers talk to their children about Om and see some who have never thought of explaining its meaning to begin with. Om has been part of our entire lives in ways that we have often overlooked. Now, as adults, we can address Om with clear consciousness through the personal stories, antidotes, and meanings that make Om as personal to us as it is universal.
Bringing It Home
Some people wear an Om around their neck, some wear an Om on their body, but we all wear Om in our hearts. We have an incredible opportunity right now to speak about Om, about what it means as part of the South Asian culture, but more importantly what it means to each of us. We are in a position to speak to our non-South Asian friends about it, to speak with our nieces, nephews, and our own children about it so that they know WHAT this symbol means. My thoughts and experiences with Om are going to be different than yours. Om is universal and incredibly personal. As my friends get older and begin to have families of their own, I see us all finding ways to bring Om back into our homes in the way that keeps its meaning and power alive. So when someone asks you, “oh, nice Om necklace” or “what’s that number 3 thing on your shirt,” what will you say in response?
Author: Kashish Parikh-Chopra
Tattoo artist credit: Tina Marie
Featured image by: Santi