The Sound of Silence

The origins of language are a mystery, but it seems clear that many words echo sounds heard in nature. Words like bang, clang and hiss, are vocalised imitations of noises occurring in the material world. Our representation of sounds made by animals or birds also has an imitative form, as with warble, twitter, howl, bark, purr.

This principle becomes more subtle where human emotions and feelings are concerned. Words like soothe and calm can have a mollifying effect, and may be seen to contrast with such words as rage, fury and fiasco. Admittedly, such judgements and associations are subjective (the word ‘slay’ is as silky as ‘soothe’), but it is fair to assume that onomatopoeia played a key part in the first expressions of human language, and that many other words, by virtue of the way they sound, have a music that is in harmony with their meaning (harmony itself being an example).

The presence of sounds, and later, words, suggests the presence of a universe of multiplicity, with forms developing and people uniting and clashing, so that the potential for noise, and the variety of noises we hear and make, become almost infinite. The universe is said to have begun with an explosion, onomatopoeiacally indicated by the word ‘bang’, but was that preceded by silence? Those who have studied the question will tell us that such thinking is not scientific, for ‘before’ and ‘after’, i.e., the concept of time itself, originated with the Big Bang. Nonetheless, we do tend to think unscientifically about this development, as if what existed before the manifestation of the universe were inevitably a realm of silence, totally free from the clash of conflict.

In an ancient text, the Chandogya Upanishad, there is a teaching  which begins:

In the beginning all this was Existence alone, one only without a second. With regard to that, some say: ‘In the beginning this was non-existence alone, one only without a second. From that non-existence issued existence.’

The upanishadic teacher goes on to deny the latter view:

By what logic can existence come out of non-existence? Surely, in the beginning all this was Existence, one only without a second.

Obviously no sound can be associated with reality at this fundamental level, and our mind may well confess to being baffled by the mystery of the origin of the universe. But there is one word, or rather vocalised sound, which has for its meaning the totality of existence, with or without the manifest universe. That word is ‘OM’.

In the Avadhut Gita, an authoritative treatise on non-duality, we find the verse:

The syllable OM spoken is the essence of the lower and of the higher knowledge. It is Brahman (the Absolute), space-like. There is neither existence nor non-existence in this world. Brahman is ever free from duality.

Although the latter part of the verse throws us back on the mystery of ‘what is’, OM is given a special status—as it is in all the Upanishads. For it is held to indicate the pure infinite Existence which transcends the world of relativity, and also to denote the plurality of limited forms that appears to have arisen out of that mystery, and comprises our present experience.

Silence can have no onomatopoeia, since words of this kind are vocal imitations of sounds, and where there is no sound, none can be imitated. And yet the word OM can be contemplated as the ‘sound of silence’. Within it there are no stops, glidings or clicks of consonants; in fact, the sections of the OM, represented as A-U-M, are considered as vowels, with the final M indicating a nasal hum rather than a lipped consonant. This gives the OM a pacifying power, so that with each repetition the completeness and non-duality of the vowel combination ‘AUM’, allow no intrusion of the divisive and limiting consonantal stops.

Indicator of transcendence and the silence of pure, non-dual existence, OM also can stand for the entire range of multiplicity and the names that indicate the different objects that fill it. This is because all possible vocal sounds are held to be included in the OM, for the simple reason that all sounds are generated in the human mouth between throat and the lips, and these are boundaries found precisely when one utters the OM as A (throat) U (palate) M (lips).

Practicants of the higher Yoga often repeat OM to themselves, consciously integrating it with the breathing process. For the reality it indicates is the innermost principle or real Self, and OM reminds us of its fundamental freedom from limitations.


This article is from the Summer 2019 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.