Join renowned scholar of Indian religions, Dr. Finnian M.M. Gerety (PhD, Harvard University), and a global cohort of students, for this exciting and unprecedented opportunity to study and explore the fascinating history and often misunderstood world of OṂ—and uncover the sacred symbol's powerful relationship to Yoga.
This online course explores the rich history of the sacred syllable in Indian religions, highlighting the significance of mantra meditation in the development of classical Yoga. We will examine the ideologies of sound, speech, and silence found in the oldest Sanskrit texts, the Vedas; learn about dozens of ways to chant OṂ in Vedic sacrifice; discover the oldest known interpretations of the syllable as A-U-M; and understand OṂ’s connection to the gāyatrī mantra. We will also trace OṂ’s transformations in the Upaniṣads and foundational Yoga texts, where the syllable cements its reputation as a cosmic vibration and password to liberation.
Drawing on primary sources and cutting-edge scholarship, this course provides students with a thorough grounding in Vedic traditions and appreciation for the pivotal place of these texts and rituals in the formation of early Yoga. By carefully reconstructing embodied practices of chanting and meditation based on ancient paradigms, we will reimagine the history of Yoga in terms of sacred sound and deep listening. The course will also take stock of more recent developments in the story of OṂ, including representations of the syllable in manuscripts, visual culture, and social media.
Study the history and philosophy of yoga, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home.
Engage in the traditional practice of "Self-Study," using the latest in modern online learning technologies.
Join a thriving online community of yoga teachers, practitioners, and students from around the world.
The first module provides an introduction to the oldest Sanskrit texts, the Vedas, which were composed orally, memorized, and passed on by word of mouth. We will discuss the mythology of the goddess of Speech (vāc), who inspires poets and creates the cosmos through sound, and learn about sacrifice (yajña), in which Brahmin priests chant mantras, make offerings, and drink a psychoactive beverage called soma. This module will also consider the different kinds of Vedic mantras (poetic verses, melodic chants, and prose formulas), focusing on how these elements come together in performance.
This module explores the early history of OṂ in the Vedas, with attention to the many different ways the syllable is chanted in sacrifice and how Vedic thinkers interpret its significance. We will trace OṂ’s first appearance in Vedic mantra collections (ca. 1000 BCE) and subsequent emergence as the quintessential sacred syllable (praṇava) of the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads. We will also conduct a case study on the division of OṂ into its constituent phonemes (A-U-M) and ponder the enduring influence of this sonic analysis.
The next module excavates the Vedic roots of early Yoga by examining OṂ’s importance as an instrument of liberation. Drawing on the later Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā, students will learn about meditation on OṂ at the moment of death, a mantra-based practice that permits the practitioner to ascend to the sun and attain immortality. We will also discuss various forms of personal recitation (svādhyāya) and mantra meditation (japa) with OṂ, taking stock of their influence on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra and other canonical Yoga texts.
The final module engages the dynamic development of OṂ in Yoga and Tantra, where subtle sound levels and the use of script become central. In these early medieval contexts, OṂ comes into its own as a seed syllable (bīja); it is also incorporated into elaborate practices of breath control (prāṇāyāma) and visualization. By examining Tantric innovations in the A-U-M analysis, we will appreciate how the syllable relates to emerging discourses about kuṇḍalinī energy and the practitioner’s embodiment of deities like Śiva. We conclude by considering the possible origins of OṂ’s distinctive glyph (ॐ) and surveying representations of the sacred syllable in the modern world, from yoga studios to social media.
Dr. Finnian M.M. Gerety is a historian of Indian religions focusing on sound and mantra. After earning a PhD. in South Asian Studies from Harvard University, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music. Finn is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, the Contemplative Studies Program, and the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, where he teaches courses on mantra, yoga, ritual, and the senses.
Integrating the study of premodern texts with insights from fieldwork in contemporary south India, Finn’s research explores how sound has shaped religious doctrines and practices on the subcontinent from the late Bronze Age up through today. His current book project for Oxford University Press, This Whole World is OM: A History of the Sacred Syllable in India, is the first-ever monograph on OM, the preeminent mantra and ubiquitous sacred syllable of Indian religions.