Commentary on Oṁkāra Pradhāna, an Abhaṅga by Tukārām Mahārāj

by Swami Shantananda

The devotional songs by the seventeenth-century saint Tukārām Mahārāj continue to evoke love for God in seekers’ hearts as they did when they were first composed. This poetry expresses Tukārām’s own state of immersion in divine bliss and his direct knowledge of the Truth he venerated.

Tukārām lived in the village of Dehu in Mahārāṣṭra, which is the same state of India in which the Siddha Yoga Ashram Gurudev Siddha Peeth is located. He wrote thousands of abhaṅgas in the vernacular of the region, the Marathi language, so that everyone—renunciants and householders alike—could learn and understand them. In Tukārām’s time, most of the villagers and farmers living in this area could not read, and only Brahmins, the priestly caste, were allowed to study Sanskrit, which was the language of the scriptures. With his songs, Tukārām was putting the highest teachings into the hands—and into the hearts and minds and voices—of the people.

The abhaṅga we’re looking at here is Oṁkāra Pradhāna, “The Source of Oṁ,” in which Tukārām teaches about the nature of Reality, that which is beyond form, by describing its relationship with a form that would be familiar to anyone of his day.

The refrain of Oṁkāra Pradhāna declares that the origin and source, the pradhāna, of the primordial sound Oṁ is the widely worshipped Lord Gaṇeśa.

According to the philosophy of Vedānta, Oṁ is the first expression of supreme Consciousness. By saying that Lord Gaṇeśa is the source of Oṁ, Tukārām suggests that Lord Gaṇeśa is supreme Consciousness. In other words, the saint is giving us the form of Gaṇeśa as a means to invoke, honor, and worship the Formless. This particular deity and, likewise, all deities are forms of the one Consciousness that pervades creation.

In this abhaṅga, Tukārām is taking us from the visual appearance of this beloved deity—always depicted with the body of a boy and head of an elephant—to that which is beyond time and space, the eternal primordial sound. Lord Gaṇeśa, Tukārām tells us, is oṁkāra, the sacred syllable that resounds as Oṁ.

In appearance, the rotund body of Gaṇeśa and his curved trunk suggest the shape of Oṁ as represented in the devanagari script used for Sanskrit:  This may be why one of the names for Lord Gaṇeśa is Oṁkāra Svarūpa, which means “the embodiment of Oṁ.”1

Another name for Lord Gaṇeśa is Gajānana, “elephant-faced,” and Tukārām invokes this name in his abhaga. The name has a significant etymology: the syllable ga means “sound,” and ja means “to be born.” Thus, Gajānana refers to the birth of all things from the subtle vibration at the root of the universe.2

In this way, Tukārām sees Lord Gaṇeśa as the origin of what he calls “the three gods.” These deities represent the powers by which supreme Consciousness manifests, sustains, and withdraws the universe. Tukārām associates these functions with each of the three sounds that constitute Oṁ: A, U, M.

Brahmā, the Creator, also called Akṣara, “imperishable,” is represented by A, the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which reminds us that Brahmā is the first being to arise from the Supreme.

Viṣṇu, the Sustainer, is represented by U. This vowel corresponds phonetically to the Sanskrit semiconsonant V, which is here associated with Viṣṇu.

And Maheśa or Śiva, the Dissolver, is represented by the letter M.3

The names of Indian deities often encode many layers of meaning. This is the case with the name Gaṇeśa itself, which is derived from two words: gaa, “group,” and īśa, “lord” or “master.” The stories of the Purāṇas cast Gaṇeśa as the master of Śiva’s army of attendants, the gaṇas. In a deeper sense, Gaṇeśa is recognized as the lord of all living beings and the master of the various groups of śaktis, the powers that emanate from Oṁ and are said to create this very universe.4

We can see from this why Tukārām calls Gaṇeśa “the Mother and Father” of everything that exists.

Tukārām makes it clear to his listeners that the teachings he expresses in this song are not just his own ideas. They come, he says, from the Vedas and the Purāṇas—recognized scriptural sources.

The Maṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, which is part of the Atharva-veda, opens with a statement about the significance of the primordial sound:

Oṁ—this whole world is that syllable!
Here is a further explanation of it.
The past, the present, and the future—all that is simply Oṁ;
and whatever else that is beyond the three times, that also is simply Oṁ.5

This Upaniṣad expresses an essential teaching of the Siddha Yoga path, which envisions the entire universe arising from the primordial sound, being sustained by that sound, and merging back into its originating source. From vast galaxies to the Earth, from the majestic mountains to the tiniest flowers, from sea creatures to human beings—each of the diverse forms in creation is essentially one with the formless Truth.

In this abhaṅga, with its succinct teachings, Tukārām invites us to understand the nature of the highest Lord by invoking and worshiping the form of Lord Gaṇeśa. This is something we can do by singing the abhaga and by reflecting on its teachings.

Devotional songs like this one bring forth our love for God, showing us how knowledge and devotion go hand in hand. Studying, singing, or simply listening to such abhaṅgas can awaken in our heart the awareness that the Truth we are honoring lives within us in the form of our very own Self.

1 John A. Grimes, Gaṇapati: Song of the Self  (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 77–78.
2 Grimes, Gaṇapati, pp. 45-46.
3 The symbolic interpretation of AUM was provided through personal correspondence with Dr. Borayin Larios, University of Heidelberg, Germany, August 2018.
4 Grimes, Gaṇapati, pp. 41-42; and Larios correspondence.
5 Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, 1-2; Patrick Olivelle, Upaniṣads, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 289.

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Swami Shantananda

Swami ShantanandaCopyright SYDA Foundation Swami Shantananda began following the Siddha Yoga path in 1972. In 1977, he took monastic vows to become a Siddha Yoga Swami. Swami ji serves Gurumayi as a Siddha Yoga meditation teacher, teaching in Siddha Yoga workshops, courses, satsangs, Sadhana Retreats, and Shaktipat Intensives. He also serves as a member of the Siddha Yoga Teachings Council, which plans how the Siddha Yoga teachings will be presented on the Siddha Yoga path website and in global teaching learning events.

Swami Shantananda is the author of the book The Splendor of Recognition, an illuminating commentary on the Pratyabhijña-hrdayam, a key text of the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism. Swami ji has also authored many of the letters and expositions featured on the Siddha Yoga path website. He has an extensive knowledge of the Indian scriptures, and his writing elucidates the teachings of these scriptures in a way that is accessible to contemporary seekers.

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