In my public study of the sutras here, I should make it clear that I’m not trying to write a commentary on the sutras. Nor am I reading through them with any sort of methodology, or really in any particular translation. I’m simply reading through them very very slowly, and writing how I see them informing my life or relating to my Christian faith.
I’m a writer, and to know what I think about something, I usually must write it out. This is what I teach my freshman composition students to do: use writing as a process for discovery. Sometimes they even catch on.
In today’s sutras, I found that Desikachar wrote a sentence fragment as his translation: “In the way most appropriate to the qualities of God” (1.27). Um, okay? Not even my freshmen would write a fragment that obvious. Using the commentary, the context is: “How should we address God? In the way most appropriate to the qualities of God.” But Desikachar doesn’t put the question in the translation, just the commentary.
I am only a fan of sentence fragments when they’re used well. Desikachar… you get a D for this sentence.
Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood translate 1.27 as “The word which expresses Him is OM.” On so many levels, this is still not the greatest choice of words—but at least it’s a complete thought. (Level one: “Which” should be “that” as a restrictive clause.)
OM is a word for God.
Sutra 1.28, according to P&I, is “This word must be repeated with meditation upon its meaning.” Desikachar translates, “In order to relate to God it is necessary to regularly address him properly and reflect on his qualities.” One of them uses the word “repeated with meditation” the other “regularly address… and reflect.”
This is where the idea of chanting OM comes from—and while chanting to reflect on the qualities of God in the word OM. If you understand God as OM, this practice would work.
Desikachar comments: “Patanjali suggests that it is necessary to reflect constantly on the qualities of God. This might be aided by the repeated recitation of his name together with prayer and contemplation. But mechanical repetition and prayer is worthless, it must be accompanied by conscious thought and consideration, and by profound respect.”
In other words, just saying the word by itself is not helpful, and the recitation/repetition must be intentional and conscious.
If OM is the word in the sutras used for God, then what about Christians chanting OM? Father Tom Ryan has a great article addressing this, which you can read in full here. Essentially, the conclusion that he comes to (based on wisdom from Swami Abhishiktananda) is that, yes, Christians may use this word with reverence for both traditions. The word is not to be used lightly by anyone.
Some Christians I know substitute other words: Shalom, for example, has the same sounds as OM (when chanted, it is pronounced A-OM). I AM, while consisting of slightly different sounds, has a similar meaning: it is the name of God that means God exists, God is everywhere, God is the source of all life. For chanting—which calms the mind, massages the inner organs, and brings a sense of reverence—these words are infused with Christian meaning, understanding, and intention.
Most of the time, however, when I hear Christians speaking of a Centering Meditation prayer, which is what is described here, I note references to the Jesus Prayer. Isherwood talks about it after Sutra 1.28, Father Ryan talks about it in Prayer of Heart and Body, Russill Paul talks about it in Jesus and the Lotus, my community in Pittsburgh talks about it often, and Madeleine L’Engle talks about using it in The Rock that is Higher.
The Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Often it is shortened to a breath prayer: “Jesus” on the inhale, “mercy” on the exhale. Praying in this way, saying these phrases over and over and over, becomes engrained in one’s psyche and breathing patterns. Once it becomes a part of one’s mental patterns and breath, it is a way to “pray without ceasing,” as the Apostle Paul suggests in I Thessalonians 5:17.
Try it. Try breathing the name of God that resonates with you, and praying without ceasing.
You can also watch a beautiful movie about this kind of prayer: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer.