Ongkāra (Sanskrit: Oṁkāra) is the essence of Balinese spiritual tradition. Ongkāra has always been an inseparable part of the socio-cultural and literary tradition in Bali. Ongkāra is chanted as a mantra, written down as an emblem, and becomes an archetypical symbol representing many mystical teachings.
As a chanted mantra, Ongkāra is placed as the most sacred syllable (bhijākṣara) that precedes all mantras. As a sign, we can easily find the Ongkāra carved or written on cloth and then hung in any kind of building. The symbolic meanings of Ongkāra are also manifested into various aspects of life, for example, as offerings (bantĕn) used in rituals.
From the mystical side, the discourse on Ongkāra is lively discussed in various traditional literature, ranging from the oldest (around 9th CE) to the new one. Ongkāra mysticism, or more broadly, akṣara mysticism is one of the unique characteristics of Tantra.
Almost all mystical discourses in Bali are centered around akṣara (letters, syllabaries). Symbolically, each akṣara (which is said to be born of Ongkāra) represents a certain layer of existence (tattva). Then in the practical context, the various meditation methods always involve akṣara.
In this article, we will overview the mysticism of Ongkāra, both in theory and practice. I have discussed the theory and practice of Tantra Yoga within the framework of Ongkāra in detail in my book, Ilmu Tantra Bali (Volume 3). In this paper, I will summarize and provide general descriptions for a wider audience.
Summarizing from traditional Balinese literature, two aspects of Ongkāra are underlined; first, Ongkāra-jñāna, namely knowledge of Ongkāra, and can also mean Ongkāra-awareness; second, Ongkāra-yoga, which is to use Ongkāra as a meditative tool. Summed up in one sentence, the essence of the teaching is; to become Ongkāra through Ongkāra. In other words, Ongkāra encompasses the theory and practice of Tantra and Yoga.
About Ongkara in Bali
Each of these parts that make up Ongkāra represents a different layer of reality (tattva). It will be discussed in more detail in the next sub-section.
Ongkāra is a mantra (bhijākṣara), as well as a symbol. In the Balinese script, the Ong letters are arranged into 2 groups, namely the upper part is called Haṃsa (also called Ulucandra/ Moon-head), and the lower part is called Viśwa. The Haṃsa consists of three parts, namely; nada, windu, and ardhacandra.
Each of these types of Ongkāra symbolizes different things, and in practical contexts is used for different purposes. But the most popular in Bali are the Ongkāra-ngadeg (standing Ongkāra) and Ongkāra-sungsang (Upside-down Ongkāra), both of which symbolize water and fire; Śiwa and Śakti; existence and non-existence, and so on. When these two Ongkāra become one, it is called Ongkāra-bhineda (the indifferent two).
Ongkara and Evolution of Existence
In Tantric texts, there are discourses about the Layers of Existence (tattva). This tattva maps the evolution of existence — how nothingness (śūnya) continues to evolve until it becomes all that exists. The oldest tradition that describes tattva is the Sāṁkhya Philosophy, which deals with 24 Tattvas. Then, in Non-dual Shaiva Tantra discuss 36 tattvas.
The evolution of this tattva in the Balinese text entitled Bhuvanakośa is explained briefly through the evolution of Ongkāra. It is said at first that there was niṣkala, then from there came nada, then from the nada came windu, and from windu came ardhacandra. Finally, from ardhacandra came the viśwa, then the whole universe. Such was the beginning of the existence of Ongkāra – which is resembling the evolution of the universe.
Because at first there was nothingness, that gradually evolve into existence, then, to return to the true nature of the process, just reverse it; viśwa was returned to ardhacandra, then ardhacandra returned to windu, then windu returned to nada, and nada to nadānta (end of nada; niṣkala; śūnya). In this analogy, the process of evolution and involution of the universe is like going up and down the same ladder.
The process of evolution is a process of being existing; whereas involution is a non-existing process. This process of involution is the goal of yoga. That is, through yoga one “melts” the gross layers of oneself, then experiences the finer, and more subtle, aspects.
Ongkara As Map of Beings
Referring to exposition found on various Balinese traditional literature, Ongkāra maps out all existence, both on the personal and cosmic level. At the cosmic level, it is stated that Ongkāra is the “book of life” – meaning that all that exists is Ongkāra itself. The lower part of Ongkāra, is called viśva, which literally means the universe, all that exists in space-time (sakala). Then the upper part of Ongkāra is called haṃsa (lit., goose), i.e. transcendent existence; subtle existence beyond space-time (niṣkala). Everything that exists is Śiwa, therefore Ongkāra is Śiwa himself.
On a personal level, Ongkāra is the entire layer of the body, from the outermost to the innermost, from the grossest to the most subtle. At the level of the physical body, the outermost layer of the body is Ongkāra; the chest is Okāra, bahu is ardhacandra, head is windu, and tuft is nada. Then, in the internal organs; the lungs are Okāra, the spleen is ardhacandra, the liver is windu, the puss is ardhacandra. Then Ongkāra is also referred to as manah (mind) by the Jñānasiddhanta.
At the phenomenological level, Ongkāra is seen as a state of consciousness called Ongkāra-jñāna [Ongkāra-consciousness]. This consciousness is described as, “consciousness without mental contents. Like a clear sky without clouds.” This type of awareness is what recommended to be trained during a lifetime.
The Practices of Ongkara Yoga
It is written in the Sang Hyang Mahajñāna that Ongkāra is, “the yogi’s boat to cross the sea of saṃsara.” This indicates that Ongkāra is not just a philosophy but also a tool that needs to be used. In this context, it is used as a meditative tool.
Then it is mentioned in the Jñānasiddhanta text, “Ongkāra who seeks and Ongkāra who is sought.” We can understand this sentence by looking at how Ongkāra is described in the texts; as the whole body and the whole universe, as well as the Oneness (Paramaśūnya; mokṣa). Thus, this sentence can be understood as follows; use the self (and the whole existence) to realize The Ultimate Self. In other words, Ongkāra as the path and Ongkāra as the goal.
Ongkāra and Ṣaḍāngga-yoga
In the old texts, Ongkāra is the essence of the Yoga Of Six Ancillaries (ṣaḍāngga-yoga). There is also a division of this yoga is;
• Pratyāhāra: Closing all the senses from its objects.
• Dhyāna: Reaching the single-focused state of mind
• Pranāyama: breath control
• Dhāraṇa: Ongkāra meditation
• Tarka: Realization of Atma.
• Samādhi: Realization that Atma is Siva.
In each phase it can be connected with Ongkāra; in the Pratyāhāra stage, we return the whole consciousness from focusing on external things to focusing on the body, both physical and mental. In the Dhyāna, we begin to establish Ongkāra in the mind, as a single-pointedness. In the Prāṇāyama, Ongkāra [especially as Ongkāra-adumuka] is mentioned as “inhalation and exhalation.” These three stages can be said to be the path of meditating on Ongkāra as a body (physical and mental).
Then in the Tarka stage, which is explained in the text as, “a mind that is as clean as the sky without a cloud,” Ongkāra-jñāna (Ongkāra consciousness) is established. Lastly, Samādhi is the stage where Ongkāra as his subtlest form (i.e as paramaśiwa/paramaśūnya) is experienced – or perhaps more accurately, the dissolution of the entire experience of existence into non-existence.
The Practice of Ongkāra Yoga, Akṣara Mysticism, and Other Yoga Practices Involving Ongkāra
In Balinese texts, there are many texts that discuss the Ten Sacred Syllabary (Daśākṣara). This discussion of the Ten Sacred Syllabary is a development of Ongkāra mysticism.
Just as the process of involution of each part in Ongkāra, so the Ten Sacred Syllabary undergo involution – melting into one another, merging with the more subtle akṣara, until what is left is Ongkāra (which Ongkāra too is then melted into Nothingness).
One of the final stages of Ten Sacred Syllabary meditation is when only Standing Ongkāra and Upside Down Ongkāra remain. In this context, Standing Ongkāra is fire located around the chest, and Upside Down Ongkāra is water in the head. When water is poured on a fire, the fire is extinguished and the water evaporates; what is left is only the smoke – the smoke is the soul.
But before fire and water cancel each other out, fire has an important role in the meditation process, i.e. to melt away all the remnants of karma, both good and bad. After everything is burned, the charcoal and ashes from the combustion are then cleaned with water on the head. Regarding the role of Ongkāra as fire, this is often mentioned in many texts and has become one of the most popular meditative methods in Balinese literature.
The teachings of Tantra Yoga in Bali are summed up in a symbol, that is Ongkāra. In it is embodied the view of unity and the totality of existence. Ongkāra is also lay foundations for yogic practices – as a means and goal.
In the context of life, Ongkāra teaches about the sacredness and divinity of the self (human being), and the whole universe; because all humans and the entire universe are Ongkāra. Experiencing the unity of all existence is an important foundation in embodying the teachings of Balinese Tantra Yoga.