Om Namah Shivaya is one of the most beloved and ancient Hindu mantras. It comes from part of a Hindu prayer, the Shri Rudram Chamakam, which is found in the second oldest of the vedic texts, the Yajurveda. It is a hymn to Shiva, the deity of destruction and transformation, and it is said that chanting this mantra helps to get rid of internal imperfections, limitations, and sins. It is also a mantra that elevates the psyche and awakens higher states of consciousness.
There is no exact way to capture and translate the meaning of this mantra into English. It is a salutation to Shiva, meaning “I bow to Shiva.” It is also seen as a salutation to the divine (i.e. “I bow to God”). Apparently according to author Elizabeth Gilbert, it can also mean “I honor the divinity within myself.” Another common translation is, “May the greatest that can be in this world be created within myself, within others, and within the world.”
The mantra’s mystical or more esoteric meaning is multi-leveled and quite complex. Om Namah Shivaya is a panchaskara mantra, meaning it’s made up of five syllables or literally the five holy letters (na – mah – shi – vaa – ya). It is preceded by Om or Aum, which is said to be the sacred primordial sound. The five holy vowels are the seed sounds of the five elements of creation—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—and as one chants it, one is working through the process of creation in reverse, hence perhaps the mantra’s reputed power of destroying manifestations of sin and imperfections. Another interesting interpretation is that these five syllables represent aspects of a person within the different dimensions, beginning and culminating in “Om,” the sacred primordial sound that is a symbol of the eternal divine.
Chanting Om Namah Shivaya should be practiced in a calm, relaxed, and gently focused state, in mindfulness that the mantra is a salutation to the divine forces of life.
Here are videos demonstrating two different ways to pronounce this mantra:
Research for this post contributed by Justin Norris, Vida Norris, Jordan Resnick, and Jenny Resnick.