You've probably seen the Om (also spelled as "Aum") symbol, either on the window of a yoga studio, on Ayurvedic products, or perhaps inked on someone's body. Hindu in origin, the word "Om” represents a chant and mantra that is sacred to many religions, and is often spoken prior to and at the conclusion of prayers and affirmations. Drawn as a Sanskrit symbol, it can be a wonderful addition to your body art, if you wear it correctly. But, if you're not from a culture where Om is commonly used, you should do some research before getting the tattoo to ensure it’s the right fit for you and that your tattoo is a respectful representation of Om.
What Is Om?
Om doesn't have a definitive, literal, easily explainable meaning; it's more of a feeling—a way of experiencing, expressing, and describing the oneness of spirit in the universe. According to ancient traditions, Om is the most elemental of all utterances—the very first sound ever to occur in the universe, also known as the "primordial sound." According to The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, “Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is OM. And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is OM.”
Because of the complexity of both its origin and meaning, some people simplify things by thinking of Om as something that can help themselves reconnect with their own spirit and the universe, and the symbol as the physical manifestation of its presence.
Why Get an Om Tattoo?
The deeply spiritual, complexly beautiful meaning of Om has made it a popular print on clothing, yoga mats, coffee mugs, and other small treasures—and a frequent choice for tattoo art. But it's important to know that this symbol is more than just something zealous yogis use as an indication of their interest in yoga. It can carry a significant, rich meaning as a tattoo. You do not have to be of a particular religion or faith to wear it, but you should absolutely appreciate its importance and connect with its value of spirituality and the notion of oneness with the universe before opting to select this Sanskrit symbol for your body art.
Om Tattoo Placement
As much as getting the Om symbol tattooed on your body can be a sign of cultural appreciation, honoring and deeply connecting to the Hindi culture and ancient traditions, if poorly understood or conceived, an Om tattoo can take you down the path of disrespectful cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation has long been a problem, and stands in stark contrast to cultural appreciation. Cultural appropriation involves inappropriately adopting the practices, aesthetics, customs—or symbols—of another community, society, or ethnic or social group. Getting the Om symbol inked on your body as an expression of a trend, or without fully understanding its meaning, history, and significance can be disrespectful. So, in addition to making sure you grasp and resonate with the power and beauty embodied in Om, it’s also important to consider your tattoo placement.
Deciding on tattoo placement is a fundamental step in getting any body art, regardless of the design. If you choose to get an Om tattoo, you'll likely want to place the symbol where you can see it easily, especially if you would like to meditate or otherwise devote time daily to it as an affirmation. However, it's very important to note that the Om symbol should not be placed below the waistline, especially on the ankle or foot, as this may be a sign of disrespect and an example of cultural appropriation. The Om symbol may be combined with other Sanskrit symbols like the Tree of Life, but it is important to make sure you understand the meaning of any symbol you plan to use before getting it inked on your body.
Alternatives to An Om Tattoo
If you've decided you love the significance and artfulness of this ancient Sanskrit symbol but aren't sure you're ready to commit to the permanence of a conventional tattoo, you can wear the Om symbol in other ways. Many people consider temporary or henna Om tattoos, at least at first. This can be a good option for ceremonies such as weddings and rites of passage, gatherings such as spiritual conventions and conferences, and practices such as yoga and meditation. You can also find plenty of shirts and sweatshirts that sport the Om symbol, and jewelry options ranging from bracelets to necklaces to earrings.
Lastly, if you’re certain it’s permanent body ink that you’re after but not sure that the Om symbol is the way to go, you may consider other symbols like a lotus or a mandala. Both of these have deep significance and may resonate more personally with you. The open lotus blossom usually represents an open heart, enlightenment, new beginnings, peace, or spiritual awakening. Mandalas can represent a variety of things from the entire universe to balance, focus, and perfect harmony.
Sanskrit tattoos, in general, are interesting and meaningful—one of the many reasons people often opt for them. However, their nature and history demands that you understand their meanings and be authentic to yourself in choosing them. In this sense, your tattoo can inspire you as all good art does. Consider, too, that you'll likely be explaining the meaning of Om for the rest of your life to others who see your tattoo. But if you're getting an Om tattoo, you're likely okay with that.
Prabhavananda, Manchester F. The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. New York: Signet Classics; 2002.