Om (also spelled ‘aum’) is a Sanskrit word that describes the single most important song in the universe. It was the first and highest word to be spoken, represents the beginning and the holiest of words, and encompasses the cosmos and the mystic world. That’s a pretty high honor for a word! Om is a word that predates the earliest copy of the Rig Veda, making it at least two thousand years old, but likely much older, since it is central to many passages of text. Its meaning changes depending on who is saying, singing, writing, or using it. This means that anyone interested in Om tattoos must carefully consider the spiritual meaning that the word has to them.
We’ll be going over some of the more prevalent meanings, some excellent complements to the word, as well as the use of the word Om in non-Hindu context. Hold onto your seats, we’re going for a ride!
Om Tattoo Meaning
Om is the most sacred word in the books, as far as the Sanskrit language is concerned. It is important to several different religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and all sorts of religious branches originating in and around South Asia. Its meaning even changes within the Vedic texts themselves. It starts off as an affirmation—similar to the word ‘Amen’—and eventually becomes a common word. It represents knowledge and all of the Veda itself. Along with that, it also means the universe beyond the sun, the infinite source of knowledge, the essence of the spirit, and the unexplainable spiritual happenings. That’s quite a lot for a one-syllable word.
In a more modern context, Om retains its holiness. It is considered an excellent way to launch yourself into meditation, should you be so inclined. If you meditate with Om in mind, it means you are thinking of the essence of your own carnal existence. Om is representative of both the physical world and how that physical world passes through time. It’s truly an all-encompassing word. The religions that refer to Om focus on separating yourself from worldly thoughts and becoming more spiritual. Part of this is acknowledging that you will not understand all of Om and accepting it.
Om and Ganesha
Om and Ganesha are often paired together, and for good reason. Ganesha has one of the largest followings in the Hindu pantheon, as well as a wide distribution of followers. Even between different sects, he is recognized as a major god—and even Buddhists and Jains would be hard-pressed not to recognize the god. Ganesha is the god of arts, wisdom, intellect, and beginnings—which means he has a close link to the concept of Om.
One way of referring to Ganesha is actually ‘Aum is his form’—which refers to his presence at the beginning of all things. While the association of Ganesha with Om can be considered a more recent development, there are quite a few ancient texts that do refer to the god as Om, or ‘all things holy.’ In tattoos that focus on both Om and Ganesha, Ganesha’s elephant head is often incorporated into the text. Whether in profile or in portrait, the elephant trunk easily meshes with words. Even just including an extra dot can evoke images of a small, adorable stick figure elephant.
Om Lotus Tattoo
Stepping away from Hinduism for a bit, let’s look at some Buddhist traditions. The phrase ‘Om mani padme hum,’ means ‘Praise to the jewel of the lotus flower.’ Om and hum are both spiritual words which add to the meaning of the phrase. Each syllable of the phrase is associated with its own pure traits—‘Om’ represents generosity, ‘Ma’ represents ethics, ‘Ni’ represents patience, ‘Pad’ represents diligence, ‘Me’ represents repentance or renunciation, and ‘Hum’ represents wisdom. By chanting these syllables—which often make up the petals of the lotus in visual representations—the chanter can purify their corresponding vices. This is how the lotus came to be associated with Om, but its meaning doesn’t stop there.
The lotus represents purity in the face of adversity. The flowers often grow on the top of murky, dirty, and clouded water. Despite this, the petals are always bright and pristine. This represents the nature of the Buddha—to travel through life without becoming contaminated by the world, and to ascend from the twisted world with a pure soul. The lotus flower is also considered the first flower, giving it a special place alongside Om, the first song.
Om lotus tattoos often have a beautiful depiction of a lotus, with the word Om resting squarely between the petals. Sometimes, artists opt to make their om lotus tattoo bloom, with vines stretching out of the flower, and the word Om nestled carefully above the flower. This implies that Om was contained within and was only revealed after the flower bloomed.
Om Tattoo Cultural Appropriation
Let’s take a step back from these cool facts and consider something that will haunt anyone and everyone who gets an Om tattoo. It’s an unfortunate fact, but many people consider Om tattoos to be a form of cultural appropriation. Like tattooing Jesus to your skin or a Satanic symbol, anyone who recognizes your symbol judges you for it. Sometimes they judge you positively, but sometimes not. Cultural appropriation is something that happens when a symbol associated with a group of people is taken by a separate culture and used. Many Hindu people find tattoos and jewelry that bear the symbol of Om to be incredibly offensive.
On the other hand, many do not. There are just as many Hindus who are fine with wearing the Om as jewelry or clothing. These Hindus only draw the line when it comes to dirty garments such as shoes or underwear. On top of that, traditional Hindu beliefs are often in conflict with religions that also consider the Om important. This includes Buddhism and Jainism, and each one of these religions has too many different denominations to count.
Om Tattoo for Your Spirit
There is an easy way to avoid cultural appropriation. You just have to make sure that this highly spiritual symbol retains its spirituality as you wear it. Even if it’s not something you grew up with, it represents something important to you. No matter your color or religion, if the Om has significance to you, then no one on the planet has the right to call that cultural appropriation. If someone insists that you culturally appropriated it, they can use it as a symbol of spirituality, while you can’t. No one is born equal in this world, but we all have the ability to make peace with one another. This is part of the meaning of Om, and an Om tattoo is a physical way of establishing that.