philosopher's corner

“What Does Your Tattoo Mean?”

When people ask for the meaning of my tattoo, I am often times at a loss for words.

I am never quite sure of how to best answer this question.

The mantra is from the Upanishads, and it is an often-recognized chant nowadays.

Om Poornama-Adah Poornam-Idam Poornat-Poornam-Udacyate
Poornasya Poornam-Aadaaya Poornam-Eva-Avashissyate ||
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

A rough translation,

Om This is Brahman That is Brahman

Brahman arises from Brahman

If Brahman is taken away from Brahman, Brahman remains

Om Peace Peace Peace

In the Upanishads, Brahman has been described as Truth – Consciousness – Bliss (Satchitananda) and as the unchanging, permanent, highest reality.

From Wikipedia, “In Hinduism, Brahman connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. It is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists. It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth, and bliss, which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe”.

As you can imagine, it can be challenging to explain this mantra (and tattoo) to someone who just wants to make small talk.  Sometimes, depending on the context and what comes to mind first, I say that the tattoo is:

  • A riddle
  • An equation for infinity
  • A prayer for peace
  • A mantra

Sometimes, I substitute the word Brahman for one of the following words,

  • Complete
  • Perfect
  • Infinite
  • Sacred
  • Real
  • One
  • God

I believe that it is all of the above.   It is parallel to the way I think about the meaning of Yoga. At its core and pure essence, yoga means union. And from that meaning, we can infer a multitude of further explanations, debates, philosophical exercises, and practices that we can also call Yoga.

Similarly, in this mantra Poorna means Brahman. The meanings of Brahman stated above are all correct, and they are all true. However, it is our responsibility as yoga practitioners and seekers to find a meaning for Brahman that is valid, meaningful, and useful to us based on the experiences we draw from our own yoga practices.   Perhaps this is the tricky part about explaining the meaning of my tattoo. Its meaning is so unique, so sacred, so individualized that what it means to me may not be the same as what it means to you. And my experience of it, does not take away validity from your experience of this mantra or your reaction to it.  So I reflect the question back to you. What is Poorna?  What is Brahman to you?

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