Aum Namaḥ Śivāya (IAST transliteration, refer to Sanskrit for pronunciation, Devanagari: ॐ नमः शिवाय, Kannada: ಓಂ ನಮಃ ಶಿವಾಯ, Malayalam: ഓം നമത് ശിവായ, Tamil: ஓம் நம சிவாய, Telugu: ఓం నమః శివాయ ) is among the foremost mantras. Its general translation is "adoration (namas) to Śiva", preceded by the mystical syllable Aum. It is called Panchakshara, or "having five syllables". Śaivite mystics hold that within its celestial tones and hues resides all of the intuitive knowledge of Śaivism. The Aum namah Śivāya mantra appears for the first time, still without the Aum, in a traditional Vedic prayer to Rudra called Śri Rudram (Rudra is considered an earlier aspect and name of Lord Śiva). In this context, śiva retains its original meaning as an adjective meaning "auspicious, benign, friendly", a euphemistic epithet of Rudra.
A Hindu Śaivite view
The meaning of the Namaḥ Śivāya mantra was explained by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami:
Namaḥ Śivāya is the most holy name of God Śiva, recorded at the very center of the Vedas and elaborated in the Śaiva Agamas.
Na is the Lord's concealing grace, Ma is the world, Śi stands for Śiva, Va is His revealing grace, Ya is the soul. The five elements, too, are embodied in this ancient formula for invocation. Na is earth, Ma is water, Śi is fire, Vā is air, and Ya is ether, or Ākāśa. Many are its meanings.
Namaḥ Śivaya has such power, the mere intonation of these syllables reaps its own reward in salvaging the soul from bondage of the treacherous instinctive mind and the steel bands of a perfected externalized intellect. Namaḥ Śivāya quells the instinct, cuts through the steel bands and turns this intellect within and on itself, to face itself and see its ignorance. Sages declare that mantra is life, that mantra is action, that mantra is love and that the repetition of mantra, japa, bursts forth wisdom from within.
The holy Natchintanai proclaims, "Namaḥ Śivāya is in truth both Āgama and Veda. Namah Śivāya represents all mantras and tantras. Namaḥ Śivaya is our souls, our bodies and possessions. Namaḥ Śivāya has become our sure protection."
The book The Ancient Power of Sanskrit Mantra and Ceremony, Volume I defines Om Namah Shivaya as:
"This mantra has no approximate translation. The sounds related directly to the principles which govern each of the first six chakras on the spine...Earth, water, fire, air, ether. Notice that this does not refer to the chakras themselves which have a different set of seed sounds, but rather the principles which govern those chakras in their place. A very rough, non-literal translation could be something like, 'Om and salutations to that which I am capable of becoming.' This mantra will start one out on the path of subtle development of spiritual attainments. It is the beginning on the path of Siddha Yoga, or the Yoga of Perfection of the Divine Vehicle."
"Na" refers to the Gross Body (annamayakosa), "Ma" refers to Pranic Body (pranamayakosa), "Shi" or "Chi" refers to Mental Body (manonmayakosa), "Va" refers to Intellectual Body (vignanamayakosa) and "Ya" refers to Blissful Body (anandamayakosa) and "M" or the "silence" beyond these syllables refers to the Soul or Life within.
- Adi Shankaracharya says that the name "Shiva" means "the one who purifies the one that repeats His name."
- The Universe is said to be made up of vibrations. Vibrations give rise to form. As the name "Rama" gives rise to the form of Rama, similarly, the name "Shiva, in Aum Namah Shivaya" gives rise to the form of Shiva (Maheshwara). (Sivananda)
- Namaḥ Shivaya is called Panchakshari (5 syllable mantra) whilst Aum Namah Shivaya is called Sadakshari (6 syllabled mantra). Namah Shivaya is recommended to be chanted by householders, whereas the prefix "Aum" is added to the mantra by those who have renounced the world. However, according to Sivananda, Aum Namaḥ Shivaya is also alright for practise by worldly people, as gradual repetition makes the mind proceed from the gross to the subtle.
- Upamanyu said that if you practise this mantra enough so that it vibrates continuously in your heart, then you don't need to do any yoga or further practises like pranayam.
- Brahmamuhurta, or the time at around 4 o'clock in the morning is the peak optimum time for spiritual practises like japa because at that time the whole world is asleep and the mind is like a blank sheet of paper on which any impressions to be made last long.
- Variations of Panchakshari:
- Namah Shivaya
- Namaha Shiva
- Shivaya Shiva
- Shivaya Namah
- Shiva Shambo