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tat tvam asi

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Definition - Dr. Ram Chandran

Before I provide the definition, it is quite essential to understand the fact that the statement, tat tvam asi is one of the four prominent mahAvAkya-s. Though there are many mahAvAkya-s in the Upanishads the following four are considered to be the prominent ones. They are: praj~nAnaM brahma (Consciousness is Brahman) in the Aitareya Upanishad of the Rig-Veda, aham brahmAsmi (I am Brahman) in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Yajur-Veda, tat tvam asi (That thou art) in the Chandogya Upanishad of the Sama Veda and ayam Atma brahma (this Atman is Brahman) in the Mandukya Upanishad of the Atharva Veda.

The first statement, Consciousness is Brahman, explains the true nature of Brahman. The second statement is the self assessment from the seeker when he/she recognizes his/her true divine nature. In the third statement, the realized teacher informs (asserts) – "You are that Supreme Brahman." The last is the statement of practice or formula for the seeker to discover the Oneness of Atman and the Brahman.

The mahAvAkya-s are considered the quintessence of the Vedas. The Vedic scriptures insist that these mahAvAkya-s can only be fully understood by those seekers who are qualified. To get the understanding beyond the literal meaning (dictionary meanings of the Sanskrit words) the seeker should have undergone the detailed sAdhana (practices) explained through sAdhana chatuShTaya. The four qualities are the following:

1. viveka (discrimination of Real from unreal).

2. vairAgya (detachment or dispassion from sense objects)

3. shamAdi ShaTka sampatti (a collective group of six behavior traits or virtues )

4. mumukShutva (intense desire to achieve permanent bliss).

The sAdhaka (seeker) after completing the mind purification process (sAdhana) becomes qualified to understand meaning of the mahAvAkya-s while engaging himself/herself the whole time in deep reflection and profound meditation. Only after contemplation, is the seeker able to grasp the implied meaning of the mahAvAkya.

tat tvam asi -That art thou: To grasp the true meaning of tat tvam asi, we should begin with the context of this statement in Chandogya Upanishad.

[The Chandogya is one of the twelve major Upanishads (Aitareya and the Kauhsitaki from RRig Veda; Chandogya and Kena from Samaveda; Taittiriya, Katha, Shvetashvatara, Brihadaranyaka and Isha from Yajur Veda; Prashna, Mundaka and Mandukya from Atharvaveda).]

Svetaketu was the grandson of Aruna, and the son of Uddalaka. It seems that the boy Svetaketu did not focus his mind on the study of Vedas. His father sent him to the Gurukula (an ashrama, situated in the forest, whose purpose was to teach the Vedas to children at a young age). His family had a long tradition of studying the Vedas and Shastras to get acquainted with the knowledge of the Scriptures). The Gurukula study is similar to the modern boarding-school arrangement, but the ancient one provided home- cooked meals with love and affection. Normally the student spent 12 to 14 years study Vedas with guidance from the Guru. During the Vedic times the entire study, including boarding and lodging, was free and the student pledged to become a teacher like his/her Guru. This is how the knowledge of the Vedas was passed on from one generation to the next.

Svetaketu went to the forest-retreat at the age of twelve, and studied the Vedas, scriptures, science, grammar, etc. at the feet of the Guru for twelve years, and then returned home. He was very proud of his knowledge and scholarship and thought that he had finished studying everything. On seeing this attitude of his son, his father called him and thoughtfully asked a question: "O my son! Have you studied that thing knowing which everything becomes known?" Svetaketu was shocked and he couldn't grasp this question clearly. He was eager to know `that by knowing by which everything else becomes known.' He also realized that he still had not learnt the most essential things of the universe and, with humility, he requested his father: "Father! May I request you please to teach me that most essential thing by which everything else becomes known?"

On hearing this reply from his son, the father (Uddalaka) slowly explained to him using simple examples: "Son! Have you not seen the clay in front of the potter's house? It becomes a pot in the hands of the potter. If the clay is known, then all things made of clay are known! Similarly if you know gold, things made of gold like ornaments are known. If you know iron, all things made of iron are known. In the same way, if you know "Brahman" then all the things (the entire universe) that cannot exist without Him are also known." He continued his teaching and concluded with the statement, tat tvam asi. In very simple terms, tat represents brahman and tvam identifies the divine soul (Atman) that resides ‘within’ the jIva. asi is an affirmation equating Brahman and Atman. In very subtle terms, Uddalaka tells us that by knowing the SELF (Self-realization) we will be able to recognize the entire Universe because of the fact that the Universe cannot exist without the presence of Brahman. It is just like saying there will not be a pot without clay and there will be no more golden ring without the gold!

Sri Adi Shankara interprets "tat tvam asi" to mean "The jIva and brahman are identical so that there is no difference between the Atman of jIva and Brahman. Sri Adi Shankara correctly assumes the "svarUpa aikyam" that is the absolute identity between the jIvAtman and the paramAtman (brahman).

More Explanations on tat tvam asi:

An interesting and enlightening discussion on this topic occurred during second week of December in the Advaitin list. These discussions are available in the list archives. The following are the message numbers 646, 649 to 652, 658, 661, 667 and 680). Profvk in his post on 652 provides a two-page essay on this topic. Swami Dayananda's notes on the Gita for Home-study also contain detailed explanations of tat tvam asi. Wikipedia provides an excellent essay with details of both Shankara's and Ramanuja's interpretations. A number of Advaita websites also provide explanations.

Example Links from the WEB: Encyclopedia Britannica; Wikipedia; SriPedia.

Definition - Madathil Nair

The Sanskrit word tattva, which means the truth or principle of something, is regarded as made up of tad (that) and tvam (you) (Ref: Monier Williams) and, thus, has a direct relation to the "tattvamasi' mahAvAkya.

Everything in this universe has a tattva (principle) of its own. That is the general meaning, just as electricity is the principle that works a bulb. But, in a meta-language like Sanskrit, where words and meanings are logically built on roots, we necessarily have to look in the direction of the Absolute. According to Vedanta, the Absolute tattva of everything is Brahman. Thus, Brahman is everything or all this is verily Brahman. If this understanding is related to the mahAvAkya "praj~nAnaM brahma", then that Consciousness (that shines forth in me and you and in all that shine after) becomes Brahman and this takes us directly to "tattvamasi" ("that thou art").

Thus, tattva has a great meaning suggestive of that by which the identity of the whole world with the one eternal Brahman is expressed as you yourself or I myself. That is the whole of Vedanta is effectively impregnated in just one very simple Sanskrit word! Every time we utter the word tattva, which appears in many Indian languages including my mother-tongue Malayalam, we are unconsciously or subconsciously reinforcing a great mahAvAkya!


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