Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The meaning of the mahAvAkya
'tat tvam asi'

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by S N Sastri

It is stated in vivekachUDAmaNi, shloka 243 (the shloka numbers differ slightly in different editions) that the words �tat� and �tvam� indicate brahman and Atman (or the individual Self) respectively. But this is not on the basis of the primary meanings of the two words, but on their implied meanings, as will be explained below.

Words signify their senses through two kinds of signification. They are: (1) primary signification (vAchyArtha); and (2) secondary signification or implication (lakShyArtha). The primary signification is the literal meaning of the word. The secondary or implied sense of a word becomes applicable when the primary sense is incompatible with the senses of the other words in the sentence. (There are also some other kinds of signification, but they are not relevant for our present purpose.)

A word can convey its sense through primary signification only if the object denoted by the word has a quality, or an activity, or a genus or a relationship with some other object. brahman has none of these and so it cannot be denoted by the primary meaning of the word �tat�. Signification by implication has therefore to be resorted to.

The primary meaning of the word �tat� is given by the sentences such as the one starting with, 'That from which all these beings are born,' (Taittiriya upaniShad (3.1.1)), which deal with creation, etc. The primary meaning of the word �tvam� is given by the sentences such as, 'Just as a big fish swims to both the banks, eastern and western, even so does this infinite entity move between the two states of dream and waking,' (bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad (4.3.18)), which deal with the states of waking, dream and deep sleep. Thus, the primary meaning of the word 'tat' is Ishvara and the primary meaning of the word 'tvam' is the jIva. The qualities of Ishvara and jIva are totally contradictory to one another. As stated in vivekachUDAmaNi, shloka 244, Ishvara and jIva are of mutually opposed qualities, like the glow-worm and the sun, like the servant and the king, like the well and the ocean and like the atom and the earth. Since the primary meanings of tat and tvam are Ishvara and jIva respectively, it follows that their identity cannot be on the basis of their primary meanings. The identity is only on the basis of their implied meanings.

The implied meanings of words are of three kinds�jahal-lakShaNa, ajahal- lakShaNa and jahad-ajahal-lakShaNa. These are described below.

jahal-lakShaNa (exclusive secondary signification): the literal meaning is to be rejected and some other meaning consistent with it is to be adopted. An example is gangAyAm ghoShah, the literal meaning of which is a hamlet on the river Ganga. Since there cannot be a hamlet on the river itself, it is the bank of the river that is meant. Here the literal meaning of the word �Ganga� has to be given up completely and the implied meaning �bank� has to be adopted.

ajahal-lakShaNa (non-exclusive secondary signification): without giving up the literal meaning of the word, what is implied by it is also adopted to get the meaning intended to be conveyed. An example is, 'The red is running,' which is intended to convey that the red horse is running. Here the literal meaning of the word �red� is retained and the implied word �horse� is added to get the correct sense of the sentence.

jahad-ajahal-lakShaNa (exclusive�non-exclusive secondary signification): here a part of the literal meaning is retained and the other part discarded. The sentence, 'This is that Devadatta,' is interpreted by using this lakShaNa. The meaning intended to be conveyed by this sentence is that the person named Devadatta who is seen at the present time in this place is the same as the person who was seen earlier in another place. The literal meaning of the word �this� is Devadatta associated with the present time and place. The literal meaning of the word �that� is Devadatta associated with the past time and some other place. Since this sentence purports to convey the identity of the person seen in different places at different times, we get this meaning by discarding the reference to the place and time conveyed by the words �this� and �that� and retaining the reference to Devadatta. This is also known as bhAga-tyAga-lakShaNa. According to vivekachUDAmaNi, shloka 249, the meaning of the sentence 'tat tvam asi' is to be determined by using this method of implication. Just as in the sentence, 'This is that Devadatt,' the identity is stated by rejecting the contradictory qualities, so also in the sentence, 'That thou art,' the contradictory qualities (namely, the limiting adjuncts) are rejected. Thus it follows that the jIva and brahman are in essence one, when the limiting adjuncts, namely mAyA and the five sheaths, are rejected.

But this is not the only view. Which of the three lakShaNa-s should be applied depends on how Ishvara and the jIva are defined. On this point there are different views among the advaita AchArya. Here, an objection has been considered and answered by madhusUdana sarasvatI in his work siddhAntabindu. The objection is: since there cannot be different opinions about a real thing, how can such mutually contradictory views be valid? So, what view is to be accepted and what is to be rejected?

The reply is: who says that different opinions are not possible about a real thing? It is seen that the same object is seen as a pillar or a man or a demon, etc. If it is said that the views there are not correct, because they arise only in a person�s mind, but this distinction as jIva, Ishvara, etc., is based on the scriptures, then (the answer is):

The scriptures have as their main purport the nature of the non-dual Self, because that is what is fruitful and not known. The concepts of distinctions such as jIva, Ishvara, etc., which are only creations of the human mind, are merely repeated by the scriptures, because they are useful for knowing the reality. Even the scriptures may state something that is merely the outcome of delusion (if that serves the main purpose). There is no possibility of the knowledge of the non-dual reality being affected by this knowledge of duality (since non-duality alone is real).

madhusUdana sarasvatI points out that according to sureshvarAcArya, Ishvara and jIva are reflections of brahman in avidyA and the intellect respectively. In this view, jahal-lakShaNa has to be applied for identifying tat and tvam. According to vivaraNa and samkShepashArIraka, jahad-ajahal-lakShaNa has to be applied, because their definitions of Ishvara and jIva are different.

Dharmaraja Adhvarindra, the author of Vedantaparibhasha, interprets the mahAvAkya without resort to lakShaNa.

But there is no difference as far as the ultimate import of the mahAvAkya is concerned. All agree that the vAkya declares the identity of the jIva and brahman. So all these methods of interpretation are considered to be acceptable.

shrI sureshvarAcAry says, 'All the different means by which people can attain knowledge of the Self should be understood to be valid. These means are unlimited in number.' There are many other topics on which different views are held by the AchArya.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012