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[Note: ‘U’ = Upanishad(s)]

For each of the 4 vedas one statement is recognised as a mahAvAkya  (grand pronouncement):


praJAnaM Brahma  (Consciousness is Brahman )– Rgveda, aitareyopanishad, 5.3

aham Brahma asmi  (I am brahman )– yajurveda, bRhadAraNyaka U., 1.4.10

tat tvam asi  (That art Thou )– sAmaveda, cAndogya U., 6.9.4

ayam AtmA Brahma (This Self is Brahman)– atharva veda, mANDukya U.,


Each one of these can generate a prolonged debate on what they mean. We shall take up  the meanings given by Adi Shankaracharya.


tat tvam asi = That art Thou


That Brahman which is the common Reality  behind everything in the cosmos is the same as the essential Divinity, namely th Atman within you. This identity is the grand finale of the U. It cannot be inferred from some other piece of knowledge. It is totally different from any objective experience. Realization of this arises only by intuitive experience, say the Acharyas.


The direct explicit meaning of the simple words ‘tat’ (= that) and ‘tvaM’ (=you) is not enough to understand this mahAvAkya. The direct meaning of ‘tvaM’ is certainly 'you'. Figuratively it represents any person or individual, me or you or anybody. But that does not say everything about the word. You have to deactivate much of what one thinks ‘you’ means. When you see a jar or think of it, you know you are distinct from it. The jar is not you. So also when you can see your body or can think of your mind or intellect, you should understand that you are neither your body nor mind nor intellect. ‘You’ are other than all these, though you can feel you have a mind and an intellect. That feeling itself is the work of your mind. That conceptualisation, by the mind, of the mind and intellect, itself is analogous to your conceptualisation of the jar. The only difference is: the jar conceptualisation is of a gross object. But the mind-intellect conceptualisation is of a subtle object. Both conceptualisations validate that  the objects of your conceptualisation are different from you. ‘You’ means the innermost Self, the Atman. It is Existence-Consciousness-Infinite. Atman is changeless and permanent. It is One and only One; Like Existence of Light without the necessity of anything to be lighted Consciousness also exists without the necessity of objects to be conscious of. ‘You’ are Consciousness; that is why you are conscious of objects.  ‘You’ are Existence; that is why you exist always. Your body, senses, mind and intellect; they don’t exist always.  They are not ‘You’  You are the Atman; therefore You are infinite.  There is nothing other than You. So you have nothing to want. Therefore You are Bliss. This sat-chid-aananda-ananta svaroopa is what you are.  But you are ignorant of it because of the adjunct or upaadhi in the form of your BMI. All the upadhis are name and form only; They are not permanent . These upadhis are nothing but the aggregate of your vAsanAs contributing to the continuance of your beginningless Ignorance . When you think of yourself you are allowing your upaadhi to mix you up.  This mixed-up you is the direct meaning of ‘tvam’. It is called the individual Self, when mixed up with its upaadhis. It is actually a false self . When the upaadhi of the BMI as well as  the consequent Ignorance is not allowed to mix up with you, that ‘You’ is the real You and that is the meaning of tvam in tat-tvam asi.  This real ‘You’ is the Consciousness, the Self . It is because of the immanence (presence) of the Absolute Consciousness in you, You are conscious.  This is sometimes stated as:


In the proximity of the Absolute in you, you are conscious;


the everyday analogy being, in the proximity of the red flower the white crystal looks red. Thus the implicit meaning of ‘tvaM’ in tat-tvam-asi is  the individual Self, minus all its upadhis.


‘tat’ of the mahAvAkya . Its direct meaning is the omnipresent omniscient God. But this also has extraneous adjuncts like powers of creation, sustenance, dissolution, obliteration and Grace. All these powers are due to mAyA. So mAyA is the Upaadhi or adjunct of the Absolute brahman. So Brahman minus its upAdhi of mAyA is what is implicitly meant by ‘tat’ of tat tvam asi.


Our Self, the Atman, seems to have an individuality of its own. The mahAvAkya says it is the same as the unqualified brahman in the Infinite Cosmos.It appears we are trying to identify two things , one that is unlimited and unconditional and one that is limited and conditioned. Suppose one says: “This well-dressed gentleman Mr. Raghu is the same person whom we saw as the ill-kept patient No.13 in the mental hospital a few years ago”. The sameness here is not between the dressed-up Raghu and the uncouth patient No.13. The sameness is between the patient minus all that made him look a patient  and Raghu minus all his present appearance, including his name. It is the essential person behind the name and behind the dress. Whenever such an identity is talked about  we have to throw away certain aspects which are clearly distinctive (and exclusive)  in both and  cling on only to those essentials without which they are not what they are. So when Brahman and Atman are being identified, we have to see  what commonality or essentialness there is in them that is being identified.


Brahman is the cause of this Universe; But that is a predication of brahman, extraneous to the identity we are talking about The Self or Atman appears to be limited because of an apparent individuality which keeps it under the spell of ignorance. This is extraneous to the essentiality of the Atman. So what we are identifying is Brahman, minus its feature of being the cause of the Universe and Atman minus its limitations of ignorance-cum-delusion. The Cosmic Maya  is what makes Brahman be the cause of this universe. The individual Avidya (= Ignorance)  is  what makes the Atman circumscribed and delimited. MahAvAkya says  Brahman minus its mAyA and Atman minus its avidya are identical.

tattvamasi is upadesha vAkyaM

ahaM brahma asmi is anubhavavAkyaM

prajnAnaM brahma is lakshana vAkyaM

ayam AtmA brahma is sAkshAtkAra vAkyaM

aham brahma asmi  expresses an identity  between the real ‘I’ within the indi-vidual and the Supreme Transcendental brahman, viz., the Universal Self. Atman is the innermost reality within ourselves. Brahman is the utmost reality behind the universe. The implicit meaning of aham in the mahavakya is the Self without the upadhis which are in association with the individual JIva. In fact without anything that one can attribute to oneself. Brahman of course is the Supreme Absolute without the upAdhi of mAyA . That is why when brahman is described in the U. it keeps on saying,  it is not this, it  is not this, it is none of the things which can be specified or attributed.  Because any such specification or attribution brings mAyA into the picture. mahavakya says there are no two things ‘I’ and ‘Brahman’. There is only one. This realisation is supposed to be born out of self-experience and so it is anubhavavAkya


For the lakshana mahavakya  prajnAnaM brahma  the context is the question:  Who is this Self whom we desire to worship? Is He the Self by which we see and hear? Is he the heart and mind by which we perceive? The answer comes:  No, these are but adjuncts of the Self. The Self itself is Pure Consciousness. He is Brahman. He is God, He is Brahma, He is Indra, He is all Gods, He is the  reality behind the five elements, all that is born, everything that breathes all beings, great or small. The reality behind all these is Brahman, who is pure Consciousness. The Sanskrit used here is pregnant with meaning: prajnA-netraM, prajne pratishhTitaM are the two epithets used. prajnA is Consciousness that is the same as brahman . netra is that by which one is gifted by nature with substance. netra  is also that by which one is impelled to one’s natural activity; therefore  that which has Consciousness as the giver of its substance or as its impeller is prajnAnetram. U. says everything animate or inanimate, moving or unmoving, all are prajnAnetraM. They are all established (pratishhTitaM)  in Consciousness, That is, they are all supported by Brahman during creation, existence and dissolution. they exist only through Consciousness, they work through, guided by, Consciousness,their foundation, support is Consciousness. Brahman is Consciousness and Consciousness is Brahman.


This Self is Brahman: ayam AtmA brahma.


In saying this, the U. identifies Atma as ‘the Fourth’ (Turiya). The name comes from the fact there are three states of consciousness. The waking state of outward-moving consciousness; The dream state of inward-moving consciousness; and The state of deep sleep where the consciousness enjoys peace and has no perception of either external or internal objects. These are respectively called vishva, taijasa and prAjna. Turiya is beyond all these three, that is why it is called Turiya, the fourth.  Turiya is Atma;  Turiya is brahman. The subject-object duality is present in different forms in the three states. In the waking state the object is material. In the dream state the object is only a mental state. In the deep sleep state the object is unmanifested, but the subject, the supreme Reality, the Self alias Consciousness is there. The fact that in deep sleep we are not aware of any subject or object  does not mean that it is an unconscious state, for we are aware of not having been aware of anything. We infer the presence of the unmanifested object, as its development takes place on getting out of sleep But in the Turiya there is no subject or object, only the Pure Consciousness without any trace of duality. It is Pure Being.


Brahma-bhAva, is  being in brahman; It  automatically implies an equanimous view of every being in the world as the same self as the one that dwells in the seer.This balanced view of everything as One, everything as the Self, is a blissful experience, called Brahma-Ananda.This is the Bliss of the experience of brahman. It does not come out of studies or scholarship. It is a state to be enjoyed internally, not by the external apparatus. It blossoms when one is no more alive to any worldly distraction or glamour.Just like waking up from a dream, you know when you are awake, not before. It is a divine perception of equanimity, that sprouts forth intuitively. When that experience crystallises, there is no more knowledge, no more ignorance, no perceiver, nothing perceived, no perception.It is something devoid of the triple jnAtA, jnAnaM, jneyeM (knower, knowledge and the known).  Such enlightened persons do not see this world, they do not see anything.All they see is the godliness of Infinite Love and the loveliness of the Omnipresent God. In their world, there is no self, no non-self; everywhere only grace and love. They have no limitations of time, none of action, no merit, no demerit, no happiness, no sorrow, no darkness. It is a permanent unalloyed illumination. It is a state transcending all speech and thought. It is Infinite Bliss.


The U.says: He who has no vairAgyaM (dispassion) is a ‘kAmayamAnaH’ (one who keeps running after his wants or desires); and he who has vairAgyaM is  ‘akAmayamAnaH’ (one who has no wants or desires). U. further talks about them. The ‘kAmayamAnaH’ thinks that karma is everything. He keeps on performing karmas, then he reaps their fruits in the other world; when that gets exhausted he is born again here and revolves in the same rut of karma.  O.O.H.,the ‘akAmayamana’ is, the U.goes on,  ‘akAma’, ‘nishkAma’ and ‘AptakAma’ . When he throws off his desires he is ‘akAma’ (desireless). Instead of his making efforts to get rid of desires, when they themselves run away  from him, he is ‘nishkAma’  (devoid of desires). Then he becomes an ‘AptakAma’ – one who has attained his desires! When the U.speaks like this, one gets the doubt: ‘How does an ‘akAmayamAna’ (one who is not subject to desires) have desires? What does he desire  to obtain?’.  But this is explained by the next epithet which the U.uses in the series: ‘akAma’, ‘nishkAma’, ‘AptakAma’ and ‘AtmakAma’. ‘AtmakAma’ is one who has desire for the Atman only. When he gets that he becomes an ‘AptakAma’ – he who has attained his desire.Thus the one who has vairAgyam becomes an akAma, nishkAma, AptakAma and AtmakAma; when he dies his jIva does not go to any other world. The U.says that he is  Brahman even while living and when the body falls, he is still immersed in Brahman. It is the state of desirelessness, that is, VairAgyaM,  that has been said to be so qualified for Brahman-experience. If one is not just a ‘shrotriya’ – a scholar with deep understanding of the vedas –but is also an ‘akAmahata’ , that is, one who is not destroyed by desire, he is the one who rises step by step, each times a hundredfold, in the bliss that starts from that of a ruler of this world to the ultimate bliss of Brahman,   says Taittiriyopanishad (II – 8 ) and also (though slightly in a different way)  Br.U.  IV – 3 – 33. Thus here also, it is the destruction of desire, that is, being with VairAgyaM, is the prime qualification.


Finally, Mahavakyas are not intended for the practice of meditation. They describe only the state of the Atman, not a methodology for anything. The methodology is, as explained above, to throw away all desires. This is the major difference between a JIvanmukta and a seeker of the Atman. The seeker is not yet convinced; so he keeps reminding himself Of the Atman-brahman oneness through the mahavakyas. A JIvanmukta will not do any such practice (anusandhana) or intense meditation (nididhyasana). If he does any such thing it is as foolish, says Ramana,as a man meditating he is a man! The state of realisation is different from the state of meditation. The common folklore understanding that a jnAni knows the self and an ajnAni does not know the self  does not carry any sense.‘I have known the self’ and ‘I have not known the self’ are both wrong statements The self is not an object of knowledge From the absolute point of view there is no ajnAni Then what does it mean to say ‘Know thyself’? It is only for teaching purposes; It is not valid as Absolute Truth Most of us are not mature enough to understand the Absolute Truth just like that. So in teaching us the U. uses the language of duality Though the teaching starts like that the sishya is gradually taken to the stage of non-duality. The self neither knows nor is known. It just is. That is the final truth.

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