The first occurrence of Mahavakya is in Chandogya Upanishad of Sama Veda. To understand this Mahavakya, one must read this Upanishad in full. The core teaching of the sixth chapter of the Upanishad is the description of this Mahavakya alone.
Tat Tvam Asi Meaning
The Sanskrit word ‘Tat’ means ‘That’. ‘Tvam’ means ‘You’. ‘Asi’ equals to ‘are’. Hence this Mahavakya means ‘That You Are’ or ‘That Thou Art’ or simply ‘You are that’.
‘That’ indicates Brahman or the Supreme Being. ‘You’ refers to ‘you’ as a seeker. You are Brahman, the Supreme Being is the indicated meaning of this Mahavakya.
The following is the definition given in Kada Upanishad.
yaḥ pūrvaṃ tapaso jātamadbhyaḥ pūrvamajāyata ।
guhāṃ praviśya tiṣṭhantaṃ yo bhūtebhirvyapaśyata।etadvai tat.
He who was born, by the result of penance, before five basic elements like water were born and who has taken abode in the heart of all beings, is the seer of all. He is ‘Tat’.– Kada Upanishad 2.16
The story of Svetaketu in Chandogya Upanishad
The story of Svetaketu as narrated in the Upanishad follows.
The Subtle Pride of Svetaketu
On reaching the age of twelve, Uddalaka Aruni sent his son Svetaketu for spiritual learning. Subsequent upon the completion his studies, he returned back to his father at the age of twenty four.
His father having observed the subtle pride of learning in his son, asked him whether he had learned that through which unheard would become heard, imperceptible would become perceptible and the unknown would become known.
Svetaketu admitting his ignorance, asked his father to explain.
Uddalaka Aruni’s Teaching to Svetaketu
His father explained. By knowing a clod of clay, all that is made of clay would become known. The stuff may have different names and forms which are mere words. But the clay alone is real.
Similarly, having known a single piece of gold, all that is made of gold would become known. The names are mere words. But the gold alone is real.
Likewise, having known a single piece of iron, all that is made of iron would become known. The names are just words. The iron alone is real. Aruni said that the teaching that he had referred was similar to that.
Svetaketu asked to teach that to him.
The creation of Universe
In the beginning (before creation), there was an entity without a second. Some say that there was nothing before creation. How can this be true? How could anything be created out of nothing? In fact, there was only one entity without a second.
The entity conceived, “May I become many and grow forth!”. It created the fire.
The fire conceived, “May I become many and grow forth!’. It created the water. Whenever a man is hot and perspires, water comes out of fire.
The water conceived, “May I become many and grow forth!”. It created food. Hence whenever it rains, there is production of food.
Hence there are three types of beings: Born of eggs, Born of living beings and born of roots.
Now, the absolute entity conceived, “May I differentiate the names and forms by entering into these three divinities (Fire, water, and food) through Jivatman!”.
Triplication of Three Divinities
“May I differentiate the names and forms further by triplicating each of the three divinities!”.
Each of them became triplicated. Red became the color of the Fire. White and black became the colors of water and food(earth) respectively. Fire, water, and food (earth) are mere names. The reality is there are three colors.
In the Sun, red is the color of fire, white is the color of water and black is the color of food (earth). The word Sun vanishes in three colors because in reality there are three colors.
Similarly for the moon and lightning. The moon and lightning are mere words. In reality, they are a combination of three colors.
The ancient knowers of Vedas have this knowledge. By this, there was nothing left to them to be unheard, imperceptible and unknown.
They knew whatever appeared red as fire, whatever appeared white as water, whatever appeared black as food (earth) and whatever appeared to be unknown as the combination of these three.
This is how they triplicated the three divinities.
The nature of Matter
The assimilation of food happens in three ways. The gross portion becomes the feces, the intermediate becomes flesh and subtle part becomes the mind.
Similarly, the gross part of the water becomes urine, the intermediate becomes the blood and the subtle part becomes Prana.
The gross part of the fire becomes bone, the middle part becomes the marrow and the subtle part becomes speech.
Hence the mind is made up of food, Prana is made up of water and Speech is made up of fire.
The subtlest part of the curd rises to the top when churned and it becomes butter. Similarly, the subtlest part of the food eaten rises to the top and it becomes the mind. Likewise, the subtlest part of the water and fire become Prana and Speech.
Man is made up of sixteen parts. Prana is made up of water and if you don’t drink water, Prana would be cut-off.
Fifteen days fasting by Svetaketu
Then, the sage instructed his son to drink plenty of water and not to eat food for fifteen days. Having not eaten food for fifteen days, Svetaketu approached back to his father and said that he could not even recite the Vedas.
His father explained. In a large fire, if a tiny ember is left, it would not burn anymore. Similarly, of the sixteen parts, one part is left. With that alone, you could not recite Vedas. Then he instructed him to eat to know it better. He ate as instructed and know it all as before.
With the tiny ember kindled with grasses and powders, then it will burn even more than the former size. By adding up food, he could perceive Vedas. Hence the mind is made up of food, Prana is made up of water and speech is made up of fire.
When the man is in sleep, he is said to be merged himself in the Absolute Entity. That is why people say svapiti, the meaning of which is ‘he sleeps’ and the literal meaning is ‘he has gone to his own state’.
The bird that is being tied to a string, after having flown in several directions and found no resting place elsewhere, finally settles down at the place it has been fastened. Similarly, the mind having failed in its attempts of finding the resting place finally settles down in Prana because the mind is fastened to Prana.
The root of everything
Let us see what hunger and thirst are. When a man is desirous of eating, water carries the food eaten. Hence we call water as the food carrier. The body is the sprout that shot up, hence it could not be without a root.
For the body as the sprout, conclude that the food is the root. Likewise, for the food as the sprout, infer that the water is the root. For the water as the sprout, conclude that the fire is the root. For the fire as the root, infer that the Absolute Entity as the root. Hence, all beings have their root in the Absolute Entity. They reside and rest in the Absolute Entity.
When a man is desirous of drinking, fire carries the water drunk. Fire is the water carrier. Having the sprout shot up, know that it could not be without a root. For water as a sprout, infer that the fire as the root. For fire as a sprout, conclude that the Absolute Entity as the root. All the creatures have the Absolute Entity as the root. They reside and rest in the Absolute Entity.
Tat Tvam Asi: That Thou Art
When a man is departing, his speech dissolves in the mind. His mind in Prana. His Prana in the fire. The fires dissolve in the Supreme Entity.
The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. Tat Tvam Asi. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
No identity for honey
It is like the bees that make honey, from the distant trees many. We could not discriminate honey as it belongs to this tree or that tree. Like this, the Atmans of all beings are in the Supreme Being.
The creatures like the lion, tiger, boar, worm, insect, and the mosquito would become as such again. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. Tat Tvam Asi. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
No identity for water in Sea
Eastern rivers flow to the eastern sea and western rivers flow to the western sea. Water goes from the sea and comes back to the sea. The rivers after becoming sea don’t know who they are.
Similarly, the creatures like the lion and all, having come to Supreme Being, don’t know who they are and they become as such again. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. Tat Tvam Asi. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
The tree is full of life
If one strikes a large tree at its root, it would discharge the juice and it still lives. If one strikes in the middle, it would exude the juice and still, it lives. If one strikes at the top, it would discharge juice and still, it lives. The tree having pervaded by the Jivatman (Self) stands firm rejoicing.
If the Jivatman leaves one of its branches, that branch withers. Similarly, if it leaves another branch, that branch also withers. If it leaves the third branch, that branch too withers. If it leaves the whole tree, the whole tree withers. Similarly devoid of Jivatman, it perishes. Jivatman never perishes. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
The seeds of banyan tree
Then Uddalaka Aruni instructed his son to fetch the fruit of banyan-tree asked him to break it. He did so. He asked what he was seeing inside. He replied that he was seeing the tiny seeds inside. Then, he asked his son to break one of them. He did so. After that, his father asked what he was seeing. He answered that nothing was seen inside.
It is the subtle essence that could not be perceived. From this subtle essence, the large banyan tree grows up. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
Take out the salt out of water
Then his father asked him to put some salt into the water and instructed to bring it the next morning. The next day, he brought it. His father asked him to take out the salt that he put into the water during the previous night. His son told that it has gone as it dissolved in the water. His father asked him to taste the water. He tasted and answered that it was salty. Then he told that the Supreme Being is likewise not being perceived in spite of its presence. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
Man with eyes bound up
Consider this example. A man was brought from the Gandhara region (Afghanistan) with his eyes bound up. Having no clues, he shouted towards all directions, “I have been brought here and left here with my eyes bound up”. If someone helps to remove his bondage, he would identify the ways to reach his place by inquiring and reach his place.
In a similar manner, with the help of a Guru, one would get liberated. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
Man in death bed
When someone is his death bed, the relatives surround him and test whether he recognizes them or not. Until his speech is merged with the mind, mind with Prana, Prana in fire and Fire in Supreme Being, he knows them. After that, he would not recognize them. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
Man charged with an offence of theft
Consider this. The officers of the king brought a man charged with the offence of a theft. They heated an Axe immediately. If the man has committed the theft and covered himself with falsehood, the axe would burn him when touched. Then he will face death. If he has the cover of truth, it would not burn him. Then they will let him off.
Similarly, the man who has covered with the true knowledge of the Supreme Being is let off. He will become liberated from the cycle of births and deaths. The subtle essence has all this in its Atman. That is Atman. That is the truth. That thou art. O! Svetaketu.
The above translation of Chandogya Upanishad is based on the commentary of Sri Adi Sankaracharya.
Tat Tvam Asi as interpreted by Sri Ramanuja
The exponents of different philosophies interpret this Mahavakya in unique ways to make it be in agreement with the principles of their respective philosophies. Sri Ramanujacharya did not write any commentaries on Upanishads.
According to Sri Ramanujacharya, Tat means Brahman or Vishnu. Tvam refers to the Supreme Self residing in Jiva. Hence, the term means Brahman which is the universal substratum and it is the supreme inner self residing in Jiva which is different from the individual Self.
Tat Tvam Asi as interpreted by Sri Madhva
Sri Madhvacharya had written a commentary on Chandogya Upanishad. We have already seen that the Mahavakya was repeated nine times in the Upanishad. He interprets those repetitions as “That is the Existence, that is the Self, That you are not, Svetaketu”.
Tat Tvam Asi as interpreted by Sri Vallaba
Sri Vallaba is the exponent of Suttadvida or pure monism that believes in the relationship of Brahman and Jiva as Whole and part. He interprets this Mahavakya as “Brahman You are”, but in the sense that Jiva is the part of whole Brahman.
Though the interpretations are many, all philosophies accept the supremacy of Vedanta and the oneness of the Supreme Entity. The seeker pursuing the course of any of the philosophy is provided with a great insight into the meaning of the scriptures.
The paths of the rivers may be different from one another, but they all reach the same ocean. Anyone who is pursuing any path should have faith in his path alone to reach the destination. It is understandable and it is not wrong on his part to have such a firm belief that his path alone leads to liberation.
One should understand the differences between the philosophies in this spirit.
- Chandogya Upanishad with Shankara Bhashya by Ganganath Jha
- The Sanskrit Text of Chandogya Upanishad
- The Two Birds (Mundaka Upanishad) by Swami Sarvapriyananda (Video)
- Ramanuja: Article by Shyam Ranganathan.
- Mahavakya by Sarvapriyananda (Video)
- Sri Madhvacharya Bashya on Chandogya Upanishad by Sri Nagesh D Sonde
- Sri Ramanuja on Tat Tvam Asi and Neti Neti by Prof. K.S.
- Tattva Bodham by Omkarananda (Video)