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Mahavakyas are the great statements that appear in Vedas and Upanishads. Vedas are the oldest religious scriptures of Sanatana Dharma. Upanishads are the concluding part of the Vedas. While Upanishads are the very essence of Vedas, these aphorisms are the very essence of Upanishads or Vedanta.
There are more than ten Mahavakyas found in Vedanta. Four of them are considered as important and the spiritual scholars, Sri Adi Sankara and Sri Ramanuja discussed them in a great deal.
The Sanskrit term ‘Mahavakya’ means a great sentence or aphorism that describes the core teachings of Vedanta. The very basis of Indian Philosophy is Vedanta. Different interpretations of Vedanta lead to different kinds of philosophies. Hence these aphorisms too are interpreted in different ways.
Mahavakyas and Sub-schools of Vedanta
According to Advaita Vedanta, Brahman only is the truth and the empirical world is illusory. There is no other supremacy than the oneness of Brahman and Jiva. The true identity of Jiva or Self is Brahman only. Vedantic scriptures reiterate the identity and express in these aphorisms. So these aphorisms are identity statements. The identity statements are the equations of Paramatma and Jivatma.
Bondage is the reason for the miseries of the world. Ignorance is the cause of bondage. Liberation is the absence of Ignorance. Wisdom alone is the cause of Liberation. Jnanam Eva Moksha Karanam. Then, How one could attain wisdom? Advaita text Naishkarmya Siddhi replies ‘Vedanta Mahavakya Eva Jnanam’ which means ‘Vedanta aphorisms alone give wisdom’.
Adi Sankara explains great aphorisms in 43 verses (Verses 210-253) in his Advaita Prakarana Grantha Vivekachudamani. According to him, the functions of great aphorisms take one from Seer-Seen-Relationship (Drik Drishya Sambandha) to Effect-Cause-Relationship (Karya Karana Sambandha).
Sri Sankaracharya expounded the core concepts and tenets of Advaita Vedanta mostly based on these four aphorisms.
Sri Ramanucharya repudiates the meaning of aphorisms as elucidated in the Advaita sub-school of Indian Philosophy. He interprets the Mahavakyas differently in his Visistadvaita sub-school of Indian philosophy.
The views of Sri Madvacharaya of Dvaita sub-school of philosophy differs from Sri Adi Sankara and Sri Ramanuja. Let me explain the common aspects first.
Common Aspect Among Sub-Schools
Sri Adi Sankara gives more importance to these aphorisms than the others. The other sub-schools repudiates mainly the Advaita sub-school to establish their philosophy and gives an interpretation in such a way to suit their philosophies.
However, we should understand the basic commonality among them. Though they had an entirely different view from one another, they accept the supremacy and authority of Vedas and Vedanta. Only their interpretations are different.
Prajnanam Brahma which is found in Aitreya Upanishad of Rig Veda, Aham Brahmasmi which is found in Brihadaranya Upanishad of Yajur Veda, Tat Tvam Asi which is found in Chandogya Upanishad of Sama Veda, and Ayam Atma Brahma which is found in Mandukya Upanishad of Atharva Veda are considered as the Primary Mahavakyas.
The four aphorisms give perfect answers to the following basic questions of the spiritual seeker.
Who am I?
Who is God?
What is his nature?
What is the nature of my soul?
How to attain Liberation?
The four aphorisms are also used in Mantra Japa by some seekers. While taking these mantras for Japa, one should contemplate on the meaning of them during practice, like chanting Pranava Mantra Japa with contemplation on its meaning.
Similarly, Tejo Bindu Upanishad elucidates the benefits of this kind of Mantra Japa. Vakya Smaranat Janam. Vakya Smarana or repeatedly reminding the meaning makes one attains Jnana.
It is also a notable point that Tat Tvam Asi is repeated nine times in Chandogya Upanishad.
Interpretations of Mahavakyas
To understand these terms correctly, one should understand the meaning of Sanskrit grammatical terms like Vachyartha and Laksyartha. Vachyartha means direct meaning or literal meaning and Laksyartha means indirect meaning or indicated meaning. The aphorisms should be understood with indicated meaning and not with literal meaning. For example, the literal meaning of the term ‘Aham’ is ‘I’. Here, ‘I’ does not refer to body or mind, but the witness behind.
Samadhikaranyam is yet another Sanskrit grammatical term. When two words indicate the same meaning, they are called Samadhikaranyam. There are sixteen types of Samadhikaranyam. In our context, it is enough for us to understand the two of them: Aikya Samadhikaranyam and Bada Samadhikaranyam.
For example, consider the sentence: Rama is the King. The king and Rama are the same entities. The two words refer to one entity. Consider this sentence: The Rope is the snake. It means the snake you are seeing is the rope. Here, we exclude the word snake. But in the former sentence, we include the second word.
We should know the difference and take the right meaning. Prajnanam Brahma (Consciousness is Brahman) is Aikya Samadhikaranyam and the meaning should be taken accordingly. Aham Brahmasmi is Bada Smadhikaranyam. Because the Vachyartha of Aham is excluded and Laksyartha is taken. When Aham refers to the witness, it is Aikya Samadhikaranyam.
In addition to the four Maha-Vakyas, some other Maha-Vakyas are found in Vedanta. Let me explain some of them.
Sarvam Kalvidam Brahma
Sarvam means ‘all’. Kalvidam means ‘indeed this’. Hence this Maha-Vakya means ‘All this indeed Brahman’. This aphorism appears in Chandogya Upanishad.
sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma tajjalāniti śānta upāsīta । atha khalu kratumayaḥ puruṣo yathākraturasmiꣳlloke puruṣo bhavati tathetaḥ pretya bhavati sa kratuṃ kurvīta
All this is indeed Brahman. From this, the universe comes from, exists, and dissolves. A man is identified with his will. According to his will in this world, he verily becomes that will after leaving this world. Hence let him cultivate his will.Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1
According to Advaita Philosophy, the world is a delusion. It is there but the reality is different from its appearance. Hence Sruti calls its Brahman. This verse of Chandogya Upanishad is the Sruti Pramana (testimony of the Vedic Scripture) for the Advaita Philosophy which calls this world as Mythya or delusion.
Ekam means one. Eva means alone. Advitiam means without a second. Hence this MahaVakya means ‘This is the one alone without a second’. It was found in 6.2.1 of Chandogya Upanishad.
Esadeva somyedamagra āsīdekamevādvitīyam । taddhaika āhurasadevedamagra āsīdekamevādvitīyaṃ tasmādasataḥ sajjāyata ॥
In the beginning, there was one entity alone 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 one entity alone without a second.– Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1
In Advaita Philosophy, bondage is the source of misery. Self-Knowledge is the source of liberation. Mahavakyas are the source of Self-knowledge. Through Maha-Vakyas one can attain liberation.
Different sub-schools interpret the Mahavakyas differently, yet they accept the supremacy of the Vedanta. Different sub-schools are different ways that lead to a single destination. The goal is the one, the approaches are different. Yet one who is keen on his path reaches the destination irrespective of the path he has chosen.
Hence a true seeker interprets the Mahavakyas in accordance with the path he has chosen. It is just his commitment to his path. The different interpretations should be understood in this spirit.