Although the Advaitins may want to coopt this famous phrase, Vaishnavas have something to say about that.
By Satyaraja Dasa
Vaishnava acharyas have cut through the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta with the sword of a prominent Vedic mantra.
Though there are many maha-vakyas, or “great sayings,” four of them, one from each of the four Vedas, are often singled out as the standard maha-vakyas of the Vedic tradition. They all refer to the same universal truth, evoking the true spiritual nature of all living beings. This article focuses on tat tvam asi, often translated as “Thou art that.”1 Many scholars interpret this to mean that all living entities are the same as God. As we shall see, the aphorism is far more nuanced than that interpretation.
The verse originally appears in the Chandogya Upanishad (6.8.7) of the Sama Veda as the culminating thought in a dialogue between Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu. It is first uttered at the end of their discussion and then repeated as a refrain for the rest of the text. The story behind the phrase is that the young Svetaketu was proud of his learning, and his father tried to humble him by articulating a teaching that would allow him to see the vastness of the universe and the limitations of each individual’s knowledge. In describing how everything emanates from one eternal Truth, and how his son indeed partakes of that Truth, he ended with the words “Of everything that exists, this Being is the innermost Self. He is the Truth, the Self. And you, Svetaketu – you are that!”
What did Uddalaka mean? What are the various ideas about how his son could be the innermost Self, the supreme reality? Was his son to be understood as God? Was Uddalaka excluding himself, saying that his son was God but that he was not? Was he saying that his son perhaps shares in God’s nature but is not necessarily God as such? There are various ways to view his proclamation, and we will briefly explore them in this article.
According to Sankara, the preeminent Advaitin philosopher of the eighth century,2 tat tvam asi expresses the oneness of the individual soul with Brahman, or the Supreme Spirit, i.e., God. From a certain perspective, that interpretation has merit, since there is a clear connection between all that is, because everything partakes of ultimate spiritual reality. But even a little sustained thought about what this actually means gives reason to pause. For example, Brahman is described throughout Vedic texts as all-pervading and all-knowing, while individual souls are atomic in size and limited in knowledge. How, then, can there be total nondifference or identity between the two? How can they be the same?3
Obviously, in the midst of any sameness of the living beings and God, there has to be a difference as well. This is the Gaudiya Vaishnava view, technically called achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, the “inconceivable truth of simultaneous oneness and difference.” But Advaitins fail to acknowledge this, and so they devise dubious philosophical means to support their assertion: they often resort to metaphor or secondary word meanings to compensate for inaccuracy of interpretation. This is called bhaga-tyaga-lakshana, or arriving at an indirect or implied meaning (lakshana) by omitting (tyaga) a part (bhaga).
Even objective Sanskrit scholars who do not align themselves with either Advaitins or Vaishnavas have noted the inconsistencies in the Advaitin interpretation of tat tvam asi. For instance, Professor Edwin Gerow, a renowned Sanskritist and Indic studies educator, writes:
The lakshana then is obvious for the “tvam”: it is to be taken not as referring to the individual Svetaketu, but to his indwelling soul: atman. Here we encounter the real problem for the Advaitin. For although the soul of Svetaketu is in some sense identical to Brahman, the cosmic soul, the sentence still is defective in meaning, for “tat” still conveys the notion of “Brahman” as we ordinarily understand it: replete with qualities such as omniscience, omnipotence, etc. These qualities, which are part of Brahman’s primary meaning, are clearly not present in Svetaketu’s soul, and also must be set aside if “tat tvam asi” is to convey an acceptable meaning: “the principle of pure consciousness evidenced in the World Soul is identical to the principle of consciousness evidenced in Svetaketu.” Thus, the Advaitin has resorted to lakshana not once, but twice in the same sentence.4
Srila Prabhupada would concur with Professor Gerow. As a preeminent representative of the Gaudiya-Vaishnava-sampradaya, Prabhupada reads tat tvam asi not as some all-inclusive statement about oneness with God – who obviously has qualities the individual soul does not – but as a reference to a very specific kind of oneness: “The Vedic version tat tvam asi, ‘Thou art the same,’” Prabhupada tells us, “means not that everyone is God but that everyone is qualitatively of the same nature as God.”5
The key concepts here are quality and quantity. The sun, for example, might be seen as the sum total of all fire, as Prabhupada often said, and while qualitatively it shares its “fire quality” with sunshine, sunshine issues forth in less quantity than the sun. Thus, in terms of God and His energies, we see that in one sense they are identical – we and everything that emanates from God are qualitatively one with Him – and yet, in another sense, God and His energies are fundamentally different. God is great, and His energies are comparatively small, which is a quantitative consideration. This, in a nutshell, is what is meant by tat tvam asi.
The Madhva Sampradaya
Among all Vaishnava traditions, the Madhvites have been the most outspoken regarding the proper understanding of tat tvam asi. In fact, Madhva (1238–1317) himself writes in his work Sri Tattva-muktavali (also known as Mayavada-shata-dushani), verse 6:
The Mayavadi [Advaitin] commentator on Vedanta claimed that the words tat tvam asi are the maha-vakya, the most important statement in the Vedas. According to this explanation, tat means “the Supreme,” tvam means “you,” and asi means “are.” He interpreted the phrase to mean “you are the Supreme,” and he claimed that there is no difference between the Supreme and the individual spirit souls.
The Vaishnava commentator on Vedanta interpreted these words in a different way, saying that tat-tvam is a possessive compound word (shashthi-tatpurusha-samasa). According to his explanation, tat means “of the Supreme,” and the entire phrase means “you are the servant of the Supreme.” In this way, the proper meaning of the scriptural statement is clearly shown.6
Soon after Madhva’s time, during the early part of the fourteenth century, one of his prominent disciples, Akshobhya Tirtha, engaged in what would become a famous public debate. His challenger was Vidyaranya, a leading Advaitin of the period. The renowned Vedanta Deshika, a vastly learned figure in the Sri Vaishnava lineage, was the esteemed arbitrator, respected by both assemblies.
After several days of debate, Deshika, weighing both sides of the argument, composed a now famous Sanskrit verse: “With the sword of the Vedic mantra tat tvam asi, which establishes the eternal distinction between the jiva and the Supreme Lord, Akshobhya Muni cut down the dense forest [of monism] by destroying Vidyaranya’s arguments.”7 Today, epigraphic evidence (inscriptions) of the debate exists at Mulbagal, in the Kolar district of Karnataka, where a stone pillar commemorates this victory of Vaishnavism over Advaita Vedanta.
Madhva’s followers offer yet another linguistic perspective in an attempt for further clarity. Noting the full Sanskrit verse, they argue that tat tvam asi could just as easily be read as atat tvam asi. This would render it with the opposite meaning: “You are not God.” According to Hridayananda dasa Goswami:
For non-Sanskritists, here is a simple explanation: In Sanskrit, a word-final long ‘a,’ which I will write as A, coalesces with (merges into) a following short ‘a’ or long ‘A.’ In CU 6.8.7, we have this: sa AtmA tat tvam asi. “. . . that [is the] soul. You are that.”
But according to the rules above, this could be taken as “sa AtmA a-tat (not that) tvam asi (you are). In this case, the final A of AtmA coalesces with an imagined short ‘a’ of a-tat. In this case, ‘a,’ as in English a-theist, means “not.” The real point: this is possible grammatically. . . . Clearly, invoking the grammatical possibility of a-tat tvam asi is meant to refute any attempt to [mis]interpret atma [individual soul] as paramatma [God].8
Such alternate readings of Sanskrit texts bring to mind scriptio continua (Latin for “continuous script”), an ancient style of writing without spaces, punctuation, distinguished letter case, and other marks between words or sentences. In the West, Classical Greek and late Classical Latin both used this method of writing, as did various Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Javanese, Balinese, Chinese, Japanese, and other scripts. Traditional editions of Sanskrit texts often used a form of scriptio continua as well, omitting numerous orthographic elements (elements related to letters and spelling) that would make the text more easily readable.
Bart Ehrman, bestselling author and New Testament scholar, points out how scriptio continua can make it difficult to recognize the real and originally intended meaning of a text. As an example, he uses the word “godisnowhere,” which can be read by a theist as “God is now here,” and by an atheist as “God is nowhere.” One’s reading of it will depend on one’s understanding of the language and the phrase’s context, as well as one’s predilections and received tradition.9
Certain Sanskrit texts are received in the same way. This is especially pertinent in terms of tat tvam asi – the Advaitin reads it as “You are God,” and the Vaishnava as “You are not God.”
Clearly, in the end, the limited living being is not identifiable as the Supreme Being, and few would realistically claim otherwise. Consequently, that’s how the text should be read. As seen above, the Vaishnava view on this subject has much to recommend it, for it has on its side logic, context, common sense, and corroboration from the overwhelming majority of India’s sacred texts.
Gaudiya Vaishnava Elaboration
The earliest literature on Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu offers an inner reading on tat tvam asi. In Vrindavana Dasa Thakura’s Chaitanya-bhagavata,10 we learn of the Lord’s sannyasa initiation, wherein He is given the mantra tat tvam asi by his Mayavadi guru, Keshava Bharati. However, enacting a form of transcendental trickery, the Lord first whispers the mantra into Bharati’s ear, asking if this is indeed the one through which He will now be initiated. Bharati affirms that it is, and then repeats the mantra into Mahaprabhu’s ear. Thus, although Mahaprabhu actually gave initiation to his sannyasa guru, by conferral of mantra, He was, for all intents and purposes, now a sannyasa disciple of Keshava Bharati.
The tradition teaches that earlier, when Mahaprabhu had first heard the words tat tvam asi, understanding it as “You are that,” with its usual Mayavadi reading, He became terribly dismayed. But Murari Gupta, His intimate follower, relieved His mind: He suggested that Mahaprabhu understand the mantra in terms of a genitive tat-purusha compound (possessive), meaning “I am Yours” or “I am His,” instead of “You are that.”11 Consequently, it can be viewed as a theistic mantra instead of a monistic one.
In Sanskrit, the genitive and possessive are synonymous as semantic categories, the possessive being a subcategory of the genitive. The idea, briefly, is that you would read tat tvam asi not as two separate words (tat tvam = “that you”) but as a compound (tat-tvam” = “that-you”). This would be comparable to how the name “Johnson,” for example, would historically have been the name of the “son of John,” so “that you” is the “you of that one,” i.e., “the you who belong to him.” All Sanskritists would acknowledge this as a legitimate reading of tat tvam asi, even if its implications are peculiar to the Vaishnava tradition.
After Mahaprabhu’s time, the tradition continued in its understanding of the devotional perspective. Jiva Goswami explains tat tvam asi from the Vaishnava point of view [see the sidebar “Jiva Goswami on Tat Tvam Asi”], and Baladeva Vidyabhushana writes about it throughout his scholarly works. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, the great nineteenth-century Vaishnava reformer, particularly revels in the ultimate Vaishnava conception:
Tat tvam asi and other teachings of the scriptures give love for Krishna as their final fruit. In the end they bring the devotee to Krishna. They make the devotee see Vrindavana, Lord Krishna’s eternal, blissful, spiritual abode. (Kalyana-kalpataru, first branch, song 8, verse 4)
To underline this truth, and to bring it closer to both the Madhva and Murari Gupta explanations, as cited above, Bhaktivinoda quotes Madhvacharya’s Tattva-muktavali (text 6, cited above) in his Tattva-sutra (text 11). He thus makes it clear that the Advaitin conception is a forced interpretation, and that the Vaishnava reading articulates the originally intended message of the Vedas.
Summing Up: Uddalaka’s Point
The individual soul is designated tvam (“you”) in the statement tat tvam asi (“You are that”), and the Supreme is designated tat. If one acknowledges that this “you” is conscious and eternal – a spiritual being – in the same way that the Lord is conscious and eternal, then one can thereby easily understand how the Supreme Brahman (tat) has a nature similar to that of the ordinary living entity, and identification between “I and Thou,” or man and God, can be properly understood. This is the simple and direct point that Uddalaka was trying to make to his son Svetaketu.
But over the course of time, various schools of thought confused the subject by introducing arbitrary interpretations of this mantra, misleading readers into thinking that God and man are one in toto, without any distinction whatsoever – an obvious absurdity.
In Tattva-sandarbha (Anuccheda 52), Jiva Goswami advises that one can look at one’s own nature to learn certain fundamental truths about the Supreme, and this, he says, is the intent of the tat tvam asi verse: “One contemplates the individual living being to know the Other, the Supreme.”
The sage Pippalayana, too, Jiva Goswami explains (Anuccheda 53), describes the soul as having the same nature as tat when he says to King Nimi (Srimad Bhagavatam 11.3.38):
Brahman, the eternal soul, was never born and will never die, nor does it grow or decay. That spiritual soul is actually the knower of the youth, middle age and death of the material body. Thus the soul can be understood to be pure consciousness, existing everywhere at all times and never being destroyed. Just as the life air within the body, although one, becomes manifest as many in contact with the various material senses, the one soul appears to assume various material designations in contact with the material body.
By recognizing the similarities between God and man – and the distinctions as well – under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, one can realize the true explanation of tat tvam asi. As Prabhupada’s disciples sum up in their purport to this Bhagavatam verse:
From the statement tat tvam asi, found in the Chandogya Upanishad, it is to be understood that spiritual knowledge is not impersonal but entails gradually perceiving the pure spiritual soul within the material body. Just as in Bhagavad-gita Krishna repeatedly says aham, or “I,” this Vedic aphorism uses the word tvam, or “you,” to indicate that just as the Absolute Truth is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the individual spark of Brahman (tat) is also an eternal personality (tvam). Therefore, according to Srila Jiva Goswami it is to be understood that the individual spark of Brahman is eternally conscious. Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura has further pointed out that instead of wasting time trying to understand the truth in its impersonal aspect, which is merely the negation of temporary material variety, one should try to understand oneself to be an eternally conscious entity in the jiva category. In other words, one should understand oneself to be eternally a conscious servitor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In the end, we must understand the ways in which all souls are one with the Supreme, but, more importantly, we must also understand how we are different from Him. It is this difference that allows for a mood of service (bhakti), for how can there be service if all living beings are the same? Who is serving whom? Indeed, the Vaishnava conception is that by “division” we can become truly one – not in the sense of an ontological oneness, but in the sense of a oneness that has love at its basis, culminating in the Chaitanya conception: “I am His.”
- The other three maha-vakyas: (1) prajñanam brahma: “Prajñana is Brahman” or “Brahman is prajñana,” i.e., “Brahman is supreme knowledge.” The idea is that knowledge leads to awareness of our spiritual nature. (Aitareya Upanishad 3.3 of the Rig Veda); (2) ayam atma brahma: “The Self is Brahman.” (Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 of the Atharva Veda); and (3) aham brahmasmi: “I am Brahman,” or “I am spirit.” (Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda).
The sacred syllable AUM, or om, is also sometimes known as a maha-vakya; it is considered the sound representation of Krishna and is honored as Krishna (A), Radha (U), and all living beings (M). In other words, it is inclusive of all existence.
- “Advaitin” literally means “not two.” Advaitin philosophers proclaim oneness with God, seeing themselves as nondifferent from the Supreme. They also tend to think of God as an abstract force, or otherwise view Him in impersonal terms.
- Some Advaitin philosophers offer the argument that, despite our current limitations, in our self-realized state we suddenly have all the qualities of God in full. But this is just wishful thinking, conjecture that is never supported in India’s sacred texts or in the teachings of the great acharyas.
- Edwin Gerow, “The Dvaitin as Deconstructionist: Vishnudasacharya on ‘Tat tvam asi’: Part 1,” Journal of the Oriental Society 107.4 (1987), p. 566.
- See Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Chapter 85.
- As we will soon see, a similar derivation will later be developed in the Gaudiya tradition.
- Original verse quoted in B. N. K. Sharma, History of the Dvaita School of Vedanta and its Literature, Volume 1 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, reprint, 2008), 229–230. Also see N. Narasimhachary, Sri Vedanta Deshika (Kolkata: Sahitya Academi, 2010, reprint), 24.
- Personal correspondence with H. D. Goswami, November 6, 2019.
- See Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 48.
- See Vrindavana Dasa Thakura’s Chaitanya-bhagavata (Madhya-khanda 28.153–159). Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, in his commentary on 157, clarifies, “He first initiated Keshava Bharati with the sannyasa mantra, and then to teach people He accepted the same mantra from him as a disciple.” Also see See Murari Gupta’s Sri-krishna-caitanya-charitamrita 3.2.7–9, where we find the same narrative.
- See Murari Gupta’s Sri-krishna-caitanya-charitamrita (2.18.2–4) and Kavi Karnapura’s Chaitanya-carita-mahakavya (11.42) for this component of Mahaprabhu’s initiation story.
Srila Jiva Goswami on Tat Tvam Asi
Excerpts from Priti-sandarbha
From Anuccheda 1:
Chandogya Upanishad’s declaration tat tvam asi (“You are that”) actually describes the individual soul’s natural love for the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Love is seen even in the ordinary dealings of the material world. Love is natural for all living beings. It is seen even among the least spiritual of materialists, who have destroyed their spiritual life. How can the soul give up its nature? Therefore every soul seeks someone to love. That search for love finds its culmination when one falls in love with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Therefore falling in love with the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the highest goal of life. This the saintly devotees say. That love will be written about in this Priti-sandarbha.
From Anuccheda 5:
In the Chandogya Upanishad’s statement tat tvam asi (“You are that”) it is seen that because they are His parts and parcels, the individual spirit souls are not different from the Supreme Lord. . . . The individual spirit souls are His parts and parcels eternally, like rays of light emanating from the sun that is the Supreme Lord. In this way it is proved that the Supreme Lord is always the supreme controller, the supreme enjoyer, and supreme in all other ways.
- Translation by Kushakratha Dasa