Four Upanisadic Mahâvâkyas and their Vedic settings

type of priest:invoking priestshandling priestssinging priests(nonliturgical)
hymn collection:Rk SamhitâYajuh SamhitâSâma SamhitâAtharva Samhitâ
ritual treatise:Aitareya BrâhmanaSatapatha BrâhmanaChândogya Brâhmana  …
philosophical treatise:Aitareya UpanisadBrhadâranyaka Upan.Chândogya Upan.Mândûkya Upanisad
mahâvâkya:Ait.Up. 3.3:Brh.Up. 1.4.10:Ch.Up. 6.8.7:Mand.Up. 2:
(Sanskrit text:)prajñânam brahmaaham brahmâsmitat tvam asiayam âtmâ brahma
(English translation:)“Consciousness is Brahman.”“I am brahman.”“That you are.”Brahman is this self.”

[Note: Each Veda has multiple branches, each of which may have it own Brahmana, Upanisads, etc. This table gives only one line among several for each of them.]

Notes on Tat Tvam Asi

On Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art):


Tat Tvam Asi is repeated in the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad, in which the teacher Uddalaka Aruni instructs his son in the nature of Brahman. The text served as a foundation for the Advaita Vedanta branch of Hindu philosophy, providing detail on the concepts of Atman and Brahman.

Representing a central theme of Advaita philosophy, Tat Tvam Asi unites the macrocosmic ideas of God and universal consciousness with the microcosmic individual expression of the Self. This mantra highlights the notion that all beings are intimately connected to universal energy and cannot be separated from it.

Tat Tvam Asi is one of the four principle Mahavakyas, short statements from The Upanishads. The essence of each of these Mahavakyas is the same, since all are intended to guide practitioners toward the realization that all beings are one with Brahman. Understanding this is believed to be the ultimate form of compassion, in which individuals recognize one another as part of the same whole.

The great insight of Advaita Vedanta is, the reality you reach through the God-centred approach or the ‘that’ based approach, and the reality you reach through the Self-inquiry approach or the ‘thou’ based approach, is exactly the same reality. By bringing them together – Atman is Brahman, ‘That thou art’, the stunning insight is – that indubitable personal existence is also the infinitude of God. The unproblematic, infinite nature of God and the indubitable certain existence of the self are brought together. You have an infinite existence which is also beyond doubt.

– Swami Sarvapriyananda, What is Vedanta

From the Bhagavad Gita:

The 18 chapters of the Gita can be viewed as three shadgams of six chapters each. In each of these sections, three broad topics are dealt with.

In the first set of six chapters, the three topics discussed are:

  • Jiva vichara
  • Sadana of karma yoga to attain moksha
  • Human effort, purusha prayatna, to gain self knowledge.

The second shadgam discusses:

  • Ishwara swaroopa
  • Sadana of upasana yoga or meditation on Saguna Brahman
  • Ishwara Kripa.

The focus in the third shadgam is on:

  • The oneness of Paramatma and jivatma
  • The sadana of jnana yoga through practices – sravana, manana, nidhidyasa, etc.
  • The importance of character building by cultivating worthy qualities and virtues.

It is shown that the first topic in each of the three shadgams, namely jiva vichara, Ishwara vichara and Jiva-Brahma Aikya Jnana, respectively unfolds the explanation of the three terms Tvam, Tat and Asi in the Mahavakya. The ‘Tvam’ pada refers to the essential nature of the individual soul, the ‘Tat’ pada is about the nature of the Supreme Brahman and the ‘Asi’ pada affirms the oneness of Paramatma and the jivatma. The second and the third topics in each of three sections comprehensively deal with the yoga sadanas, karma, bhakti and jnana and of the importance of human effort, God’s grace and the cultivation of Daivi sampath or virtues.

Speaking Tree Article by Nitin Sridhar

The Sruti makes statements like “Tat Tvam Asi”(Thou Art That) and “Aham Brahmasmi”(I am Brahman) which often may lead to confusion.

Every verse can have three kinds of meanings- sAmAnadhikaranam, visheshana-visheShya bhava and lakshya-lakshana sambhanda (Naishkarmya-Siddi 3.3).
If we interpret the Mahavakya according to sAmAnadhikarana, the Thou and That, the Jiva and Brahman which are different are being equated. The Mahavakya will mean that the Jiva that is limited and temporary is equal to/same as Brahman, that is infinite and birth-less. This is called as “sAmAnAdhikaranam” or “Co-ordination”.

On the other hand, if we are to take that the Mahavakya is implying that “Thou” is being qualified by the term “That” and vice versa; then it would mean that to the Jiva (in its limiting aspect) is attributed the Brahman-hood (i.e. the qualities like Birth-less, Infinite) and to the Brahman (which is ever-free) is attributed the Jiva-hood (i.e. the qualities like temporary and bounded. This kind of interpretation is called as “visheshaNa-visheshya bhAva” or “Subject-Predicate Relation”.

But, it is visible that in the case of the Mahavakya- “Tat Tvam Asi”, both sAmAnAdhikaranam and visheshaNa-visheshya bhAva does not apply because, neither the limited and temporary Jiva that is subjected to Karma and bondage can be equated to Brahman/God who is eternal, birth-less and ever free, nor can the qualities of one be attributed to another. Gaudapada in his Mandukya Karika (3.21) says that-“the immortal cannot become mortal. Similarly, the mortal cannot become immortal. The mutation of one’s nature will take in no way whatsoever”. Hence, in the case of this Mahavakya, the “Co-ordination” and “Subject-Predicate Relationship” does not apply.

Hence, one must take into consideration only the “lakshya-lakshana sambandha” i.e. Indirect Indication. And accordingly, the “Thou” refers not to the Jiva who is limited by body and mind, but to the Atman, the Inner-most Self who is ever-free and the lone Witness of the body, senses and the mind. Hence, it is the Innermost Atman who is eternal and ever-free is being identified with Brahman, the substratum of the Universe who is also eternal and birth-less. In other words, the Mahavakya implies that, it is the Brahman who is infinite and eternal inhabits all the objects of the Universe as their Atman/Innermost Self.

And when, an individual through vichara/discrimination understands the Real-Self, the Atman as devoid of the Non-Self entities like body and mind and then through Niddhi-dhyasa/contemplation realizes the identity of Atman who is Immidiate (Aparoksha) and Self-established with Brahman who is birthless and ever-free, then he becomes “Jivan-Mukta” due to the destruction of all Ignorance.

Uncontrolled mind

The mind is uncontrolled when it makes plans to enjoy the pleasures of the senses.

BG 2.62

While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.

BG 2.63

From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.

Aim for the larger good

त्यजेदेकं कुलस्यार्थे ग्रामस्यार्थे कुलं त्यजेत् ।
ग्रामं जनपदस्यार्थे ह्यात्मार्थे पृथिवीं त्यजेत् ॥

tyajedekaṃ kulasyārthe grāmasyārthe kulaṃ tyajet ।
grāmaṃ janapadasyārthe hyātmārthe pṛthivīṃ tyajet ॥

Give up one person for the sake of the lineage;
For the sake of a village, a lineage can be given up.
Give up a village for the benefit of the region;
For the sake of the soul, give up the pleasures of the earth.

Three different sources are listed for this quote:
Maha Bharata Adi. 115. 36 ; Sabha. 61. 11
Hitopadeśa, Mitralābha
Chanakya Neeti, Neeti 3 Rule 10

kāmamaya evāyaṃ puruṣa iti You are what your…

kāmamaya evāyaṃ puruṣa iti
You are what your deep, driving desire is

sa yathākāmo bhavati tatkratur bhavati
As your desire is, so is your will

yatkratur bhavati tat karma kurute
As your will is, so is your deed

yat karma kurute tad abhisaṃpadyate
As your deed is, so is your destiny

-Brihadaranyakopanisad 4.4.5