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Literally, Aham (अहं) means "I", that which cannot be deserted or abandoned on account of being constant, unavoidable, ever present. Brahma (ब्रह्म) means ever-full or whole (ब्रह्म is the first case ending singular of Brahman) and Asmi (अस्मि) means "am," the first-person singular present tense of the verb "अस्," "to be." This mahāvākya is in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Shukla Yajurveda.
Brahman is the Infinite Reality, the all encompassing existence in itself; only when the ego dies can this be realized. In this aphorism the "I" is not the limited transmigrating ego, the doer and the enjoyer within, and also not the body and the mind. Man (who is a conscious entity) alone has the capacity to improve his present state, to guide his future, to enquire and know the truth, and to free himself from the cycle of birth and death (vidyā adhikāra) through thoughtful actions (karma adhikāra).
- स्वतः पूर्णः परात्माऽत्र ब्रह्मशब्देन वर्णितः |
- अस्मीत्यैक्य-परामर्शः तेन ब्रह्म भवाम्यहम् ||
- "Infinite by nature, the Supreme Self is described here by the word Brahman (lit. ever expanding; the ultimate reality); the word asmi denotes the identity of aham and Brahman. Therefore, (the meaning of the expression is) "I am Brahman."
This realization is gained through true enquiry.
Vaishnavas, when they talk about Brahman, usually refer to impersonal Brahman, brahmajyoti (rays of Brahman). Brahman according to them means God - Narayana, Rama or Krishna. Thus, the meaning of "aham brahma asmi" according to their philosophy is that "I am a drop of Ocean of Consciousness.", or "I am soul, part of cosmic spirit, Parabrahma". Here, the term Parabrahma is introduced to avoid confusion. If Brahman can mean soul (though, Parabrahma is also the soul, but Supreme one - Paramatma), then Parabrahma should refer to God, Lord Vishnu.
This memorable expression appears in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad when the sage, in the context of meditation on the Self, in reply to the query – What did that Brahma know by which It became all? - states:-
- "ब्रह्म वा इदमग्र आसीत्, तदात्मनामेवावेत्, अहं ब्रह्मास्मीति | तस्मात्तत्सर्वमभवत्; तद्यो यो देवानां प्रत्यबुध्यत स एव तदभवत्, तदषीर्णाम् तथा मनुष्याणाम्,..."
- "This (self) was indeed Brahman in the beginning; It knew only Itself as, "I am Brahman". Therefore It became all; and whoever among the gods knew It also became That; and the same with sages and men…” - (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.iv.10)
In his comment on this passage Sankara explains that here Brahman is not the conditioned Brahman (saguna), that a transitory entity cannot be eternal, that knowledge about Brahman, the infinite all-pervading entity, has been enjoined, that knowledge of non-duality alone dispels ignorance and that the meditation based on resemblance is only an idea. He also tells us that the expression Aham Brahmaasmi is the explanation of the mantra –
- पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते |
- पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ||
- "That ('Brahman') is infinite, and this ('universe') is infinite; the infinite proceeds from the infinite. (Then) taking the infinitude of the infinite ('universe'), it remains as the infinite ('Brahman') alone." - (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad V.i.1)
He explains that non-duality and plurality are contradictory only when applied to the Self, which is eternal and without parts, but not to the effects, which have parts. The aham in this memorable expression is not closed in itself as a pure mental abstraction but it is radical openness. Between Brahman and aham-brahma lies the entire temporal universe experienced by the ignorant as a separate entity (duality).
The difference between Brahma and atma emerges most clearly where they appear side by side with one another such as - स वा अयमात्मा ब्रह्म विज्ञानमयो मनोमयः प्राणमयः – 'That Self is indeed Brahma, as also identified with the intellect, the mind and the vital-force'. The Isha Upanishad tells us that the Supreme Brahma present in the Mukhya Prana is the bearer of the secret names of Aham and Asmi. Sankara proclaims that there is a plane where everything is entirely "different"; where laws of maya no longer apply; where distinctions like subject and object fall away; where Tat Tvam Asi and Aham Brahma asmi are actually felt.
- Meaning of Aham Brahamasmi
- Gurumayum Ranjit Sharma (1987). The Idealistic Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda. Atlantic. p. 180. GGKEY:PSWXE5NTFF4.
- Swami Tejomayananda, Mādhava (1999). Pañcadaśī, chapters 5, 10 and 15. Chinmaya Mission. pp. 9–12. ISBN 978-81-7597-036-6.
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- Hans Torwesten (January 1994). Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism. Grove/Atlantic. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-8021-3262-8.