Tat Tvam Asi
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Tat Tvam Asi (Devanagari: तत्त्वमसि), a Sanskrit phrase, translated variously as "Thou art that," (That thou art, That art thou, You are that, or That you are) is one of the Mahāvākyas (Grand Pronouncements) in Vedantic Sanatana Dharma. It originally occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7, in the dialogue between Uddalaka and his son Śvetaketu; it appears at the end of a section, and is repeated at the end of the subsequent sections as a refrain. The meaning of this saying is that the Self - in its original, pure, primordial state - is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena.
Major Vedantic schools offer different interpretations of the phrase:
- Advaita - absolute equality of 'tat', the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, and 'tvam', the Self, Atman.
- Shuddhadvaita - oneness in "essence" between 'tat' and individual self; but 'tat' is the whole and self is a part.
- Vishishtadvaita - identity of individual self as a part of the whole which is 'tat', Brahman.
- Dvaitadvaita - equal non-difference and difference between the individual self as a part of the whole which is 'tat'.
- Dvaita of Madhvacharya - “Sa atmaa-tat tvam asi” in Sanskrit is actually “Sa atma-atat tvam asi” or “Atman, thou art not that”. In refutation of Mayavada (Mayavada sata dushani), text 6, 'tat tvam asi" is translated as "you are a servant of the Supreme (Vishnu)"
- Acintya Bheda Abheda - inconceivable oneness and difference between individual self as a part of the whole which is 'tat'.
Tat tvam asi is the Mahāvākya (Grand Pronouncement) from Chandogya Upanishad. The Advaita school of Shankara assigns a fundamental importance to this Mahāvākya and three others of the same kind from three other Upanishads.
The Vedas form the fundamental source text for everything in Hinduism. Each of the four Vedas has metaphysical speculations, known as Upanishads, at the end. Among the various discussions in these Upanishads there are mahavakyas (Grand pronouncements), which are of foundational import and deep significance. Tat tvam asi (meaning, That Thou Art) is one such. This is from Chandogya Upanishad. Different schools of philosophy interpret such fundamental statements in significantly different ways, so as to be consistent with their own philosophical thought. Below is the interpretation of the Vishishtadvaita school.
The argument that AtmA+atat(आत्मा+अतत् ) cannot happen just as brahmaa + ashiraha(ब्रह्मा+अशिरः) cannot is not valid. In the word brahmārpanam (ब्रह्मार्पणम्), it cannot be split as brahma+ rpanam (ब्रह्मा+ र्पणम्), but it can only be brahma+ arpanam (ब्रह्मा+अर्पणम्). One cannot even argue that since rpanam is meaningless, it has to be arpanam. The argument that AtmA+atat(आत्मा+अतत् ) cannot happen is baseless, just as brahma+arpanam (ब्रह्मा+अर्पणम्) cannot happen is also baseless. AtmA+atat(आत्मा+अतत् ) means Atman+atat(आत्मन्+अतत् ).
Atman, That and Thou
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When Uddalaka is having dialog with his son Shvetaketu, if he is saying “O Atman, that thou art”, what are these words referring to? Since “Atman” is addressing, “thou” must also refer to Atman. If “thou” points to the Supreme inner self, then the statement simply means “O Supreme inner self, you, the Supreme inner self is that, Supreme inner self”. This simply becomes a redundant statement that is trivially true. There are only two ways the triviality can go. One is Atman refers to individual self and that refers to Supreme inner self and negating their selfsameness is the purport. “O Individual self, you are not that Supreme inner self.” The second way is to note that in Vedic grammar, the Nominative case is representative of other cases. In Accusative case sense, it means that the very object and purpose of an Individual self is Supreme self. In Instrumental case it means that the Supreme inner self or the Lord is instrumental for every action of Individual self. In Dative case, it means the very goal of Individual self is to reach the Supreme inner self. In Ablative case, it means the very origin of Individual self is the Supreme Self. It also means that Individual self is eternally dependent on Supreme self. In Genitive case, it means that Individual self does not own anything as everything belongs to Supreme self. The individual self itself belongs to Supreme self. In Locative case it means the Individual self is located in Supreme self and thus always seeking support for the very existence. Thus in every which way, the eternal dependence is indicated.
Who decides what are Mahavakyas
Who determines as to what are Mahavakyas or Grand Pronouncements? Everyone can go with his own selection of statements and pronounce that these are Mahavakyas. Even a bigger issue is that if these Mahavakyas contradict other statements in Vedic literature, how can the trust ever be placed in vedic literature itself, since that is tantamount to saying that the vedic literature contains self-contradicting bunch of statements that are not much more than some blabbering by some nomads. Note the explicit statements in Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.1 and Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3.6.6 like -
dvaa suparnaa sayujaa sakhaayaa samaanam vRiksham parishasvajaate | tayoranyah pippalam svaadvattyanashnannanyo abhicaakashiiti ||
The individual self and Supreme self are compared to two birds – they stay on the same tree, one constantly consuming the delicious fruits (and still never satisfied), and the other does not consume anything and yet eternally satisfied.
There are several statements, which describe greatness of Supreme self and pitiable state of individual self. The works like Gita and puraanas further stress this fact.
Context and examples
Now when Shvetaketu completes his studies and comes home and shows his arrogance, that is when his father Uddalaka starts this dialog. His instructions must include something that takes away his arrogance. That being the case, why would the father address the son and tell him that the Individual self of Shvetaketu is same as the Supreme self? No philosopher would equate the dress or the physical body to either the individual self or Supreme self. On the same token, one must not also equate the Individual self with the Supreme self. The Supreme self is not dependent on cosmic Maya to perform His actions like creation nor can He become a victim of avidya(ignorance) that can degenerate Him to the level of Individual self.
Further, the nine examples that are given by Uddalaka to Shvetaketu speak of the differences and dependency and thus removing any scope for interpretation of identity in that statement.
Sanskrit in Devanagari:
तत्त्वमस्यादिवाक्येन स्वात्मा हि प्रतिपादितः ।
नेति नेति श्रुतिर्ब्रूयादनृतं पाञ्चभौतिकम् ।। २५।।
tattvamasyādivākyena svātmā hi pratipāditaḥ /
neti neti śrutirbrūyādanṛtaṁ pāñcabhautikam //25//
By such sentences as "That thou art," our own Self is affirmed. Of that which is untrue and composed of the five elements - the Shruti (scripture) says, "Not this, not this."
- Raphael, Edwin (1992). The pathway of non-duality, Advaitavada: an approach to some key-points of Gaudapada's Asparśavāda and Śaṁkara's Advaita Vedanta by means of a series of questions answered by an Asparśin. Iia: Philosophy Series. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0929-7, ISBN 978-81-208-0929-1. Source:  (accessed: Tuesday April 27, 2010), p.Back Cover
- Valerie J.Roebuck(2003).Penguin Books. London.
- Sri Vidyaranya: Panchadashi. Ed. in Tamil with notes by Swami Gnanananda Bharati. Gnanananda Bharati Publications Trust, Madurai, 1972.
- S. Radhakrishnan: The Principal Upanishads.
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