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Tattvamasi ('that you are') in the Upanishads

by Octavian Sarbatoare

Perhaps the most celebrated existential affirmation in the Hindu tradition is the expression Tat Tvam Asi (Tattvamasi), as foundation stone of the Upanishads. The religious context of this expression and its part in the entire Hinduism is the subject of the present work. Issues of spiritual liberation within the context will be mentioned.

It is widely accepted that the Vedic writings that are part of Hinduism Scriptures are divided into two major sections (Kandas), which recommend distinct spiritual paths for accomplishing the goal of the human existence. The Karma Kanda section is that part in which the ritual action (Karma) is prevalent, whereas the Jnana Kanda emphasises on knowledge (Jnana) as being of the greatest importance. Karma Kanda section of the Vedic scriptures is represented mainly by Samhita and Brahmana kinds of literature, while the Jnana Kanda is emphasised in Aranyaka and Upanishads kinds of scriptures (Eliade, 1992, Vol. 1, p. 243- 244). The present work will draw attention to the multidimensional contents as well as the literature and spiritual messages of the Upanishads.

The Upanishads (Lit. 'sitting by the side') are a class of philosophical works expounding a secret spiritual doctrine by emphasising on a monistic approach to knowledge. Behind the literal significance of the words as 'sitting by the side' there is that secret spiritual knowledge that is acquired by a disciple, by sitting near an accomplished master. Traditionally there are 108 Upanishads, although about 10 to 14 are considered to be authoritative. The Upanishadic literature is regarded as the source of the six Indian orthodox schools (Shad Darshana) of salvation, which were developed during the classical period of Hinduism. However, during the later periods of Hinduism, the Upanishads played a significant role in the development of Hinduism until the modern era.

Two major Upanishads stand apart as being well elaborated and rich in spiritual content: the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya. The other major Upanishads like Katha, Ishavasya (Isha), Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Shvetasvatara, Kena, Taittiriya, Aitareya, tend to focus on single main ideas. Although various major ideas are developed within the Upanishads, the entire philosophy has a quintessence on its own. The consensus of most scholars in Hinduism is that the whole philosophy of the Upanishads has a common ontological concept that could be summarised by the four great sayings (Mahavakyas), i.e. Tattvamasi ('that you are'), Ahambrahmasmi ('I am Brahma'), Prajnanam Brahma ('the ultimate truth is consciousness'), Ayamatma Brahma ('the extension of the Self is Brahma'). It should be noted here that the term Brahma within the above sayings is equated with Brahman, the Supreme Reality. However, the consensus is that the Tattvamasi great spiritual saying leads supreme. Numerous central arguments leading to such a conclusion are being extensively used within the Upanishads.

One of these central ideas is the ontological nature of Brahman (Supreme Soul/ Self) and Atman (Individual Soul/ Self). Brahman, the Supreme Reality is a central theme well elaborated in many of the Upanishads, including some minor Upanishads as well. The relevant descriptions are like the followings: "The Self is one, motionless, faster than the mind, beyond the reach of the senses" (Ish.,4). Furthermore in Ish.,5 the Self encompasses both the Macrocosm and Microcosm, thus being both transcendent and immanent: "It moves and It moves not. It is far and It is near. It is within all this, and It is also outside all this". Overall, the multitudes of descriptions of Brahman do take into consideration the opposing duality of attributes or lack of attributes from three perspectives those of time, space and causality. Brahman without attributes is being known as Nirguna Brahman, whereas Brahman having attributes is named Saguna Brahman. However, above all, Nirguna Brahman is seen as the causal aspect behind the manifestation entirely named Saguna Brahman. These two concepts evolved gradually from the more ancient layers of Hinduism as shall be explained.

Basically, the philosophy of the Upanishads comes as a natural development of previous parts of the Veda like Samhitas and Brahmanas. During the Vedic Samhita period, the sacrifice (Yajna) was overall an outer expression of enhancement of consciousness. Overtly, the future beneficiary of the sacrifice (Yajna) asked gods for personal benefits. The external approach to sacrifice characterising the Rig Veda Samhita emphasized on the macrocosmic world.

Relevant deities like Prajapati (Lit. 'lord of creatures'), a god having a prominent position in the Karma Kanda section of Hinduism, was the embodiment of the sacrifice per se. In Bri.,1.2.7 Prajapati desired "May this body of mine be fit for sacrifice" in order to create the world. In a total approach to reality, Prajapati identifies himself with the causal, subtle as well as the gross compositions of the universe. Specific names are pertinent to the forms taken by Prajapati.

When identified with the causality of manifestation Prajapati was known as Hiranyagarbha (Lit. 'the golden womb'), the causal aspect of reality.His identification with the subtle and the gross he was known as Viraj. Later on in a more broader view the concept evolved such that both Hiranyagarbha and Viraj were identified with Brahman as the integrative concept of causal, subtle and gross natures of the same underlying reality. Prajapati was the master of the external sacrifice, however, in subsequent eras, the outer Yajna evolved in a different direction.

A gradual metamorphosis took place by replacing the external way of sacrificing by an internal one. Here the human body and its instrumentality became the most relevant microcosmic world. Subsequently, the theophany was thus internalised. This was a fundamental development of the Vedic lore. Conceptually the Vedic gods (Devas) were brought down to become homologous with the psycho-physiological functions of the human body as shall be explained.

The humanised hierophany is relevantly described thus: "The organ of speech (Vak) (of the sacrificer) is looked upon as Agni (fire)" (Bri.,3.1.3), "the eye (Cakshus) of the sacrificer is Aditya (sun)" (Bri.,3.1.4) , "the vital force (Prana) (of the sacrificer) is looked upon as Vayu (air)" (Bri.,3.1.5), "the mind (Manas) of the sacrificer is Candra (moon)" (Bri.,3.1.6). Consequently, the essential conclusion could not be missed: the sacrificer, as an aspirant to the knowledge (Jnana) of reality, was the embodiment of an imago mundi. Not only that gods were present at the level of human bodily instrumentality, but also the correspondence went further in an inverted manner of expression when man's internal world itself reflected the external one such that "the organ of speech (Vak) itself is the earth, the mind (Manas) is the sky and the vital force (Prana) is heaven" (Bri.,1.5.4). In a broader sense, a sacrificer is able to take over the three worlds (Lokas) expressed by Gayatri Mantra, as earth, shy and heaven. The central point of sacrificer's Self that was of the essential nature of Hiranyagarbha is identified (in Bri.,2.1.17) as residing in the heart. That Self is indeed crucial to the understanding of the nature of reality as perceived by humans.

It is in Chandogya Upanishad chapter six, where the importance of the Self becomes fundamental. The Self is thus described as: "that which is this causal essence, all this has got That as the Self. That is Truth. That is the Self. Thou art That (Tattvamasi)". This central point is most important of all, for the Self of a human being is none else but Atman (Individual Soul) which is indistinguishable from Brahman (Supreme Soul). The Brahmopanishad concludes the importance of the knowledge of Atman and the analogy Brahman-Atman in its last Sloka (Lit. 'verse') "This is the Brahmopanishad, of the supreme wisdom of Brahman, in the form of a unity of the Atman of all, founded on the spiritual discipline (Tapas) which is (nothing but) the Vidya or science of the Atman". This analogy connection is worth to elaborate further.

The Brahman-Atman analogy takes a more anatomical approach with the effective penetration of the human body by the Soul that is done in a specific manner. Thus, the Self "returns to the body along the seventy-two thousand nerves called Hita, which branch of from the heart to all parts of the body and stays in it" (Bri.,2.1.19). The Soul's diffusion into the human body is no less that the causal reality taking effect within such a body. Consequently, Brahman in its triple aspects as gross, subtle and causal penetrates a human body and rests there as Atman. The new axis mundi is therefore shifted allowing the human body as the new templum to take over the new affairs of the world as instrument of creation. Such a spiritual penetration and empowerment of human beings, although appears to be a physical act, it is primarily a qualitative act of conscious experience in which knowledge (Jnana) becomes the key to help the dispersion of illusion of the world of manifestation known as Maya.

It is on the account of the illusion of the world of manifestation where the spirituality of the Upanishads rests paramount. The Upanishadic vision sees Maya (illusion) as the major obstacle for the acquisition of knowledge of Brahman. Essentially, this illusion, Maya is described as a veil covering the access to the knowledge of the ultimate reality as Brahman. The realm of Maya containing both negative and positive kinds of actions (Karmas) like suffering, misery, joy, etc., is seen as a powerful illusion. Maya is thus believed to keep us trapped into the world of Samsara, the life of transmigrations in which there is a cyclical birth-death rotations over a considerable period of time.

Maya, the illusion appears thus to be a kind of mental prison in which most of the humanity is trapped thus rendered unable to see the true reality of Brahman that is existent beyond the veil of the phenomenal world. The Upanishadic literature is consistent to affirm that only by removing the veil of ignorance, the human true nature can be accessed, so that Brahman be experienced at personal level. Thus spiritual liberation (Mukti) becomes available hic et nunc once the access to the real knowledge (Jnana) occurred.

Once Jnana is acquired, the perception of the manifestation of the world around us takes a different dimension. With the removal of the veil a new perspective of life opens. Brahman as the ultimate reality is directly experienced. Such an experience takes pantheistic forms as the enlightened person known as Jivanmukta (Lit. 'liberated while still alive') arises. In a total Anthropo-cosmic experience, a Jivanmukta person is described in Ish.,6 as "the wise man who perceives all beings as not distinct from his own Self at all, and his own Self as the Self of every being ...".

This state of being comes after great efforts in which various psycho--physiological techniques of Yogic nature are employed in order to acquire Tapas, the inner heat as a result of Agni (fire) penetration within the body (Eliade, 1992, Vol 1, p. 244). To obtain it, the human psycho-physiological instrumentality is used for discovering the Atman ultimately. A certain code of conduct is being conducive to knowledge. An aspirant gets recommendations as described in various Upanishads. Ka. 1,2,24 for example says: "One who has not kept himself aloof from doing sinful acts, nor controlled his senses, and has not a peaceful and one-pointed mind, can never attain the Atman through knowledge". Furthermore in Ke. 1,2 the wise aspirant attains success "when he abandons the Ego and rises above the senses, he achieves immortality". And again "The Atman, subtler than the subtlest and greater than the greatest, dwells in the heart of every living being. One who is desireless and free from anxiety realizes the glorious Atman through the purity of senses and mind and becomes free from sorrow" (Ka.,1,2,20).

It can be easily seen that such an aspirant has to adopt a certain code of conduct and employ certain yogic techniques or control of the mind methods in order to reach the goal. The state of Jivanmukti as a high state of life experience is certainly not easily available, but does follow the persistent efforts to practice body and mind catharsis. Such an accomplished practitioner (Sadhaka) is described in Ai.,3,1,4 as "One who has experienced Atman in this way, having gone beyond this world and having fulfilled all his desires in the world of bliss, attains immortality." The goal is thus reached and the great Tattvamasi saying be fulfilled.

To conclude this paper is to mention the two main section of Veda as being Karma Kanda and Jnana Kanda having a different emphasis, the former being linked to an overt expression of deity-human relationship, whereas in the later this expression is internalised as in the case of the Upanishads. The essence of the Upanishads rests on its four great sayings, the Upanishads' focus being on Jnana. The great saying Tattvamasi, is the major expression of the four Mahavakyas although the understanding of anyone of them is conducive to spiritual liberation.

By employing intellectual introspection in a proper manner, a practitioner (Sadhaka) is able by access the nature of Brahman, the underlying ultimate substratum of reality. Thus, various Yoga techniques using the psycho-physiological instrumentality of the human body are employing in order to facilitate the perception of the higher reality. The goal is to place the aspirant on a specific qualitative experience. The imitatio dei, is gradually obtained by knowledge (Jnana), thus the metamorphosis human-god be achieved. Maya as the major obstacle could be ultimately dispersed thus allowing the Brahman-Atman identification to be realized within the body and mind of the spiritual seeker. The Jivanmukti state comes as a fulfilment of the Tattvamasi great saying after persistent and constant effort.

The Upanishads define in essence the ultimate nature of existence by the conclusion of the four great sayings (Mahavakyas) in which Tattvamasi appears to be their own conclusion. By transforming the transcendent into immanent, the conscious experience of gods becomes a sentient experience at the human being level, thus salvation (Mukti) be obtained by absorbing the macrocosm into the microcosm. The Tat Tvam Asi ('that you are') soteriological conclusion of the Upanishads is that 'that' Brahman (Supreme Soul) 'you' as Atman (Individual Soul) 'are'.


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  • Hinnells, J. A Handbook of Living Religions, John R. Hinnells and Penguin Books Ltd, 1994


  • Ai. Aitareya Upanishad
  • Bri. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
  • Ch. Chandogya Upanishad
  • Ish. Ish/ Ishavasya Upanishad
  • Ka. Katha Upanishad
  • Ke. Kena Upanishad