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Tat Twam Asi

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Chhaandogya Upanishad

Tat Twam Asi
Adapted from   Shrisha Rao's "The Superstitions"
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Unlike what has been claimed, the explanation Madhwa gives for Uddaalak's statements to Shwetketu in the 6th chapter of the Chhaandogya Upanishad: "Sa Aatmaa'tattwamasi Shwetketo" is consonant with the rules for Sanskrit Vyaakaran, and also rings true.
"Sa Aatmaa'tattwamasi Shwetaketo"

To understand the meaning of this statement correctly, it is necessary to know the exact circumstances under which it was spoken. Although this is completely true of any statement, not just one from scripture, otherwise, there is a risk that something may have been misquoted or quoted out-of-context.

This statement has been spoken nine times to Shwetketu (who is, it may interest you to know, the person who is credited with standardizing the institution of marriage - before him, people were not required to marry, and could conduct their lives as they chose; he ended that when he realized that depravity and irresponsibility on the part of mankind made it necessary that a strict regime be enforced, but that was later than the events described in the Upanishad). The speaker was his father Uddaalak, and this is reported in the 6th chapter of the Chhaandogya Upanishad. The background to the event where the statement was made is as follows --

Shwetketu spent twelve years studying the Ved from a Guru, in accord with the rules prescribed for Brahmchaaree. Upon returning from his teacher on completing his studies, he boasted to his father that he had mastered the Ved and was now an authority. The concerned parent Uddaalak realized the arrogance that was part of Shwetketu's thinking had to be gotten rid of, and therefore he instructed Shwetketu to fast for fifteen days, with only water to drink -- if the Apa-abhimaanee Mukhya-Praan had left his body, Shwetketu would have died, so it was essential that he be allowed water.

At the end of this time, he called Shwetketu and asked him to show his prowess in the Ved, again. Weak with starvation, Shwetketu pleaded inability to remember what he had learned. After this, Uddaalak asked him to have a meal, upon which his strength and memory were restored. After this, knowing that Shwetketu's humility had been satisfactorily restored, Uddaalak proceeded to instruct him, saying: "Sa Aatmaa 'tattwamasi Shwetketo," no fewer than nine times, each time with a different example to illustrate a point.

The sentence "Sa Aatmaa'tattwamasi Shwetketo" can be split perfectly correctly under the rules of grammar, as either:
Sa Atmaa atat twam asi Shwetaketo, or as:
Sa Atmaa tat twam asi Shwetaketo.

It is to be noted that the word "tat," the same in either interpretation, cannot be a pronoun that refers to a Nirgun Brahm, because Uddaalak does not refer anywhere in the text to such a Brahm. If it is taken to be the Sagun Brahm or Paramaatmaa, then the "tat" interpretation runs counter to experience, because it is clear that we do not possess qualities which the Paramaatmaa does (infinite power, joy, knowledge etc.) -- it also runs counter to scriptural evidence such as Krishn saying "Dvaa vimau purushau Loke' ..." in the Geetaa, 15:16.

In the Shaastra, it is said that whenever there is confusion among possible interpretations of a verse, we should use the Drashtaant Vaakya (statements of example) given along with it, to decide the correct one(s). Since as has been pointed out, Uddaalak's statement to Shwetketu can be interpreted in two ways both sanctioned by grammar, it is necessary to consider the examples and decide if the "tat" or the "atat" interpretation is the right one.

(1) The first example given by Uddaalak to Shwetketu is that of a Shakuni (bird) that is bound by a Sootra (thread) to a support. The bird tries to fly all around the territory that it is allowed by the limitation of the thread, but eventually gets back to the support when tired. So also are all creatures tied to the Lord who acts as their invisible support, and even though the Jeev tries to break free of bondage and to act independently, it eventually comes back to the Lord Himself for solace, finding no other source. In the waking state, the soul tries to go around and tries to ignore the Lord, but during sleep, and eventually, during Mukti, it comes back to seek solace at the feet of the Lord. Now, this example is clearly against the "tat" interpretation, as it is impossible to conceive that the bird and the support are the same, or that the restriction placed on the bird is meant to signify illusion.

(2) In the second example, Uddaalak tells Shwetketu, just as bees gather the juices of various flowers and fruits, and collect them to form honey, after which the individual juices are not identifiable in the context of the total honey, the Jeev are brought together by the Lord, and they do not realize their origins. So long as they do not understand their origins and persist in ignoring the Lord's grace, or in thinking of themselves as one with the Lord, they continue to suffer the cycle of births and deaths, and undergo births under low species such as tiger, lion, wolf, wild boar, insect, butterfly, or tiny biting animals, etc.

How does a Jeev falsely perceive identity between him and the Lord? By attempting to act independently of the Lord, with lack of due devotion and gratitude, and by ignoring the Dharm that He has laid down for the Jeev to follow. It can be said that whenever anyone thinks too highly of himself and tries to act independently, he has assumed the Lord's qualities of Independence, infinite ability, etc, and will suffer the consequences once the illusion lapses, as it must.

Uddaalak says that just as the juices in the honey are not aware of their separate existence, but merely identify with the honey, so are all creatures unaware of their separate existence from the body, and do identify with the body. Whereas the body is in-dwelt by a number of Abhimaanee Devtaa who run various functions of the body, the Jeev perceives only itself in the body, and thinks falsely that it is the Lord of its body. Until the soul realizes that it is completely distinct from the body and is brought into Creation by the Lord, it is bound to suffer the painful misery of ever-repeated births and deaths.

This second example also does not support the "tat" interpretation that seeks to espouse unity of Jeev and Paramaatmaa -- note that Uddaalak says that just as the juices in the honey are not aware of their separate existence, but merely identify with the honey, so are  all creatures unaware of their separate existence from the body, and do identify with the body [but they must learn to realize it].  So, this means that the juices in the honey are distinct, even if we cannot tell them apart; it is not the case that this is being used to justify A-Bhed -- indeed, Uddaalak goes so far as to give a stern warning to Shwetketu, and by inference also to us, that falsely perceiving unity with the Lord is going to keep us in the cycle of births and deaths, and is going to cause us to suffer the ignominy of births under low species.

At this point, Shwetketu asks his father how it can be that he, Shwetketu, does not perceive that there is anyone residing in his body but himself, and how can it be he comes to rest in the Lord? The example given by Uddaalak is difficult, because he, Shwetketu, is living person, while the juices in the honey are not, and so how can he understand that just as the juices come to together in the honey, so also the Jeev comes to rest in the Lord, during sleep and Mukti?

Whereas the body is in-dwelt by a number of Abhimaanee Devtaa who run various functions of the body, the Jeev perceives only itself in the body, and thinks falsely that it is the Lord of its body. Until the soul realizes that it is completely distinct from the body and is brought into Creation by the Lord, it is bound to suffer the painful misery of ever-repeated births and deaths.

(3) The third example given is that of rivers, which flow either eastward or westward, and reach the sea. Though they are born out of the sea and reach it finally, they have their separate identity while flowing on land. Before they are brought out by Soorya and the clouds, they are unable to distinguish themselves when in the sea. Here, Uddaalak gives an example where the Abhimaanee Devtaa of the rivers are not aware which of the water in the sea is theirs and which not, but the Lord, acting through Soorya as Soorya-Naaraayan is aware, and chooses the right river water out of the sea, and puts it back into the river source.

The Jeev are not aware of the Lord's grace and mercy, and do not realize the part His actions play, but they are dependent on Him, and have to realize this fact. In this example also, it is not possible to see A-Bhed, as it is being pointed out that the soul's not realizing that the Lord is present in his body is actually an indicator of ignorance - Uddaalak does not say that the river water in the sea is not distinct; he implies it is, even though the Lord realizes it but the Abhimaanee of the rivers themselves do not. The example therefore does nothing to support the identity of the soul and the Lord, and rules out the "Tat" interpretation.

(4) In the next example, we hear of a living tree, one that is inhabited by a Jeev. If any branch, leaf or other part of the tree is abandoned by Atmaa, it dries up. If the tree is injured at the root or at a branch, causing sap or other juice to flow through the cut, it still continues to live, getting water and nutrients from the ground, and enjoying life. If the tree as a whole is abandoned by the Aatmaa, it dies. Here, the words 'Jeev' and 'Aatmaa' are used, which are taken to mean the same thing, soul, in common literature and thinking.

However, in the scriptures 'Aatmaa' is a word that is used primarily to describe the Lord (for example, the Kathopanishad's "Naivam Aatmaa pravachanen labhyo..."  -- meaning "The Lord is not obtainable through discourse ..."), who is called so because he is responsible for life wherever it is found. In this example, we see that it is the Lord's grace whose importance is being stated: the tree, or the Jeev who mistakenly believes that it is the only entity that inhabits the body of the tree, and tries to enjoy life in ignorance of the Lord, is powerless to act against Him. Should the Lord choose to abandon any portion of the tree body, that part dies, and the whole of the tree dies when the Lord abandons it. Here also, it is impossible to even conceive of identity between soul and Lord, who are described as having such vastly different properties. This example illustrates that the continued life of the soul in the body it inhabits is subject to the will of the Lord, who is different from it. The tree continues to live and enjoy even when subjected to injury that causes loss of body fluids, but dies immediately when the resident Aatmaa departs.

(5) The fifth example given is that of the huge Nyagrodh (Hindi: Vat, English: Banyan) tree. Shwetketu was asked by his father to bring the fruit of the tree, and to break it into parts. He was then asked what he saw in there. He replied that he could see only small bits. He was then asked to divide the bits further, and again asked what he saw in there. He replied that he saw even smaller particles. His father asked him to divide those small particles, again, and asked him again what he saw. This time, he replied that he saw nothing at all. Uddaalak then said that the mighty Nyagrodh tree arises out of that seemingly invisible particle.

So also, the Lord who is the source and cause of life is extremely difficult to perceive because of His Sookshmatwa (extreme fineness). Krishn says something very similar in the 13th chapter of the Geetaa, Shlok 15, when he says: "Sookshmatwaat tat avigneyam......." (because of being too fine He is unable to be perceived). This further answers Shwetketu's old query that why he could not observe the Lord who was residing in his body, and further debunks the notion of unity between the soul and Lord. In this example, the whole Universe is represented by the tree, the body by its fruit, the small but invisible particles are the souls, and the entity that indwells even the souls and is responsible for the universe and all its entities, is the Lord.

(6) For the next example, Uddaalak gives some salt to his son, and asks him to put it in water overnight. The next morning, he asks Shwetketu to bring the salt that was put in the water the previous evening. Shwetketu says he is unable to see any salt that he had deposited in the water, upon which Uddaalak asks him to sample the water from various parts of the vessel (top, middle, bottom, etc.) and confirm that it is uniformly salty, throughout. In the previous example of the tree and its invisible seed, the capacity of the Lord is seen in one place, but He himself is not. In this next example, the Lord's power, as represented by the saltiness of the water, is seen uniformly throughout, even though the salt itself, representing the Lord, is not.

(7) The next example given is that of a traveler from Gaandhaar (now in Afghanistan), who is waylaid by robbers, tied and blindfolded, and left in a lonely forest far away from his own land. The man tries to free himself, but in vain, and remains sightless and under bondage until a kind Samaritan releases opens his blindfold and binds, and directs him to Gaandhaar. As he proceeds home, he has occasion to ask various other Samaritans for directions, as even though he may know the general direction to be taken, he still has need, from time to time, for specific instructions, do's and don'ts.

In this example, the bondage resulting from the soul's A-Gyaan (ignorance) is depicted as the traveler's blindfold and binds. The soul, as represented by the traveler, is unable to free itself, until a teacher, represented by the kindly Samaritan, frees it from bondage and opens its vision. The teacher also points out the correct path to the soul's destiny, and the soul follows it, aided from time to time by other teachers who instruct him from time to time. At the end of the journey, the traveler reaches his home, and the soul reaches the Lord from whom it is separated. In this example also, the unity of the soul and the Lord is not intended -- the traveler is not the same as the region of Gaandhaar nor the same as any of the Samaritans.

(8) In the penultimate example, the dependence of the soul in a human body on the Lord is illustrated, just as it was with the tree body. Uddaalak pictures the scene as follows - a man is lying on his death-bed, surrounded by relatives. In the dying man, the Vaak (speech) merges with the Manas (mind), the Manas with the Praan (life-force) and the Praan with the Tejas (energy). This reference to the merging is to the Abhimaanee Devtaa of each entity named, rather than to the entities themselves.

The dying man is asked by the relatives who surround him: "Do you know me?" And he answers them as long as his speech is still with him. After the speech merges with the mind, he is unable to answer, but still has a functional mind, and is aware of his surroundings. When the mind merges with the life-force, he loses consciousness, but is still alive. When the final dissolution takes place with the life-force returning to energy, the man dies. In this example, the soul's absolute and irreversible dependence on the Lord is illustrated. This very dependence assures us that the soul and the Lord are distinct and will ever be so, and that the "tat" interpretation is not correct.

(9) In the last example, a man suspected of theft is arrested by a king's men, who present him before the king for justice. The king orders that the suspect be made to grasp a red-hot axe with his bare hands; if he is innocent, the heat will not affect him at all, and he can be released, while if he is guilty, the fact of his guilt will be proved and he will be suitably punished for his crime. In this illustration, the suspect, the objects stolen, and the king, are all completely different, and unity is not illustrated. Just as the suspect will suffer severe punishment if he is guilty of theft, the soul will suffer great misery if it attempts to take on the unique and irreproducible characteristics of the Lord.

The Moksh Dharm Parv of the Mahaabhaarat states that those who talk of identity with the Lord are "Anai-punaha Shaastra-tatwa-vignaaya" (unskilled in interpreting the Ved), "Brahmasten" (thieves who try to steal the Brahm's unique attributes by trying to claim identity with him), "A-pakwa-manasaah (with "unripe" minds -- minds not fully functional in appreciation of truth). Therefore, Uddaalak is cautioning Shwetketu against such tendencies of "theft," and is not saying that Shwetketu is identical to the Lord. In fact, as has been pointed out before, he warns of dire consequences, if Shwetketu fails to correctly apprehend the significance and distinctiveness of the Lord.

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Created by Sushma Gupta on 3/15/05
Updated on 09/16/11