Tat Tvam Asi

These three great words summarize the very essence of India’s ancient vision of God and man’s equation with God. The saying means: ‘That Thou Art’ or ‘That You Are’. Does not this tell you that your little personality is nothing? And that something more is there? As famous interpreters have pointed out, this wonderful statement takes you from the world outside into our very inner world. So the saying is interpreted in different ways. ‘I am Brahman’ or ‘I am Atman’ or ‘I am God’ is another way of interpreting it, where also our little personality disappears. Shri Ramakrishna (1836-86), great thinker and saint of India, has put it succinctly: “There are three different paths to reach the Highest: the path of I, the path of Thou, and the path of Thou and I.”

The three-word sentence, Tat Tvam Asi, is part of a mantra (a sacred utterance), but in itself it is a mantra. And it is hidden in the last leg of the 16th chapter of the 6th section of the famous Chaandogya Upanishad, one of the ten leading Upanishads, the religious-cum-philosophical treatises that capture the quintessence of Indian spiritual wisdom.

Swetaketu, the son of Uddaalaka, returns from his 12-year long traditional study in a far away forest-retreat, disappoints the father because the son seems to be vain, proud and arrogant. The father, therefore, decides to correct the son by teaching him himself. He, who thinks that the Highest Being is eternal, without a cause and without a beginning, asks his son: “My dear son, Svetaketu, have you inquired about that Entity by means of which even that which is not heard about becomes heard, even that which is not reflected upon becomes reflected upon, and even that which is unknown becomes known?” (6th section, 1st chapter of Chaandogya). The young man was not able to answer his father, and he requests that he be enlightened on it all. The father agrees. And his discourse to his son spans all the other chapters of section 6 of the Upanishad. After explaining the nature of the Universe and the Highest Being, Uddaalaka, the father says: The Supreme Entity is everywhere, though not seen, like the salt dissolved in water, and it is the self, the jivaatmaa, and it is the only reality, the truth.  And he concludes:

  “Sa yadha tatra naadahyata,
  Aitadaatmyamidam sarvam tat satyam, 
  Sa aatma tat tvam asi, Svetaketo iti,
  Tatdhasya vijajnauviti, vijajnauviti.” 

The essence of Atman is everywhere in the universe, and Thou Art That Atman, Svetaketu, my son.

And there ends the 16th chapter of the 6th section of the Upanishad Chaandogya.