According to the Vedanta, spiritual practice is considered to consist of the following three components, which ultimately lead to complete awakening and self-realisation:
Shravana – This means hearing the Truth. This Truth is most often imparted from a spiritual teacher or ‘guru’. The word guru translates from Sanskrit to ‘dispeller of darkness’, and upon hearing the words of a teacher, most earnest students will resonate with the teaching and recognise this as being the Truth of their Reality. If a student is thought not to be receptive to the words of a teacher, this is considered to be the result of past Karma.
Manana – Means to contemplate the Truth. This is achieved by meditating on the words of the teacher. Simultaneously the student begins to inquire into the nature of the self and the world. This often by self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is to give your attention to the ‘witness’ of your thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations, rather than to these ‘objects’ of experience. This practice shifts the source of attention back to its source.
Once these two stages are overcome, the final ‘stage’ if one can call it that, is to embody the perennial understanding.
Nididhyasana – Means to live and breathe the Truth. This usually automatically occurs after awakening or a revelation on the nature of Reality. It involves contemplation of the Mahāvākyas. When the intellectual understanding is sound, and the student performs Manana with earnestness, Nididhyasana is said to arise on its own.
The foundation text of Hinduism is the Vedas. The four volumes of the Vedas, The Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda and the Yajur Veda are considered to be revealed scripture in Hinduism; knowledge that has come through revelation. There are thought to be 108 Upanishads in total, 13 of the earlier Upanishads are considered the principle Upanishads. The Upanishads are a commentary on the Vedas written by the revered unnamed sages of Hinduism. Some texts describe up to ten Mahāvākyas, but four are considered to be the principle sayings. Each of these four is taken from one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are said to be the ‘end of the Vedas’ or perhaps more appropriately ‘refinement of the Vedas, and form the basis for Advaita Vedanta philosophy.
From the Aitareya Upanishad (3.3 of the Rig Veda):
Who is this self (ātman)? – that is how we venerate. Which of these is the self? Is it that by which one sees or hears, smells etc.? But these are various designations of cognition. It is Brahman; it is Indra; it is all the gods. It is earth, wind, space, the waters, and the lights. It is everything that has life. Knowledge is the eye of all that, and on knowledge, it is founded. Knowledge is the eye of the world, and knowledge, the foundation. Brahman is knowing.
Most interpretations state: “Prajñānam (noun) is Brahman (adjective)”. Some translations give a reverse order, quoting “Brahman is Prajñānam”, specifically “Brahman (noun) is Prajñānam (adjective)”: “The Ultimate Reality is wisdom (or consciousness)”. Sahu explains:
Prajnanam iti Brahman – wisdom is the soul/spirit. Prajnanam refers to the intuitive Truth that can be verified/tested by reason. It is a higher function of the intellect that ascertains the Sat or Truth/Existent in the Sat-Chit-Ananda or truth/existent-consciousness-bliss, i.e. the Brahman/Atman/Self/person. A sagacious person is known as Prajna – who has attained Brahmanhood itself; thus, testifying to the Vedic Mahavakya (great saying or words of wisdom): Prajnanam iti Brahman.
And according to American scholar and teacher of Zen Buddhism David Loy:
The knowledge of Brahman is not intuition of Brahman, but itself is Brahman.
Ayam Atma Brahma
From the Mandukya Upanishad (1.2 of the Atharva Veda):
OM – this whole world is that syllable! Here is a further explanation of it. The past, the present and the future – all that is simply OM; and whatever else that is beyond the three times, that also is simply OM for this Brahman is the whole. Brahman is this self (ātman); that [Brahman] is this self (ātman) consisting of four quarters.
The Mandukya Upanishad repeatedly states that Om is ātman, and also confirms that turiya (the fourth ‘state’ that knows the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states) is ātman. The Mandukya Upanishad forms the basis of Gaudapadas Advaita Vedanta, in his Mandukya Karika.
Tat Tvam Asi
From the Chandogya Upanishad (6.8.7 of the Sama Veda)
In the dialogue between Uddalaka and his son Śvetaketu, the phrase appears at the end of a section. It goes on to be repeated at the end of the subsequent sections as a refrain:
In the beginning, son, this world was simply what is existent – one only, without a second and it thought to itself: “let me become many. Let me propagate myself.” It cannot be without a root look to the existent as the root. The existent, my son, is the root of all these creatures – the existent is their resting place, the existent is their foundation. The finest essence here – that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the Truth; that is the self (ātman). And that’s how you are, Śvetaketu.’
Tat Tvam Asi has had multiple translations over the centuries including ‘Thou art that’, ‘That thou art’, ‘That art thou’, ‘You are that’, ‘That you are’ or simply ‘You’re it’.
The different interpretations of this phrase also exist in the major schools of schools of Hindu philosophy:
Advaita Vedanta – 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 – Ishvara is Para-brahman with infinite superlative qualities, whose substantive nature imparts the existence to the modes. Jivas are chit-brahman or sentient beings that possess consciousness) They are the modes of Brahman which show consciousness. Jagat is achit-brahman or matter/Universe (which are non-conscious). They are the mode of Brahman which are not conscious.
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 ‘Atma (soul), thou art, thou art not God’. In refutation of Mayavada, ‘tat tvam asi” is translated as ‘you are a servant of the Supreme (Vishnu)’.
Acintya Bheda Abheda – inconceivable oneness and difference between the individual self as a part of the whole which is ‘tat’.
Akshar Purushottam Upasana – oneness of the individual self, Atman, with Aksharbrahman, while worshipping Purushottam (God) as a supreme and separate entity.
Aham Brahma Asmi
From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda).
In the beginning, this world was just a single body (ātman) shaped like a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself. The first thing he said was, ‘Here I am!’ and from that, the name ‘I’ came into being. Now, the question is raised; ‘Since people think that they will become the Whole by knowing Brahman, what did Brahman know that enabled it to become the Whole? In the beginning, this world was only Brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am Brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. If a man knows ‘I am Brahman in this way, he becomes the whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman).
In his commentary on this passage, the great philosopher Adi Shankaracharya explains:
‘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:
That (referring to ‘Brahman’) is infinite, and this (referring to the ‘universe’) is infinite; the infinite proceeds from the infinite. Then taking the infinitude of the infinite (referring once again to the ‘universe’), it remains as the infinite (referring now to ‘Brahman’) alone. – (1.1 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)
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 (literally translates and refers to ‘I’) in this unique 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 (as per the nature of duality).
The sage Vidyāranya, in his text, the Panchadasi explains:
‘Infinite by nature, the Supreme Self is described here by the word Brahman (literal translation ever-expanding; the ultimate reality, see glossary); the word asmi denotes the identity of aham (‘I’) and Brahman (the Ultimate Reality). Therefore, the literal translation of the expression is “I am Brahman.”
There are considered to be ten Mahāvākyas, the four sayings above are regarded as the ‘principle’ Mahāvākyas. The following are also in common usage:
Brahma satyam jagan mithya – Brahman is real; the world is unreal
Ekam evadvitiyam Brahma – Brahman is one, without a second.
Sarvam khalvidam brahma – All of this is Brahman
Irrespective of one’s spiritual path, whether this is broadly Bhakti (the way of love and devotion), Raja (the path of meditation), Karma (the path of selfless service) or Jnana (the path of knowledge), the final pathway is to turn attention inwards to its source.
‘When the student is ready the teacher appears’ – Buddha
The earnest student may have attempted several practices, but when ready for the inward-facing path, as if by a miracle, a teacher will appear to convey the Truth of our being. This Truth will resonate with those who are ready to hear it and will motivate the student to the next stage.
On hearing the words of a realised teacher, the student with zeal will try to confirm the teaching; the confirmation will come as a result of the people they meet (at this stage the seeker acts like a magnet attracting others at the same vibrational frequency). Further confirmation may come from zealous reading that will confirm the universality of this teaching to be found in the foundations of all the worlds great traditions. The student will contemplate the nature of Reality by turning their attention around back to its source. This is usually through self-inquiry, asking the question ‘Who am I?’, ‘Am I Aware?’ or other such formulation given by the teacher.
Self-inquiry or more appropriately, self abidance leads to a gradual unveiling of the source of attention, pure consciousness. Consciousness shines with the same brilliance at all times, but these practices lead to consciousness being divested of its apparent limitations. As the student comes closer to Truth, closer to realisation, the Universe will seek to confirm this to the student. One of the most effective ways for the Universe to communicate with the body-mind is through meaningful coincidences (also known as synchronicity) as the student comes closer to realisation, the frequency of these events increases.
As a result of this, there comes a point when the student cannot deny the inseparability of the whole of existence, from the most subtle thought to the formation of the vastest galaxy. The student will neither be able to deny the Truth of our oneness. Nididhyasana is then thought to arise spontaneously.
Hear the Truth
Contemplate the Truth
Embody the Truth
This is a continuous contemplation of the Mahāvākyas and the Truth of our being, which eventually leads to complete realisation. As mentioned previously, for the earnest student, this process arises spontaneously once it is clear to the student that there is no inseparability in the whole of existence and things are perfect as they are – perfect in the sense that there is no other way things could be.
The unknown sages who authored the Upanishads, did a remarkable job. They managed to put into words the insights and intuition that self-inquiry offers. It should be stated that self-inquiry is not limited to Hinduism or those who follow the teachings of Advaita Vedanta, this self-knowledge is available to all 7.8 billion of us who walk the earth and make the decision to turn within.
The words may be different, but the understanding is the same.
Article by Vikas Pandey
Several translations, and word-orders of Sanskrit translations, are possible leading to the richness in the interpretation of these texts.
Aham – literally “I”
Asi – are, ‘art’.
Asmi – “am,” the first-person singular present tense of the verb as “to be.”
Ahaṁ Brahmāsmi then means ‘I am the Absolute’ or ‘My identity is cosmic’, but can also be translated as ‘you are part of God just like any other element.’
Brahman – There is no perfect translation, but Brahma translates to ‘The Absolute’, ‘The Infinite’ or
‘The Highest Truth’.
Brahma – ever-full or whole, it is the first case ending singular of Brahman.
Prajñānam – jñā can be translated as ‘consciousness’, ‘knowledge’, or ‘understanding’. Pra is an intensifier which could be translated as ‘higher’, ‘greater’, ‘supreme’ or ‘premium’, or ‘being born or springing up’, referring to a spontaneous type of knowing. Prajñānam can have different meanings according to its use:
Adjective: prudent, easily known, wise
Noun: discrimination, knowledge, wisdom, intelligence. Also: distinctive mark, monument, a token of recognition, any symbol or sign or characteristic, memorial. It can also mean consciousness, intelligence or wisdom.
Related terms are jñāna, prajñā and prajñam, referring to ‘pure undifferentiated consciousness’. Although the standard translation of jñānam is ‘consciousness’, the word has a broader meaning of “knowing”; ‘becoming acquainted with’, ‘knowledge about anything’, ‘awareness’, or ‘higher knowledge’.
Tat – ‘it’, ‘that’, from which an related derivation is formed with the suffix -tva: ,,tattva, ‘thatness’, ‘principle reality’ or ‘Truth’. Compare ,,tathātā, ‘suchness’, a similar absolutive derivation from tathā – ‘thus’, ‘so’, ‘such’, only with the suffix -tā, not -tva. Tat, the true essence or root or origin of everything that exists is ,,sat, “the Existent”, and this essence is what the individual at the core is.
Tvam – you, thou.
Vikas Pandey MD FRCS is a consultant surgeon with his NHS base at West Hertfordshire Hospitals.
He teaches meditation within the NHS and privately and has an interest in Advaita Vedanta philosophy.
Article written for Pandey Integrated Healthcare, 10 Harley Street. London. W1G 9PF. United Kingdom