Tat Tvam Asi – You are Brahman

Introduction – You are That/ Tat Tvam Asi

One of the five great sayings (mahakavyas) of Vedanta which proclaims the highest truth of Non-Duality or Advaita is “Thou art That” – Tat Tvam Asi, occurring in the Chandogya Upanishad in 6.8.7. Here “Tat” refers to Brahman/Self. So in the most common sense rendering of the statement, it means – “You are Brahman”. This saying is not saying, “You must ‘become’ Brahman”. What it says is that one is already Brahman. Such is the case and one just has to know it to be so.  

I had to bold and italicize the last lines of this paragraph because even when it is clearly stated, people are not able to overcome this notion of “becoming”. This is seen in the most advanced ‘practitioners’ of Advaita. In fact this notion of “becoming” is actually Maya, which keeps one tied to doership. This Maya is extremely hard to overcome, a fact which was anticipated and stated, both by Gaudapada and Shankaracharya, the foremost preceptors of Advaita tradition.

In fact, this sense of Maya or “becoming” or “doership” is so powerful and so blinding that even after the Mahavakya says this to be the case; even after I shall show that all forms of doing are Maya; after giving all forms of quotes, logic and arguments: the notion of Maya/becoming/doership is very hard to root out. The Bhagavad Gita gives words to this predicament in the verse,

Among thousands of men, one perchance strives for perfection; even among those successful strivers, only one perchance knows Me in essence

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 7.3

Difference between Jnana and Yoga

Thus the vast majority of seekers, due to the operation of Maya, start out their spiritual ‘journey’ as doers. Vedanta already states that “You are Brahman”, so the very fact that one has to “do a journey” is an illusion. The entire journey of seeking is an illusion because one is already Brahman. So the whole journey is in Maya towards what end – towards Jnana – to know that one is, one was, and one shall ever be Brahman and nothing else. This is Jnana. It has to be appreciated by the reader that no new fact is created or no new status is being gained, only knowledge of an existing fact is being gained. One is already Brahman and one just comes to know that one is essentially Brahman. In fact, to a qualified mind, this knowledge can be gained just through hearing/sravana of the Mahavakya.

This is illustrated in a well known Advaitic story, called the Tenth Man.

Story of the Tenth Man

“A guru entrusted to his senior student the responsibility of conducting a group of students to a place across the river and bringing them back. He told him: “You are ten in all. Ensure that all the ten return”. The group left and chose to swim across the swollen river after discarding the ferry. After they reached the other bank, the senior student lined them up and counted them. Being engrossed in the counting of others, he missed counting himself and counted only up to nine. Filled with the worry whether one had not been swept away in the river, he asked another to check. But he committed the same mistake as he was also in a similar mental frame. They concluded that one has been lost in the waters of the river and were in tears. An old man who was passing by enquired about the problem and when appraised of it counted them and found that they were ten. He told them that they were ten in all and that no one has been lost. Trust in the words of the passer-by gave them the indirect knowledge of the existence of the tenth man. They stopped weeping and the old man asked the senior student to count them again to know it by himself. But he missed counting himself, as before. Then the old man revealed to him, “You are the tenth man”. The senior student instantly had direct knowledge of the missing man and jumped with joy. The problem was the ignorance of the tenth man and when the student was told in the proper context that he was himself the solution to his problem, the dropping of ignorance and solving of the problem were immediate. So is the dropping of being a doer/enjoyer/experiencer by the eligible person on his being told, after creating the context for it, that he is none other than Brahman.”

The story illustrates that the tenth man was not missing at any time, not even at the time when only nine were being counted. What was required was not the creation of the tenth man but sravana/hearing of the knowledge that the tenth man was himself.

However under the delusion of Maya, people take themselves to be “doers”, forever in the search of the tenth man, through some action or experience. But no amount of their “doing” (counting in this story) is going to release them of their suffering that one man is missing or that the Self is missing.

So Vedanta, understanding this problem, accepts the Maya of “doership” and “becoming” to be superimposed on the seeker’s essential Self. Thereafter it leads the seeker systematically by carefully negating all the seeker’s notions of “doership” to the most subtle levels, till he/she arrives at the jnana/knowledge that he is essentially Atma/Self/Witness or a “non-doer”. But for this, the doer has to submit himself to the teachings of a person who has realized the Self. It can only begin with trust in the words of a Self Realized teacher. There is no other way. In the story of the Tenth Man, the old passerby was the teacher who could see Ten Men when all others, deluded amongst themselves were constantly counting only nine men. In life, without the teacher, one shall continue making the same mistake because all doing starts out with the “wrong knowledge” of being a doer. One cannot start off with wrong knowledge (tenth man is missing) and end in the right place (no one is missing), no matter how much one does. And as illustrated by the story, when one gets the right knowledge, one comes to know that one himself was what he was searching for. There was no need to “do” anything but just gain knowledge of it from a qualified teacher – established in Self Knowledge.

How does Vedanta address the movement from doing to jnana/knowledge? The first thing it does is to give the right knowledge. Because knowledge is the problem, Vedanta does not bring it out as a secret at the last. Rather it is the very first thing it places in front of the seeker. Right at the beginning of Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna, we hear

They have an end, it is said, these bodies of the embodied-Self. The Self is Eternal, Indestructible, Incomprehensible. Therefore fight. O Bharata

– Bhagavad Gita, Verse 2.18

The knowledge of Self is given first. So the seeker is prepared for the fact that he is actually eternal, indestructible Self, right at the beginning itself. Advaita starts out with this fact of knowledge itself. It lays out the aim of it’s program as Knowledge of what you already are. Whilst dualistic approaches start out with the notion of attainment: one has to attain something which one does not possess.

But in the case of Advaita, the unprepared mind of a seeker, even though he hears this, he gets only indirect knowledge. So how does one convert this indirect knowledge to direct knowledge?

This is ‘done’ by the process of Yoga. Yoga is about doing. Yoga in Advaita is called an “indirect” means of knowledge, because through specific – meaning – scripture directed forms of doing – the doer/Yogi comes to Jnana/knowledge.

Jnani – The Actionless Actor

Once the Yogi becomes a Jnani, all “doership” is cancelled. But is the “doer” gone? No, the “doer” still exists. A Jnani just does not drop dead after gaining Jnana. His mind and body still function. He teaches, writes, sings, dances, rules kingdoms, engages in debates, can be seen meditating or contemplating, does politics, and like Krishna, can even engage in war. As the following quote shows,

“Not by non-performance of actions does man reach ‘actionlessness”; nor by mere renunciation does he attain success (liberation)

Bhagavad Gita 3.29

To illustrate the point that the Self exists as a non-doer in the most extreme situations, like war, Krishna, encouraging Arjuna to fight the war says,

He who takes the Self to be the slayer and he who thinks He is slain, neither of them knows. He slays not, nor is He slain.

– Bhagavad Gita 2.19

Whatsoever knows Him to be Indestructible, Eternal, Unborn, and Inexhaustible, how can that man slay, O Partha, or cause others to be slain?

Bhagavad Gita 2.21

They have an end, it is said, these bodies of the embodied-Self. The Self is Eternal, Indestructible, Incomprehensible. Therefore fight. O Bharata

– Bhagavad Gita, Verse 2.18

It should be noted that these are sayings bringing out the ultimate nature of reality. Nowhere is Krishna just influencing Arjuna to fight through a psychological pep talk. The subject matter of these sayings is not the mind, but the Self, so one cannot make psychological statements about Self, which is beyond mind and beyond all phenomena.

Also, despite the above quotes from Gita, some people have associated Jnana with physical sannyasa/renunciation. This is optional. A Jnani may or may not be a sannyasi physically. But mentally, all Jnanis are sannyasis because they have not renounced merely actions, they have renounced the doer of all actions. So a Jnani does not bother about the kinds of action he does, whether he should physically renounce the world or continue with the world. Any such bother in his mind is indicative of the fact that he takes himself to be the doer. In fact, all his actions are coming from his unexhausted prarabdha karma. However, all people under the spell of Maya – samsaris and yogis – want to see some special physical marks of a Jnani – clothes, poverty, tradition, scholarship etc. A samsari/karmi seeks distinctions and that is the root of his suffering. But the Jnani seeing Self everywhere does not see or seek distinctions. For him every one, every moment is nothing but Self.

“The knowers of Self, look with an equal vision on a brahmana endowed with learning and humility, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and an eater of dogs”

– Bhagavad Gita 5.18

So while other people may see a Jnani as having something special, a Jnani knows that he has nothing special which others don’t have. The only thing he has is the knowledge of that, which he and everyone already is.

A Yogi who is following Advaita, on the other hand, is one who sees distinctions, who does not have the equal vision of a Jnani, but is striving to have that equal vision. He does not see Self everywhere, every moment because he does not have direct knowledge of Self. A Yogi is yet to arrive at this knowledge. It does not mean that right now, he or everything, is not Self. Just that a Yogi’s mind under the spell of Maya does not have knowledge of already existing Self.

This Self Knowledge can appear only in a specially prepared mind. So a Yogi has to do some special practice of body control or mind control to convert the indirect Knowledge of Self into direct Knowledge. So different forms of Yoga are prescribed in Advaita to control mind, body, and senses of a Yogi, like – Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. In all these Yogas, there is an implicit notion of practice. What are all these practices intended for – to end all practice: to get released from the notion of practice and doer, and to attain the vision of Self/Atma/Witness who is not the doer.

So, in essence, a Jnani is a person who “sees himself as Atma/Self/Witness and not as the doer”. Till even the slightest notion of “doership” exists, a person has to keep practicing Yoga.

But all these Yogas are prescribed in Advaita for the purpose of arriving at a Non-Dual vision. Not for those who are satisfied with Duality as the final reality. This is a very tricky area. Because Yoga is also taught by several Dualistic schools like that of Patanjali, Tantra and Samkhya. Some of these Yoga practices have crept into Advaita. The Yogas in Advaita are a preparatory stage for Jnana. They are not in any case meant to do anything more than that. So let us look at what is the difference between dualistic Yoga schools and Advaita because they compromise the non-dual vision of Jnana revealed by Advaita. Many Advaitins have unwittingly adopted these notions and even been teaching them.

Yoga of Dualistic Schools – Doership born out of Experience and Experiencer

Dualistic schools take this world of plurality as real. Since plurality is real, the world of experiences is real. Since experiences are real, the experiencer is real.

A Yogi, afflicted by Maya or notion of being an experiencer and with “doership”, would like to do something with what he is experiencing – feeling/thinking/doing. In summary, the Yogi takes himself as an experiencer first. He then has the feeling/bhavana of pain/pleasure of raag/dvesha tormenting him constantly. So he wants control over experience. All control implies doing – the desire to push certain objects and to acquire certain objects of experience. Till there is the body/mind/intellect, the three gunas are in sway. And these gunas are going to create sensations/thoughts/feelings/emotions – all kinds of experiences.

The Gita says,

Sometimes the mode of goodness becomes prominent, defeating the modes of passion and ignorance, O son of Bharata. Sometimes the mode of passion defeats goodness and ignorance, and at other times ignorance defeats goodness and passion.

Bhagavad Gita, Verse 14.10

Till the body/mind exists, these gunas are in sway: there is absolutely no doubt about it. Every form of Maya is made of Gunas. The Gunas can never be brought to rest. The only place of rest is the Self which is Trigunatitha – beyond the three Gunas.

Solutions of Dualistic Karmi/Dharmi/Yogi vs Solution of the Jnani for the problem of the Experiencer

From the last quote, of the Gita, one sees that the gunas are constantly re-cycling, never at peace, creating a troublesome experience for all people – the Karmis, Dharmis and the Yogis. The natural impulse, conditioned by Maya, for Karmis and Yogis is to alter the experience. This very notion of trying to alter experience is the beginning of the “doership”. The experiencer gives rise to the doer.

  1. The Karmi is the doer manipulating the gross objects of his experience to get pleasure
  2. The Dharmi is the doer manipulating his thoughts of rajas, tamas and sattva to becoming predominantly sattvic.
  3. The Yogi is the doer manipulating his mind or controlling his mind to remove all thoughts and reach samadhi.

All three classes of people – Karmi/Dharmi/Yogi – share the same assumption. What is the assumption? The assumption is that they are experiencers, experiencing a plural world and that this experience has to be either made pleasurable or brought to naught by the ending of mind: as in Samadhi. All of them have started with an illusion that the world is real, that the body/mind is real, that experiencer and experiences are real. Once all of them are taken as real, the only option left is to make experience confirm to some notion of peace and pleasure, to halt the recycling of gunas or to make them predominantly sattvic.

What do all these classes of people get as a result of their efforts?

The Bhagavad Gita says,

Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward (to the higher planets); those in the mode of passion live in the middle (on the earthly planets); and those in the mode of ignorance go down (to the hellish worlds).

– Bhagavad Gita 14.18

So the Karmis find themselves back in this world, in the cycle of birth and death. The Dharmis find themselves going to the higher worlds.

What about dualistic Yogis? The highest result in it is the attainment of Samadhi. This Samadhi is attained by manonigraha or control of mind, which penultimately results in Nirvikalpa Samadhis and if they go further, finally, manonasha/ destruction of afflictive and binding emotional states of mind. Why is this their solution? It is so because as experiencers, they have taken the world to be real and the mind to be their problem, and they shall not rest till it ends in manonasha. I shall be going more into this question of Samadhi in my later articles.

How is the Jnani different from them?

The Bhagavad Gita says,

When the seer does not see an agent other than the gunas and when he knows himself as beyond the gunas, he gains my nature

Crossing these three gunas, that are the cause of the body, the embodied one, released from birth, death, old age and sorrow, gains immortality.

Bhagavad Gita 14.19 and 14.20

A Yogi who has proceeded through the path of Yoga to attain Jnana, under the guidance of a teacher who has Self Knowledge, undertakes Yoga only to get Jnana. His teacher would have helped him negate all the gunas superimposed on his Self, gradually, through different teaching methodologies ranging from Karma Yoga to Raja Yoga to Jnana Yoga. For such a prepared mind, attainment of Jnana, finally happens when he knows that he is not the gunas but their Witness/Self.

So the Jnani solves the problem of experience by understanding that he is not the three gunas. In his essential nature as Atma/Self/Witness, he is beyond both the experience and the experiencer. So he is not interested, not at all bothered, not at all concerned about changing anything in his experience. He just knows that he is their Witness and that as Witness he is untouched by the three gunas. There is never any contact of the Self/Atma/Witness with the gunas so he does not bother changing them, controlling them or manipulating them. This is the Asparsha Yoga/Contactless Yoga of Gaudapda.

The Bahagavad Gita quote 14.20 shows that the “embodied one” is released from all suffering and attains immortality. This is the Jnani who is the Jivanmukta – one who has acquired the knowledge that, being beyond the gunas, he is not the doer, but the gunas who are the doer.

As already stated previously in this article, not being a doer, does not mean he is seen doing nothing. He is seen doing but the Jnani knows that he is doing nothing: it is the gunas which are doing. Only when one does not have this firm and direct knowledge, does one fiddle and medddle with gunas to make them sattvic etc. A jnani being Self just witnesses them doing their work.

Just as a well-lighted fire reduces wood to ashes, so too, Arjuna ! the fire of (Self) knowledge reduces all actions (results of actions) to ashes.

– Bhagavad Gita 4.37

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