Who are You?

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

Mahavakya: Tat Tvamasi

Translation: tat = That, tvam = You, asi= becoming or are

Meaning: You are That

The Context

This mahavakya is an expression of Uddalaka Aruni made to his son while imparting him the knowledge of self, which is recorded in the sixteen chapters of the sixth Prapathaka (section) of the Chandogya Upanishad. Uddalaka Aruni was one of the earliest revealers of the Upanishads, who believed the knowledge of self to be the real knowledge. When he saw his son returning home with pride after completing his formal education under a teacher for 12 years, he decided to teach him the knowledge of self and put him on the right path.

Using several examples and reminding him constantly that he (Svertaketu) was indeed none other than That (the highest Being or the Self) itself, he imparted to him the secret knowledge of the self. At the end of the conversation Svetaketu overcame his ignorance and understood what true knowledge meant. The Chandogya Upanishad is considered to be one of the earliest Upanishads ever composed and so in it we find traces of some very early vedic concepts such as God, self and creation.

The Moral of the Conversation

Parents usually take more pride in the academic achievements of their children, but do not appreciate whole heartedly if they show more than ordinary interest in spiritual matters at an early age. Uddalaka Aruni did not fit into this category of a parent. As an enlightened father, he wanted his son to learn the knowledge of the self instead of wasting his time on the art and science of rituals and scriptural knowledge. As mentioned in the Bhagavadgita, a person is born in an enlightened family by virtue of the merit accumulated by him during his previous lives. Svetaketu was born in a family of spiritual beings as the son of an enlightened master because of his previous merit. The story of Uddalaka Aruni and Svetaketu contains a moral lesson for all the Hindus that as parents they should to take greater interest in the spiritual foundation of their children and show concern for their spiritual welfare and future lives rather than pushing them to become more ambitious, competitive and materialistic. It is an irony that a good number of Hindus today live and behave as if this is the only chance they have got to live upon earth and try to make the best out of it without a care or concern for their future lives or those of their children. This attitude also manifests itself in the manner in which we treat our children and what we expect from them.

The Highest Being

In the Chandogya Upanishad Uddalaka Aruni refers the Highest Being as That or That Being instead of Brahman. The concept of Brahman as the Highest Being was perhaps not yet popular at the time of the composition of these verses. According to Uddalaka Aruni, the Highest Being is eternal and without a beginning. Because existence cannot come out of non-existence, He exists eternally. While He himself is without a cause and uncreated, he is the cause and creator of all. Being alone, He wanted to be many and became many. That the Highest Being of Uddalaka Aruni is either Agni (fire god) or a solar deity (Aditya, or Savitr or Surya), whose essence is heat and light, is evident in the following verses:

It thought, may I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth fire. (6.2.3)
That fire thought, may I be many, may I grow forth. It sent forth water. (6.2.3)

When a man departs from hence, his speech is merged in his mind,
his mind in his breath, his breath in heat (fire), heat in the Highest Being. (6.8.6)

Now that which is that subtile essence (the root of all), in it all that exists has its self.
It is the True. It is the Self, and thou, O Svetaketu, art it. 6.8.7)

Considering the fact that Chandogya Upanishad is perhaps one of the earliest Upanishads to have been composed, it is most probable that the highest being referred in the Upanishad was one of the following three deities rather than the supreme Brahman of the later vedic thought.

A Solar Deity

According to Uddalaka Aruni the Highest Being created fire before he created other things. Fire then created water and water created earth. Fire is the essence of the sun in which it manifests as light, heat and rays which pervade the earth and the heavens and make life possible. In the Rigveda there are many verses addressed to the solar deities such as the Adityas, Savitr and Surya confirming their status as creators and rulers of heaven and earth. The Adityas are the sons of Aditi (universal mother), eight or twelve in number. Savitr, one of them, who is often identified as Surya or the sun, is the chief deity of the Gayatri mantra who is invoked for knowledge and enlightenment. Surya, another solar deity is the ruler of the sky who strides the heavens in his ruddy chariot driven by seven horses spreading his radiance in all the three worlds. He is the eye of Mitra, Varuna and Agni and looks upon men with the same eye.


The individual self is also described in the vedic scriptures as a radiant effulgent entity or a flame (agni) of the size of thumb situated in the region between the eye brows. Agni resides in the body physically as heat, mentally as intelligence and in its purest form as the inner self. Among the gods Agni is described as the first. Almost every mandala in the Rigveda begins with a hymn to Agni. He is said to be the principal god in a sacrificial ceremony who receives all the oblations on behalf of other gods and then distributes what he receives among them. As a devourer he exists in our bodies as the digestive fire and consumes the food we eat through the heat he generates. He is the true bhogi (the enjoyer) of our nourishment be it food or the sense objects that we consumes through our senses.


Brahma was the original creator, the highest of all, the master of the worlds, a personification of the immensity of space and time, the uncreated creator, the cause of all, who was also known in ancient times as the master and architect of the universe. He was Prajapathi, the father of all created beings, Lokesa, the lord of the worlds and Dhatr, the sustainer of all. He was born from a golden egg in a boundless ocean of primeval energy without a cause. He was the original Hiranyagarbha, the golden germ, a title that was later transferred to Lord Vishnu. He rescued the world once as a boar, then as a fish and also as tortoise, incarnations which were later ascribed to Lord Vishnu for reasons lost in history.

In subsequent times Vishnu and Siva were also elevated to the status of Brahman.


In the early vedic period Lord Vishnu was one of the solar deities, probably less popular than either Savitr or Surya. However in the post vedic period he rose to prominence and was elevated to the status of Brahman himself as the Highest Being. His followers recognized Him as the Purusha of the Rigveda, the first awakened being and the creator of all. The Vaishnavism of today is a product of many ancient traditions and so is Vishnu in whom are hidden many ancient deities including some aspects of Brahma. The Bhagawan of the Bhagavathas, the Narayana of the Narayaniya sect, the Vasudeva of the Vasudeva sect, the Krishna of the Vrishnis and the Gopala of the Yadus were all identified with Him and integrated into Him. With the rise of devotional tradition in the post Mauryan period, Vaishnavism became a religion by itself and Lord Vishnu was recognized as the ruler of the world, who had the material universe as his cosmic body and his essence as the self in all. With the increasing popularity of the movement, the name Lord Vishnu became synonymous with those of other deities such as Parashurama, Balarama, Narasimha, Rama, the Buddha, Ranganadha, Srinivasa, Mayan and more.


The Rudra of the Rigveda was a god of rain and thunder. He was feared and respected because of his association with sickness and disease. However during the same period, the tradition of Saivism existed independent of the vedic tradition and probably enjoyed as much popularity if not more. The Pasupathas, the Kalamukhas, the Adinathas and the Ajivakas were some of the earliest branches of Saivism that enjoyed a good following in very ancient times. The Indus people were probably worshipped of a prototype of Siva. Some of the Saiva Agamas perhaps date back to the time the Atharvaveda was composed and provided the basis for many new scriptures that were composed later such as the Bhagavadgita.1 By the time the Svetasvatara Upanishad was composed, Siva was an integral part of vedic tradition and elevated to the status of Supreme Being.

The Emergence of Brahman as the Supreme Being

The vedic tradition was originally deity centered, as is evident from the Rigvedic hymns, which are essentially invocations to various gods and goddesses, with fewer references to a single most universal god presiding over other divinities and ruling the heavens and the earth. But in the later vedic period, we find increasing references to a Supreme Being, named as Brahman, as the all pervading supreme self and the ruler of all, in whom the sages found an excellent solution to the problems of human suffering, sickness, aging and death. He was described with deep respect as the inmost and immortal self of the individual beings and the container as well as inhabitant of the entire universe. This new development was certainly not the contrivance of scholars and academicians, but the product of the direct experience of the transcendental state of unity by several seers and sages. The rise of asceticism and the growing importance given to direct experience rather than book knowledge contributed to it. Besides, the concept of Brahman as the supreme ruler of the universe fitted well into the broadening spectrum of the Hindu cosmology that outgrew the traditional view of Indra as the lord of the heavens.

The Individual Self

According to Uddalaka Aruni, the self or jivaatma is the essence of the Highest Being and present in all beings, who return to it during their sleep and after their death. As the essence of the Highest Being, it is the same as Him and by knowing it one knows all, just as by knowing one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known. It has no death, but when it departs from the body, the body withers and dies. The Self is true and its knowledge true knowledge. It is gained only with the help of an enlightened teacher.

Uddalaka Aruni does not explain what happens to the soul after death. He only says that the self return to the earth again and again because of ignorance. However he confirms that when true knowledge of the self is gained, one gains deliverance from the body and becomes perfect (6.14.2). There is no mention of Prakriti or the tattvas in this section of the Upanishad. The elements are mentioned but emphasis is only on fire, water and earth. The role of Prakriti, more or less, is taken up by fire, which is described as the first element or aspect to emerge directly from the Highest Being at the time of creation.


The Upanishad explains how individual beings came into existence. The Highest Being, who was alone in the beginning, wanted to be many and wanted to expand. So he created fire (subtle body and heavenly regions). Fire created water (breath body and mid region) and water created earth (physical or gross body and our world). Having created these three elements, the three worlds and the three primordial beings (elements and divinities), he entered into them as their living Self (jiva-atma). Using these three elements in their purest form and in combination with other two he created many forms and names into whom he entered as their inmost self. So in the heavenly beings fire became predominant. In the beings of the mid regions air became predominant and in the beings of our world, earth. Some of the verses in the sixth and seventh khanda of the Upanishad do not make sense logically or scientifically in today's world. Probably they are incomplete or were edited or had a different meaning in ancient times which we cannot understand now because of the many new meanings the Sanskrit words acquired in its long history of 5000 - 6000 years.

Illusion and Rebirth

In the following verses we find one of the earliest references to the concept of illusion, rebirth and of the presence of self in animals, insects and worms also. These verses refute the argument that the concept of karma, rebirth and illusion were borrowed from other traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism and integrated into Hinduism.

These rivers, my son, run, the eastern (like the Ganga) toward the east,
the western (like the Sindhu) toward the west. They go from sea to sea.
They become indeed sea. And as those rivers, when they are in the sea,
do not know, I am this or that river (6.10.1)

In the same manner, my son, all these creatures,
when they have come back from the True,
know not that they have come back from the True.
Whatever these creatures are here,
whether a lion, or a wolf, or a boar,
or a worm, or a mid-e, or a gnat, or a mosquito,
that they become again and again. (6.10.2)

Traces of Monism

In the exposition of Uddalaka Aruni regarding self and the Highest Being, we can discern some concepts of the advaita philosophy (monism), which was later expounded in much greater detail by Gaudapada, Shankaracharya and others. This is evident in the following arguments.

  • The Self and the Highest Being are considered as true, an argument very similar to that of the followers of advaita vedanta.
  • The Highest Being is described as the the root cause of all.
  • Some verses state that beings return to the self in deep sleep and after death. This is again in line with Advaita Vedanta though not exactly.
  • There is no mention of separate selves. The Highest being exists in all as inmost self or subtle essence. The separation or duality is with regard to the combination of elements, forms and names but not the essence itself.
  • The Highest Being is described as the material and efficient cause of all creation.
  • The Highest Being is described as one without a second in the beginning.

The Highest Self and the Individual Self

With the rise of asceticism and several individual schools of philosophy, the concept of Brahman as the Highest and absolute self underwent many variations. While outside the schools of Vedanta, the very existence of the absolute self and its role in creation was questioned, the Vedanta schools maintained the theistic stand that Brahman was indeed the highest and absolute self and the cause of all creation. The Vedic scholars borrowed many ideas and philosophies to stay afloat in the middle of a great churning of ideas in a period that saw the emergence such movements as Saivism, Jainism, Vaishnavism and Buddhism. The concepts of pramanas (standards), tattvas (principles) and prakriti were borrowed from elsewhere to explain the nature of reality, types of souls, types of divinities, the role of the creator, the process of creation and the roles of various divinities in it. So was the concept of trinity which was non-existent during the vedic period. The addition of new ideas and divinities added more complexity to Hindu cosmology and cosmogony and the nature of relationship between the self and the highest self. It also led to diverse opinions about the role, status and functions of Brahman, Atman and Prakriti in creation. Different schools of thought emerged to explain the relationship amongst these diverse entities which are described below:

Monism or Advaita

The philosophy of Advaita, which was made popular by Gaudapada, the author of Mandukya Karika, Shankaracharya and others, asserts that Brahman is the one and only reality. He exists in all as the self which is the only truth. The rest is an illusion, from the highest standpoint. The world is unreal not because it does or does not exist, but because it is unstable, unreliable, impermanent and does not stand the test of truth which is constant, reliable, indivisible and eternal. The illusion vanishes like a dream when one wakes up in the consciousness of Brahman. So the self (you in this mahavakya) of the beings is also the Self (That of the mahavakya) of the Being. The advaita vedanta is a philosophy of no difference (abheda) and one reality.

Qualified Monism or Vishistadvaita

The philosophy of Vishisthadvaita evolved over a period of time in the south through the writings and compositions of Alvars and followers of Sri Vaishnavism and the Saiva Siddhanta school of Saivism. Sri Ramanuja (1017-1137) reformulated it and gave it a distinct identity different from and opposed to the Advaita Vedanta of Sri Shankara. According to Vishisthadvaita, also known as qualified monism, the jiva-atmas (living beings) and the achetana (lifeless objects) are as real as Brahman, but not the same as Brahman. They are at the best His modes (visheshana) or attributes and dependent upon Him. In contrast to the Advaita Vedanta, this school believes that Brahman has attributes and that the world in which we live is real. The material universe and all the jivas, which are real, constitute the body (sarira) of Hari of which He is the soul. Prakriti exists eternally as a mixture of three gunas or qualities. Before creation it exists in an unmanifest (avyakta) form where the three qualities remain in perfect balance. When creation begins it undergoes dissimilar modifications caused by the imbalance of the gunas and becomes manifest (vyakta) in the beings and the objects. The vishishtadvaita is a philosophy of difference as well as non-difference (bheda-abheda) according to which multiple modular realities center around and depend upon one supreme reality.

Dualism or Dvaita

The philosophy of Dvaita was founded by Sri Madhavacharya. who is also known as Sri Anandathirtha, a south Indian Vaishnava Brahmin born in Udupi, Karnataka in the 13th Century. As a system of philosophy, with regard to the status of the Soul and God and their inter-relationship, it is perhaps closer to Christianity and Islam than any other school of Hindu thought. According to Sri Madhava, Atman (soul) and Brahman (Vishnu-Narayana) are real but different and will remain so eternally. The souls are uncreated and eternal like God, but unlike God who is independent (svatantra), they are dependent upon Him. In order to sustain the worlds or out of love for the mankind, God manifests himself as incarnations, aspects and emanations from time to time. He also manifests Himself as sacred images and symbols to help His devotees who worship Him in temples and sacred places. The souls are of different types and graded into a hierarchy depending upon their roles, statuses and states of liberation. Some types of souls are subject to illusion, karma, bondage and in extreme cases eternal damnation, depending upon their actions The dvaita is a philosophy of difference (bheda) in contrast to advaita vendanta which is a philosophy of no difference (abheda). It emphasizes the difference between God and soul, between soul and soul, between God and energy and between one state of reality and another.

Practical Use

This third Mahavakya, which means that one is the inmost self or the Supreme Being, is a very powerful mantra. Used wisely it can bring a radical change in our outlook and behavior and improve our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with others. If we keep repeating this mantra silently in the company of others, we will develop respect for them and reach out to them unconditionally. We will become free from the negative qualities of pride, envy and greed and develop compassion for all living beings in general and for the helpless and the needy in particular. We will learn to discern divinity hidden in every aspect of our lives and develop a vision of the universe that is based on unity, friendship, harmony and brotherhood, instead of rivalry, competition and insecurity. By repeating it mentally we will be able to see ourselves as different from our bodies, minds and senses and develop a new awareness of ourselves different from our ordinary physical awareness. This mahavakya is also very useful in exploring such complex subjects as the relationship between the individual and his environment and the self and the higher self which will help us become a more responsible human beings.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. According to M.R.Sakhare, Author of History and Philosophy of Lingayat Religion, over half the verses of the Bhagavadgita and some passages from the Svetasvatara Upanishad were borrowed from the Parameshvara Agama


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