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The Import of the mahAvAkya

Nathan Spoon,  Tuesday, December 21, 2010 03:14 AM
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Text: 'aham brahmAsmi'



The mahAvAkya is possibly the single greatest starting point for vedAntic meditation. It is not great for reasons outside of and beyond us. On the contrary it is great precisely because it orients us to the Truth not only of our Center but also of our very Self.


Right away, however, we are confronted with what may seem like an insurmountable paradox. If the mahAvAkya simply points to the present which is not other than our very Self, then what is the need to meditate on it? But we all know there are many things that are true of which we have little or no knowledge. Also, the same scriptures containing the mahAvAkya tell us that although realizing the import of this phrase is tantamount to realizing the highest and most essential Truth, we are somehow ignorant of it. We have not yet realized this Truth.


For example, we find within the text of the bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad (which happens to contain this mahAvAkya) the following well-known prayer:


asato mA sadgamaya |

tamaso mA jyotirgamaya |

mRRityormA amRRitaM gamaya ||


Lead me from the unreal to the Real,

Lead me from darkness to Light,

Lead me from death to Immortality.


We already are the Self, and yet, because we do not realize this, we are recommended to follow the course of going from ignorance and unawareness to knowledge and awareness.


Although it is believed that one can potentially realize the Atma upon a single hearing of the mahAvAkya, this is not usually the case. In any instance where it seems to be the case, this can be easily explained through the secondary teaching about karma-s and vAsanA-s. It could be that such a person is simply ripe for realization.


To account for this, the late Sri Ramana Maharshi once explained that there are three different types of aspirants. The first type is like green wood. To bring out the fire of self-knowledge hidden within this type of aspirant a prolonged exposure to the guru and wise words is necessary. The second type of aspirant, the Maharshi explained, is like seasoned wood. When this type of aspirant encounters vedAntic teachings, he or she will begin burning right away. Lastly, the Maharshi described a third type of aspirant. This type, he said, is like gunpowder. Just as the tiniest spark of Truth can instantly and completely ignite the mind of this type of aspirant. But we cannot assume we will be so lucky; especially if we have heard the mahAvAkya and we do not yet have Self-knowledge.


The first word of the mahAvAkya is aham. aham means 'I'. From the conventional perspective aham indicates something objective. Generally we identify with being the body. After this we identify with thoughts and beliefs we have picked up throughout the course of our lifetime. Some examples of these are, 'I am a father' or 'I am a Republican' or 'I am a vedAntin'.  Out of ignorance we attempt to define ourselves, and then, as a matter of incredible irony, we struggle against our self-imposed limitations. 


But shrI shaMkarAcharya explains that this objective, conventional 'I' is not what is being referred to by the word aham. Instead, he points out, aham is the Atma, which is to say pure Consciousness or purely subjective Awareness. 


And we want to understand how shrI bhagavatpAda arrives at this conclusion. If we believe ourselves to be an object, then how can we come to see that we are in fact the subjective Awareness to which (and within which) all objects are appearing? 


To understand correctly it is helpful to consider that vedAnta is, along with yoga, the only surviving of the six darshana-s of the sanAtana dharma. As such, it is a metaphysic or philosophy proper that is both orthodox and traditional. Conditioned as we probably are by modernist sensibilities, the words orthodox and traditional might immediately seem tainted. But the value of what they point to can be appreciated through the following simple example.


In the fragments of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, we find the phrase, 'It is wise to agree that all things are One.' This phrase is remarkable when we stop to reflect on its implications. What does it mean to 'agree that all things are One'? Certainly there would be nothing particularly wise about adopting the conceptual belief that all things are One. To agree has to mean something more, something deeper. And indeed it does. To agree that all things are One means to see it ourselves, to realize it. 


Similarly, to realize that aham is not the body, etc. but is instead the Atma, we cannot rely upon an outside source. We must realize it within the depths of our own mind, our own heart. 


The remainder of the mahAvAkya is brahmAsmi which means 'brahman am'.  So the complete phrase, 'I brahman am' is usually translated into the more grammatically acceptable sentence 'I am brahman'. 


So now we may wish to ask, 'If aham is Atma and if Atma is brahman, then why the two different words?' The reason is easy to explain. When we are talking about the relative play that occurs on the surface of the ocean, we talk about waves. And when talking about waves we are not denying the ocean in any way. We are only discussing and describing this surface play. Atma is the word appropriate when we are discussing Consciousness in the microcosmic sense and brahman is the word we use when we are discussing the same Consciousness but in the macrocosmic sense. 


Meditating deeply on this phrase, we are able to realize that the mahAvAkya is not indicating that the empirical (vyavahAra) is the Absolute (paramArtha). But this is a common misreading of the mahAvAkya, which is possible when we are not meditating on this teaching with a guru. The misreading can easily come about when we consider that the word advaita means not-two and that the two that are not-two are precisely the objective-empirical and the non-objective Absolute. But this word (advaita) means that they are not-two and not that the vyAvahArika is the pAramArthika


Here it will be helpful to note that we are not simply wrangling or hair-splitting to consider these terms and ideas carefully. advaita vedAnta is essentially j~nAna yoga, which is to say the yoga of knowledge. When one does haTha yoga, one stretches and contorts the body. This stretching and contorting, when done correctly, has the effect of strengthening the body and boosting one's vital energy. When one does j~nAna yoga this similarly has the effect of sharpening and honing the mind, so that one is more easily capable of meditating on subtle and refined ideas. 


These ideas are not tossed out randomly. On the contrary they are presented by the guru in a deliberate (and deliberately intuitive) manner. This presentation can be understood through the ancient form of the pyramid. A pyramid is broadest at its base. Once the foundation has been set, with each of its three walls leaning inward, then another layer is added on top of the first. As one layer after another is added, the walls eventually meet at an apex. At this apex the pyramid disappears and we are left with the powerful majesty of space. In the same way that a pyramid leads the eye to space, vedAnta teachings point the mind to Consciousness. 


All this said we are ready to seemingly pull the rug out from under what we have considered thus far. To rely on our analogy of waves and the ocean once more, we can rightfully say that waves are the ocean. And we would not say that the ocean is waves.  This is due to the fact that the ocean is so much more and cannot be limited. However the ocean, like the space above and around the pyramid, is objectively verifiable, whereas the Atma is not  And although we speak of the Atma (or brahman for that matter) as if it were an 'it', and therefore objectively existent, we want to see for ourselves that the Atma exists by not existing. Or, if we may say, it exists by not being an existent. As the existence of waves does not negate the ocean, so the existence of world and the cosmos do not negate the Absolute Atma-brahman.


In conclusion, we can consider the following teaching offered by Sri Abhinava Vidyathirtha:


'A person went to sleep.  He soon had a dream in which he beheld himself being chased by a ferocious tiger. Since the tiger was by far swifter than him, the distance between them shrank rapidly. He was overcome with fear. So terrified was he that he abruptly woke up, his forehead wet with perspiration. The tiger seen by him in the dream was undoubtedly unreal.  However, it was instrumental in bringing about a real effect, awakening.


Some object, 'According to the advaitins, the world is illusory and brahman alone is real. If so, the teachings of the veda-s, which are included in the cosmos, should not be real. Hence, they cannot produce true knowledge. Consequently, advaita philosophy, which is based on the veda-s should be worthless.'  This objection is invalid.


advaitins speak of the unreality of the world only from the standpoint of the Absolute. From an empirical standpoint, the world and the veda-s do exist. Another reply of the advaitins is that an unreal object can, as in the example considered earlier, lead to the real. Hence, though being illusory, the veda-s can bring about enlightenment and, thereby, establishment in the Supreme.' (Edifying Parables, Sri Vidyatheertha Foundation, 2000)



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About Nathan Spoon

Nathan is an avid DIYer, painter and poet.  He currently teaches vedAnta in an unlikely setting, maintaining that spiritual life can transform a weekly Starbucks gathering into satsa~Nga.

Nathan's advaita path is largely inspired by the Italian master Raphael and the teachings of Sri Sringeri Sharada Peetham.