Brahma-Visnu-Siva

A Unique Interpretation of Tat Tvam Asi

In the first anuccheda of Prīti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī begins establishing love for Bhagavān, prīti, as the ultimate goal of human life, puruṣārtha. During the course of his explanation, he remarks that the famous mahāvākya (great statement) tat tvam asi (You are That) actually hints at the prīti between a jīva and Bhagavān. This is a very unique view of this famous mahāvākya from the Upaniṣad. It is a lengthy anuccheda, so below I present just a few relevant lines from Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s writing followed by my commentary on it.

Translation of Original Text

Similarly, statements such as “You are that” (CHU 6.8.7) should be taken as descriptive of His love, just as it said [about someone who is very intimate] “You are that very person.” Moreover, material dealings are also seen to be centered on love alone. All living beings are striving for love, for the sake of which one even sacrifices one’s life, etc. But being unable to find a suitable object of love, people give it up for unqualified objects. Thus everyone‘s wish is to seek out a suitable object of love. This wish is materialized only in Bhagavān.

Commentary

In Bhagavat Sandarbha (2-7), it was made clear that Brahman is the qualityless manifestation of Bhagavān. By the intuitive experience of Brahman one certainly becomes liberated, but there is no qualitative experience in this state. Although one is free of any suffering, there is no positive experience of bliss. One loses sense of one’s distinct identity in Brahman like a drop of water falling into the ocean. In actual fact, the drop is never lost, but it has no sense of itself as an individual apart from the ocean. Similarly, in the state of Brahman realization, there is no loss of one’s identity yet there is no scope for reciprocation between the jīva and Brahman. This is so because the liberated jīva fully identifies with Brahman. It was therefore concluded in Bhagavat Sandarbha (81) that Brahman is an incomplete and lower manifestation of the Absolute. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī thus here emphasizes again that the direct experience of Brahman as a person, i.e., Bhagavān, is the puruṣārtha.

Having established this, the next very important point, which is also one of the distinctive features of the Gauḍīya school, is that love or prīti is the real puruṣārtha and not merely an experience of Bhagavān. It is only in prīti that Bhagavān reveals Himself. Without prīti no one can know His nature. Therefore, without prīti, even if one sees Bhagavān, that is not very wonderful. People like Śiśupāla and Kaṁsa also saw Kṛṣṇa, but they had no prīti for Him and so could not understand who or what He was. It is a different issue that because of Kṛṣṇa’s greatness, they benefitted from contact with Him, but they could not experience the bliss of having His vision. In reality, they did not even see Kṛṣṇa per se. What they saw was only a māyika covering of Kṛṣṇa. This was described in Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha(106.2): “): “Additionally, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa makes the following statement about Śiśupāla:

 ātma-vināśāya bhagavad-asta-cakrāṁśu-mālojjvalam akṣaya-tejaḥ-svarūpaṁ parama-brahma-bhūtam apagata-dveṣādi-doṣo bhagavantam adrākṣīt.

Śiśupāla, having been freed from the defect of envy and other such vices, beheld Bhagavān as the Supreme Brahman, whose form (svarūpa) was of imperishable effulgence, shining brilliantly with a garland of rays from the disc He had cast in order to destroy him. (VP 4.15.15)

According to this assertion, the form of Bhagavān that is displayed to the asuras is not His true form (svarūpa), but a manifestation of māyā. If they do actually see the svarūpa of Bhagavān, their envy is dispelled.”

It is prīti alone that brings an ultimate end to all suffering. If there is no prīti then even a vision of Bhagavān does not help, as seen in the case of Duryodhana. Even after seeing Kṛṣṇa and His virāṭ form, Duryodhana was not convinced about His Godship. He thought that Kṛṣṇa was just a magician. Seeing Him directly did not bring Duryodhana any bliss. He also could not understand the truth about Kṛṣṇa and continued to suffer from his envious nature.

Therefore, the conclusion is that prīti is the highest puruṣārtha and not the experience of Brahman or the vision of Bhagavān. Even mukti devoid of prīti is not the supreme puruṣārtha. Other words like bhakti, rati, prema, bhāva, and as we shall see, even mukti or kaivalya, are used in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as synonyms of prīti. This prīti brings an end to all suffering. Without prīti, one cannot have a true experience of Bhagavān or His qualities. It is prīti that reveals Bhagavān along with His nature. Prīti alone reveals His divine attributes, and it does so in accordance with its amount. These are the six characteristics of prīti.

One may raise a doubt here. If prīti is the highest puruṣārtha, then why there is no mention of it in the Upaniṣads, the cream of the Vedas? Why is it that mukti or mokṣa is propagated as the highest puruṣārtha? Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī cites one of the most important statements of the Upaniṣads, one of the four mahā-vākyas of the Advaitavāda Vedāntīs: “You are that” (tat tvam asi). Although there are many mahā-vākyas in the Upaniṣads, Advaitavāda scholars accept only four, one each from the four Veda. These are:

  1. Prajñānaṁ brahma “consciousness is Brahman” (Aitreya Upaniṣad, Rg Veda);
  2. Aham brahmāsmi “I am Brahman” (Bṛhad Araṇyaka Upaniṣad, Yajur Veda);
  3. Tat tvam asi “You are That” (Chandogya Upaniṣad, Sāma Veda);
  4. Ayam ātmā brahma “This ātmā is Brahman” (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, Atharva Veda).

Tat tvam asi is a statement made by Āruṇi to his son Śvetaketu while instructing him about the Absolute Reality. The complete sentence is sa ya eṣo’ṇimaitadātmyam idaṁ sarvaṁ, tat satyaṁ, sa ātmā, tat tvam asi śvetaketo iti (Chāndogya Upanisad 6.8.7)

“That which is the subtle essence, all this, has got that as its Self. That is the Truth. That is the Self. You are that, O Śvetaketo.”

Here the jīva and Brahman are equated. The jīva is limited, conditioned, miserable, and ignorant. The Absolute is just the opposite of that. They cannot be one in existence. Different commentators have tried to resolve this inequality. In brief, their explanations are as follows:

  1. The Advaitavāda view of Śaṅkarācārya holds that there is only one Absolute Reality called Brahman. The jīva is nothing but Brahman conditioned or delimited by māyā. When this conditioning is removed, the jīva again becomes Brahman.
  2. The Viśiṣṭa-advaitavāda view of Rāmānujācārya interprets the pronoun tvam as referring to the Brahman who is immanent within the jīva and the pronoun tat as referring to the Brahman, who is the cause of the cosmos. The relation between the jīva and Brahman is said to be that of the qualifier (viśeṣaṇa) and the qualified Reality (viśiṣṭa).
  3. The Dvaitavāda view of Madhvācārya explains that the complete sentence sa ātmā tat tvam asi should in fact be broken down as saḥ ātmā atat tvam asi, meaning, “You are that ātmā, you are not Brahman.” Alternatively, they say that tat tvam asi is to be understood as tasya tvam asi, “You are His,” signifying that the jīva is a servant of Viṣṇu.
  4. The Śuddha-advaitavāda view of Vallabhācārya explains the statement to mean that there is oneness of essential being, but Brahman is the whole whereas the jīva is Its part.
  5. The Dvaita-advaitavāda view of Nimbarkācārya explains that the relation between the jīva and Brahman is one of simultaneous oneness and difference because the jīva is an intrinsic part of Brahman.
  6. The Acintya-bheda-abhedavāda view explains that they are one because jīva is the śakti of Brahman, who is the śaktimān.

Thus we see that primarily there are two explanations. The Advaitavāda followers interpret it as establishing the absolute identity of the jīva and Brahman. The rest of the commentators refute the idea of absolute oneness. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī belongs to the second group. He accepts the oneness but explains that this oneness is not ontological. It is a oneness based in prīti. According to him such a oneness is possible in prīti. A semblance of such oneness can be experienced even by people of limited intelligence and devotional education. When there is intense prīti between two people then they feel a sense of oneness despite being in separate bodies. One can only imagine how close one must feel in true prīti. An example of this is found in the following statement made by Kṛṣṇa:

preyāṁs te’haṁ tvam api ca mama preyasīti pravādas
tvaṁ me prāṇā aham api tavāsmīti hanta pralāpaḥ
tvaṁ me te syām aham iti yat tac ca no sādhu rādhe
vyāhāre nau na hi samucito yuṣmad-asmat-prayogaḥ

There is a rumor that I am your lover and you are my beloved. O Dear, some blabber that you are my vital air and I am yours. O Rādhe, to even say, “You are mine and I am yours” is not proper. In our mutual dealings, to use the first person (“I”) and second person pronouns (“you”) is not at all appropriate. (Alaṅkāra-kaustubha 5.34)

Even in material dealings, it is seen that when a man and woman are in a loving relationship, they consider themselves as one entity. This desire to be one in love is in everybody, including the lower species. Everyone is hankering to find one loving relationship where one can feel a sense of oneness with the object of love. Prīti gives the highest satisfaction. For the sake of prīti, people can sacrifice everything, including their very lives. If liberation were the highest puruṣārtha, then no one would be willing to give up their life for the sake of prīti.

But the prīti found in the material world is not real and does not give ultimate satisfaction. If it were real, one would feel completely satisfied with it because the very nature of prīti is bliss. The reason for this is that the jīva is atomic in size and has very limited happiness in its essential nature. Moreover, in the conditioned state, it identifies with its coverings, which are material. Thus the so-called prīti of material experience is for the covering enlivened by the self. One cannot even truly experience one’s own svarūpa or that of another jīva. Thus material prīti is very limited and temporary. Our desire is for unlimited, unending happiness. That cannot come from another jīva, which is limited and conditioned by avidyā. Therefore, nobody ever really feels satisfied by material prīti. Being dissatisfied with one love object, one looks for another. This search continues until by good fortune one realizes that only Bhagavān is the suitable object of prīti. It is to explain this prīti, unknown to the world, that Śrī Jīva writes Prīti Sandarbha.

8 thoughts on “A Unique Interpretation of Tat Tvam Asi”

  1. Great article. Thank you for taking time to write and explain the significance of “Priti”, and how is the statement differently interpreted by various commentators 🙏

    1) Could you please further explain, what is “Priti” or love? How to qualify it? How to calibrate its levels, if any, e.g. higher love vs. lower love?

    2) Regarding “avidya” in the above article, what is real Vidya or the truth? if Priti with Brahman is everything then why do we really need Vidya?

    3) the article mentions about jiva as a “conditioned” one. If we step back a bit, is this just another type of conditioning? Priti between Jiva and Brahman is the answer to the purpose, i.e. unlimited happiness. But do we need a purpose? why cannot we just “be” or “exist”, just like a flower giving it’s fragrance to anyone and everyone?

    My pranam once again. Thank you 🙏

    1. 1) This is a big topic and Sri Jiva Gosvami wrote a whole book on it – Priti Sandarbha. We will publish this book soon with translation and commentary in English.

      2) Priti is also Vidya. Just above you asked so many questions above about priti. The answer to them is Vidya.

      3) Yes, that could be fine if you were an insentient being like a flower. But you are not a flower. There lies the discrepancy between you and flower. A flower has no choice between whom to give fragrance and whom not to give. It will give fragrance even to one
      who is allergic to its fragrance. What if everyone is allergic to its fragrance? Is that a great quality of the flower? Think of an open stinking sewer. It also gives its stench freely to everyone. So just to “be” or “exist” is not always that great. As a living being, you are more than an insentient being who can only “be” or “exist”. They have no choice.

      Priti with Brahman or Bhagavan is not a conditioning. Conditioning is something imposed on you and does not match with your svarupa.

  2. tat-tvam asi, understood as tatpurusa-samasa, has the meaning of “you of Him” are…”you belong to Him”. This meaning also hints at the prīti between a jīva and Bhagavān.

    1. Can you explain how tat tvam can be a tatpurusa-samasa? Is there in Sanskrit any other instance of two pronouns forming a tatpurusa-samasa?

  3. There are three pronominal bases. Excluding combinations with the pronoun “I”, which would be impossible, the combinations become very few (probably only two) and therefore are more unique than rare. Perhaps, in a particular context, the word “tat-tad-deśīya”, could mean “resident in that (country) of him”… I don’t know, the correctness of these very rare cases goes beyond my knowledge of Sanskrit. However, the interpretation “You belong to him”, is not my deduction, but a meaning that a follower of Caitanya Mahāprabhu has taught… I do not remember who this person is, nor to whom he gave this teaching, nor even on what I read it… but perhaps in this group someone knows this fact and can be more precise.

  4. The 13th century saint Madhvacharya in his Book “Tattva ratnavali” also known as “Mayavada sata dushani” gave the explanation for Tat Tvam Asi using the concept of “Tat purusha samasa.”

    In Sanskrit grammer a tatpuruṣa compound is a dependent determinative compound, i.e. a compound XY meaning a type of Y which is related to X in a way corresponding to one of the grammatical casesof X. In this case, two nouns combine to create a new noun. This combination is called the compound.

    For example:

    Yajur-veda = “sacrifice-knowledge” = “the knowledge of sacrifice”

    In the above example, the “sacrifice knowledge” in and of itself is meaningless. For it conveys the wrong idea that we should sacrifice knowledge. But when we say using the tat purusha samasa, it becomes “the knowledge of sacrifice”.Now it conveys the right meaning.There are few more examples like

    raja-putra = “king-son” = “son of a king”.

    indra-satro = “Indra enemy”=”Enemy of Indra”.

    svarga-patita = “heaven-fallen” = “fallen from heaven”.

    So, we can see from the above words that the word used without tat purusha compound becomes meaningless.And moreover,it gives a wrong interpretation.Like mentioned above,heaven never falls.But by using the tat purusha compound, it is known that svarga patita means someone has fallen from the heaven.

    The meaning of the tat purusha is given below:

    तस्य पुरुषः → तत्पुरुषः

    tasya puruṣaḥ → tatpuruṣaḥ

    His servant

    Now that I have sufficiently explained the concept of tat purusha, I would now explain the meaning of “Tat Tvam Asi”

    In the book “Madhvacharya’s Tattva ratravali” verse 6,following explanation is given.

    “Tat-Tvam is a possessive compound word (sasthi-tatpurusa-samasa). According to this explanation, tat means “of the Supreme,” and the entire phrase means “you are the servant of the Supreme.” In this way the proper meaning of the scriptural statement is clearly shown.”

    The Mayavadi commentators say that the Vedic statement tat tvam asi concludes that the Para Brahman and the living entities are non different. The word tat means “He,” the word tvam means “you,” and the word asi means “are”; so they wrongly arrive at conclusion that words tat tvam asi means “you are the Para Brahman, there is no difference between you and Him”.

    But the Vaishnava commentators have given different meanings of the word tat tvam asi. The word tat means “He who is infallible” and this word has been derived from the word tasya meaning “His.” Therefore, the word tat tvam asi means “you belong to Him.” The word tasya makes the distinction between the Para Brahman and the living entities.

    The equivalent of this Mahavakya “tat tvam asi” is “aham tava asmi”. The proper explanation of this mahavakya is given in the following verse of Padma Purana:

    Padma Purana,Patala Khanda 82.85

    sakrd eva prapanno yas tava asmi iti vedad api

    sadhnena vinapya eva mama apnoti na samsayah

    “Even if once,if a surrendered soul says to me,”Oh lord,I,am yours”, then even without performing any kinds of sadhana, he attains me,there is no doubt about it.”

    Thus the meaning of “Tat tvam Asi” means “I (jivatma) belong to Paramatma. To make us realise the constitutional position of jiva in relation to Lord,this Mahavakya is used in the Chandogya upanishad. The constitutional position means the natural svarupa of the jivatma. This has been explained by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as follows:

    Chaitanya caritamrta, Madhya lila 20.108–109

    jīvera ‘svarūpa’ haya — kṛṣṇera ‘nitya-dāsa’

    “It is the living entity’s constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Krishna”

    Madhvacharya also explains in Tattva ratnavali ,verse 17 as follows:

    “The Vedic statement tat tvam asi should be interpreted in the following way: tat means “the Supreme Brahman who is like a nectar ocean of perfect transcendental bliss.” Tvam means “the distressed individual spirit soul, whose mind is anguished by the fears produced by continued residence in the material world.”

    The word tat represents supreme lord, who is eternally free from the cycle of birth and death. But tvam(you, we jivatma) identifies our body with the soul. Thus we undergo repeated cycle of birth and death. But our essential nature is sat chit ananda. This nature can be realised when we understand our constitutional position of being an eternal servant of God.Therefore, Tat tvam asi is a warning to the living entity not to mistake the body for the self.

  5. wonderful article, and very excited for Priti Sandarbha

    is the alaṅkāra kaustubha reference actually supposed to be 5.27 instead of 5.34?

    I could be wrong, just thought I found it there instead

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