When I previously wrote an article on the Mahavakya (great sayings), I used an old understanding, informed by a 70’s talk by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (before he was differentiating the Brahman stage) and common English translations. It’s time for an update.
The common translations are “I am That, Thou art That, All this is That, and That alone is.” These are lovely and sound both like realizations of Unity Consciousness and of the stages to it – if we take That to be equivalent to Atman. Or as Brahman where Atman = Brahman.
But while Atman does eventually come to be recognized as Brahman, they are not at all the same thing. Atman is the dynamics of self-aware consciousness that lead to the appearance of ourselves and the world. Brahman is beyond that but inclusive of Atman.
When we look at the actual Sanskrit mahavakya, we discover they are usually listed in roughly the opposite order and describe realizations of Brahman rather than Unity. Brahman is a bigger shift, and it makes sense the great sayings would be for the “great awakening.” (Brahman means The Great)
For example, #2 below does not mean Atman = Brahman. It means we realize what we had thought to be the ultimate reality of consciousness turns out to be Brahman. (although that’s not ultimate either)
[Update: Brahman is not a realization of the intellect that the Mahavakya point to. Seems they are realizations of late Unity that may be used during the transition where the Brahman shift follows.]
It also makes sense to me that these would be most beneficial with the Brahman shift as it often begins with a loss of Unity. Without background, the loss may confuse or mislead. But if we’ve been given the right understanding, the mahavakya can serve us.
1. Prajnanam Brahma – “Consciousness is Brahman” or “Knowledge or Intelligence is Brahman”
(Aitareya Upanishad 3.3 of the Rig Veda)
2. Ayam Atma Brahma – “This Self (Atman) is Brahman”
(Mandukya Upanishad 1.2 of the Atharva Veda)
3. Tat Tvam Asi – “Thou art That”
(Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda)(assigned to the North Shankaracharya)
4. Aham Brahmasmi – “I am Brahman”
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda)
Note they come from each of the 4 primary Vedas.
Other mahavakya you may see include:
Ekam Evadvitiyam Brahma – “Brahman is one, without a second”
(Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1 of the Sama Veda)
Sarvam Kaluhidam Brahma – “All of this is Brahman” or “All this is That”
(Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1 of the Sama Veda)
There are several related realizations related to advanced Unity. This is the usual sequence of discovery:
Aham Vishvam: I am the Universe
(Taittiriya Upanishad 3.10)
Devo Hum: I am the Devata (body)
Aham Shrivir: I am the Cosmic Body
Vedo’Ham: I am the Veda (VedaHam: I know the Veda (itself))
Note that Aham is the I-sense, as in Ahamkara or ego.
One sage describes the first above as coming after the last, but if we relate to the universe as hiranya garbha (the golden egg), that would typically come first.
There is rich understanding to support our journey in the Vedas but much of it has been poorly framed. Gradually that is getting addressed.