Saying Hello to the Buddha at Batsford by Judy Dean
Saying Hello to the Buddha at Batsford by Judy Dean

Recently, I read the Vakyavritti of Adi Shankara. Vakya means spoken saying. Vritti means thoughts or movements of the mind. In other words, his thoughts on the Vaykas. The Vakyas in question are the 4 Mahavakyas (great sayings) he defined, one from each of the 4 primary Vedas.

They are:
1. Prajnanam Brahma – “Consciousness is Brahman” or “Knowledge (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)

4. Aham Brahmasmi – “I am Brahman”
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 of the Yajur Veda)

The brief text itself mainly discusses 3 and 4.

I’ve associated “Thou” (#3) as God, in recognizing that God too is Brahman. However, Shankara clearly defines Thou to mean the witness. The saying is what a teacher might say to his experienced student. “Your observer is Brahman.”

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said that it was necessary for the teacher to give the student a mahavakya for the Unity shift to happen. I’ve never seen that to be the case, though most I’ve known were aware of them already.

[Update: see Comment by Jerry and my response below.]

The Unity shift happens when the awake intellect recognizes the Self within is the same Self underlying all forms in our experience. Consciousness unifies the Observer and Observed into one wholeness.

I can see why a specific statement may be considered key for that intellect, even if the recognition is not on the level of an idea. However, these statements are all about Brahman, not Atman. It’s Atman that is recognizing itself in Unity.

I’ve wondered why Maharishi would say this. At that point, very few of his students had had the Unity shift. (That’s changed a great deal since.)

This text suggests why. Verse 50: “When the knowledge becomes firm by the grace of the Shruti and the teacher [who knows Brahman] one has the cause of this whole transmigratory existence absolutely negated forever.”

I can see how variations in interpretation would imply a teacher was necessary. And this may well may have been the teaching.

However, I’d suggest the verse points to prior study as informing the student so they’re ready when the time comes.

Vasishtha mentions in the 7th mandala of the Rig Veda the importance of desiring Unity stage. Yet to desire it, you have to know it’s there.

This is even more important for Brahman stage as there can be some resistance to letting go of the intimacy of Unity. Why let go of everything to gain nothing? This is just the preliminary experience though – Brahman has much more to offer than may first be apparent. ParaBrahman exponentially more so.

Coming back to where the mahavakya are about Brahman. Brahman is not really known until the Brahman shift, just like the Self isn’t fully recognized until Self Realization – however clear samadhi has been.

Brahman is not a shift of the intellect but a transcending of consciousness and Unity. Because of the way he frames the text, I suspect the mahavakyas are more about contemplating reality to prepare for such shifts.

The shifts happen at a deeper level, then the mind groks them afterwards. That’s why study is helpful prior. We still often have to let go of our interpretation of the ideas when the direct experience arises. But we can rejig those when the experience arises.

At the time Maharishi talked about the mahavakyas, he wasn’t separating Unity and Brahman stages. He later described Brahman as the 10th stage of Unity, I assume to keep the old “7 states” model intact. Yet Brahman is a very distinct shift out of Unity, from wholeness to totality.

The text mentions two ways to define Brahman: negative and positive. The negative is nirguna, without qualities, taking approaches like neti neti/ not this, not this. Brahman as no-thing, even space. This is the approach I lean on on this blog.

The positive is the saguna, with qualities, approach. Like describing Brahman as sat chit nanda. This is valid from a Brahman perspective, but to everyone else is misleading as it makes Brahman sound like everything else.

The text describes “Atman is Brahman” and Brahman as sat chit aananda, qualities of awake consciousness and the upper 3 koshas. Shankara is trying to walk the student into “Thou are That.”

However, if we use such phrases from a consciousness perspective, people say “Brahman this, Brahman that” without knowing what Brahman actually is. We can only know Brahman without everything else, just as we only come to know pure consciousness when the mind goes quiet. Knowing Atman is not knowing Brahman but knowing Brahman is also knowing Atman as it is included within it.

Shankara does not not mention ParaBrahman here but sees Brahman as supreme. “…when Brahman is known, nothing else remains to be known.”

Readers here know I would disagree. ParaBrahman stage leaves Brahman in the dust as the true source of the source. But this isn’t known until it is. Shankara shifted his tone in his later work though, with his poems in praise of the Divine.

Last Updated on November 21, 2022 by Davidya

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  1. Jerry Freeman

    Hi, David.

    You wrote: “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said that it was necessary for the teacher to give the student a mahavakya for the Unity shift to happen. I’ve never seen that to be the case, though most I’ve known were aware of them already.”

    This is not what Maharishi said at all.

    In fact he said the unity shift would happen by itself. And then, AFTER THE UNITY SHIFT there would be a need on the part of the aspirant to have some assurance that this is the awakening they were seeking. Maharishi said there would be an uneasiness, a feeling of suspension, of uncertainty in the mind of the aspirant that needs some assurance so the aspirant can relax.

    He said in human nature there is a powerful, impulse and instinct to seek awakening/liberation. When the aspirant reaches the goal of that seeking, the time has come to relax and let go the seeking impulse. That is necessary, Maharishi said, because to inhabit and live unity/Brahman consciousness requires the attention to broaden and spread out. The pinpoint focus of intense seeking needs to relax to facilitate the broadening and spreading out.

    Someone asked Maharishi, “What if the guru isn’t available?”

    Maharishi said, “Doesn’t matter. When the moment is ripe, the aspirant will get the message. Even the rotten stench of a city bus can convey the mahavakya when the aspirant is ready.”

    I have seen this. In a long retreat in 1977 several people at once shifted into unity/Brahman. Another person there had gone through the shift some time previously. In a discussion, we debated whether the mahavakya was necessary. My own experience was consistent with the classic description (that was 45 years ago and I remember the mahavakya moment like it was yesterday). I argued that the mahavakya would be necessary so the aspirant could fully inhabit their awakening.

    That person disagreed, saying that his experience didn’t involve any mahavakyas. But he confided that there was a moment when he was walking outdoors and felt as if all of Nature was singing to him, “THERE YOU ARE. THERE YOU ARE. THERE YOU ARE.” (“There you are” is also a mahavakya, conveying a similar meaning as “Thou art That.”)

    So in fact, there was a mahavakya moment in that person’s experience. Only it didn’t require a guru (or a rotten-smelling city bus). Maharishi said, “When the time is ripe, the mahavakya message will come.”

    Whether the aspirant has already been exposed to mahavakyas is inconsequential. The mahavakya effect will not happen until that moment of ripeness and intensified receptivity. At that moment, the same mahavakya that the aspirant is already familiar with will carry an intensified meaningfulness and speak to a deep place in the psyche, bringing a great sense of release and assurance.

    What I have seen is this:

    The specific, traditional mahavakyas may not come into play. Any statement that conveys an assurance that “this is it” and signals that the aspirant can safely relax into the emerging new way of experiencing will serve the purpose. It isn’t the specific words that make the mahavakyas; it is the assurance they convey. Other words will work.

    For example, a friend told me about her experience with Adyashanti some years ago when she reported her unity awakening to him. At one point in the exchange Adya said, “I would trust that [experience] if I were you.” That assurance was exactly what she needed in that moment and it allowed her to relax with confidence into her unity consciousness.

    There’s so much more I could say about this. So many more examples. I’ve had people report back to me describing exactly what they went through psychologically (consistent with Maharishi’s description) as we examined and validated their experience.

    Maharishi described the mahavakya moment as a sort of formal encounter after the guru has evaluated the aspirant’s ripeness and determined that it is time to confer the mahavakya. In my experience and observation, it just happens spontaneously.

    You’re answering questions, which are often being asked with some intensity, and as you explore the territory it begins to sink in for the questioner that their experiences are authentic and they might consider the possibility that in fact, “This is it.”

    It would be presumptuous to decide, “I’m going to give the mahavakya to this person.” This is just what happens organically in the process of answering questions and describing the territory of unity/Brahman consciousness.

    You’ve done this yourself, probably hundreds of times, David. It’s been right under your nose the entire time you’ve been teaching. People come to you because of that feeling of suspension, wanting to know, “What is this? Is this it?”

    Maharishi said the guru would put the aspirant to study the Brahma Sutra to gain familiarity with the territory they have awakened into …

    We’ve both read the Brahma Sutra. Much of it is VERY abstract and opaque, almost like some sort of computer code. Not very helpful for most people awakening in the 21st century.

    I’ve observed that ANY good exposition explaining unity/Brahman consciousness, whether written, recorded audio/video or direct interaction with a knowledgeable and experienced person, will serve the purpose Maharishi alluded to when he said, “Then the guru will put the student to study the Brahma Sutra.”

    What I have written here is Brahma Sutra. Your blog is Brahma Sutra. All the work we are doing together to elucidate this territory for ourselves is Brahma Sutra. “Brahma” means Brahman, “Sutra” comes from the same root as the English word “suture” (stitch). Anything that helps stitch together the understanding of Brahman is a Brahma Sutra.

    Regarding the timing of the mahavakya encounter/experience …

    Unfortunately, MANY people are stranded, having awakened to unity but without understanding their experience well enough to fully enter and enjoy what has arisen in their consciousness. Sometimes years pass before they eventually begin to get a clear sense of what has happened in their awareness.

    Circa 2015 in a phone conversation with Jerry Jarvis I said, “Hundreds of thousands of people have been meditating for decades. By now many of them must be enlightened.” Jerry answered, “Yeah, and most of them don’t know it.”

    That underscores the importance of this discussion. People need to understand their experiences.

    Having observed this pattern that Maharishi described after a person has awakened to unity MANY times, I have been struck by the depth of his understanding of the psychology of enlightenment. It’s a very profound (and useful!) insight he conveyed in his exposition of the role of mahavakyas as unity consciousness awakens.

    With heartfelt best wishes,
    Jerry Freeman

    1. Hi Jerry
      I appreciate your well-considered response. And I like your take on the topic. I have seen a video where he frames it the way I describe. However, It wouldn’t surprise me if there is another were he explores the nuances in more detail.

      Your observation is notable. Shortly before my Unity shift, I saw a conversation between Adyashanti and Loch Kelly on the CC to UC process. They mentioned the “BBQ” shortly before the Unity shift, which also happened here – essentially the release of the core or existential identity related to the 3rd fire chakra.

      However, I’ve since found that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the Unity shift. Susanne Marie described it with her Brahman shift and I know others that have not had it yet, post-Brahman. My point is, this affected what i was looking for around the shift.

      My shift happened on a retreat in the late evening, after several obvious steps in the approach. The teacher recognized it immediately the next day and had me come up and describe it. It was still new and I was still purifying a lot, so that was intense. He didn’t give a formal mahavakya but he did confirm the shift. He did indeed say something very much like “This is it”.

      And you’re right, I have confirmed it for others and have seen it confirmed for others. Sometimes, its softer and it’s more “lets see what sticks over time” and sometimes, especially if there has been a GC period, it’s very clear. And yes, life will provide what is needed.

      And you’re right. I’ve been a little fussy about the “right words” – a product of Virgo rising. (laughs)

      Always fascinating to see that group effect when several shift at once. I’ve not seen it with Unity but have several times with waking. The popcorn effect. 🙂

      (laughs) Agreed on the Brahma Sutra. It has a clarity and flow from sutra to sutra but is intensely analytical. Tricky to use the cosmic intellect only and not trigger preconceptions.

      On the stranded, I agree. It’s partly why I started the blog and wrote the book on stages first. Especially if their shift was soft, it may not be recognized. (yet we also have those who favour the concept of being awake when they’re actually not yet.) And then there is many long-term meditators who are very ripe to shift but need that exposure to someone clearly awake for the shift to happen.

      Yes, I’m deeply grateful to Maharishi for the clarity he brought to so many related topics. That’s why this one puzzled me. I appreciate your clarification.

  2. Rick Talcott

    Thou art That

    I was at Humboldt in 1971 when Maharishi gave his lecture on “Thou art That”. Interestingly, perhaps, that particular lecture was saved as an audio tape rather than as a video.

    I can remember being outraged by the lecture. There I was 18 months into meditating, and Maharishi was talking about (according to my memory) how the master would utter the mahavakya at the key moment to move the disciple from God Consciousness to Unity. I thought to myself, “Maharishi will be long gone by the time, if ever, that I move from GC to UC.

    Prompted by the outrage, I took my revenge by memorizing the content of the lecture and sticking the information into my back pocket for 48 years until it came in handy.

    Oddly, transitioning didn’t play out as I expected. I had been mostly but intermittently witnessing for two years and spent most of that time watching how the world played out by itself without me needing to meddle with the flow of events. What fascinated me was losing the sense of witnessing and then getting it back in much the same way as one retrieves a lost mantra.

    Sometime after 2 years or so of this, it occurred to me that I could not only watch the (fairly) independent everyday world, but that I could also turn around and watch the unbounded awareness behind/underneath the everyday world. Quite literally after 15 minutes of this, Lorn and Lucia came along with what I perceived to be mahavakya work for awakening.

    That was roughly in June 2019. I went on a retreat where the pundits used to be in Fairfield the following August, and that lecture became part of what was discussed. Jon Bonchef not only had a copy of the audio version of the lecture, but also was willing to share a glimpse of the introduction to Maharishi’s Commentary to the Brahma Sutras.

    The introduction had a list of approximately 7 points in time when the master could impart the mahavakya from the GC to UC transition and earlier. Much Earlier. That fit the reality that I had just gone through where the remembered 1971 lecture at Humboldt was helpful/crucial(?) in moving me from witnessing to awakening to cosmic consciousness.

    That was reassuring to me in that there was at least an indication from the TM movement that the transition to cosmic consciousness could be accomplished via a makavakya at the right moment.


    I’m still left puzzled at the recognition that Maharishi clearly knew all this but deliberately spun(?) his descriptions away from the whole idea of awakening and the use of a mahavakya prior to GC to UC.

    Also fwiw, I went back over the commentary to the Bhagavad Gita and noticed how artfully, Maharishi never talked about awakening but never contradicts the reality of it either.

    I have no idea why Maharishi chose that path of explanation. I’m curious why. From my perspective, it looks like Maharishi designed a shortened K-12 experience rather than the full story.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Rick
      At some point, I saw the mahavakyas as related to the stages: ie I am That for CC, Thou art That for GC, etc. In reverse order of the list above. I discussed this in an earlier post on the topic. And thats where my association of Thou with God comes from.

      This was one of those ideas floating around, not something Maharishi taught. I later realized this wasn’t their intent and was misleading, even if there is some sense of fit.

      It is true that verification may be needed any any stage. It’s very rare a stage shows up as we might expect it prior. But sometimes it becomes self-evident. The first shift was like that here. But I know many who were uncertain and even doubted it, generally because it didn’t meet their concepts. Verification becomes key so we don’t resist what is unfolding.

      (laughs) Imagine your outrage if he had said it would take over 40 years.

      In your comment, you distinguish awakening and CC. I don’t on this blog and I’m not aware of Maharishi doing this either. There are occasional references to terms like “Self Consciousness” (in the last verse of the Gita Ch 6). But these appear to be references to clear transcending.

      Certainly, there are some who begin witnessing full-time prior to CC. Self is awake within but ego is still identified. Self has not yet woken to itself yet. I’ve seen some call this awakening but, given the ego is still engaged, I wouldn’t. But then it could be framed as a stage.

      Interesting – I’d love to see that intro. When I was at MIU in ’10, Bevan and John discussed releasing the remaining chapters of the Gita and the Brahma Sutra but it had become political after being almost lost for years. A friend took a Sanskrit course in Vlodrop and had a full translation of the Gita, sans commentary.

      In the sense of my discussion with Jerry above, we might describe any confirmation as a mahavakya. And thus, even for CC.

      Here, I can’t recall one for BC but there was a kind of anti-mahavakya, a warning about what was about to happen. (laughs)

      One of things I emphasized in the book was the underlying process to the stages. This is because there’s so much variation in experience, we can get distracted from the actual process. Like thinking the awakening was the flashy experiences or the big release when these are side-dishes, not the main course. (not directing this at you)

      It’s a very big topic…

  3. Rick Talcott

    Hi David –

    > In your comment, you distinguish awakening and CC. I don’t on this blog and I’m not aware of Maharishi doing this either.

    My memory of one of the common “retreat” videos is the one that starts out with Maharishi saying that he was going to describe the key characteristic of CC and GC. CC was defined as witnessing 24/7. That’s different from awakening; perhaps even misleading from my perspective. The identifying characteristic of GC was never discussed.

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