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.
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.
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