29 – Tattva Bodha: Tat Tvam Asi (You are That): Literal & Implied Meaning


Discourse 29 discusses the literal and implied meaning of Tat Tvam Asi, as an answer to question “How can individual be equated to Ishvara?”.

Source: Tattva Bodha

Verse: An objection: How can a limited jīva be limitless Īśvara?

nanu (sāhaṃkārasya kiñcijjñasya jīvasya) (nirahaṃkārasya sarvajñasya īśvarasya) (tat-tvam-asīti mahāvākyāt katham-
abheda-buddhiḥ) syād-ubhayoḥ viruddha-dharmākrāntatvāt
But the individual is endowed with ego (sense of individuality) and his knowledge is limited, whereas, the Lord is without ego and is omniscient. Then how can there be identity, as stated in the great statement – ‘That you art’, between these two, who are possessed of contradictory characteristics?

    • How can I accept sameness between individual (limited) and total (unlimited, from which time-space comes and operates the whole universe)? How is small individual equated to Ishvara, as stated in mahavakyatat tvam asi”? 
      • For example, Parikshit was given a curse to die in 7 days. Out of desperation, he went to wise Sanat Kumara sage – asking for self-knowledge. The sage tells Parikshit is lucky knowing he has 7 days to live, while the sage doesn't even know if he'll die tomorrow. This shows limitation of even wise people, let alone a common man who is now being equated to the all-knowing Lord.
    • Doubt is being raised because duality (THIS is different from THAT) is universally accepted and deeply entrenched in everyone's thinking since beginningless time due to maya's avarana-shakti (veiling power). For example…
      1. Yogi will experience nirvikalpa samadhi (induced state of advaita similar to sleep but alert) in his meditation. Then upon return will dismiss this “ordinary dualistic state” as inferior. Meaning yogi hasn't truly understood what advaita means.
      2. The dvaita schools proclaim, “The scriptures tell jiva is different from Ishvara!”. Why would you need the scriptures to tell you something that every human being knows their entire life. Minority will interpreted “ātmādat tvam asi” as “ātmā atat tvam asi” (I am NOT that), when in reality it's “ātmā tat tvam asi” (I am that).
      3. STORY: Seeker went to Advaita Guru. Guru told him, “You are Narayana”. Seeker didn't believe this. Went to check with another (dvaita) guru, who immediate said to seeker, “Advaita guru is wrong. Of course you are not Narayana”. So the seeker studied 12 years with dvaita guru to understand logically how he is NOT Narayana. After 12th year, he became a sadhu and went to barber (Murari) for a shave. After total shave, he looked at the mirror, glowing! Out of sheer happiness, he prostrated to barber's feet, saying “You are Narayana to make me look this young”. Barber said “I am a barber. I am NOT Narayana!“.  Sadhu went for a bath, and found nearby Advaita guru, and said “Teach me!“. Advaita guru asked why change in attitude. Sadhu said, “I studied 12 years learning how I am not Narayana. And an uneducated Barber knew that also”.  Thus you don't need to study dvaita, everyone is in dvaita illusion be mere birth.
      4. The word “That” implies away and not here. And word “you” can mean anything. For example, “you are hungry”; in this case “you” refers to prana. Hence ambiguity of “that” and “you” further fuels the objection.
    • Need to discover what is jiva / Ishvara in appearance, and jiva / Ishvara in Truth. 
      • Jiva: limited knowledge/power. A spec. Ignorant. Depends on world. Has an I-sense. Under maya’s influence.
      • Isvara: All-knowledge/power. The total. Control’s maya. Unaffected by results of actions.
    • How are both the same? Jiva & Isvara are incidental/apparent projections of Maya. Their truth is Consciousness. This is explained in next verse…

Verse: Objection is resolved by implied meaning (lakṣyārtha)

iti cenna (sthūlasūkṣma-śarīrābhimānī tvaṃ-pada-vācyārthaḥ) (upādhi-vinirmuktaṃ samādhi-daśā-saṃpannaṃ śuddhaṃ caitanyaṃ tvaṃpada-lakṣyārthaḥ)
If there is such a doubt, no (it is not so). The literal meaning of the word ‘you’ is the one identified with the gross and subtle bodies. The implied meaning of the word ‘you’ is pure Consciousness which is free from all conditionings and which is appreciated in the state of deep meditation (during subject-object resolution).
(evaṃ sarvajñatvādi-viśiṣṭa īśvaraḥ tatpada-vācyārthaḥ) (upādhiśūnyaṃ śuddha-caitanyaṃ tatpada-lakṣyārthaḥ)
Similarly, the immediate meaning of the word ‘that’ is the Lord, the one who is endowed with all-knowledge, etc. The implied meaning of the word ‘that’ is pure consciousness, free from all conditionings.
evaṃ ca jīveśvarayoḥ caitanyarūpeṇābhede bādhakābhāvaḥ
Thus, there is no contradiction regarding the essential oneness between the jīva and Īśvara from the standpoint of Consciousness.

    • Tvam (You):
      1. Immediate/direct meaning of “you” (vacyartha):
        • If I say, “You are ____”, your mind fill in dozens of opinions about “you” as the body, and “you” as the mind. Thus for most, “you” is referring to the physical/subtle-body (sthula-sukshma-sharira upadhi). Or if you are an Indian vaidika, then “you” means the Causal Body.
        • So “You are that” can be referring to this “you”, as can’t equate a limited body & mind onto limitlessness.
      2. Intended/implied meaning of “you” (laksyartha):
        • Pure consciousness (suddham caitanya) which is free from jiva-upadhi.
    • Tat (Cause of Universe / Ishvara):
      1. Immediate/direct meaning of Ishvara (vacyartha):
        • All-knowledge, all-capacity. Also an upadhi (that which depends on consciousness, and makes it appear as the universe or forms and laws).
      2. Intended/implied meaning of Ishvara (laksyartha):
        • Pure consciousness (suddham caitanya) which is free from maya-upadhi.
        • Suppose Ishvara were to manifest in a form. Both you (limited knowledge) and Ishvara (limitless knowledge), upon being asked to identify yourselves, start your sentences with “I am ___”. The “I am” refers to the pure consciousness.
    • Wave & ocean has difference in size. But sameness is in content. At level of H2O, can’t say wave is part of the Ocean. “Part of ocean” is statement of avidya. The wave with firm knowledge says, “I am the Ocean”, but behind those words, what's meant is, “I, the H2O, am truth on which wave and Ocean exist”.
    • Above verse is classic example of why scriptures need a guru to be truly effective. Both bring out the deeper meanings of seemingly contradictory statements, and correct non-sensical notions such as:
      • Meaning of “You are That”.
      • Showing turiya (4th) is not a state, but that which is DIFFERENT FROM waking/dream/sleep, which is pure consciousness.
      • Don't call Vedanta “intellectual knowledge”, as knowing anything at first involves use of your intellectual capacity. 
      • Atma is always direct knowledge (aparoksha-jnanam), as one's existence is self-evident.
      • Don't say “I know Brahman intellectually, but I'm not experiencing it, because you're always experiencing Brahman as “I know that I am”.


  1. In the first verse above, the seeker strongly disagreed to jiva being same as Ishvara. What would the seeker have to believe or understand to raise the objection out of so much emotion?
  2. How would you resolve the objection raised?

Extra Resources:


Credit for help in Tattva Bodha to [1] Chinmaya Mission's Swami Advayananda, [2] Arsha Vidya's Swami Dayananda, [3] Neema Majmudar.

Recorded 17 Dec, 2023

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