Imagine a French press coffee maker. Now imagine filling the coffee maker spoon by spoon with coffee, or, for the sake of this text, with over 100,000 verses of the Vedas. Pour in some hot water of knowledge and let the verses float in it. Then, slowly but surely, press down the plunger as a means of realization. What you will find on the bottom of the French press is a condensed revelation, filtered through all spiritual practices you ever did. The revelation you received is literally a “Great Statement“, or translated in Sanskrit: a Mahāvākya.
When Shankarāchārya systematized the Vedas he went through a similar, yet less abbreviated process, and filtered out four Mahāvākyas, among others, from the Vedic scriptures, one for each of the main Vedic texts. Two of the Great Statements have gained special attention over the centuries and have been cited a myriad of times as the essential teachings of the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian thought, of which Shankarāchārya is a renowned proponent.
He lived in Southern India around 800 CE as a philosopher and teacher, and the Mahāvākya tat vam asi reflects this. It is an upadeśa vākya, a teaching statement, that is given in the Chandogya Upanishad by a teacher and father (Uddalaka) to his disciple and son (Svetaketu). The father also shares different analogies that explain why I (the Jiv-Atman, the Self) am the same as Brahman, the Absolute Reality. Just as the Bees collect nectar from different flowers, he says, to then bring the nectar to the hive where it is mixed with all the nectars from all the bees and can’t be distinguished, we carry an essence in us that is indistinguishable from each other’s essence. “You are that (essence), my son, Svetaketu.“
The other Mahāvākya, or great statement, is an anubhava vākya: a statement of experience from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. Aham Brahmasmi translates to ‘I am Brahman’. This statement points towards a very intimate, personal realization, which one can only experience alone. Words or thoughts do not suffice to describe the ineffable truth it holds.
Both statements pinpoint the underlying principle of oneness and the understanding of Vedic thought, that the personal Self (Atman), and the universal principle (Brahman), are essentially one and the same changeless reality.
In opposition to that, we as humans love to indulge in otherness, sometimes even to the extent to include separation and alienation into societal rules and ethical codes. But humans (and non-human animals!, and plants!) might look different, live differently, talk differently, think differently, and believe differently, yet the essence upon which we construe our illusory self, which we then call our personality, is of no such difference.
Even more so, the ‘roots’ we often refer to as our foundational argument for who we are, for example, in terms of gender, ethnicity or country affiliation, are, if we expose those ‘roots’ to the analytical concepts of Vedantic reasoning, a cover-up of our true nature.
Lifting the veil of the blinding and numbing addiction to separational thinking uncovers the Absolute Reality, the divine Brahman.
Brahman is our primordial commonality, the material (sat) and the sentient (cit) cause of our existence and it is sustained by and appears to us as infinite bliss (ānanda). The process of realizing this comes across as a paradox: praptasya praptih – “attaining that, which is already there”. It is like incessantly searching for your keys in your apartment although they’ve been in your pants pocket all along. They were never lost.
Yet, by realizing sat-cit-ānanda, the sorrow associated with otherness, limitation and finitude disappears and I, the Jivatman, am given the opportunity to act accordingly in our world: from a place of true happiness, with compassion and love, grounded in and empowered by the oneness we all share.