About the Verbs in the Mahavakyas

About the verbs in the Mahavakyas


Partha Desikan


All the Vedantacharyas, in particular the founders of the Advaita , Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita doctrines, namely Sri Sankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva relied totally on the three prasthanas, namely the Upanishads, Brahmasutra and the Bhagavadgita and wrote bhashyas on them to convey the import of Vedanta to their followers.


The four famous mahavakyas from the Upanishads have been found by the Acharyavaras to say something significant about the relationship of Brahman to the Jivatmas.

Please allow me to look at these vakyas now through my untutored eyes.


The mahavakyas are, as every Medhavi knows


  • Prajnanam brahma   (Aitareya U. adhyaya 3, khanda 1, mantra 3)
  • Aham brahmaasmi (Brihadaranyaka U. adhyaya 1, brahmana 4, mantra 10)
  • Tattvamasi  (Chandogya U. adhyaya 6, khanda 8, mantra 7)
  • Ayam atma brahma  (Mandukya U. khanda 1, mantra 1-2; also brihadaranyaka U. adhyaya 2, brahmana 5, mantra 19.


Their contexts and the interpretations of the three Acharyas are also very well known. I do not need to repeat them. Let me look at the texts from the angle of a curious child and see whether I get a new slant.


It is interesting to me that no verb words have been used in the first and the fourth mahavakyas. The second one has the first person singular verb asmi suiting the subject aham and the third has the second person singular verb asi, suiting the subject tvam. The other pronoun Tat obviously is not the subject of asi, just as the noun brahma is not the subject of asmi.

The vakyas are not brahma aham/madadvitiyam asti or tat tvam/tvadadvitiyam asti. Since by aham and tvam, the upanishadic revelations obviously refer to a human soul, call it Jivatma, this kind of selectivity in the choice of verbs suggests what the vakyas really mean.


The vakyas can mean that a Jivatma is brahman. They can not mean that brahman is a Jivatma. It is this subtle difference that differentiates the non-different.


In chapter 4 of the Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna informs Arjuna that both of them have had several janmas. Yet while the former voluntarily took the Janmas, the other had to go through the Janmas. Krishna knew his identity all along in every avatara, which he chooses to call janma. Arjuna had no possibility of such memory in his janmas.


When the Aitareya equates prajnanam with brahma, there is no need for a verb. No number or gender is relevant. No present or past is binding. The equation applies even before all creation.


When the first ever evidence of creation in the infinitesimal initial note of pranava appeared, it is a sound, a nama beyond the rupa or svabhava of Brahman. There was nothing else. Mandukya should have no difficulty in equating it totally with its immediate predecessor, namely brahman. No verb is called for. Ayam atma (pranava) brahma indeed!


Similarly in the Brihadaranyaka description of a Devatatma, Indra, with his own leela, and therfore to be understood as brahman, voluntarily takes on myriad forms which should all be understood as brahman only. There is complete equivalence and a verb will be superfluous. In the Krishnarjunasamvada we mentioned, Krishna’s leela binds the Jiva and makes it go through several janmas. Krishna’s leela also gives Krishna the freedom to come down again and again as an avatara, not just any blind janma!


The Jiva too is ‘free’ to do sadhana and pursue different margas to really free itself and attain mukti.


Because the non different are subtly different except before creation, and glaringly so in forms during the baddha stage of the Jivas, all Acharyas understood the significance of devotion of Jivas to the parama soul which is never really away from any Jiva, significance also of unconditional surrender to it, apart from pure, sublime seeking, in meditative, contemplative quest of truth. The founder of Advaita suggests singing of Gita and Vishnusahasranama, meditation on any rupa of Hari, staying in the company of saintly people and giving away material assets to the needy. Those Acharyas who recognize Hari as the advitiya parama soul, naturally also suggest bhakti and sharanagati to Hari and service to humanity seeing Narayana in all his sentient creation.

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