A Unique Interpretation of Tat Tvam Asi

( – A Unique Interpretation of Tat Tvam Asi

by Satyanarayana Dasa

In the first anuccheda of Prīti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī begins establishing love for Bhagavān, prīti, as the ultimate goal of human life, puruṣārtha. During the course of his explanation, he remarks that the famous mahāvākya (great statement) tat tvam asi (You are That) actually hints at the prīti between a jīva and Bhagavān. This is a very unique view of this famous mahāvākya from the Upaniṣad. It is a lengthy anuccheda, so below I present just a few relevant lines from Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s writing followed by my commentary on it.

Translation of Original Text

Similarly, statements such as “You are that” (CHU 6.8.7) should be taken as descriptive of His love, just as it said [about someone who is very intimate] “You are that very person.” Moreover, material dealings are also seen to be centered on love alone. All living beings are striving for love, for the sake of which one even sacrifices one’s life, etc. But being unable to find a suitable object of love, people give it up for unqualified objects. Thus everyone‘s wish is to seek out a suitable object of love. This wish is materialized only in Bhagavān.


In Bhagavat Sandarbha (2-7), it was made clear that Brahman is the qualityless manifestation of Bhagavān. By the intuitive experience of Brahman one certainly becomes liberated, but there is no qualitative experience in this state. Although one is free of any suffering, there is no positive experience of bliss. One loses sense of one’s distinct identity in Brahman like a drop of water falling into the ocean. In actual fact, the drop is never lost, but it has no sense of itself as an individual apart from the ocean. Similarly, in the state of Brahman realization, there is no loss of one’s identity yet there is no scope for reciprocation between the jīva and Brahman. This is so because the liberated jīva fully identifies with Brahman. It was therefore concluded in Bhagavat Sandarbha (81) that Brahman is an incomplete and lower manifestation of the Absolute. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī thus here emphasizes again that the direct experience of Brahman as a person, i.e., Bhagavān, is the puruṣārtha.

Having established this, the next very important point, which is also one of the distinctive features of the Gauḍīya school, is that love or prīti is the real puruṣārtha and not merely an experience of Bhagavān. It is only in prīti that Bhagavān reveals Himself. Without prīti no one can know His nature. Therefore, without prīti, even if one sees Bhagavān, that is not very wonderful. People like Śiśupāla and Kaṁsa also saw Kṛṣṇa, but they had no prīti for Him and so could not understand who or what He was. It is a different issue that because of Kṛṣṇa’s greatness, they benefitted from contact with Him, but they could not experience the bliss of having His vision. In reality, they did not even see Kṛṣṇa per se. What they saw was only a māyika covering of Kṛṣṇa. This was described in Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha(106.2): “): “Additionally, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa makes the following statement about Śiśupāla:

ātma-vināśāya bhagavad-asta-cakrāṁśu-mālojjvalam akṣaya-tejaḥ-svarūpaṁ parama-brahma-bhūtam apagata-dveṣādi-doṣo bhagavantam adrākṣīt.

Śiśupāla, having been freed from the defect of envy and other such vices, beheld Bhagavān as the Supreme Brahman, whose form (svarūpa) was of imperishable effulgence, shining brilliantly with a garland of rays from the disc He had cast in order to destroy him. (VP 4.15.15)

According to this assertion, the form of Bhagavān that is displayed to the asuras is not His true form (svarūpa), but a manifestation of māyā. If they do actually see the svarūpa of Bhagavān, their envy is dispelled.”

It is prīti alone that brings an ultimate end to all suffering. If there is no prīti then even a vision of Bhagavān does not help, as seen in the case of Duryodhana. Even after seeing Kṛṣṇa and His virāṭ form, Duryodhana was not convinced about His Godship. He thought that Kṛṣṇa was just a magician. Seeing Him directly did not bring Duryodhana any bliss. He also could not understand the truth about Kṛṣṇa and continued to suffer from his envious nature.

Therefore, the conclusion is that prīti is the highest puruṣārtha and not the experience of Brahman or the vision of Bhagavān. Even mukti devoid of prīti is not the supreme puruṣārtha. Other words like bhaktirati, prema, bhāva, and as we shall see, even mukti or kaivalya, are used in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as synonyms of prīti. This prīti brings an end to all suffering. Without prīti, one cannot have a true experience of Bhagavān or His qualities. It is prīti that reveals Bhagavān along with His nature. Prīti alone reveals His divine attributes, and it does so in accordance with its amount. These are the six characteristics of prīti.

One may raise a doubt here. If prīti is the highest puruṣārtha, then why there is no mention of it in the Upaniṣads, the cream of the Vedas? Why is it that mukti or mokṣa is propagated as the highest puruṣārtha? Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī cites one of the most important statements of the Upaniṣads, one of the four mahā-vākyas of the Advaitavāda Vedāntīs: “You are that” (tat tvam asi). Although there are many mahā-vākyas in the Upaniṣads, Advaitavāda scholars accept only four, one each from the four Veda. These are:

  1. Prajñānaṁ brahma “consciousness is Brahman” (Aitreya Upaniṣad, Rg Veda);
  2. Aham brahmāsmi “I am Brahman” (Bṛhad Araṇyaka UpaniṣadYajur Veda);
  3. Tat tvam asi “You are That” (Chandogya Upaniṣad, Sāma Veda);
  4. Ayam ātmā brahma “This ātmā is Brahman” (Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, Atharva Veda).

Tat tvam asi is a statement made by Āruṇi to his son Śvetaketu while instructing him about the Absolute Reality. The complete sentence is sa ya eṣo’ṇimaitadātmyam idaṁ sarvaṁ, tat satyaṁ, sa ātmā, tat tvam asi śvetaketo iti (Chāndogya Upanisad 6.8.7)

“That which is the subtle essence, all this, has got that as its Self. That is the Truth. That is the Self. You are that, O Śvetaketo.”

Here the jīva and Brahman are equated. The jīva is limited, conditioned, miserable, and ignorant. The Absolute is just the opposite of that. They cannot be one in existence. Different commentators have tried to resolve this inequality. In brief, their explanations are as follows:

  1. The Advaitavāda view of Śaṅkarācārya holds that there is only one Absolute Reality called Brahman. The jīva is nothing but Brahman conditioned or delimited by māyā. When this conditioning is removed, the jīva again becomes Brahman.
  2. The Viśiṣṭa-advaitavāda view of Rāmānujācārya interprets the pronoun tvam as referring to the Brahman who is immanent within the jīva and the pronoun tat as referring to the Brahman, who is the cause of the cosmos. The relation between the jīva and Brahman is said to be that of the qualifier (viśeṣaṇa) and the qualified Reality (viśiṣṭa).
  3. The Dvaitavāda view of Madhvācārya explains that the complete sentence sa ātmā tat tvam asi should in fact be broken down as saḥ ātmā atat tvam asi, meaning, “You are that ātmā, you are not Brahman.” Alternatively, they say that tat tvam asi is to be understood as tasya tvam asi, “You are His,” signifying that the jīva is a servant of Viṣṇu.
  4. The Śuddha-advaitavāda view of Vallabhācārya explains the statement to mean that there is oneness of essential being, but Brahman is the whole whereas the jīva is Its part.
  5. The Dvaita-advaitavāda view of Nimbarkācārya explains that the relation between the jīva and Brahman is one of simultaneous oneness and difference because the jīva is an intrinsic part of Brahman.
  6. The Acintya-bheda-abhedavāda view explains that they are one because jīva is the śakti of Brahman, who is the śaktimān.

Thus we see that primarily there are two explanations. The Advaitavāda followers interpret it as establishing the absolute identity of the jīva and Brahman. The rest of the commentators refute the idea of absolute oneness. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī belongs to the second group. He accepts the oneness but explains that this oneness is not ontological. It is a oneness based in prīti. According to him such a oneness is possible in prīti. A semblance of such oneness can be experienced even by people of limited intelligence and devotional education. When there is intense prīti between two people then they feel a sense of oneness despite being in separate bodies. One can only imagine how close one must feel in true prīti. An example of this is found in the following statement made by Kṛṣṇa:

preyāṁs te’haṁ tvam api ca mama preyasīti pravādas
tvaṁ me prāṇā aham api tavāsmīti hanta pralāpaḥ
tvaṁ me te syām aham iti yat tac ca no sādhu rādhe
vyāhāre nau na hi samucito yuṣmad-asmat-prayogaḥ

There is a rumor that I am your lover and you are my beloved. O Dear, some blabber that you are my vital air and I am yours. O Rādhe, to even say, “You are mine and I am yours” is not proper. In our mutual dealings, to use the first person (“I”) and second person pronouns (“you”) is not at all appropriate. (Alaṅkāra-kaustubha 5.34)

Even in material dealings, it is seen that when a man and woman are in a loving relationship, they consider themselves as one entity. This desire to be one in love is in everybody, including the lower species. Everyone is hankering to find one loving relationship where one can feel a sense of oneness with the object of love. Prīti gives the highest satisfaction. For the sake of prīti, people can sacrifice everything, including their very lives. If liberation were the highest puruṣārtha, then no one would be willing to give up their life for the sake of prīti.

But the prīti found in the material world is not real and does not give ultimate satisfaction. If it were real, one would feel completely satisfied with it because the very nature of prīti is bliss. The reason for this is that the jīva is atomic in size and has very limited happiness in its essential nature. Moreover, in the conditioned state, it identifies with its coverings, which are material. Thus the so-called prīti of material experience is for the covering enlivened by the self. One cannot even truly experience one’s own svarūpa or that of another jīva. Thus material prīti is very limited and temporary. Our desire is for unlimited, unending happiness. That cannot come from another jīva, which is limited and conditioned by avidyā. Therefore, nobody ever really feels satisfied by material prīti. Being dissatisfied with one love objectone looks for another. This search continues until by good fortune one realizes that only Bhagavān is the suitable object of prīti. It is to explain this prīti, unknown to the world, that Śrī Jīva writes Prīti Sandarbha.

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