That thou art or, in Sanskrit, tat twam asi, is a term that has a profound meaning in Hindu philosophy – Advaita Vedanta in particular.
Therefore, though dualists have interpreted it differently, much of this article will focus on the Vedantic (non-dual) understanding of the term.
Tat tvam asi speaks to the non-dual idea of unity and interconnectedness, of the relationship between the individual and the Absolute.
With the concept having heartfelt consequences for yogis and spiritual seekers, it encourages us to recognize the divine nature within ourselves and to realize our inherent connection to the greater picture.
- What is That Thou Art?
- Why is it Important?
- The Tantric Version
- Realizing That Thou Art
What is that thou art?
In the Upanishads, which are the final section of the Vedas, we find what many Vedanta teachers call the highest teachings of the Vedas. These are the basis for the teachings of Vedanta.
Tat tvam asi is one of the Mahāvākyas or ‘great sayings’ of the Upanishads:
- Tat: that (the Absolute/Brahman)
- Tvam: tho/you (the individual self, known in Vedantic thought as the jiva)
- Asi: art/are
- Tat tvam asi: that thou art, or thou art that, or you are that
The seed & the tree
In the Chandogya Upanishad, in an attempt to teach his son about the nature of Brahman, the great sage Uddalaka uses a banyan tree to demonstrate his point to Svetaketu.
Banyan trees, having notoriously small fruits and even smaller seeds, were seen as a perfect lesson to teach Svetaketu the truth – that everyone is one with the nature of existence, that we come from the subtle, unmanifest that is Brahman.He asked his son to bring over a fruit from the tree and break it open, so the seeds were exposed. The sage asked his son what he sees inside the seed and the boy replied ‘nothing’.
This was a teaching on subtle essence, to point to the fact that, though seemingly the seed has nothing inside of it, it was that ‘nothingness’ which gave birth to the entire forest of trees surrounding them.
Similarly, Brahman, as the Ultimate Reality, holds the potential for the entire cosmos.
Summing it up, the father shares ‘That Absolute Reality Thou Art. You are one with it’.
The salt & the water
That thou art means that the individual soul is the same as, or of identical essence with, Brahman.
There is no separation between you and that – ‘that’ is everything we see.
Another lesson sage Uddalaka allowed Svetaketu to experience was the permeation of Brahman through every manifest thing.
Dropping a salt cube into water and asking his son to taste it, Uddalaka showed how one lump of salt saturates the entire pot with its taste. Likewise, ‘the flavor of Brahman permeates all consciousness’.
Building on the last lesson, Brahman, as well as holding the potential for the entire cosmos, also cannot be separated from his manifestation.
That thou art.
To know this is to know that the Atman is the same as Paramatma – that, in the Vedantic philosophy, there is nothing other than Brahman. The universe is seen as a kind of projection of Brahman and is believed to be an illusion veiling the true nature of reality.
The truth is that everything you see is an expression of yourself.
The ground and essence of all you are is not your own (in an individual sense), it’s Brahman; there is nothing and no one other than God that gives being.
Therefore, if one truly experiences the notion of this one short statement, one understands all of Vedanta.
Why is ‘that thou art’ important?
The divinity and truth of reality can get diluted when we try to put it into words. Because of this, it’s important you know what the Upanishads mean when it talks about ‘thou’.
By thou, it doesn’t mean the physical body or the mind. It means the one who knows, the one who is aware of awareness itself – the witness-consciousness.
Not the ego, the one that’s attached, is temporary, or suffers. Not the mind, the one that criticizes, analyses, or overthinks. Not the body, the one that gets bruised, feels tired, or fluctuates.
You are beyond all of this, it teaches.
And thus, in comparison with the ego or the mind, it does not matter whether you accept it, believe it, or even are aware of it. This does not change the fact that tat tvam asi. It’s what you are.
Most of us spend our time feeling so separated from reality, yet it is always here. As the Sufi mystics say, it’s closer to you than your jugular vein.
The implications of this are immense. In the teaching of Alan Watts, it does not mean that you won’t ever feel anxious again, have a bad day, lose your temper, or ‘jump when you hear a bang’.
It means that you will be a human, you’ll be able to think, feel, and live in the world. But you will not be afraid to be human, you won’t be afraid of participating in the ‘pains, difficulties, and struggles that naturally go with human existence’.
You will see that all life is one, a dance of energy and thus, there is nothing to be afraid of. Your ego will be afraid, but your Self will not.
The Tantric ‘version’
One difference is that Tantrikas don’t have the Vedantic equivalent of Brahman, understanding the Absolute very differently, and so, their version of ‘thou art that’ is slightly different. In the words of the revered Tantric Master, Abhinavagupta:
That [pure unlimited awareness] is the ground upon which all things are established. That is the life-force of the universe. By That the universe lives & breathes, and That alone am I.
Thus what I am is one with everything and yet transcends everything (viśvottīrṇo viśvātmāham)Chapter Four of “The Essence of the Tantras” by the great Master Abhinavagupta, translated by Hareesh Wallis
Though they appear similar, sharing themes of unity and the identity of oneself with the Absolute Reality, their ideas differ on what that reality is.
Tantra posits that this pure unlimited awareness, that alone we are, is dynamic and creative. It’s not an impersonal force that transcends dualities and distinctions (Brahman).
Tantra, in fact, celebrates this diversity and acknowledges that it’s real, not an illusion, as Vedanta asserts.
One of the many teachings of Abhinavagupta on this ‘version’ of that thou art, then, is a yogi must ensure that their viewpoint remains aligned with the true essence of reality.
We must prevent any distance from this reality that could arise from the abundance of misguided teachings in the world that sow seeds of doubts within us – and if he thought there were lots of these during his time, just imagine what he’d think now!
Realizing That Thou Art
I’m sure, especially as yogis, we’ve all asked questions like ‘who am I?’, ‘what’s my purpose here?’, and ‘why am I here?’ in our search for self-realization.
In the quest for self-discovery, we get caught up in the identification of that which surrounds us or, perhaps, that which we think is us. Stories, thoughts, achievements, opinions, and possessions all form part of this search for the self.
What tat tvam asi teaches us is that we are none of these things. We are infinite.
Call it what you like, whether Brahman, God, Dao, or anything else. It’s one infinite energy and, once you know you’re that, you can’t possibly be anything else.
But how do we experience this non-duality, instead of just thinking ‘I like that idea’?
If you dislike meditation, it’s bad news for you (but, if you like it, then it’s great news)! We need to meditate, in some form, to understand that we are beyond the mind and the thoughts, to know that we are, in fact, that.
Meditation allows us to desconstruct our conditioning and move away from identification with the ego through bringing about a shift in our fundamental orientation.
We switch from identifying with the limitations of the individual self, that which we think we are, to recognizing ourselves as infinite, unbounded Consciousness. Meditation brings us to rest in pure awareness.
Of course, we can talk about this all day, but the true gold comes from experiencing this, not just listening to us and taking our word for it.
Yes, you’ll need to purify your mind (a lot), and it might feel that you’re getting nowhere. But just know that with every meditation and moment of silence or mindfulness, no matter how useless it feels, you’re getting closer to knowing the Self.
The contemplation of ‘tat tvam asi’ leads us into a deep experience of discovery, one which, Vedantins say, can lead us to know the sheer greatness of our being.
This shift in perspective, understanding that we are infinite and whole, is totally attainable. It’s not just something that we simply have faith in, though this is very useful, of course!
You have the ability to truly experience your true nature and to know that tat tvam asi. Absolutely everybody is capable of realizing their non-dual essence.
I’ve heard awakening, or the understanding that thou art that, being likened to the sun: the sun is always there, yet sometimes it hides behind the clouds. Just because it’s behind the clouds, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
We all have this light within, the ability to truly experience that thou art, not just believe it or think it’s a nice idea.
Hari Om Tat Sat – the manifest and the unmanifest are one. What I perceive through my eyes and what lies beyond my sight are identical, devoid of distinction.
You are the one you seek.
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