Exegesis of mahAvAkya-s - I

Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian ramakris at EROLS.COM
Wed Jun 28 21:40:56 CDT 2000

What are the mahAvAkya-s ?

mahAvAkya-s or great-sentences succinctly state the
pAramArthika tattva, namely the unity of Atman and brahman.
Their greatness arises from the fact that they are capable of
destroying avidyA by themselves (with no other aid) in the
qualified persons. Thus in the pai.ngala upanishhad 3.1 we
have: sa-hovAcha-yAGYavalkyaH-tat-tvaM asi, tvaM tad-asi, ...
anusandhAnaM kuryAt.h - that yAGYavalka said, "That thou art,
Thou that art, ... should be deeply reflected upon".

The pa.ncIkaraNa (19) says the mahAvAkya-s are four in number
as does the shuka-rahasya-upanishhad (12). This upanishhad
declares: atha-mahAvAkyAni chatvAri, yathA praGYAnaM brahma,
aham brahmAsmi, tattvamasi, ayamAtma brahma - The mahAvAykyas
are four, they are 'brahman is consciousness', 'I am brahman',
'That thou art' and 'This Atma is brahman'. In the order
stated above, they are to be found in chhAndogya 6.8.7,
bR^ihadAraNayaka 1.4.10, aitareya 5.3 and mANDUkya 1.2. These
upanishhad-s belong to the R^ig, shukla-yajus, sAma and
athavaNa veda-s respectively. Thus, the number of mahAvAkya-s
is the same as the number of veda-s. It is interesting to note
that except praGYAnam brahma, the rest equate the Atman and
brahman directly.

The four mahAvAkya-s and their variants are to be found in
other upanishhads also. For example, the aghamarshhaNa sUktam
in the mahAnArAyaNa upanishhad (kR^ishhNa yajur-veda) states
aham-asmi-brahma-aham-asmi. The kaivalya upanishhad (kR^ishhNa
yajur veda) states tat-tvam-asi-tvam-eva-tat.h.
sha.nkarAchArya and his followers usually take tat-tvam-asi as
the paradigmatic mahAvAkya. But, it should not be forgotten
that the same kind of exegesis can be applied to the other
mahAvAkya-s also.

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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