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Mahavakyas: The Great Contemplations
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The Great Utterances: The Mahavakyas are the Great Sentences of Advaita Vedanta and Jnana Yoga, and are contained in the Upanishads. Maha is Great, and Vakyas are sentences, or utterances for contemplation. They provide perspective and insights that tie the texts together in a cohesive whole. The contemplations on the Mahavakyas also blend well with the practices of yoga meditation, prayer, and mantra, which are companion practices in Yoga. The pinnacle of the wisdom and practices of the ancient sages is contained in the terse twelve verses of the Mandukya Upanishad, which outlines the philosophy and practices of the OM mantra.
These make the wisdom more accessible: Seven Mahavakyas are described below. By focusing on these seven Mahavakyas, the rest of the principles of self-exploration described in Vedanta and the Upanishads are more easily accessible. Included with the descriptions below are suggestions on what to do with these seven Mahavakyas.
Validation in the inner laboratory: To truly understand the meaning of the Mahavakyas it is necessary to practice contemplation and meditation in your own inner laboratory of stillness and silence. It means doing a lot of self observation, including the four functions of mind. You may find it useful to learn both the Sanskrit and the English of the Mahavakyas. They are not practiced as blind faith beliefs, but rather are reflected on, so that their meaning is validated in direct experience.
Start by hearing the insights described: Some methods of contemplation give you a principle, a word, on which to reflect, but give no clues of the insights that will come. For example, if you contemplate on the word Truth, that is very broad, and may have many meanings. It might take a long time to even come to a core principle. Sometimes, in school or elsewhere, you have probably seen a study guide that has a list of questions that also includes the answers, in a Q&A format. With the Mahavakyas, it is somewhat like that, in that the Mahavakyas provide the answers, already written down. You still have to do the contemplations, but the journey is much more direct.
Direct experience, not mere belief: In contemplating the Mahavakyas, it is not a matter of merely accepting that the statements are true. In the oral teachings of the sages, it is said that you should never merely believe what you are told or what you read in a book. Rather, it is suggested that you should check it out for yourself in the inner laboratory of direct experience. It also seems true that, while ultimate oneness is the same for all, there is also a coloring of cultural and religious influences that determine the way in which different people will experience the early, or unfolding stages of insight.
Dig deep in only a few wells: It can appear that exploring only a few sentences, like these seven, is a mere beginning point, and that one must subsequently learn hundreds or thousands of other sentences. This is definitely not the case. Although in academic circles one may do complex intellectual analysis of many scholarly commentaries, comparing and contrasting viewpoints, the seeker of direct experience digs deep into the well of only a few such contemplations. In the monastic traditions of the swami order, a monk may contemplate exclusively on a single Mahavakya or maybe several of them. The practice bears fruit by deeply going into one, or a few, rather than memorizing many, or doing only intellectual analysis of the many.
Over and over and over: The passionately dedicated practitioner will contemplate on one or more of the Mahavakyas repeatedly, often, over a long period of time. Mind gradually comes to have a greater understanding, and then becomes still as the contemplation shifts from an observing, reflective process into a deep contemplative meditation. Reflection transforms into insight, which again transforms into the direct experience of the underlying truth or reality of the Mahavakya.
Companion practices: In the oral tradition of the Himalayan sages, the Yoga Sutras, Vedanta, and internal Tantra are companions on the journey to Self-Realization. The practices of the Yoga Sutras stabilize and clear the clouded mind. The Vedanta practices form a philosophical basis and means for discovering the underlying unity of the different aspects of our being. Internal Tantra provides the means for awakening the spiritual energy, so that the absolute, unchanging reality at our core is realized.
Mahavakyas are at the heart of Vedanta: These seven principles below are practices at the heart of the Vedanta part of the triad. Actually, all of these emerged out of the one source of teachings, and now appear to be three separate practices. The higher understanding and direct experience comes from person-to-person listening (written and oral), followed by deep reflection, contemplation, and deep contemplative meditation.
Advaita or Non-Dual Reality: It is popular to speak of Advaita as if it were a brand name of spirituality. It is not. Advaita is exactly what it says, Advaita, which means non-duality, not-two. If this little planet were to fall into the sun and burn up, there would no longer be any religionists or philosophers, but that which truly "is" still "is." Advaita is exactly what it says it is, Advaita, not-two, which stands alone. Any suggestion that there are things such as Hindu Advaita or Buddhist Advaita or Anything-Else Advaita are games of the mind. To transcend all of the levels of false identity so as to "Be" that Reality of Advaita is the Knowledge or Jnana that is sought. It is only the most sincere and longing of aspirants who seek and Know this in direct experience. For others, it is merely an arena of philosophical and religious debate. For those who Know, Advaita stands alone.
Who am I? It has become very popular in recent years to criticize the practice of Mahavakyas, suggesting instead that one simply ask "Who am I?" and then reject any response which arises from within (other than "I am That!)? It is commonly suggested that one NOT contemplate any of the phrases such as "Aham Brahmasmi" ("I am Brahman, the Absolute Reality"). Such suggestions to NOT practice Mahavakyas presuppose the incorrect opinion that contemplation on Mahavakyas is only a mere mental process, missing the fact that the Mahavakya leads one to deep silence wherein the reality is experienced directly. Contemplation on the Mahavakyas is not mere chanting of mantras or reprogramming the mind with affirmations as if one were trying to inculcate an alternative belief system. It moves in stages, culminating in the highest of direct experience of the meaning of the Mahavakyas . Contemplation on the Mahavakyas and the question "Who am I?" are not in conflict with one another. Rather, they go hand in hand, in a systematic, unified practice.
Root of the word: The word brahman comes from the root brha or brhi, which means knowledge, expansion, and all-pervasiveness. It is that existence which alone exists, and in which there is the appearance of the entire universe.
Not subject to change: Brahman means the absolute reality, that which is eternal, and not subject to death, decay, or decomposition. In English, we speak of omnipresence or oneness. This is the principle of the word brahman.
Not a proper name: Brahman is not a proper name, but a Sanskrit word that denotes that oneness, the non-dual reality, the substratum underneath all of the many names and forms of the universe. Brahman is somewhat like the difference between the word ocean, and the specific ocean called Pacific Ocean. The word brahman is like ocean, not Pacific Ocean. Brahman is not a name of God. These contemplations neither promote nor oppose any particular religious concept of God.
Immanance and transcendence: One may also choose to think of brahman in theological terms, though that is not necessary. Within that perspective, the scholars speak of two principles: immanence and transcendence. Immanence is described as the divinity existing in, and extending into all parts of the created world. In that sense, the Mahavakyas can be read as suggesting there is no object that does not contain, or is not part of that creation.
It's really indescribable, as it is beyond form: However one chooses to hold the word brahman, it is very useful to remember that brahman is often described as indescribable. For convenience sake, it is said that brahman is the nature of existence, consciousness, and bliss, though admitting that these words, too, are inadequate.
Seek direct experience: The real meaning comes only in direct experience resulting from contemplation and yoga meditation.
Brahman is real: The way in which brahman is real is like saying that the clay in a pot is real, or the gold in a bracelet is real (metaphorically speaking). The idea is that first there was clay and gold, and when those changed form, there now appears to be a pot and a bracelet.
The world is unreal: However, when the pot is broken, or the bracelet is melted, there is once again only clay and gold. It is in that sense that the pot and the bracelet are not real; they come and go from manifestation. They are not as real as are the clay and the gold. (Remember that these are metaphors, and that obviously, we could also say that clay and gold also come and go, such as when planets are born and die from the nuclear fire of suns. Also, note that using the English words real and unreal for the Sanskrit words satyam and mithya, are not perfect, but they are the best we have to work with.)
Something is more real than the temporary: In saying that the world is unreal, it means to say that literally everything we experience in the external world is, like the pot and the bracelet, in a process of coming, being, and going (so too with all of the objects of the subtle realm). If the Mahavakya stopped there, this might appear to be a negative, or depressing comment. But it does not stop there. It makes the added comment that this absolute reality is, in a sense, more real than the temporary appearances.
Two points: Thus, the Mahavakya does two major things:
An invitation to know: In these reminders there is an invitation to come to know, in direct experience, the existence, consciousness, and bliss that is this eternal essence of our being.
Don't stop living in the world: When practicing contemplation with this, and the other Mahavakyas, it is important to not allow the reflection that the world is unreal to stop you from doing your actions in the external world. To think that the world is unreal, and therefore we need not do anything is a grave mistake. The realization of the unreality of the world and the reality of the essence behind the world brings freedom, not bondage or lethargy.
The different Mahavakyas work together: In practice, the Mahavakyas work together. This becomes evident by exploring the others, such as the ones that follow below.
No object is truly independent: As our attention goes from object to object, image to image, we keep finding that those objects and images are only relatively real (as discussed above). Gradually, we come to see that no object exists independently from brahman, the whole. Hence, it is said there is one, without a second. Wherever we look, whatever we think or feel, try as we will, we can find no second object or part. Everything is seen as a manifestation of something else.
The objects are made of the same stuff: To speak of one, without a second, is like thinking of thousands of pots or bracelets made from clay or gold. As you look at each of the pots and bracelets, one at a time, you conclude that this pot, and this bracelet is not separate from the whole field of clay and gold. Suddenly you come to the insight that there is not a single pot that is separate from clay, and there is not a single bracelet separate from gold. In other words, you see that there is one field, without a second object, or simply stated, there is one, without a second.
Once again, this can also be viewed in a theological way, wherein immanence (versus transcendence) means the divinity existing in, and extending into all parts all parts of the created world. Thus, there is no object that does not contain, or is not part of that creation.
Knowledge out of which other knowledge arises: There are many types of knowledge one can attain. However, they all stem from, or are a part of, a higher knowledge. There is one exception, and that is the absolute knowledge, which is the highest. It is called absolute because it is not stemming from something else. Supreme knowledge is the ground out of which the diversity of knowledge and experience grows. The plant, though appearing separate, is made of the stuff of the ground.
Many metaphors for higher knowledge: It is just about impossible to write words describing this notion of supreme knowledge, which is part of the reason that there are so many different descriptions given by many people. Thus, we use metaphor after metaphor trying to capture and communicate the essence of the meaning. This Mahavakya is saying that as you climb the ladder of knowledge, this higher knowledge is to be found at the level of brahman, the oneness of universal consciousness.
Reflect on lower knowledge to find the higher: Reflecting on lower knowledge might give some idea. The knowledge of how to ride a bicycle is a form of knowledge, but it is based on the higher knowledge of how to move your body. The knowledge of complex mathematics is based on the higher, more foundational, prerequisite knowledge that allows the thinking process itself. When you see a person that you recognize as your friend, there was first an ability to see and conceptualize, which is a higher knowledge.
Find the foundation: Intuitively, you come to see that there is consciousness, or whatever term you would like to use, that is higher, more foundational, or prerequisite to the lower knowledge in all of its other forms. The highest rung of the ladder is called supreme knowledge, prajna, and this is said to be one and the same with brahman, the oneness.
Knowing is not mere intellectualizing: It is extremely important to note here, that this is not a process of intellectualizing. Knowledge refers to knowing or awareness, not just a linear, cognitive thinking process. The knowledge here, is more like the knowledge of recognizing an object as a tree, than the process of adding up a list of numbers. There is simply no more straightforward way of saying it, than to say it is a matter of knowing the tree.
Knowing applies to both head and heart people: Also, it is not that some people are intellectual, or head people, while others are emotional, or heart people. While these differences between people might be real, this Mahavakya is talking about a universal principle that applies to all people. The practices themselves are applicable to all people, whether inclined towards the head or the heart, though different people will quite naturally have different experiences leading to the same ultimate realizations.
That is what YOU are: This Mahavakya is stated as if one person is speaking to the other, saying, "That is what you are!" when referring to brahman. The person speaking is the teacher, and person being spoken to is the student.
It is YOU at the deepest level: Imagine that the teacher has explained to you all of the above Mahavakyas, that you had reflected on these, and that you started to have some sense of the meaning of the oneness called brahman. Imagine that the teacher then pointed a finger at you and explained, "That brahman, that oneness, is who you really are, at the deepest level of your being!" It is like telling a wave in the ocean that it IS the ocean.
You are the person underneath the personality: Often, we hold on to our personal identities, such as being from this or that family, organization, or country. We take on the identity of our roles in our jobs or in our families, such as father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter. Or, we come to believe that who we are, is our personality traits that have developed through living. We forget our true nature, that is underneath all of these only relative identities.
We continue our duties, holding identities loosely: The realization of this Mahavakya, Tat tvam asi, leads us to see that the relative identities are not who we really are. It does not mean that we drop our duties in the world, or stop acting in service of other people because of this realization. Rather, we become ever more free to hold those identities loosely, while increasingly being able to act in the loving service of others, independent of attachment to our false identities.
The wave and the ocean are one: Is the wave separate from the ocean? Not really, but sometimes we lose sight of that. Imagine that you are standing by the ocean, watching the vastness of the ocean. Imagine that a really big wave starts to come ashore, and that your attention comes to this one wave. You intently notice it, becoming absorbed in the crashing of the surf, and the feel of the salt spray. In that moment, you are only aware of the immensity of this one wave. The ocean itself is forgotten during that time. Then, an instant later, you recall with an inner "Aha!", that the wave and the ocean are one and the same.
It is like saying that atman is a wave, and brahman is the ocean. The insight of Ayam atma brahma is that the wave and the ocean are one and the same.
Atman seems to be here, and brahman there: Notice how the statement Ayam atma brahma (Atman and Brahman are the same) is framed as if you are a separate observer of both Atman and Brahman. It is like standing at the beach, looking out at both the wave and the ocean, and declaring that the wave an the ocean are one. You are observing from a witnessing stance, outside of both of them . Notice how this perspective contrasts with Aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman), which declares that "I am!", an inner experience, rather than from an observing standpoint (like being on the beach).
Different perspectives for the underlying reality: In this way, each of the Mahavakyas gives a different perspective of the same underlying Reality. Gradually, they are seen as mirror reflections of the same Absolute Reality. That integrated flash of insight touches on the true meaning of the word brahman. It is like gaining different points of view from different viewing points. Together, they converge in a complete understanding.
If a gold bracelet could speak: Imagine two possibilities of what a gold bracelet might say, if it could speak. It might say one of these two things:
Bracelet is temporary: Which is more true, more everlasting? We might be tempted to say that #1 is more accurate, in that bracelet seems more encompassing, being both bracelet and gold at the same time. However, the bracelet aspect is not eternal. It is temporary. It is only a matter of the particular shape in which the gold was molded. Is bracelet what it really is?
Gold is everlasting: What is always true, is #2, that "I am gold," everlasting, ever pure, and not subject to death, decay, and decomposition. (One might argue that gold is not everlasting either, but in the metaphor, gold is being only used as an example.)
Bracelet is gold; I am gold: Note that this metaphor may sound similar to the ones above, regarding the impermanence of a bracelet and the permanence of the gold (metaphorically speaking). This is not the case. The realization that, "I am gold!" or "I am brahman!" is an internal experience compared to the statement, "The bracelet is gold!" (which sounds like the bracelet over there). The two insights are separate, though they also come to be the same.
Similarly, it is very different to realize, in direct experience, "I am brahman!" than one of the statements such as, "Brahman alone is real!":
Truth comes in the stillness of intuitive flash: The truth of a Mahavakya comes through intuitive flash, that is progressively deeper as one practices. It is not merely an intellectual process, as it might appear to be by explaining the gold metaphor. The metaphors are used as a means of explaining the principle, but this is not the end of the process. In a sense, such explanations are only the beginning of the process. The key is in the still, silent reflection in the inner workshop of contemplation and yoga meditation.
After thinking, let go into contemplative insight:The initial insights come somewhat like the creative process when you are trying to solve some problem in daily life. You think and think, and then finally let go into silence. Then, suddenly, the creative idea just pops out, giving you the solution to your problem. The contemplation on the Mahavakyas is somewhat like that at first. Later, it goes into deeper meditation.
Insight comes within your own context: One may experience himself or herself as being like the gold or the clay, or like a wave in an ocean of bliss, that realizes the wave is also the ocean. With all these metaphors used only as tools of explanation, the insight of each person will come in the context of their own culture and religion, and will not seem foreign or unnatural. One's religious values are not violated, but rather, are affirmed.
The various insights are revealed: Gradually, one comes to understand and increasingly experience the deeper aspects of the other Mahavakyas (the six described above):
They sing a song together: As one comes to experience the truth of the individual Mahavakyas, it seems they come together in a song, that cries out in joy, "All of this is brahman!" As was said in the beginning, it is a process that comes from person-to-person listening (written and oral), followed by deep reflection, contemplation, and meditation.
Realization comes in stages:
Four of the Mahavakyas above are most traditional to Vedanta. Some 1200 years ago Adi Shankaracharya assigned one Mahavakya to one of four monastic teaching centers or mutts in India.
OM Tat Sat