The Essence of Vedanta: Swami Vivekananda’s Explanation of the Mahāvākyas

— Swami Vireshananda —

Swami Vivekananda says that what Vedanta formulates is not ‘universal brotherhood’ but ‘universal oneness’. He also asserts that Vedanta is not antagonistic to anything, but it does not compromise or give up the truths which it considers fundamental.[1]

The above statement gains importance in the present context in which ‘universal brotherhood’ is much stressed in religious and philosophical circles, but not ‘universal oneness’. This is because of the ignorance of the spiritual truths of the ‘oneness of existence’ and ‘eternal freedom of the soul’ preached by the Vedanta, which alone can bring about the genuine sense of equality, the heart and soul of true universal brotherhood. This deficiency is the cause of increasing conflicts and widening disparities that we are witnessing today between the people belonging to various races, religions, and nationalities. It is happening despite the extraordinary achievement in science and technology, which has transformed this world into a ‘global village’. The all-time relevance of Vedanta in human history lies in its teaching of an ageless solution to the problems humanity is facing; such a panacea, without being restricted to any nation or creed, is universal and all-embracing in nature.

Tradition says that the essence of Vedanta is enshrined in the four Mahāvākyas or Great Sayings, each culled from an Upanishad correspondingly belonging to Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharvana Veda. The purport of each Mahāvākya is the same, that is, to declare in unambiguous terms, the identity between the Individual Self (Jīva) and the Cosmic Self (Īśwara) which are but different manifestations of the same universal Consciousness called Brahman or Atman. These Mahāvākyas have immense spiritual and philosophical significance in the Vedanta.

Vivekananda literature is a contemporary interpretation of the great truths of Vedanta, fully equipped to address the problems of modern society.

One of the outstanding contributions of Swamiji to the Vedantic realm is his illuminating interpretation of these great sayings as effective summaries of Vedanta, universal spiritual dimension of which, he presented before the world. His original explanations of these great sayings, scattered throughout his lectures and conversations, convey the real spirit and intention of the great Upanishadic sages, who taught them from the highest pedestal of realisation of oneness with the all-pervading universal Consciousness. These explanations do not always appear in specific discussions on the Mahāvākyas per se but these are explanations of the message that is contained in the Mahāvākyas. Swamiji, being a modern seer, could identify himself with those illumined souls of the bygone era more intimately than the orthodox interpreters, who dwelt mainly upon the polemic and technical details while interpreting these great sayings.

Prajñānam Brahma

This Mahāvākya is found in the Aitareya Upanishad. The context is the deliberation of certain Brahmins, desirous of liberation through Self-knowledge. The question before them was: ‘Who is He whom we worship, thinking: “This is this Self (Atman)”?’ In the end of their discussion, they discovered that everything in this universe is guided by Consciousness (Prajñānam), and is supported by Consciousness. The basis of the universe is Consciousness. Consciousness is Brahman.[2]

Swamiji interprets this great statement in terms of evolution. Everything in nature rises from some fine seed-forms, becomes grosser and grosser and again goes back to the original fine form. He says: ‘Where it begins, there it ends. What is the end of this universe? Intelligence.’[3]

The human history is the history of Nature; the history of Life. The human history is one life and the human being is one of the links of that history. The various plants, lower animals, and beasts are also links. The entire series is ‘one life’. The last to come in this process of creation is intelligence. Hence it must also be the cause of the beginning of the creation.

Wherever there is an evolution, there must be an involution. Also, the sum total of the intelligence manifested in the universe is the same as that of involved universal Intelligence at the end of creation. Hence the creation of the universe is but an unfolding of Intelligence from involved state to manifested state. This universal Intelligence is what we call as God, from which we come and to which we return.

This doctrine of monism is the basis of ethics. Here we get the idea that the entire universe is one unit, a whole composed of various parts, as it were. But the parts are only an appearance. Swamiji asserts that, as a reality, ‘we are one’. The basis of ethics lies in discovering this idea of oneness with the whole. Says Swamiji: ‘The more we think ourselves separate from this whole, the more miserable we become’ (5.257).

Swamiji explains this great saying from a psychological viewpoint also. In Raja Yoga, he says that the ‘universe is the occasion of the reaction of the mind’ (1.201). In this connection, he quotes from John Stuart Mill, who gives a definition of matter as ‘permanent possibility of sensation’. Now it is clear that the real man is not the mind. Then who is the Real Man? Swamiji says that the real man is one who is behind the mind: ‘… the mind is the instrument in his hands. It is his intelligence that is percolating through the mind’ (1.202).

In Vedanta, the word ‘chit’ denotes both consciousness and knowledge. Swamiji explains that Veda means knowledge. All knowledge is Veda, infinite as God is infinite. Nobody ever creates knowledge. It is always there, because it is God himself. All this knowledge is God himself.

What is the practicality of the above teaching? Swamiji says: ‘With God, every knowledge is sacred; knowledge is God. Infinite knowledge abides within everyone in the fullest measure. You are not ignorant, though you may appear to be so’ (8.137).

Aham Brahmāsmi

This Mahāvākya is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The context is the seeking of Brahman by some aspirants who were disgusted with the transitory world and were longing to attain the highest good. They deliberated: ‘Since men think that by the Knowledge of Brahman, they become all, what, pray, was it that Brahman knew by which It became all?’[4] They found the answer. Brahman knew only itself, its own natural Self. How did it know itself? As ‘I am Brahman’, the Self, that is the seer of the sight. Knowing his own nature thus, Brahman became all (ibid., I.iv.10).

A disciple asked a question to Swamiji: ‘Pray, Swamiji, if the One Brahman is the only Reality, why then exists all this differentiation in the world?’ To this Swamiji replied: ‘Are you not considering this question from the point of view of phenomenal existence? Looking from the phenomenal side of existence, one can, through reasoning and discrimination, gradually arrive at the very root of Unity.’[5]

This root of unity is our own Self. Swamiji says in unambiguous terms: ‘What does the Advaitist preach? He dethrones all the gods that ever existed, or ever will exist in the universe and places on that throne the Self of man, the Atman, higher than the sun and the moon, higher than the heavens, greater than this great universe itself’ (2.250). According to him, the Self is the most glorious God that ever was, the only God that ever existed, exists, and ever will exist.

Swamiji says that all kinds of weakness is the offshoot of ignorance of this glory of the Self. After a failed attempt to discover the divinity in various gods outside of himself, a man comes back to the Human Soul, the point from where he started. And, there, he finds the God whom he was searching for.

What is the practical implication of such a teaching? One who discovers the divinity within himself says with full faith: ‘I am omnipresent, eternal. Where can I go? Where am I not already? I am reading this book of nature… To whom shall I go for help? Who can help me, the Infinite Being of the universe? These are foolish dreams, hallucinations; who ever helped anyone? None. … I am He, and He is I. None but I was God, and this little I never existed’ (2.249–51).

Swamiji, in concurrence with the Vedantic scriptures, condemns every kind of weakness as the result of dualistic ideas. It is a weak man, a dualist, weeping and wailing, who does not know that the skies also are in him. ‘He wants help from the skies, and the help comes. We see that it comes; but it comes from within himself, and he mistakes it as coming from without (ibid.).

Swamiji shows this inclination towards the impersonal ideal even in the movement that he founded. He says to Sister Nivedita that the function of the movement is to find common bases of Hinduism and awaken the national consciousness. He also reveals the impersonal nature of his movement when he says: ‘I have never preached personalities. … Inspiration is not filtered out to the world through one channel, however great. Each generation should be inspired afresh. Are we not all God?’ (5.227).

Tat Tvam Asi

This Mahāvākya occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad. Aruni, a great sage, teaches his son Shvetaketu that Brahman is the ultimate source of all the individual beings. Then he put the very essence of his teaching in the following words: ‘Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its Self. That is the truth. That is the Self. Thou art That, Shvetaketu!’[6]

Swamiji in his lecture ‘The Free Soul’, has put forward the Vedantic position on the Nature and the Soul scientifically. The Sankhya philosophy says that there are two absolutes: Nature and Spirit. However, the Vedantists argue that there cannot be two absolutes. According to them, the sentient power (God) is the motive power of insentient Nature which undergoes modification.

Also, Vedanta teaches that God is not just the instrumental cause of this universe, but also the material cause. That means, it is God himself, who has become this universe. Then, what about the individual souls that are sentient? One explanation is that souls are also part of God. Swamiji scorns at this idea: ‘What is meant by a part of the Infinite? The Infinite is indivisible; there cannot be parts of the Infinite.’[7] He further declares that only the Advaitist solves this problem, by maintaining that each soul is really not a part of the Infinite, but actually is the Infinite Brahman. The appearance of division that we find in this material world is only a delusion caused by limitations of Time, Space, and Causation.

Swamiji calls upon humanity to understand the above truth and discover the divinity within: ‘There is but one Infinite Being in the Universe, and that being appears as you and I’ (3.8). Standing on the highest plinth of Advaitic realisation, he declares in glowing terms:

When I look at Him from a little higher plane, yet through the same network, I see Him as an animal, a little higher as a man, a little higher as a god, but yet He is the One Infinite Being of the universe, and that Being we are. I am That, and you are That. Not parts of It, but the whole of It. … It is the Eternal Knower standing behind the whole phenomena; He Himself is the phenomena. … He is both the subject and the object, He is the ‘I’ and the ‘You’ (ibid.).

Swamiji enters into a similar discussion in his lecture, ‘Steps of Hindu Philosophical Thought’. The dualistic schools of Vedanta are of the opinion that the universe comprises the eternal God and the infinite number of souls. Swamiji counters this with the following argument: 1. The effect is nothing but the cause in another form; 2. If the universe is the effect, God is the cause; 3. So, it is safe to say that it is God Himself who has become this universe; 4. Then everything is God.

Regarding the individual souls, an Advaitist says that in reality, there is no Jīva at all since the very idea of the universe is an illusion, a dream. But a dream cannot be without a reality, and that reality is the one Infinite Existence. The Jīva is but a reflection of this Reality. It is God who is being reflected in all these different Jīvas.

Swamiji exhorts people with the ever-inspiring message of Vedanta:

You, as body, mind, or soul, are a dream, but what you really are, is Existence, Knowledge, Bliss. You are the God of this universe. You are creating the whole universe and drawing it in. Thus says the Advaitist. So all these births and rebirths, coming and going are the figments of Mâyâ. You are infinite. Where can you go? The sun, the moon, and the whole universe are but drops in your transcendent nature. How can you be born or die?’ (1.403).

We find another instance of this great saying in Swamiji’s famous lecture, ‘The Real and Apparent Man’. One of the questions that Swamiji raises in this lecture is ‘what becomes after the realisation of oneness with the universe?’ He lucidly explains the characteristics of such an illumined soul. It is this realisation, in which a man finds that the object of his love is not a clod of earth, but it is the veritable God himself. ‘Such a man becomes a world-mover for whom his little Self is dead and God stands in its place’ (2.286).

When more and more people realise this truth, a reign of peace will dawn on the earth and the universe will then be a playground. Then no one will look down on another. Instead of throwing hatred, jealousy, and evil thought, people will think ‘it is all He’. Swamiji says that this is the great utility of divine realisation.

Swamiji further says that these thoughts were worked out amongst individuals in India in ancient times. They are the common property of the saint and the sinner, of men and women and children, of the learned and of the ignorant. Swamiji prophesies that these thoughts will be broadcast over the whole world:

They will then permeate the atmosphere of the world, and the very air that we breathe will say with every one of its pulsations, ‘Thou art That’. And the whole universe with its myriads of suns and moons, through everything that speaks, with one voice will say, ‘Thou art That’ (2.288).

Ayamātmā Brahma

This Mahāvākya is found in the Mandukya Upanishad. Diversified objects, designated by names, constitute the universe. The objects are not different from their respective names. Further, they are not different from sounds. ‘Aum’ contains all sounds. An entity can be known by the means of the name; the Supreme Brahman is known through the means of ‘Aum’. Therefore, the Supreme Brahman is ‘Aum’. The Upanishad declares that ‘All this is surely Brahman. The Self is Brahman.’[8]

Swamiji explains this great statement in this manner: Vedanta teaches that man is bound by his five senses. But, why should the soul take to itself a body? As one can see one’s own reflection in the looking glass, the soul is reflected in the body. The soul itself is God; and every human being has a perfect divinity within himself, and each must show his divinity sooner or later. The message of Vedanta is this:

Call forth your soul, show your divinity. Teach your children that they are divine, that religion is a positive something and not a negative nonsense; that it is not subjection to groans when under oppression, but expansion and manifestation.[9]

In his lecture ‘Steps to Realisation’, Swamiji says that God cannot be seen as He is beyond the senses, beyond our (empirical) consciousness. Then, one has to transcend the field of consciousness, go beyond the senses and approach nearer and nearer to one’s own centre. Swamiji assures that as we do that, we will approach nearer and nearer to God. The reason is, as the great saying declares, our own Self itself is Brahman, the real God.

In his conversation with Sharat Chandra Chakravarty, Swamji clearly brings about the import of the Mahavakya ‘This Atman is Brahman’:

The disciple asks Swamji: ‘This is a great dilemma. If I am Brahman, why don’t I always realise it?’ (7.141).

Swamiji, in his reply, says that to attain to that realisation, some instrumentality is required. The mind is that instrument. But, mind, being a non-intelligent substance, only appears to be intelligent through the light of Atman behind it. Therefore, one cannot know the Atman, the essence of intelligence, through the mind. One has to go beyond the mind, that is, a state where the knower, knowledge, and the instrument of knowledge become one and the same. The real fact is that in that state, there is no duality. When the mind is merged, that state is perceived. However, language cannot express that state. Sri Shankaracharya calls this state as Aparokṣānubhūti, Transcendental Perception. Swamiji continues:

Do you see? The sum and substance of it is—you have only got to know that you are Eternal Brahman. You are already that, only the intervention of a non-intelligent mind (which is called Maya in the scriptures) is hiding that knowledge. When the mind composed of subtle matter is quelled, the Atman is effulgent by Its own radiance. One proof of the fact that Maya or mind is an illusion is that the mind by itself is non-intelligent and of the nature of darkness; and it is the light of the Atman behind, that makes it appear as intelligent. When you will understand this, the mind will merge in the unbroken Ocean of Intelligence; then you will realise:—This Atman is Brahman (7.142–43).


Swami Vivekananda has succinctly captured the essence of the Upanishads in his lectures and conversations. They reflect the true spirit of these sacred books, as they have emanated from the mouth of a man of highest realisation just like the sages of the Upanishads. Vivekananda literature is a contemporary interpretation of the great truths of Vedanta, fully equipped to address the problems of modern society. In particular, Swamiji’s explanation of the traditional Mahāvākyas is a testimony to the fact that the age-old Vedantic truths are still the guiding lights for the spiritual evolution of the entire humanity, groping in the darkness of materialism and empiricism.

That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical. Therefore, Swamiji calls upon the whole humanity:

Stand up, men and women, in this spirit, dare to believe in the Truth, dare to practise the Truth! The world requires a few hundred bold men and women. Practise that boldness which dares know the Truth, which dares show the Truth in life, which does not quake before death, nay, welcomes death, makes a man know that he is the Spirit, that, in the whole universe, nothing can kill him. Then you will be free. Then you will know your real Soul. ‘This Atman is first to be heard, then thought about and then meditated upon’ (2.85).


[1] See ‘Is Vedanta the future Religion’, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 8.129.

[2] Swami Nikhilananda (trans.), The Upanishads, vol. 3, Aitareya III.i.1–3 (New York: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, 1975), 37–39.

[3] Complete Works, 5.256.

[4] Swami Nikhilananda (trans.), The Upanishads, vol. 3, Brihadaranyaka, I.iv.9 (p. 122).

[5] Complete Works, 5.390–91.

[6] The Upanishads, vol. 3, 291–93.

[7] Complete Works, 3.7.

[8] Mandukya Upanishad, 2.

[9] Complete Works, 1.330.

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