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Aham Brahmasmi – I am Brahman – Mahavakyas In Upanishad

The Mahavakya – Aham Brahmasmi – I am Brahman is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and is repeated twice.

The context in which the statement is uttered is very interesting. The claim is made in the previous verse that through brahmavidya we shall become ‘all’. Ordinarily, we would assume the compound brahma-vidya means ‘knowledge of Brahman’. But here it seems to mean ‘the knowledge that Brahman itself possesses’, for the question is asked: ‘What exactly is that knowledge which Brahman possessed that allowed Brahman to become ‘all’ ?’ In reply we learn that it was the knowledge, ‘I am Brahman’ that allowed Brahman to become all.

Then it is explained that the gods also became ‘all’ through that knowledge, as did the saints and sages. And whoever, in like manner, knows oneself as ‘I am Brahman’, becomes all this, that is, attains to some kind of state of oneness with all beings and the universe. Even the gods cannot prevent this realization, for such a person has become their Self as well.

This verse is then followed by nearly twenty pages of commentary by Acharya Shankara, showing how significant he considers these verses to be. But aside from the importance of the identity of the individual Self and Brahman, we find two crucial, though perhaps secondary, ideas.

The first is that Brahman somehow becomes Brahman by having this knowledge of oneness, that Brahman is thought of in both a nirguna and saguna sense, capable of ‘thinking’ in a way not substantially different from the way the devas and human beings think, who were also considered qualified to understand ‘I am Brahman’.

The second interesting idea is one that seems to remain just slightly beneath the surface in most of these Upanishadic verses, and which we also saw in the previous mahavakya, namely the ultimate oneness between Brahman and the ‘all’, which presumably includes the entire universe and its living beings. So, the emphasis in these verses is not only on a knowledge that leads to liberation or enlightenment, but also on one that expands one’s sense of Self to a feeling of oneness with the entire universe.

This association between Brahman and expansiveness can be understood simply by analysing the term ‘Brahman’, which is derived from the root brhm meaning ‘to expand’. For the early Vedic seers, the sense of vastness, expansiveness, all-inclusiveness must have formed an important element in their understanding of Brahman and the universe.

Source – Excerpt from the article ‘The Significance of the Mahavakyas’ by Swami Atmajnanananda in Prabuddha Bharata January 2020 page 61.

There are four Mahavakyas Based On The Upanishads

The first three dealing with the ultimate oneness of the individual Self, or jivatman, and the supreme Reality or Brahman, while the fourth one dealing with the nature of Brahman as pure consciousness.
  1. Aham brahmasmi; I am Brahman of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajur Veda.
  2. Tat tvam asi; Thou art That of the Chandogya Upanishad, Sama Veda.
  3. Ayam atma brahma; This Self is Brahman of Mandukya Upanishad, Atharva Veda.
  4. Prajnanam brahma; Brahman is pure consciousness of Aitareya Upanishad, Rig Veda.