About fifteen years ago, I was invited to a local church to speak on Hinduism. The pastor who had organized the talk was a very gracious host. He invited me into the church and we settled down in the meeting room. It was an informal setting with about ten or twelve people sitting around in a circle. After the introductions, the pastor asked me, “what can you tell us about the famous Hindu doctrine: Thath Thwam Asi?”
I was totally taken aback by this simple question. While it is indeed true that “Thath Thwam Asi” is considered as one of the grand pronouncements (Maha Vaakyas) of Vedantha (Knowledge derived from Vedas or the essence of Vedas), it is not as well understood or reflected upon by many in daily life. In fact, the most common dictum that governs the life of most Hindus and their way of life is the famous pronouncement from Bhagawath Geetha (i.e.) Do your duty; don’t be focused on the results (KarmaaniYeva Adhikarasthe, Maa Paleshu). Even here the emphasis is on “do your duty”, with the constant continuing ambiguity on the “don’t be focused on the results”!
On reflection, I believe that the dictum, “Thath Thwam Asi” has to be reflected upon and internalized by everyone and incorporated in our daily life. If we do, the other famous dictum (Do your duty; don’t be fixated on the results) becomes easier and effortless to practice in its totality.
So, what is Thath Thwam Asi? In the most direct and simplest translation it means: You are that. Here the word “you” and “that” are posed as two entities. “You” represents the “Self” or the person making the enquiry and “that” represents everything the person can relate to, or anything other than the Self. There is an extensive body of literature and scriptures that dwell into each aspect of this three word phrase” “You” , “That” and the connection between the two: “are”. Few good references to relate to these three aspects are: Athma Bodh (Knowledge of the Self), Thathwa Bodh (Knowledge of the Universe), both authored by Saint Adhi Sankara. There is also short and simple book titled, Thath Thwam Asi by Swami Vimalananda, published by the Central Chinmaya Mission Trust.
After much reading and reflection, I understand that the pronouncement Thath Thwam Asi can be better understood as: You and the Universe are integral in each other. You or the Self is the person (Thwam). What you can comprehend external to you or deep inside of you is the Universe (Thath). You – the person – exist as part of everything that you can comprehend or relate to or aware of.
This remarkable axiom is extremely profound and yet difficult to comprehend, that is until you take the time to view the ten minute movie in the video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0
In this video you see a couple enjoying a picnic in the lake front park, in the center of Chicago. Then the viewing area expands ten times each ten seconds. The view expands to a square of one meter on the edge, ten meters, 100 meters, Km, etc. The view goes past the earth’s orbit, the solar system, our galaxy and beyond. In about 24 increments and at X10^24 square meters, the view covers the panorama of what might be seen from the edges of the universe, as far as we know of it. In every one of these views, the man in the park is part of the picture, albeit increasingly smaller and ultimately minuscular part of the view. The narrator aptly states, “Our Galaxy looks like a dust in the vast emptiness of the Universe; the richness we see around us is an exception”. If our galaxy is a dust in the universe, then how small a part are we as part of this galaxy? Yet, we are all undeniably the part and parcel of this universe: Thath Thwam Asi.
Then the video dwells deeper inside the person covering one tenth of the area every ten seconds. The view diminishes to expose the skin, the veins, the cell, the genetic double helix, the molecules, atom, the field of electrons, …… At X10^-16 square mm we arrive at the smallest unit of material or energy field in each one of us, the nucleus of the Carbon atom!
Whether we go far away or deep inside of us, we are nothing but a part and parcel of the universe. This video provides us a visual image of this reality. So, what? Why is this important to know or realize this basic truth? If “I” am indeed so integrally connected and in union with the universe, then why do I not see this connection as a matter of course? Studies in Vedantha illuminate answers to these and many other related important questions. We shall pursue some of the answers in our next few essays.