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Tat Twam Asi. Really? Then be prepared for the fire test!

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Dr.S.Ramanathan

Active member
Many of us would have heard or read about this,as one of the four Mahavakyas attributed to the Sama Veda and occurring in Chaandogya Upanishad. We would also have heard of clay being the substratum of different potteries or gold, of different jewellery. Similarly Brahman is the substratum of all forms and names. Many of us would also have read that Svetaketu the son of Uddalaka and grandson of Aruni studied for 12 years in gurukulavasa, the Vedas and returned home conceited and arrogant, as very learned. The father asked his son whether he learnt about that (Brahman) through which what is unheard becomes heard, what is unthought of becomes thought of, and what is unknown becomes known. The son did not understand the Nature of this learning, much less to reply. He feared the prospect of being sent again to the dreaded gurukulavasa and, therefore, with all humility, asked his father to illuminate him with this knowledge. Uddalaka explains to his son with a unique assertion of “Tat Twam Asi”, nine times, each with an interesting and increasingly elevating example; an example of how guru should clarify the doubts of his disciple.

1. The father explained to him the “Big Bang Theory” as to how “Being” came from a single “Non-Being”, the “Tanmatra” theory (explained by me briefly in the Glory of the Vishnusahasranama) leading to the creation of five primordial elements namely Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth, the creation of life, role of food, water etc., in a rather confusing fashion (atleast for me; I do not know how Svetaketu felt!). He explains to him further that mind is made up of food, prana is made up of water, and speech is made up of fire. To explain this further he asks Svetaketu to stop eating for fifteen days but drink as much water as he would like (a pre-cursor to Gandhiji’s non-violent hunger strike?). Since Prana is made up of water, his prana will not be cut off but Mind (which is made up of food)? He asked his son to approach him after fifteen days and then asked him to tell the Rig ,Yajur and Sama Vedas. They did not at all arise in Svetaketu. Then the father asked his son to eat and come again. After eating, he was able to reply all the questions (is this medically correct?). Uddalaka told his son that even as a single ember of fire left over from a large fire will light up and burn even more brightly when a heap of straw is added to it, the 1/16[SUP]th[/SUP] of Mind that was left in him lighted up when he ate food and Mind started functioning properly and he was able to answer all the questions. He explains to him further the relative role of hunger, thirst and fire, both for life and its extinguishment. When a man is about to depart, his Speech merges in the Mind, Mind in Prana, Prana in Fire and Fire in the Supreme deity (a dying man loses his power of speech first, then he becomes unconscious and then the heat of the body also disappears). During deep sleep and death, the Jeevatma attains Brahman “You are that, Jeeva is Brahman” is the first assertion made by Uddalaka Aruni to his son. But Svetaketu doubts, “If that be so, why does the Jeeva not know it?” Thus, the father starts to remove the doubt of the son in a total of nine assertions of Tat Twam Asi. The other eight follow.

2. The bees make honey from flowers of different trees. The juices of different flowers, having merged into one honey, have no discrimination, The animals have no power of discrimination and do not know their identity with Brahman (honey) and that they merge into Brahman; they are, therefore, reborn as per their Karma. Realize that you are that honey “Tat Twam Asi”. Swetaketu is not convinced how is it that creatures having merged in “Being” are not conscious of it?

3. Some rivers flow to the east and some others to the west, but they all merge into the ocean. The water in the ocean does not know to which river they belong. They again rise in the form of vapour, cloud and rain in different areas to become rivers and merge again in the ocean. The water particle does not have the discrimination that it is the same ocean and river and the same “Being”. Realize that “Tat Twam Asi”. Swetaketu questions that the ripples, waves, surf etc merge again only in the sea water. Then, why should Jeeva not be destroyed when merged in Brahman.?

4. If one cuts a part of a tree whether at the root or middle or top, it saps but it still grows offshoots and lives. But if one branch withers, it dries up and the life leaves that branch but the tree still lives. If the whole tree dries up the tree dies. (This may be compared to partial paralysis of a human body). Realize that as long as the tree has Jeeva it is said to be alive. When it is bereft of it, it is said to be dead. The Jeeva merges with Brahman and that is immortal. “Tat Twam Asi”. Swetaketu’s doubt now is, “If the self is extremely subtle and is the essence of pure ‘being’, devoid of name, form etc., how can this gross universe, with its different names and forms, be produced from that ‘self’?”

5. The father asked his son to bring a fruit from a banyan tree and break it. He asks him to take one of those small seeds from it and further break it. The son sees apparently nothing further in that broken seed. But it is this small seed, inside which he perceives nothing, that grows into a huge banyan tree. Faith that from “apparent nothing”, the universe grows with its different forms and names as a product, is important.. With faith, realize “Tat Twam Asi”.

If that “apparent nothing” is the root of this universe, then, why is it not perceived, doubts Svetaketu.

6. Uddalaka asks his son to put some salt in water in a vessel and come next morning and search for the salt. The salt has completely dissolved in water. He asks him to taste the water from the top, the middle and the bottom of the vessel. It all tasted the same. The father explained to the son that though he does not see the salt, it is present in water in all parts. So is Brahman inside the body, though you do not perceive it. Realize “Tat Twam Asi”. Svetaketu seems to be now nearer the truth but still wants to know any other means by which ‘Being’ can be known.

7. If a man from the Gandhara region is brought blindfolded and left in a desolate place, he would have lost all sense of direction. But if some kind hearted person removes the bandage from the eye and shows him the direction in which Gandhara is, he is capable of reaching Gandhara with some help from others and by his own judgement. Similarly with the help of a good preceptor he is merged in ‘Being’. After exhausting his ‘prarabdha karma’ (traveling the distance to Gandhara), the body falls and attains Brahman (the man reaches the village in Gandhara). Realize ‘Tat Twam Asi’. Now Svetaketu’s doubt is “Does the knower of Brahman become liberated by going through the path of sun and other deities or is he liberated in this body itself?”

8. A man seriously ill, recognizes people around him, as long as his Speech is not merged in the Mind and the Mind in the Prana etc. The man with this knowledge has no rebirth. He is liberated even when he is in this body. The man without this knowledge is born again in accordance with the results of his actions. Realize ‘Tat Twam Asi’. Svetaketu now questions “If for both the dying men, one the knower and the other an ordinary man, the merging in ‘Being’ is similar, then, why is it that the knower gets liberated and the other does not?”

9. Now comes the climax of an answer, convincing finally for Svetaketu (but not for me as a lay man; I feel it would have been better with the remaining 8 assertions).

Uddalaka Aruni says, “If a person, allegedly accused of committing a theft, is brought to the king’s court and asked to grasp a heated red hot iron piece, his hand will be burnt if he is guilty and he will be punished. If he is innocent his hand will not be burnt and he will be released. Though both the men merge in the supreme reality, the innocent man is liberated while the other is re-born again. Realize “Tat Twam Asi” (Chaandogya Upanishad, Chapter 6, 6.2.1 to 6.16.3).

Svetaketu understood this. Probably he was afraid of the hot-rod treatment! But I am not. Is this Upanashidic doctrine the reason why, in villages, such cruel tests are conducted even today to prove thefts, witch craft, adultery etc. and then they are punished? It is inconceivable for me for, a person who undergoes the test, innocent or not, will have his hand only burnt. Or, is it an expression of absolute faith as in fire walking in many temples?

Is this then fit to be given as the reason for final assertion of “Tat Twam Asi”? On the other hand, the great seers of the Upanishads would not make such questionable arguments. It may be only our lack of understanding of the correct import or Absolute Faith.. I would invite reader’s views and constructive explanations.

I am not entering into controversies between the three Vedic schools of thought with their own philosophies to explain “Tat Twam Asi”, but all accept the significance of this great Mahavakya, which is most quoted and referred to among the four Mahavakyas.

I was, in fact very thrilled to learn from my Grandson that a couple of these examples are quoted in his 9[SUP]th[/SUP] standard CBSE Sanskrit textbook, to drive home the need for Absolute Faith to understand “Tat Twam Asi”. I hope some modern secularists do not set their eyes on this, after the “Remove the Cartoons” episode.
 
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prasad1

Well-known member
9. Now comes the climax of an answer, convincing finally for Svetaketu (but not for me as a lay man; I feel it would have been better with the remaining 8 assertions).


Uddalaka Aruni says, “If a person, allegedly accused of committing a theft, is brought to the king’s court and asked to grasp a heated red hot iron piece, his hand will be burnt if he is guilty and he will be punished. If he is innocent his hand will not be burnt and he will be released. Though both the men merge in the supreme reality, the innocent man is liberated while the other is re-born again. Realize “Tat Twam Asi” (Chaandogya Upanishad, Chapter 6, 6.2.1 to 6.16.3).


Svetaketu understood this. Probably he was afraid of the hot-rod treatment! But I am not. Is this Upanashidic doctrine the reason why, in villages, such cruel tests are conducted even today to prove thefts, witch craft, adultery etc. and then they are punished? It is inconceivable for me for, a person who undergoes the test, innocent or not, will have his hand only burnt. Or, is it an expression of absolute faith as in fire walking in many temples?

I agree with you. I do not accept this assertion. There must be a different explanation.
Detecting a false statement in an otherwise, a factual episode, discredits the who story.
 

sarang

Well-known member
The stories and their import are multidimensional. It is not a simple binary yes - no answer.

When such a harsh punishment is proposed, the guilty party will normally become tense and expose his guilt by some emotions or gestures. A wise judge will sense who is guilty and decide who is guilty before the the test is forced. There are such stories in the lives of azhwars and nayanmars.

This is a true story. When we, a group of school boys, were playing in a room, there was a really obnoxious output from one; and no one acknowledged the act. A wise senior said - the culprit's left palm will be yellow because of sulphur. The 'gasser' was the first to see his palm.

The story of the judgement given by the king when two ladies claimed the child is well known. Split the child vertically and give each one half; the fake mother accepted the verdict, but the real mother gave up her demand and agreed to give the child away, as it will survive.
 

prasad1

Well-known member
The stories and their import are multidimensional. It is not a simple binary yes - no answer.

When such a harsh punishment is proposed, the guilty party will normally become tense and expose his guilt by some emotions or gestures. A wise judge will sense who is guilty and decide who is guilty before the the test is forced. There are such stories in the lives of azhwars and nayanmars.

This is a true story. When we, a group of school boys, were playing in a room, there was a really obnoxious output from one; and no one acknowledged the act. A wise senior said - the culprit's left palm will be yellow because of sulphur. The 'gasser' was the first to see his palm.

The story of the judgement given by the king when two ladies claimed the child is well known. Split the child vertically and give each one half; the fake mother accepted the verdict, but the real mother gave up her demand and agreed to give the child away, as it will survive.

A likely explanation.
But if the sentence is carried out, which does happen (we see it so many times) then it is bad.
If we accept torture is acceptable means of getting a confession then justice is not served. I know reality is multidimensional but truth is one.
 
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Dr.S.Ramanathan

Active member
Good Examples by Mr. Sarang. I presume that the purport is possibly to emphasise the need for Absolute Faith, which is indeed the Truth, as ably pointed out by Mr. Prasad.
Regards,
Ramanathan.
 

sangom

Well-known member
Dr. Ramanathan sir,

There was a very similar test to find out the guilty resorted to in the Travancore kingdom. It was called Satya pareekshaa or colloquially as "Suchindram kaimukku". The suspect/s had to dip their palm/s in boiling oil before the deity of the temple, and if they did not get burnt, they were considered innocent :). This test was obligatory for Namboodiri women suspected of adultery.

Maharaja Swathi Thirunal (1813 -1846) abolished this practice by Royal Order (Decree).

Uddaalaka might have been picturized in the Upanishad (by whoever wrote it) as referring to one of the practices in those days, nothing more. But I get the distinct feeling that this "gripping-red-hot-axe" business was brought in more as a veiled threat to all those who are not convinced by the 8 earlier persuasive examples (arguments) to prove "Tat tvam asi"; "if you are convinced, you will be liberated and, if you are not still convinced, you will be punished with rebirth and will not get liberation."
We should consider this as just the practice of the Gurus (fathers) in those days in instructing their disciples/sons.

I request you to kindly read my post here.
 

renuka

Well-known member
9. Now comes the climax of an answer, convincing finally for Svetaketu (but not for me as a lay man; I feel it would have been better with the remaining 8 assertions).

Uddalaka Aruni says, “If a person, allegedly accused of committing a theft, is brought to the king’s court and asked to grasp a heated red hot iron piece, his hand will be burnt if he is guilty and he will be punished. If he is innocent his hand will not be burnt and he will be released. Though both the men merge in the supreme reality, the innocent man is liberated while the other is re-born again. Realize “Tat Twam Asi” (Chaandogya Upanishad, Chapter 6, 6.2.1 to 6.16.3).

Dear sir,

I feel we have to try to decipher the hidden message here.
I fee we should not take this literally.

Ok lets see..two mean..one innocent and one guilty are both accused for a crime.

So we can look at it this way.

The very fact that both men are existing that means they have taken birth in the physical world owing to the fact of a Karmic Debt of some form or the other in their previous life.

So the Karmic Debt is the "crime" here.

Ok next..the Hot iron rod represents the "material world" and it is hot becos it makes us burn with desire.

Now lets analyze both the cases:

1st case.. for the "guilty" person..that is a person who still has lots of Karmic Debt and still not got over the tie of desires.
He burns with desire which only adds to his future births..hence he is reborn.

Now 2nd person..

The "innocent" person..is a person who has got over the tie of desires,finished up and cleared his Karmic account and the happenings of the material world does not affect him in anyway anymore.

He has subdued the fire of desires in him ..hence he burns not and is not born again and is liberated.

So as it was stated earlier:" Though both the men merge in the supreme reality, the innocent man is liberated while the other is re-born again. Realize “Tat Twam Asi”
 
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sravna

Well-known member
Persons who are totally under the sway of maya do not respond to anything positive. They need to be jolted out of that state and for that only forceful means work. In mahabaratha. Krishna tried his best to convince Duryodhana not to opt for war. But the latter blunty ignored Krishna. If that was the case in Dwapara yuga, Kaliyuga is worse. Emotions only rules and reason is really subdued.

Coming to the topic, Shri Sarang makes a nice point and so does Renuka. The reactions of the accused person may be quite revealing though one cannot certainly rule out the innocent being punished. But no system of justice is fail proof. More than the system it is the probity of those at the helm of affairs that really matters. What is the use of the justice system that can be misused and abused by those in power? Are we better off than now than we were in the earlier yugas?
 

sarang

Well-known member
The oft quoted statement 'hundred or thousand guilty may go free, but even one innocent is not punished' is wrongly worded in my opinion as it is a negative statement.

A more affirmative statement is 'All guilty must be punished and all innocent must be freed'.
 
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