by Jayaram V, HinduWebsite.com
Aham Brahmasmi. Translation:
aham = I; Brahmasmi = am Brahman. Meaning: I am Brahman.
The statement "I am Brahman" is
both a postulation on the state of Brahman at an intellectual level and
an expression of an enlightened yogi ( Brahmajnani) in a state of
self-realization. The first comes out of an insight through study that
"I am" is the state of "Brahman". The second comes out of an
inner experience that "I am indeed none other than Brahman". One
is a philosophical insight gained through vichara (thinking) and the
other an awareness experienced in a transcendental state of samadhi or
The statement "aham brahmasmi"
does not vouch that "Atman (self) is Brahman", but "I am Brahman". It
is an expression of "I am ness", not Atman, in relationship with
Brahman. This distinction is important because different schools of
Hinduism interpret the relationship between Atman and Brahman
differently, which we will discuss in the last part of this essay.
The state of "I am ness" exists in creation in different degrees,
ranging from a self aware state of "I am only" to a nescient state of "I
The Five States of "I am ness"
We can discern at least five
different states of "I am ness" in beings (jivas). These states are
neither sequential nor consequential. A being may experience one or
more of these at different times in its existence or at the same time in
different dimensions of consciousness. There may be even divisions and
subdivision with in each state. We are confining here our discussion to
a general description of the five states, which are explained below.
1. The first
state is the state of "I am not aware that I exist". This is
the unconscious state which we experience in our sleeping state and
which a recently born baby experiences in its waking state. In the
macrocosm, it is also the state of the inanimate objects and many
2. The second one is the state
of "I am aware that I exist but I cannot conceptualize it".
This is the semi conscious state which we experience in our dreaming
state and the state of a few week's old baby. In the macrocosm it is
the state of most of the animals and birds.
3. The third one is the state
of "I am aware that I exist in relationship with things, beings
and objects." This is the waking state of our ordinary
consciousness. In this state, I have some awareness of myself, which
is sufficient enough for me to conduct myself in the world and deal
with it intelligently. I can identify myself with my unique
features, my individuality, my physical personality, my distinct
qualities, my actions, my thoughts, my desires and my emotions. It
is also the state of duality and the state of a bonded soul.
4. The fourth one is the state
of "I am aware that I exist. I am also aware that I am existence
itself." In this state, I can experience my omnipresence. I can
shift my center of awareness at will. I am detached, not bound by
the limitations of ego. I am a liberated soul in its state of
complete awareness, fulfilled and detached. I exist not in
relationship with others but by myself. This is the state of the
pure consciousness and of the unlimited self, having the awareness
of "I am Brahman" and "Thou art That", not as a mental notion but in
a state of self-realization. This is the state of Atman.
5. The fifth one is the state
of "I am I am". I do not know any other than by myself. I am
absorbed in myself and exist by myself. I am limitless and absolute
except when I am associated with my nature (prakriti). I have no
duality. There is no instrument by which I know my existence or my
otherness, except in a jiva or in a state of incarnation. I am in
all and all are in me. This is the state of the supreme eternal
Brahman, the state of oneness, the state of non duality, the
indivisible, infinite, immeasurable, unknowable state of Being.
This is a pure state of "I am only". This is the indescribable state
of Brahman in its absolute aspect.
The Four States of
Corresponding with these are the
four states of self awareness in human beings. The Mandukya Upanishad
speaks of them in some detail. In each state, an individual experiences
his self differently. These are described below.
jagrat or vaishvanara or the waking state. In this state the real
self is hidden and the false self is active and in control. This is
a state where the lower self is active and the higher self is veiled
or hidden. This is a state where I am the body, the mind, the senses
and the elements. I am subject to the play of the elements and the
laws of karma. I go by a name and form that separates me from rest
of the world. This is what the wise call night and the ignorant call
2. The taijasa or svapna or
dreaming state. This is a state where I am semi conscious and
identify myself with my inner consciousness, my subtle bodies and
senses. I am not even sure which of my selves is active in my
dreams, whether my false self or real self or an imaginary self.
3. The prajna or sushupti or
deep sleep state. This is a state where I am unconscious and do not
know who I am. I am asleep. So are my mind, body and the senses.
4. The Turiya or the pure
state of being. This is a state where I know who I am really. I am
wide awake, not in a state duality but unity and bliss. In this
state I have transcended my elemental self. I Know I am Atman
and also Brahman. I know I am neither outer consciousness nor inner
consciousness, neither semi-consciousness nor sleeping
consciousness, neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. This is
the state in which the ignorant are asleep and the wise are wide
Elemental Self vs Real Self
In the Maitri Upanishad, Prajapati
explains to his student Vlakhilyas two types of souls, the bhutatman or
the elemental soul and the Atman or the real soul. The bhutatman is
the lower self made of the body, the mind, the senses and the elements.
It is bound by the qualities of nature and laws of karma. Because it is
limited in knowledge it falls into confusion and fails to be conscious
of the God, who dwells within. Whenever the elemental soul has thoughts
of "I" and "mine", it binds itself with its lower nature and experiences
separation and duality. The real self stays in the background,
without participating in the events happening around. It awakes only
when the elemental soul is at rest or inactive.
In Atman every experience is
subjective. Atman does not interact with any object or use any
external means to know or experience. It exists by itself and knows by
itself. In contrast the experience of elemental self is objective.
It uses the mind and the senses to interact with the objects of the
phenomenal world. As a seeker begins to withdraw his senses into his
mind and his mind into himself, in his elemental self he is confronted
with several objects that present themselves to his elemental
consciousness. These are the things, desires, thoughts, feelings,
knowledge, visions, emotions, temptations, energies, gods and dreams
that prevent a smooth self enquiry, like waves of an ocean that rise
and fall trying to push away any one who wants to go deeper. If the
seeker is not careful he or she would be caught in the whirlpool of
these objective phenomena and never reach the inmost self hidden within.
The Gurus as Guide in a World
This is where the guidance of a
guru becomes important. A guru teaches his students how to develop
detachment and discernment using the very objective experience that acts
as an impediment in case of the uninitiated. He teaches them how to
ride the waves of the elemental consciousness like experienced divers,
using certain techniques to develop discernment (buddhi) and stay
focused. One of the techniques is to develop discrimination and right
knowledge by using such expressions as "I am not this" (idam na aham) or
"I am not that" (tan na aham), or not this, not this (neti neti).
A seeker uses these expressions when various phenomena present
themselves in his consciousness, till he transcends the objective
reality and reaches the supreme subjective state of "I am Brahman"
The Relationship Between Atman
The relationship between Atman and
Brahman, or the questions of whether Atman is Brahman, has been
approached differently by different schools of religious thought in
ancient India. Following is a summary of how this relationship has been
interpreted in the past by various schools of Hinduism, Jainism and
1. All is
Brahman. There is nothing else other than Brahman. He is the cause
of all causes. He is also called Atman. In reality there is no
distinction between the two. Atman is another name of Brahman or a
mental construct we use to make sense of Brahman as the self of
individual beings. There may be many beings in the creation, but
there is only one Brahman in all of them. During creation
Brahman projects himself out as everything and at the end of
creation withdraws everything into himself. The phenomenal world is
unreal. It an illusion or an apparition, which disappears when we
overcome our ignorance and realize the true state of Brahman.
2. All is Brahman. Brahman is
everything. He is the cause of all causes. However Brahman and Atman
cannot be construed as the same. There is a subtle difference. Their
relationship is one of bheda-abheda (different but also the
same). The individual selves exist in Brahman sharing the
same consciousness but appearing as separate entities like
the reflection of objects in a mirror in relationship with the
mirror. The individual beings become deluded by the power of
maya after coming into contact with the elements and qualities of
nature. When they overcome maya, they regain their true
consciousness. They rejoin Brahman and exist no more as
3. Brahman and the individual
selves exist as separate entities sharing the same consciousness.
Brahman is not the cause of their creation. The individual beings
co exist eternally with Brahman and come under the cloud of maya
or delusion caused by Prakriti which also coexist with them
eternally. When they are freed from it they continue to exist as
individual beings in their fully realized state even after
liberation. They never become one with Brahman.
4. Brahman does not exist.
But the individual selves exist. They join with Prakriti and
experience the illusion of limitations in the phenomenal world.
When they overcome the illusion they regain their pure state and
continue their existence as liberated beings.
5. An absolute being or
cause of causes does not exist or may not exist. Beings are anatman
that is they do not have souls that are eternal and absolute in
nature. Beings come into existence through the aggregation of
elements and qualities which result in the formation of bodies
and consciousness and the illusion of individuality (ego or self)
that is subject to becoming and changing and the laws of karma. It
like the way water vapor or clouds appear in an empty space and
assume many forms and states owing to a variety of circumstances and
the action of elements. When beings transcend the process of
becoming and changing through detachment and mindfulness they enter
a state of freedom from becoming and changing which is called
nirvana or kaivalya.
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