If we understand the meaning of only one verse out of the 4, then we can easily understand the remained three. Let’s consider the first one “tat tvam asi”.
The “tat tvam asi” means you are that. Now “that” is not so easy to define or understand. People speculate that “that” is the God or Brahman based on Advaita philosophy. The Advaita philosophy ignores the difference aspect of the Vedas completely and consider only the oneness view which results in half understanding of self and God. The Advaita philosophy speculates so much by focusing only on the oneness aspect and hence it is not free from the errors (Refer: Analysis and refutation of Advaita Vedanta). Without considering both the oneness and difference view at the same time, we cannot completely understand “tat tvam asi” and develop our spirituality further.
The references which reveal both oneness and difference aspect between the Individual soul and Supersoul:
Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1:
sarva khalv idam brahma “Everything, both matter and spirit, is non-different from the Supreme Personality of Godhead who is the Supreme Brahman.
Chandogya Upanisad 7.52.2:
atmaivedam sarvam iti, “Everything that is visible is spirit (atma).”
Katha Upanishada 1.2.20:
aṇor aṇīyān mahato mahīyān ātmāsya jantor nihito guhāyām tam akratuḥ paśyati vīta-śoko dhātuḥ prasādān mahimānam ātmanaḥ
“Both the Supersoul [Paramātmā] and the atomic soul [ jīvātmā] are situated on the same tree of the body within the same heart of the living being, and only one who has become free from all material desires as well as lamentations can, by the grace of the Supreme, understand the glories of the soul.”
The Svetasvatara Upanishad 5.9:
bālāgra-śata-bhāgasya śatadhā kalpitasya ca bhāgo jīvaḥ sa vijñeyaḥ sa cānantyāya kalpate
“When the upper point of a hair is divided into one hundred parts and again each of such parts is further divided into one hundred parts, each such part is the measurement of the dimension of the spirit soul.”
Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.1
dva suparna sayuja sakhayah samanam vriksham parishasvajate tayor anyah pippalam svadv atty anasnann anyo ‘bhicakasiti
“The Lord and the living entity are compared to two birds sitting in a tree. While the illusioned living entity eats the fruits of the material world, the Lord as Supersoul and best friend witnesses these activities.”
Katha Upanishad 2.2.13
nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman
“The Supreme Lord is eternal and the living beings are eternal. The Supreme Lord is cognizant and the living beings are cognizant. The difference is that the Supreme Lord is supplying all the necessities of life for the many other living entities.”
Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad 4.3.8:
sa va ayam purusho jayamanah shariram abhisampadyamanah sa utkraman mriyamanah
“At the moment of birth the spirit soul enters a material body and at the moment of death the soul leaves the body.”
Srila Jiva Goswami says in the Sri Tattva Sandarbha:
One should not deal with the Vedas according to the logic of “ardha-kukkuti,” accepting only statements favorable to one’s viewpoint and rejecting opposing ones. The Vedas contain statements declaring both the difference and the non-difference between Brahman and the jiva (the individual soul). These seemingly contradictory views can most naturally be reconciled by the application of the acintya-bhedabheda (simultaneous difference and oneness) philosophy. This doctrine of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s is the greatest gift of philosophy to the world. His teachings do not contradict any Vedic scripture or authentic point of view; rather, they resolve the apparent contradictions in the Vedic literature in accordance with the Vedas’ final conclusions. His teachings are the natural and direct explanation of the Vedic literature.
Srila Prabhupada says in the introductory chapter of Bhagavad-gita as it is:
A particle of gold is also gold, a drop of water from the ocean is also salty, and similarly we the living entities, being part and parcel of the supreme controller,īśvara, or Bhagavān, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, have all the qualities of the Supreme Lord in minute quantity because we are minute īśvaras, subordinate īśvaras. We are trying to control nature, as presently we are trying to control space or planets, and this tendency to control is there because it is in Kṛṣṇa. But although we have a tendency to lord it over material nature, we should know that we are not the supreme controller. This is explained in Bhagavad-gītā.
What is the meaning of “tat tvam asi” then?
The meaning based on both the difference and oneness aspect is, “You are Brahman”, but not the unlimited or whole Brahman, you are eternal atomic part of the Brahman as described with an example by Srila Prabhupada, i.e. You are Spirit soul (the eternal fragmental part of Supreme) which is different as well not non-different from Brahman. But, Brahman cannot be divided, how is that so then? The Energy and energetic are one and the same like the heat and fire. Similarly, we the eternal and atomic manifestations of his superior energy are his parts. The absolute truth, i.e. Sri Krishna himself confirms it in the Bhagavad-gita as follows:
Bhagavad-gita 7.5 —
apareyam itas tv anyāṁ
prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām
yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat
“Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.”
In the 15th chapter, 7th verse, Lord Krishna says:
“The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.”
The followers of Advaita sometimes try to give this verse another view like the bodies of the living entities are my (Krishna’s) parts, but here in the verse, Krishna clearly mentioned the word “sanatanah” which means eternal. The bodies of the living entities are not eternal, but temporary.
The same meaning applies for other verses:
- Aham brahmasmi: “I’m the eternal part of the Supreme”.
- Ayamatma brahma: “I’m (or my self is the) eternal part of the Supreme”
- Prajnanam brahma: Knowledge is Brahman.
The fourth statement has a different level. It states the Knowledge (Veda) is Brahman, because it gives direct perception of the self and God, it is non-different from the Supreme Person or Brahman. (The 4th statement also means that the consciousness is Brahman)
First Anuccheda of Taittariya brahmananda-valli says:
satyam jnanam anantam brahma yo veda nihitam
“Brahma is truth, knowledge and eternity personified”
Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.40 also confirms the same:
hy adharmas tad-viparyayaḥ
vedo nārāyaṇaḥ sākṣāt
svayambhūr iti śuśruma
That which is prescribed in the Vedas constitutes dharma, the religious principles, and the opposite of that is irreligion. The Vedas are directly the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Nārāyaṇa, and are self-born. This we have heard from Yamarāja.
Furthermore, Srimad Bhagavatam 1.2.28-29 says:
vāsudeva-parā vedā vāsudeva-parā makhāḥ
vāsudeva-parā yogā vāsudeva-parāḥ kriyāḥ
vāsudeva-paraṁ jñānaṁ vāsudeva-paraṁ tapaḥ
vāsudeva-paro dharmo vāsudeva-parā gatiḥ
“In the revealed scriptures, the ultimate object of knowledge is Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Personality of Godhead. The purpose of performing sacrifice is to please Him. Yoga is for realizing Him. All fruitive activities are ultimately rewarded by Him only. He is supreme knowledge, and all severe austerities are performed to know Him. Religion [dharma] is rendering loving service unto Him. He is the supreme goal of life.”
Lord Krishna confirms it in the Bhagavad-gita 15.15 as follows:
vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo
“By all the Vedas, I am to be known.”