'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Being And Becoming

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If ...'is' means is, that is ... one thing. If it means ..."
-Bill Clinton

This is a meditation on "Tat tvam asi", a famous aphorism from Chhandogya Upanishad.

In word-for-word English translation, the aphorism is: "That you are". In the standard sequence of words, it becomes: "You are That" with a touch of emphasis on 'That'.

'That' refers to the absolute, the quintessential essence of everything, usually referred to by the word 'Brahman'. And 'Tat tvam asi' is at the very core of Advaita, the Indian Monist/ non-dualist philosophy, which equates and identifies the individual soul with Brahman. In my understanding, Advaita interprets 'Tat tvam asi' to mean that the individual is not a fraction or subset of the whole but the whole itself.

However, one could ask: The Upanishadic seer says "you are that!". And he does not say "that is you!". For a full and *equal* identification (on the lines of the Mathematical equation, "A=B") between 'you' (the individual) and 'that' (the absolute), both statements ought to be made; and the Upanishad makes only one. So, is the Advaitic interpretation accurate?

Indeed, the 'be-group' verbs, "is", "am" and "are" could imply either time-independent (transcendental) being or a becoming, an evolution in time. So, since the seeker (the one spoken to, the 'you') is clearly the one who is 'are-ing', there is a hint of a *becoming*, an evolution that he has gone through or ought to go through to be the timeless 'that'. At least within the confines of the English translation, the absolute Advaitic identification/equality of the individual with the absolute cannot strictly be derived from this particular Upanishadic declaration.

To summarize, in order to fully convey the mathematical statement, "A=B", English needs to say "A is B; B is A"; and I have never come across an English translation of Chhandogya which says: "You are that; that is you!".

However, one should also note here that while English grammar allows statements like "that is you" just as it allows "you are that", other languages, such as Hindi, do not appear to allow both constructions.

Let me try to give an example. In English one could equally well say, "I came to meet a friend... and that is you" or "I came to meet a friend... and you are that friend". But in Hindi, one uses only the latter phrasing: "Ek dostse milne aaya hoon; aur tum ho woh dost" ("woh dost hai tum" is never used)

It might well be the case that Sanskrit, like Hindi, allows only "you are that" - and "Tat tvam asti" ("that is you") may simply be inadmissible, in which case, one cannot really suspect that the Upanishadic seer really implies something different from total equality between 'you' and 'that'.

But then, Sanskrit also (very clearly) allows dropping of 'be-verbs' in several contexts: for example, the question "What is that?" is in Sanskrit, "Tat kim?" (literally "What that?") with valid answers like "Tat modakam" ("That (is a) sweet"). So, the seer could very well have have just said: "Tat tvam!" and identified 'that' and 'you'. The very presence of 'asi' might well be a deliberate decision on his part - to imply that there may be an identification all right but not a total and equal, *reflexive and symmetric* one.

To give another example from Indian spiritual tradition, 'Sat Sri Akal', the Sikh declaration of faith (there is no 'be' verb there) is often translated as: "God is Truth; Truth is God!" - with *both* statements given, asserting the total identification of Truth and God.


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