tat tvam asi

Linked Glossary of Terms
(references to De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee, unless indicated. See concordance for correlation with pages in the New Critique. The concordance is in pdf format.)

tat tvam asi

“Tat tvam asi” means “That art thou.” It is found in the Upanishads, and refers to our experience of “identity” with Brahman. We see Brahman in all things, and the basis for our love of others is that they also are one with Brahman. Vivekananda spoke of the need for a “Practical Vedanta.”This was using the principles of advaita in a practical way to achieve moral results. This was the basis of the Ramakrishna Mission which he founded. In support of this Practical Vedanta, Vivekananda referred to the mahavakya (great saying) tat tvam asi in the Upanishads. If we are identical with the other and with Brahman, then we will want to do good to the other. This mahavakya is therefore the foundation for morality. It is not that we do good to our neighbour out of altruism, but because the neighbour is identical to our self.

Some Indologists have said that the use of “tat tvam asi” in ethics is only relatively recent within Hinduism, and that in fact neo-Hinduism was influenced by Western interpretations of itself in coming to this viewpoint. Paul Hacker said that traditional Hinduism did not relate “tat tvam asi” to ethics. Hacker points to the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and to Schopenhauer’s student, Paul Deussen for this usage. Because of Schopenhauer’s world-denying philosophy, he himself did not advocate this morality. Deussen took the principle further and actually advocated it as the basis for how we should act. Deussen gave a lecture in Bombay on February 25, 1893 concerning the tat tvam asi theory of the foundation of ethics. He went again to India in 1896 and there met Vivekananda. Hacker says it is not until after this meeting that Vivekananda’s writings included the principle as a basis for ethics. Prior to this time, Vivekananda’s ethics were based on the idea of disinterested action. In fact, in his book Karma-Yoga Vivekananda said that it was foolish talk to speak of doing good to the world.

Whether Hacker’s view of a Western influence for the “tat tvam asi” ethics is true or not, we can find a similar basis for ethics in Dooyeweerd, who says,

In its religious fulness of meaning the love of our neighbour is nothing but the love of God in His image, expressed in ourselves as well as in our fellow-men. This is why Christ said that the second commandment is equal to the first. One can also say that it is implied in it. (NC II, 155).

What does Dooyeweerd mean by saying that the second commandment is implied in the first? I think he means that in loving our neighbour, we are also loving our real and true selfhood, the image of God.

Dooyeweerd says something similar in his article “What is Man?” We cannot have an inner meeting with another person except in the central religious sense, which for Dooyeweerd is always related to our supratemporal selfhood.

And when contemporary philosophy speaks of an inner meeting of the one person with the other we must ask, What do you understand by this inner meeting?” A real inner meeting presupposes real self-knowledge, and can only occur in the central religious sphere of our relation with our fellow-man. The temporal love-relations, in the above-mentioned diversity of aspects, cannot guarantee a true inner meeting. Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.” Jesus here apparently speaks of a love that does not concern the real centre of our lives but only the temporal relations between men in their earthly diversity. But how can we love our enemies and bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persectue us, if we do not love God in Jesus Christ?
Thus the inter-personal relation between you and me cannot lead us to real self knowledge, as long as it is not conceived in its central sense; and in this central sense it points beyond itself to the ultimate relation between the human I and God. This latter central relation is of a religious character. (“What is Man?” International Reformed Bulletin 3 (1960), 4-16, at 9-10).

And in the same article, Dooyeweerd makes it clear that our love for our fellow man is related to our being created in the image of God, which means being created as a being in whom the temporal world is concentrated in our religious centre:

In an indissoluble connection with this self-revelation as Creator, God has revealed man to Himself. Man was created in the image of God. Just as God is the absolute origin of all that exists outside of Himself, so He created man as a being in whom the entire diversity of aspects and faculties of the temporal world is concentrated within the religious centre of his existence which we call our I, and which Holy Scripture calls our heart, in a pregnant, religious sense. As the central seat of the image of God, the human selfhood was endowed with the innate religious impulse to concentrate his whole temporal life and the whole temporal world upon the service of love to God. And since the love for God implies the love for His image in man, the whole diversity of God’s temporal ordinances is related to the central, religious commandment of love, namely: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind, and thy neighbour as thyself.” This is the radical biblical sense of the creation of man in the image of God. (p. 13)

Franz von Baader has a similar view of ethics. In one place, he attributes it to Plato. He quotes Diotima in Plato: Not because he is beautiful to I seek my beloved, but because he helped me to experience the Beautiful. Philosophische Schriften I, 100-103. Religion and love have the same root.

Elsewhere, Baader expresses a similar view in relation to our participation in the work of Christ, and the suffering of his divine-human heart. The Redeemer gives us a new law, to love our neighbour as ourselves, and this means to love our neighbour in God:

so wird ihm ein neues Gesetz gegeben, seinen Nächsten wie sich, d.i. in Gott zu lieben, und nur dieses Gesetz is der Schlüssel zum grossen Werke des Christs (Werke 7, 415)

[then a new law is given him, to love his neighbour as himself, that is, in God. And it is this law that is the key to the great works of Christ.]

See Panikkars’s reference to tat tvam asi in my note on selfhood.

Revised Sept 22/08; Dec 23/16