The sacred and ancient Sanskrit text Chandogya Upanishad is rich with assertions of the ultimate truth and the nature of existence. One of its best-known verses is Tat Tvam Asi, which is translated as “That Thou Art.” In fact, this is possibly the highest tenet of all Vedantic teachings. In modern language, its profound meaning is that we are one with existence.
That refers to the divine consciousness and the ultimate nature of existence, or if you prefer, God. Thou refers to any thing in existence. Against this backdrop, layer in the religions of the world. They tend to fall either in the category of That, or Thou. For example mainstream Christianity, Islam, Judaism, aspects of Hinduism are all theistic. God is attributed to have created the universe and is outside of us. We see this traditionally as having developed in the West, whereas in the East, we see Thou based religions. These are the self-inquiry pursuits such as Buddhism, Jainism, and other aspects of Hinduism such as Sankya and Yoga.
Tat (God seeking religions) and Tvam (self-inquiry religions) are the two conventional paths that humanity has followed in seeking spiritual liberation. The Tat religions are mostly Bhakti based – devotional in nature requiring faith and surrender with the center being churches, temples, mosques. The Tvam religions tend to be more philosophical, meditative and monastic in nature, with the center being monasteries and meditation halls. This is very natural for religions to have developed in this way – it mirrors our own experiences. We also see this in the types of spiritual seekers – “I want to know God,” or “I want to know who I am.” We experience everything either internally, or externally (subject / object).
Each path has its strengths and weaknesses. For Tat, God seeking religions, the weakness is that it requires faith, and if you question that, it is threatened. And that is what has happened in the age of Science, where religious faith has come under the scrutiny of truth requiring material proof. The biggest obstacle for believers is doubt, and theologians are always trying to prove the existence of God. Conversely, for Tvam or inner self-seeking religions, there is never any doubt. Nobody has a problem with the precept that “I exist”. But therein is the issue – my own existence is fraught with all kinds of suffering! And here we loop back to God seeking religions which proclaim that in God lies the answer to human suffering because God is seen as perfect in all things.
The revolutionary realization of Tat Tvam Asi is that it takes the advantages of both and cancels the disadvantages. If I am that which I have defined God to be, then I am not this personality with all of his or her problems, I am Oneness itself. The certainty of the self is combined with the infinite, that is what all of the realized beings have grasped at their core. And the amazing thing is that even though our religions may express themselves in either Tat or Tvam, if you follow the branch to the spiritual root, you will still arrive at Tat Tvam Asi. The mystical dimensions of Sufi Islam, Kabbalah, and the teachings of the Christian mystics clearly demonstrate this, as do the awakened masters of Zen, Jain, Yogis, and Advaita Vedanta. The litmus test of a truth is that you can arrive at it from wherever you begin – even from a secular point. And today we see so much secular spirituality blossoming, with no basis in any specific religion, yet producing awakened people all around the world.
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