‘sarvAtmabhAva’ – 1/4

The single most important word in the entire Lexicon of Advaita Vedanta can be said to be, without any contest, ‘sarvAtmabhAva‘ (सर्वात्मभाव). It, at once, abstracts the totality of the ancient Non-dual teaching and also expresses it most elegantly and efficiently striking a close chord within us. The word is the ‘Touchstone’ to distinguish the brawn from the brain, the grain from the chaff, the True Knower of Truth from the also-rans. It is far less esoteric and ethereal to my mind compared to another popular summation of Advaita Vedanta as the teaching of jIvabrahmaikya (जीवब्रह्मैक्य) – the Oneness of Atman and brahman.

We shall, therefore, try in this and the next few articles to tease out in detail the meaning and the usage of the word, ‘sarvAtmabhAva‘ (सर्वात्मभाव), in the various  canonical texts and the commentaries on them by Shankara.

sarvAtmabhAva‘ (सर्वात्मभाव) is a compound word comprising three elements, viz., sarva  +  Atma  +  bhAva.

Let us see what each of the word means, beginning with AtmA.

i).  Atma or Atman is, from a Vedantic sense, that ‘principle of Sentience’ which all of us feel is present somewhere within us and because of which we ‘know/sense/understand’ things that we perceive. It stands for that raw element of knowing, the awareness we have. We ‘feel’ It as our sense of “am-ness” and “consciousness” — the unqualified ‘me-ness.’

Atma is derived in Sanskrit language as: आ समन्तात् तनोतीति आत्मा |  (aa smantAt tanoti iti AtmA). It means AtmA is “all-pervasive.’

Shankara in his commentary at 2.4.1, kaTha Upanishad gives another derivation for AtmA based on Linga purANa. He writes: 

‘यच्चाप्नोति यदादत्ते यच्चात्ति विषयानिह । यच्चास्य सन्ततो भावस्तस्मादात्मेति कीर्त्यते’ |  — Shankara at 2.4.1, kaTha upa.

(‘yaccApnoti yadAdatte yaccAtti viSayAniha . yaccAsya santato bhAvastasmAdAtmeti kIrtyate’).

Meaning: “Since It pervades, absorbs, and knows (all) objects in the world, and since from It the world derives its continuous existence, therefore, is It called AtmA.”

Thus, AtmA is the very “intrinsic nature”  of any substance. In the absence of that intrinsic nature, the substance itself cannot be present. For example, saltiness is the very nature of ‘salt.’ In the absence of saltiness, it cannot be salt. In the absence of “cowness,” there cannot be a cow. Hence, Shankara tells us in the sUtra bhAShya:

आत्मा हि नाम स्वरूपम् |  —  Shankara at 1.1.6, BSB.

Meaning:  Self is the same as one’s very essence. (Trans: Swami Gambhirananda).

In other words, AtmA is the basic, raw ‘beingness and knowingness’ (i.e., consciousness) of all that IS. It’s the homogeneous, impartite, unborn, eternal, immutable and infinite Oneness without any form or feature. The world we perceive through our senses and infer through mind is a superimposition on to that basic attributeless Beingness-Knowingness. The basic raw attributeless Being-Knowing is commonly indicated by the word brahman in Vedanta. Thus, the world is brahman plus a projected form and name tags ascribed to those forms.

ii).  ‘sarva‘ in general means ‘all.’ Nothing excluded. However, ‘sarva‘ in the context of ‘sarvAtmabhAva,’ from a Vedantic point of view, conveys the sense of “Infinity” as explained by Swami Madhavananda in his translation of the mantra at 1.4.9, brihadAraNyaka Upanishad. We shall come back to this in a bit.

iii).  bhAva means being; state; condition; continuance (without cessation).

sarvAtmabhava, all the three words together, connotes a ‘state of being in identity with all‘; an unbroken seamless Oneness.

We normally take ourselves as separate individuals having a definite form and certain functions that go with that form. We not only perceive a world out there different from us, but also transact with the objects in the world which we consider to be ‘not-me.’ In contrast,  Advaita Vedanta teaches us that “To Be in the State of Unbroken Identity with All” (i.e. sarvAtmabhAva) is “Liberation.” In other words, sarvAtmfabhAva is itself being as the Supreme Infinite Self into which all individuating identifiers and descriptors get deliquesced like the rivers losing their identities merging into the Ocean. Such a “Beingness” is attainment of Self-knowledge.

We shall next probe the prasthAna trayi and Shankara bhAShya-s to understand how the word “sarvAtmabhAva” is used in them and what is conveyed by it to us.

(To Continue …. Part – 2).