The highest knowledge in the Hindu religious and spiritual tradition is pronounced in its sacred scriptures. Hindus have two categories of scriptures: Shruti and Smiriti. The Shruti includes the primary scriptures of Hinduism called Vedas, which teach the highest truths ever known to the human race. Vedas are the supreme authority in Hinduism. The word Veda is derived from the root word Vid, meaning ‘to know.’
The word Shruti in Sanskrit means, “That which is heard.” Thus the Vedas are the eternal truths that the Vedic seers, called rishis, are said to have heard during their deep meditations. These truths were orally transmitted by the rishis to their disciples over thousands of years. At a later date, these were compiled by a prominent ancient Sage Vyasa for the benefit of the future generations. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda.
Each Veda is divided into four main sections: Samhitas (or mantras), Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. Samhitas are the basic texts containing hymns of prayer and worship. Brahmanas emphasize and discuss the sacrificial rituals and the correct techniques for their performance.
Aranyakas (“the forest books,” i.e. the books meditated upon in the seclusion of the forests) mark a transition from the Brahmanical sacrificial rituals to the philosophical and metaphysical speculation, which eventually culminated into the Upanishadic thought. Aranyakas provide mystical interpretations of the mantras and rituals, put together in the seclusion of the forests, which ultimately gave rise to asceticism. The knowledge attained by ascetics was viewed as revelations.
Upanishads are the divine revelations received by ancient rishis. The word Upanishad consists of three parts: Upa (near), Ni (down), and Shad (sit). Thus, Upanishad means, “sitting near a teacher and receiving the secret teachings.” The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas. The knowledge based upon the Upanishads is called Vedanta, literally “the end of the Vedas.” The word end here means that there is no knowledge higher than the Upanishads. They are the end of knowledge, i.e. the highest knowledge. The Bhagavad Gita is a summary of the Upanishads and is included in the Shruti category.
Smiriti are the secondary scriptures in Hinduism. The word Smiriti means “that which is remembered.” Smiriti scriptures were written in ancient times by many sages to explain and elaborate the Vedas, making them understandable and more meaningful to the general population. All authoritative writings in the Hindu tradition outside the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita are collectively referred to as Smiriti. If there is a conflict between the Shruti and the Smiriti scriptures, the former takes the precedence.
Each of the four Vedas includes one mahavakya, meaning the “greatest utterance or saying” or “highest truth.” Thus, the highest knowledge of each of the Vedas is contained in its associated mahavakya. The four mahavakyas of the four Vedas are:
Aham Brahmasmi – I am Brahman. This is from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the Yajurveda.
This mantra affirms that an individual is essentially Brahman (spirit or consciousness) dwelling in a physical body. The spirit is immortal, whereas the physical body is subject to death and decay. In the absence of the spirit, the body is dead, and in the absence of the body, the spirit cannot manifest itself in the phenomenal world.
Tat Tvam Asi – That thou art (or That is what you are). This is from Chandogya Upanishad of the Samaveda.
In this mantra “That” refers to Brahman, the Absolute. The meaning of this mantra is that the essential Self of every human being is Brahman.
Prajnanam Brahma – Consciousness is Brahman. This is from Aitareya Upanishad of the Rig Veda.
Ayam Atma Brahma – This Self (atman) is Brahman. This is from Mundaka Upanishad of the Atharva Veda.
While each mahavakya represents a unique contemplation, the above four mahavakyas are inter-connected and teach the same truth: the true nature of every human being is consciousness. In other words, one’s true Self is consciousness. This is the highest spiritual knowledge in the Hindu religious and spiritual tradition.
What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is what we all have, yet very little is known about it. Consciousness is that which is ever present and aware. It is not a thing or an object of any kind. It has no dimensions and is thus beyond the reach of thought. Consciousness is the knowing element of our minds, yet it is beyond the mind to grasp. Without consciousness we cannot know our daily experience. All that can be said about consciousness is that ‘It is.’ When the mind is stilled into silence, the objectless consciousness shines as it is. This shinning forth of the consciousness is known as Self-awakening or Self-realization.
The first Shiva Sutra says, “Chaitanyam Atma,” meaning “The Self is consciousness.” Swami Lakshmanjoo says that the word ‘Atma’ means “the reality of everything.” Thus, consciousness is our true Self and is also the ultimate source of everything in the universe. In other words, our Self is consciousness, our minds are the activity of consciousness and our bodies and all other matter in the universe is differentiated consciousness. In this world, nothing exists which is outside the range of consciousness. Consciousness is all there is.
Nature of Consciousness
The infinite and ever present consciousness is unknown and unknowable by the finite mind. Only consciousness knows itself. The best the mind can surmise is that consciousness is absolute existence (sat), absolute knowledge (chit) and absolute bliss (ananda) or sat-chit-ananda. Sat denotes being beyond sat (existence) and asat (non-existence). Chit denotes being beyond chit (knowledge) and achit (ignorance) and ananda denotes being beyond ananda (bliss) and anananda (misery). The essential nature of consciousness is to be eternally present and aware, just as it is the nature of the sun to shine. Consciousness is aware of itself by simply by being itself, just as the sun illumines itself simply by being itself.
Peace and Happiness
As long as we hold on to our mistaken perception (the default condition of human brain) that we are a body-mind apparatus and nothing else, short moments of happiness and long periods of unhappiness will always alternate in our lives. To attain permanent peace and happiness, which is the essential nature of our Self, we must substitute the ‘I am the body-mind’ idea with the highest spiritual knowledge: Aham Brahmasmi or Shivoham, i.e. ‘I am consciousness.’ To begin with, this highest knowledge is only the intellectual knowledge until it is realized through one’s own contemplation. There are two practical steps to this investigation. First, the knowledge Aham Brahmasmi must sink deep into our being so it is always remembered without any effort. For example, if you are a mother or a father, what do you do to remember this fact? Do you stand in front of a mirror now and then to remind yourself? Or do you need to see your children once in a while to remind you that you are a mother or a father? The answer is obviously no. The knowledge that you are a mother or a father has sunk very deep in your psyche. It will never be forgotten. You don’t need any external means to remember it. In the same way, the knowledge Aham Brahmasmi or Shivoham must sink very deep in your psyche so you can remember it naturally without any external effort. This self-remembering can be done by silently chanting Aham Brahmasmi mantra or Shivoham (or any other sacred mantra) more often during waking hours until it sinks deep within. The second step is to pour your heart into your daily meditation. Daily meditation should be made a regular habit to succeed. Meditation helps to calm the mind. A calm mind is the door to permanent peace and happiness, which is the essential nature of our Self.
The highest spiritual knowledge is Aham Brahmasmi or Shivoham, meaning ‘I am consciousness.’ Consciousness is our Beloved Parma Shiva, who is full of bliss, bestowing joy transcendent, essence of wisdom, untouched by duality, clear as the taintless sky, the one, eternal pure, immutable, omnipresent witness, beyond the reach of thought. This ever present self-aware infinite consciousness is the home of our minds. More often the mind comes home (observing moments of silence in waking hours) after its wandering in the objective world, more refreshed it gets with ever new energy, wisdom, peace and happiness. Om Shiva.