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David Godman

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In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad there is a verse that describes how, at the beginning of the universe, the Self became aware of itself as 'I':

In the beginning this [universe] was the Self alone… He [the Self] reflected and saw nothing but the Self. He first said, 'I am He'. Therefore He came to be known by the name aham ['I'].(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, tr. Swami Nikhilananda: from The Upanishads, vol. 3, 1975 ed., p. 11)

'I' thus became the first name of God. Bhagavan corroborated the sentiments expressed in this verse when he told a devotee, 'The one, infinite, unbroken whole [plenum] became aware of itself as ''I''. This is its original name. All other names, for example Om, are later growths.' (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 9)

On another occasion Bhagavan, commenting on this famous verse from the Upanishads, explained how, due to a felicitous combination of letters, the name aham not only denoted the subjective nature of God but also implied that it encompassed and constituted all of the manifest universe:

The talk then turned to the name of God and Bhagavan said, 'Talking of all mantras, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says 'aham' [I] is the first name of God. The first letter in Sanskrit is 'A' and the last letter 'Ha' and 'aha' thus includes everything from beginning to end. The word ayam means 'that which exists', Self-shining and Self-evident. Ayam, atma and aham all refer to the same thing . (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 22nd November 1945)

The name aham merely indicates that God experiences himself subjectively as 'I'. When one adds the word 'am' to the name there is the further implication that God is, that God is being itself. Bhagavan expounded on this idea in Guru Vachaka Kovai and then went on to say that 'I am' is not merely the first name of God, it is also the most appropriate:

Since along with 'I', the aforementioned first name [mentioned in the previous verse], 'am' always shines as the light of reality, 'I am' is also the name. Among the many thousands of names of God, no name suits God, who abides in the Heart, devoid of thought, so aptly as 'I' or 'I am'. Of all the known names of God, 'I', 'I' alone will resound triumphantly when the ego is destroyed, rising as the silent supreme word [mauna para vak] in the Heart-space of those whose attention is Selfward-facing.(Guru Vachaka Kovai, vv. 713-5)

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