FINGER-pointing is a gesture generally discouraged in polite society. Having someone point a finger at you can be jarring or unsettling. However, if the finger belongs to one’s parent or to a dear and respected teacher, accompanied by an attentive gaze and direct vocative address, the experience can be powerfully awakening. According to the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, such was the experience of a young man whose father-turned-guru spoke to him directly and particularly with the words tattvamasi, Śvetaketo, “Thou art that, O Śvetaketu.”2

The intimacy of this encounter between father and son is easily overlooked, despite its familiarity to those who study Vedānta. As one of only a handful of mahāvākyāni, or “great sentences,” the significance of the text all too often overshadows the specific context of its utterance. In part, this is because we tend to experience the text as a text, which is to say as “scripture” or sacred writing. The reading context differs substantially from the literary context, meaning that the words on the page are read and absorbed in a very different context than that between father and son, teacher and student. Nine times in the Chāndogya, Uddālaka concludes his teachings about Brahman by addressing his son directly in the vocative: “Thou art that, O Śvetaketu.”

Grammatically, the words “that” and “thou” (tat and tvam) are indexicals. As such, their meaning changes according to context. In the context of the intimate exchange between Uddālaka and Śvetaketu, the word “that” (tat) unambiguously refers to Brahman as Brahman has been described in each of the nine teachings. When this same intimate exchange is encountered as a written text, the indexicality of the word “that” remains unambiguous. Much like the index at the end of a book, the word “that” points to another part of the text, i.e., the teaching that immediately precedes it. The referential meaning of the word does not change when the spoken word is recorded in a text.