This article was first published in two installments in The Mountain Path: 1992, pp. 26-35 and pp. 126-42. More extensive annotations can be found there.
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)
The word ‘Heart’, which appears twice in this passage, was often used by Bhagavan as a synonym for the Self. In Tamil the identity between the terms ‘Heart’ and ‘I am’ is clearly evident since the single word ullam can mean either ‘am’ or ‘the Heart’. In Arunachala Pancharatnam, for example, Bhagavan wrote, ‘Since you shine as ”I” in the Heart, your name itself is Heart’. This can be expanded to mean, ‘Since you shine as ”I” in the ”I am”, which is the Heart, your name itself [I am] is the Heart’.
Bhagavan often cited the Bible, and in particular the statement ‘I am that I am’, to support his contention that God’s real nature was ‘I am’. Since this quotation and other similar biblical texts are regarded as a divine revelation of truth by both the Jewish and Christian religions, I intend in this article to examine them in some detail in order to point out what the Jewish and Christian religions made of these statements and to show how their interpretations differed from those put forward by Bhagavan.
The following extract from Talks is a good place to start:
‘I am’ is the name of God. Of all the definitions of God, none is so well put as the biblical statement ‘I am that I am’ in Exodus chapter three. There are other statements such as brahmavaiham [Brahman am I], aham brahmasmi [I am Brahman] and soham [I am He]. But none is so direct as Jehovah [which means] ‘I am’. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 106)
The biblical quote comes from an Old Testament story that tells of an encounter between God and Moses. God, manifesting Himself as a voice, introduces Himself by saying, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:6). God appointed Moses to represent the Israelites, who were then living as slaves in Egypt, in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh. He wanted Moses to plead their case with the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and to lead them out of captivity. Moses asked for more information:
3.13 Then Moses said to God: ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ”The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask, ”What is his name?” what shall I say to them?
3.14 God said to Moses, ‘I am that I am’. And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ”I am has sent me to you”.
3.15 ‘… this is my name for ever and ever and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’
This revelation of the divine name ‘I am’ was an immensely significant moment in the history of Judaism, but to understand why, one needs to look closely at the Jewish attitude towards names and the naming of objects.
According to the Jews of the biblical period, to have no name meant to have no existence in reality, for when one’s name is taken away from one, one ceases, quite literally, to exist. The giving of a name, therefore, is not merely an act of identification; it actually brings into existence the object named and summarises verbally its inherent properties. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God gives reality to His creation by naming its components: He names the day ‘day’, the night ‘night’, the sea ‘sea’, and so on (Genesis 1:3-10). Only by doing so can He bring them into a real and permanent existence. For the same reason He commanded Adam to give a name to each of the animals (Genesis 2:20). As for the name of God Himself, He had been called by several names prior to His famous declaration ‘I am that I am’: ‘El‘ and ‘Elohim‘, meaning ‘God’, and ‘Shaddai‘, meaning ‘Almighty’. But these names were not revealed by God Himself, they were merely convenient designations attributed to Him by a people who were as yet ignorant of His true name. When God finally revealed His name to be ‘I am’, He became more of a living reality to the Jews, and more accessible to them. A Roman Catholic biblical scholar explains why:
Israelite thought in the biblical era lacked the discursive reasoning developed by Greek philosophy and was incapable of general and abstract speculation. In Hebrew ‘to know God’ is to encounter a personal reality; and a person is not known unless his name is known… To know the name is to know the reality named. Hence, knowledge of God is disclosed in His name. (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 737)
This intimate relationship between a name and the person who owns it can be clearly seen in many biblical stories, for the names in the Old Testament are not given out accidentally: the name of each character reveals and signifies the essence, the chief personality trait or the most memorable action done by the person so named. If a person in the Old Testament transformed his character or was inspired or motivated by God to begin a new way of life, God Himself sometimes changed the person’s name so that the new name accurately reflected the changed situation. Jacob, for example, tricked his blind father into giving him a blessing that should have rightly gone to his brother (Genesis 27:6). The word Jacob literally means ‘a cheat’. Later he wrestled with an angel of God and fought so tenaciously, not giving up even after dislocating a hip, that he forced the angel to give him a blessing (Genesis 32:28). The blessing was a change of name and consequently a change of character and essence. No longer would he be called Jacob, meaning ‘cheat’. He was transformed into Israel, meaning ‘God strove’ or ‘one who strove with God’. One could cite numerous other examples but two will suffice. When Abram, meaning ‘High Father’, made his covenant with God, and God then promised him that he would found the Jewish race, He Himself ordered Abram to change his name to Abraham, which means ‘Father of a multitude’. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was originally called Sarai, which means ‘mockery’. She was the one who had laughed at God when He had promised that she would conceive a son, even though she was ninety years old. When the son arrived and God promised Abraham that among his descendants would be several kings, He ordered Abraham to change his wife’s name to Sarah, meaning princess, since she would be the cofounder of this royal line.
Set against this background one can now easily imagine the significance of God revealing for the first time what His real name was. He had been asked before but prior to this moment He had declined to give an answer. In the eyes of the Jews, by declaring Himself to be ‘I am’ God was not merely giving Himself a convenient designation or title, He was revealing to humanity for the first time His real nature, His real essence and His real identity.
The phrase ‘I am that I am’, in which God first reveals Himself to be ‘I am’, is one of the most famous statements in the Bible and it has consequently attracted a lot of critical attention. It is clear that God is making a very important and fundamental statement about Himself, but there has been wide disagreement among biblical scholars about its true significance. Bhagavan put his own interpretation on the phrase, as can be seen from the following quotation, but it is not one which would appeal to many biblical scholars:
The essence of mind is only awareness or consciousness. When the ego, however, dominates it, it functions as the reasoning, thinking or sensing faculty. The cosmic mind, being not limited by the ego, has nothing separate from itself and is therefore only aware. That is what the Bible means by ‘I am that I am’. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 188)
The differing opinions among theologians on the meaning and significance of ‘I am that I am’ have primarily arisen because no one can be really sure what the original Hebrew meant. Everyone agrees that the original phrase ‘ehyeh aser ehyeh‘ is derived form an archaic Hebrew form of the verb ‘to be’, but there the agreement ends. One school of thought maintains that since in Hebrew the present and future tenses are identical, ehyeh might mean either ‘I am’ or ‘I will be’. One variation of this theory has God say ‘I am what I will be’, meaning, ‘What I am now is what I will always be’. Others have postulated that ehyeh is not ‘I am’ but ‘I cause to be’. Thus, instead of saying, ‘I am that I am’ God is saying, in effect, ‘I cause to be whatever comes into being’, or something similar. This explanation has found much favour among the Christian theologians who prefer to see God as a creator rather than as pure being.
There is yet another theory which does not depend on grammatical niceties. In the ancient semitic world – we are here talking about more than 3,000 years ago – it was widely believed that anyone who knew a name had power over the being so titled. According to this theory, when Moses asked God for His name, God declined by giving the evasive answer ‘I am what I am’. Proponents of this theory maintained that if He had revealed His true name, whatever it might be, it would have given Moses some power or hold over Him, and that would have been unacceptable because it would have diminished His transcendental omnipotence.
In modern times such a theory sounds amusing rather than plausible, but it cannot be denied that in the Old Testament era names were zealously guarded for precisely the reasons given in the preceding paragraph. After Jacob had wrestled with the angel in the story I have already told, he asked the angel for his name, but the angel refused to disclose it, possibly fearing that Jacob might use it to gain some power over him (Genesis 32:29). In another interesting story, Manoah, the father of Samson, asked another angel of God:
‘What is your name, for we shall want to know it when your words come true?’ The angel of the Lord said to him, ‘How can you ask my name? It is a name of wonder.’ (Judges 13:16-19)
Those who believe that God was merely being evasive when He said ‘I am that I am’ are in a minority for most authorities concede that the significance of the name is contained in the meaning of the word ehyeh, usually translated as ‘I am’.
Though God clearly refers to Himself as ‘I am’ in Exodus 3:14, and though He specifically stated in the next verse that this was the name by which He wanted to be remembered, this was not the name that the Jews subsequently used. They preferred the name Yahweh, which is the third person singular of the present tense of the same archaic form of the verb ‘to be’. So, instead of referring to Him as ‘I am’, the ancient Jews and the compilers of the Old Testament always called him Yahweh, meaning ‘He is’ or ‘He who is’. ‘I am’ was too holy a name for the Jews to use, and even the euphemism ‘He who is’ was so sacred and holy to them, it was never spoken by ordinary people. Only the high priest of the temple was permitted to say it out loud, and even he was only permitted to utter it once a year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.