The statement, “I am Brahman” is the English translation of the Mantra “ Aham Brahmasmi” that appears in Brihadharanyaka Upanishad. We can split this statement into two parts ‘I am’ and ‘Brahman’ and analyse what this statement conveys.
‘I am’ is a simple statement that any live human being can make. From this statement can you guess the sex, age, religion, colour, or nationality of the person who makes it or has made it? No. It is a simple statement of awareness applicable to male or female, young, old, middle age or child; Hindu, Muslim, Christian or of any other religion or its sub-division. In fact it is valid for every human being on this planet, why to every living being, if they could speak. Let us now limit our analysis to human beings. In that sense though it is individualistic, in that it is applicable to an individual, it is also universal in that it can apply to any individual. Simple ‘I am’, we can call the statement of oneness as it is same for one and all, becomes a statement of separation when we add our name and form to it, form that includes our educational, professional and achievement details, in short our personality details. ‘I am’, the Consciousness is our real Self and our personality details constitute our ego self. ‘I am”, I call the real Self as it is unchanging from birth to death while everything else about us keep on changing and is a statement of our consciousness and existence without any qualifications. We are the mix of our real Self and the ego self. The ego self sets one individual apart from the other, while the real Self is identical for all humans. Normally we refer to our ego self only, by the simple I and the real Self by Athma.
Brahman, a Sanskrit word, stands for the Cosmic Supreme that is behind and beyond all creation. This is just a word that is a pointer to the Supreme as the Supreme has no form or name and is beyond any conceptualisation or objectification. The word Brahman itself means big, to signify that it is simply big without any limitation as to size or dimension, indicating that it is bigger than anything you can possibly think or conceive. This we can see from the way Upanishads try to define the indefinable Brahman. One method is to say it negatively i.e. what it is not. In Mundakopanishad, Brahman is described as one having no sense organs, one that cannot be seen, one that has no attributes, one that cannot be grasped, one that has no origin, in Mantra 1.1.6. The other method is to describe it in such a way that you cannot form a picture of it from the description. In the above mantra in the latter part Brahman is described as all-pervading, subtler than the subtlest and imperishable. Brahman is also described as pure Existence and pure Consciousness in Taittreya Upanishad.
When the translation is read as such without splitting into the two parts and equating them, it means the ego self, I, is the same as Cosmic Supreme, Brahman, which appears incorrect on the face of it. But if we split it into two parts ‘I am’ and ‘Brahman’ and then equate them, the statement then means one’s real Self, Athma is the same as the Cosmic Supreme, Brahman. It is like the waves and the ocean being equated as one on the basis both are water only . The Mantra in original is termed Mahavakhya, as it reveals the identity of Jivathma, individual’s real Self with Paramathma, Cosmic Supreme. To bring out this meaning clearly in the translation, I feel the translation must read as “’I am’ is Brahman”, instead of “I am Brahman”. This does not affect the original Mantra, only it brings out the meaning more clearly in the translation, for in the original Mantra, I, the ego, is not equated with Brahman but ‘I am’, the Consciousness and Existence, is only equated with Brahman, that is also Existence and Consciousness. Language purists, please excuse.