Sage Ashtavakra and Ashtavakra Gita

Sage Ashtavakra appears to have lived in the Vedic age or immediately in the post-Vedic age as his story is mentioned in Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas as well. He also finds a mention in the Chandogya Upanishad as rishi running a Vedic school (Ashrama) for teaching the knowledge of Vedas. The name Ashtavakra literally implies "eight bends", suggesting the eight physical deformities or handicaps that he had acquired since birth. His maternal grandfather was the Vedic sage Aruni, also known as Uddalaka, running own Vedic school and Ashtavakra’s parents were the former’s student Kahoda and daughter Sujata.

According to a legend, when Sujata was pregnant, the developing baby heard chanting of Vedas in the Ashrama and imbibed its correct recitation and pronunciation. One day, his father was reciting verses from the Vedas, but erred in correct intonation. The baby Ashtavakra spoke from the mother’s womb pointing out eight mistakes of his father for correct recitation. However, the father got annoyed and cursed him to be born with eight deformities, that led to his nomenclature as 'Ashtavakra' on birth. On the request of his mother, the father Kahoda went to Janaka, an ancient king of Videha (also Mithila), to seek riches for the improvement of the pecuniary condition of family so as to render a good care and education of their yet to born child. However, he was defeated by another scholar Vandin in the king’s court in debate and was immersed in water as per the condition of debate.

Ashtavakra’s mother kept it a secret from the son on her father Sage Aruni’s advice. Accordingly, he grew assuming Aruni as his father but one day the truth was revealed to him by his cousin Svetketu and he decided to visit king’s court in Videha to face Vandin who was responsible for his father’s nemesis. Accompanied with mother, he was initially stopped from entering the court but after learning about his proficiency in Vedic knowledge at this early age, the king allowed him to participate in the ensuing debate. In a well-contested debate that ensued thereafter, he defeated Vandin and in return he sought the same fate to Vandin as of his father. Vandin, however, revealed that none of the brahmanas defeated by him were actually drowned; instead, they were detained only to carry out a ritual involving long period. As the ritual was complete by now, Ashtavakra was free to take his father back with him. While returning, Ashtavakra’s deformities too were cured after taking a holy dip in the River Samanga on his father’s advice.

Notwithstanding the aforesaid story with a likelihood of some extraneous elements added over the centuries passed, the Ashtavakra is known as an accomplished sage of the Vedic age with his own Ashrama and traditions. His main contribution has been Ashtavakra Gita or Ashtavakra Samhita wherein the concept of Atman and Brahman has been dealt with at length and ample clarity in concordance with the prevailing concepts in the Vedas and Upanishads. It is written in the form of a dialogue between the Sage Ashtavakra and King Janaka of Videha on the nature of soul, Supreme Reality and bondage. It strengthens the non-dualistic (monism) philosophy, talks about the complete unreality of external world and absolute oneness of existence.

According to many Hindu texts, the living beings have a gross body (prone to destruction) and a subtle body (immortal). Individual Self refers to the latter which is commonly known as Atman (soul) or Jiva. This embodied soul pervades gross or physical body from birth to death, and thereafter too its transmigration continues till Moksha is achieved. The cycle of birth, death and transmigration through rebirth together represents bondage.

The soul is eternal, everlasting and ever-unchanging as it can neither be created nor ever destroyed by any weapon, fire, water or air, or by any other means. As along as it resides a body, it enlivens, energises, moves and directs the body, mind and all senses, and after the death of body, it transmigrates till it finally merges with Brahman. According to Hindu texts including Ashtavakra Gita, Brahman is the metaphysical concept of Supreme Soul or Universal God, Who is believed to be all pervasive, infinite, eternal and cause of all occurrences in universe.

Religion is basically a matter of faith as people can experience godly feelings or attributes but none can vouch to have physically seen Him because He is formless (like many other emotions or attributes such as love, hate, anger, pity, and so on). Hindu definition looks logical and fits well for humanity as it talks of "Sarva Dharmah Sambhav" ( All religions meet same end) while others talk like "only my religion" or "only my god is true." According to the Advaita Vedanta, basic nature of God (Brahman) and soul (Atman) is same, but the latter imbibes impurities in contact of the gross body that leads to bondage (cycle of birth, death and rebirth). Hence in Hinduism, the ultimate aim of life has been set as the achievement of Moksha or liberation (i.e., merger or absorption of soul in Supreme Soul).

More By  :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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Comments on this Blog

Comment Its a delightful story of Sage
Ashtavakra to ponder on.
In every verse he takes you
to Your true Self. No explanations or arguments
but straight to who you are
ever detached from every thing
possibly you can imagine.

Swami Sarvapriyananda ji
of New York Vedanta Center
has awesomely explained
parts of Ashtavakra Gita in last so many years. A book you can
fall in love with in your journey
to your own Self.

asha nigam
19-Jun-2022 10:48 AM

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