Ashtavakra Samhita

Author : Shivashankar Rao
Nov 16th, 2020
Bangalore, India

Ashtavakra is described as one born with deformities in eight limbs of the body (two feet, two knees, two hands, the chest and the head). In Sanskrit, Ashtavakra means “one having eight bends”. Ashta (IAST Aṣṭa) means eight, while Vakra means bend or deformity. Ashtavakra is the author of the work Ashtavakra Gita, also known as Ashtavakra Samhita, a treatise on the instruction by Ashtavakra to Janaka about the Self.

Ashtavakra is the Guru of the king Janaka and the sage Yajnavalkya. He was 12 years old when he taught this to Rajarshi Janaka. Ashtavakra Gita presents the traditional teachings of Advaita Vedanta. The work was known, appreciated and quoted by Ramakrishna and his disciple Vivekananda, as well as by other well known gurus. Radhakrishnan refers to it with great respect.

In Ramayana Ashtavakra is first referenced in a single verse of Yuddha Kanda in Valmiki’s Ramayana. When Dasaratha comes to see Rama from heaven after the war of the Ramayana, he tells Rama, “O son! I have been conveyed across (redeemed) by you, who are a deserving son and a great being; like the virtuous Brahmin Kahola [was redeemed] by [his son] Ashtavakra”. ॥ 6.119.17 ॥ I

In Mahabharata,In the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata, the legend of Ashtavakra is described in greater detail. On losing the game of dice with the Kauravas, the fivePandava princes and Draupadi are exiled for twelve years. On their pilgrimage, they meet the sage Lomasha, who shows the river Samanga to Yudhishthira. Lomasha says that this is the same river, on bathing in which the deformed Ashtavakra was cured of his eight deformities. On being asked by Yudhishthira, Lomasha narrates to the Pandava princes the legend of Ashtavakra, which forms three chapters of the Mahabharata.

Chapter 1:

It all starts when King Janaka asks the sage Ashtavakra how he can attain Knowledge, detachment, liberation. Ashtavakra tells him. Ashtavakra expounds to King Janaka the characteristic of the self and instructs him on the knowledge of the self that is natural and ever-existent.

Chapter 2:

It works! Upon hearing Ashtavakra’s words Janaka realizes his True Nature. Enraptured, he describes the joy and wonder of his new state. An amazed Janaka relates the joy of his own experiences on realizing the subtleties of the principles explained.

Chapter 3:

Ashtavakra is delighted for Janaka but sees inconsistencies. He fires off a series of confrontational verses about attachment to worldly pleasure. Ashtavakra deprecates the attachments within and without and enunciates the status of the realized.

Chapter 4:

Janaka asserts that the Lord of the Universe can do as he pleases. Janaka dwells at length on the glory of jnana – the state of self-realization.

Chapter 5:

Ashtavakra does not disagree, but in a terse four verses points to the next step dissolution. Ashtavakra instructs Janaka that the world and its objects and the experiences in the world are all imagines and unreal and exhorts him therefore to gain equanimity of perception and get dissolved in the self.

Chapter 6:

Janaka says “I know that already,” matching him in style and number of verses. Janaka replies that the self being the substratum of the circumscribed world of insentience, the question of rejecting it or accepting it or making it naught doesn’t arise.

Chapter 7:

Unable to leave it at that, however, Janaka goes on to further describe his enlightened state. Janaka says that the knower of the self is one who is firmly poised in the expansive or limitless experience and sees only one and therefore the world appearances create no impact either favorable or unfavorable in him; nor do they generate attraction or repulsion towards them.

Chapter 8:

Still hearing too much “I” in Janaka’s language, Ashtavakra instructs him in the subtleties of attachment and bondage. Ashtavakra then proceeds to dwell on the nature of bondage and release and reiterates the need to be ‘ego-less’ (without the ‘I’) and to remain without either accepting or rejecting.

Chapter 9:

Ashtavakra continues to describe the way of true detachment. He further affirms that knowledge dawns only when the pairs of opposites are renounced and that destruction of vasanas (desires etc) is the destruction of samsara (world) and that alone is the true state of being.

Chapter 10:

Ashtavakra hammers away at the folly of desire—no matter how elevated or subtle. Ashtavakra enjoins Janaka to eschew into virtuous conduct, wealth, enjoyment– all transitory and unreal – and thus freed of desire and therefore action stilled to rest only in bliss.

Chapter 11:

Ashtavakra further describes the state of desire-lessness to which he points. The way of the world in its entirety is the ‘dharma’ (the innate feature) of nature. The cause of grief is “thoughts”. Only the one who stays firmly anchored in Atman – the substratum of all – will enjoy the bliss of peace.

Chapter 12:

Janaka replies by describing the state of timeless stillness in which he now finds himself. Janaka speaks of the state of abiding in the self as self, totally detached from all deeds – physical, mental and vocal.

Chapter 13:

Janaka, having been instructed by Ashtavakra in Chapter One to “be happy,” reports that he indeed is. Janaka dwells on the experience of beatitude in abiding as self – the natural state – absolutely thought free.

Chapter 14:

Janaka then summarizes his exalted state with calm indifference. Janaka states that none can comprehend the ways of a jnani who roams the world with perfect freedom with content less (devoid of thoughts) mind as his very nature and therefore desire less and anchored firmly in the awareness of ‘Being’.

Chapter 15:

Impressed but not through teaching, Ashtavakra relentlessly points to the vast emptiness of Self. That – the very embodiment of knowledge, the substratum of the world which keeps alternating between appearance and the disappearance – art thou. That true content that disappears with the desire for the objects of the world and appears with the removal of it art Thou. Thou alone art everything. Therefore be ever I bliss absolutely free of thought – positive or negative – or contemplation of the goal.

Chapter 16:

Ashtavakra attacks the futility of effort and knowing. Ashtavakra instructs further that the beatitude of the Atman is gained by merely forgetting everything (all the non-self). The state of supreme bliss is the state of objectless awareness devoid of effort of any kind. To abide in it, one must remain freed of likes and dislikes, ‘I and mine’ and thoughts.

Chapter 17:

Ashtavakra describes the nature of one who is truly free. Ashtavakra describes the exalted and in describable nature of the ‘Atmarama’ who revels in the self and who enjoys the same bliss whatever he is faced with.

Chapter 18:

Finally, Ashtavakra hits him with everything he’s got—100 verses of pure non-duality. If this doesn’t do it, nothing will. Abidance in one’s natural state of quiescence by renouncing everything else is bliss. All other sadhanas are first for novices. One who abides as self stands apart from the ways of the world duty, dualities and mistaken thoughts are not for hum. His nature is wonderful. Freedom from bondage alone bestows this exalted state. A jnani the ‘dhira’ stands heads and shoulders above the hapless ignorant. The bond-free natural state of a jnani is more beatific than the rulebound state of a sadhak. Only a jnani can know another jnani. He abides forever in the non-dual state with no ‘other’ or a second- the cause of attachment and aversion. Viewing equally life and death, solitude and maddening crowd he will be anchored firmly in the true content. (Thus Ashtavakra expatriates)

Chapter 19:

It works! Janaka no longer describes his enlightened state, but can speak only in questions revealing absence. Janaka affirms his firm abidance in the glory of the self; by his non-mediated experience of jnana gained by hamstring all thoughts –positive and negative. He further declares that except the glory of the self, he has nothing else.

Chapter 20:

In a final flurry of questions pointing only at their own meaninglessness, Janaka burns off the last vestiges of person-hood and enters dissolution. He ends with: “No more can be said.” Ashtavakra smiles, nods approvingly, and says no more. Janaka conclusively affirms that in them who is pure awareness personified there exist neither the instruments of action, nor of perception, none whatsoever of the dualities, the triads of actions, the world, the jivas; maya, samsara and mukti.