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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ashtavakra Gita

The indian subcontinent from time immemorial has had no dearth of wise men whose wisdom radiated from their analytical and/or experiential studies. Ashtavakra as an experiential yogi is a fine example in this regard. His studies and experiences focus on man and universe, inner and outer world, being and knowing. As the legend goes, he learned and realised the Vedas while still in his mother's womb. When father Kagola recited scriptures, at times incorrectly, as a result he used to twist his body in pain and when he was born, his body was crooked in eight parts. Thus the name Ashtavakra, meaning Eight Crooks. (another version is that the faulty father cursed his son out of rage for objecting in his recitals.) During that time in court of King Janaka of Mithila, there was one pundit, Vandi whose hobby was to drown people who lost to him in polemical contest. The ill fated Kagola also went to challenge and lost.

When he grows up, Ashtavakra, a master of scriptures in a very young age, also goes on to challenge the pundit. Inside the palace, courtiers poke fun at his crookedness. They become even more severe as they find out he has come to challenge Vandi. A calm Ashtavakra responses, " I didn't know this place had ignorant cobblers.” Janaka asks, " Why do you say so? "Because" replies he, " all they see is skin and flesh-bones beneath it; unaware of the inner" Consequently, he proceeds on to beat Vandi. Janaka is impressed and later asks Ashtavakra to be his teacher, his guide. Ashtavakra Gita is a dialogue in Sanskrit verse, a duet which is an effective form of sharing knowledge and wisdom. Rather than going, with futility, into whether Ashtavakra and Janaka were historical figures who actually lived or were just fictional characters composed by mature minds, it would be fruitful to concentrate on teachings.

As all great teachings of the world, Ashtavakra Gita also underlines grace and dignity of human life. It considers everyone equally qualified to be on a road to Bliss-pur provided one has an aptitude, attitude. That way one can board the vehicle called mind. A simple trick is not to look forward or backward but inward. And you will be swept along without any effort. Spontaneous. When you are aware of this spontaneousness, you have already parked and left the vehicle aside.

According to the treatise, mind is a vehicle as is body, words, language, teacher or even the treatise itself. At best, it can generate a sense of direction toward the absolute. Hence, Ashtavakra takes aid of symbols, images, paradoxes, examples to convey the incomprehensible, the inexpressible that is only to be understood, realised, experienced. Then a different mind, an equanimous, aware mind emerges and produces compassion and practical sensibility in our lives rather than blindly following the texts without discernment. However, there is a risk. To talk about it is to invite trouble, to describe it is to fall in the trap. But as a great sage he is, he takes calculated risk as he has to guide his pupil in a medium accessible.

As a great sage he is, he is an embodiment of compassion and in the very beginning introduces Janaka to the essence. This permanent and independent essence, he remarks, is not body nor mind but something that watches both --- the witness. It does not do or indulge and it is not suffering or feeling joy. It is not in the domain of the senses. It is what it is, self-existent, without beginning or end, luminous knowledge. This ancient wisdom proceeds on. Sometimes the student understands, sometimes he doubts. The teacher clears doubts and checks the student. Sometimes Janaka tells about his experiences. Ashtavakra keeps on clarifying. At last, a stage is reached when he is convinced that the king has perfected the teachings and there is no more need to continue. This is when all dualities and antidotes are gotten rid of. But before that, elaborating, the sage instructs that ego prevents us from seeing things as they really are. We see things in their apparent reality and consider them to be real. This apparent is compared to the lion of the dream. In the dream, we are scared of the lion thinking it to be real and find it unreal in waking up. Or when there is this classical illusion of rope imagined as serpent. When visible knowledge dawns, rope is not seen anymore as a serpent.

This applies to all things we see, hear, taste, smell, feel and cognize. Hence name of the game is perspective and surpassing it. Ashtavakra uses examples of inseparateness of gold and its ornaments, ocean and waves, space and jars and so on to demonstrate the non- dual and to bring clarity to Janaka. Every verse in Ashtavakra Gita is a gem in the treasure and its contemplation leads one to path of realization. Take the one about waked, dream and deep sleep states. As for waked, it is the state when and where we are awake and conscious of world around us. The dream one wherein we are not conscious of the world and there is another world, a subtle one. Deep sleep is the one when we are neither conscious nor dreaming, a state in which mind and body are relaxed and asleep. After waking up in the morning, we do know we had a sound sleep previous night. So if mind and body were asleep, how did we know we had a sound sleep? According to ancient wisdom, this knower is the essence ------ the eternal witness always present in us and beyond space and time. This knower which knows above three states and is also beyond them is the fourth state or turia (fourth). Our memory derives information off it and next morning we say we had a very good night sleep.

As Janaka is enlightened, he generates a sense of direction toward enlightenment. He implies that he is devoid of conflict and antidote. Since he resides in the ownness, seeing himself and the world in exactness, no longer to him it makes sense to say what is waked state, dream state and deep sleep state. When you completely get rid of something or non-something, conflicts or antidotes, there is neither conflict nor non-conflict, neither duality nor non-duality, neither space nor void, neither time nor timeless, neither atman nor non-atman, and so on. Aware of the spontaneous, you have left the vehicle aside. Do you carry the boat even after crossing the river?

This is when and where Ashtavakra Gita stops. The sage is convinced that the king has perfected the teaching. Janaka has pierced the words and gone beyond. Reading between the lines or rather `Hearing between the lines` may be the right expression.

(This write-up of mine was published in The Kathmandu Post )

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