In this post, we will learn about a famous rishi (sage) called Ashtavakra who was the spiritual advisor to King Janaka who ruled over the Videha empire, in the present day Bihar region. Ashtavakra was a child prodigy, well versed in the Vedas and the scriptures even as a child. He was the son of the famous sage Kahoda, who lived and preached in Bihar. When Kahoda’s wife was pregnant, she would sit in on all lectured given by Kahoda, so that her baby was charged with positive vibrations from the lectures. The young foetus in his mother’s womb would sincerely listen to all the lectures and absorb all the teachings. One day Kahoda made a mistake when pronouncing some verses from the Vedas, and the foetus kicked from within his mother’s womb as a sign of noticing the mistake. When Kahoda’s wife mentioned this to her husband, Kahoda, instead of feeling proud about his son’s learning, took offense at the foetus’ impudence and cursed that the boy be born with eight deformities in his body. This is why the child was named Ashtavakra (meaning, eight deformities).There was a rumor that another profound scholar called Bandi was finding other philosophers and defeating them in philosophical debates. Scholars wanted to stay away from Bandi because, Bandi would force his losers to drown in the Ganges and give up their bodies. One day, Bandi travelled to Bihar and met Kahoda and challenged him. Kahoda was a proud man, and he accepted the challenge. As one would guess, Kahoda was defeated and had to give up his body. Ashtavakra’s mother had to raise the young boy.
Even at a very young age, the scholars and sages who lived in the hermitage began to notice how sharp Ashtavakra was in learning Sanskrit, and understanding the philosophy in the scriptures. Everyone began to regard Ashtavakra to be a child prodigy. Ashtavakra was curious to find out what had happened to his father. When the sages told him the fatal encounter with Bandi, Ashtavakra vowed to defeat Bandi and ask him to give his father back. After a decade of intensive learning and rigorous training from various masters, Ashtavakra felt confident that he would be able to defeat Bandi at this stage. And, as one would again guess, he did. It was a shame that the old and wise Bandi was defeated by a mere child! Now, being the winner, Ashtavakra could ask for a boon that Bandi cannot refuse. Instead of asking for the revival of his father alone, he asked that all the sages and philosophers that were defeated by Bandi be revived. Such was his kind heart!
Now Bandi explained to Ashtavakra, that he was not really the philosopher Bandi, but infact, the son of Varuna (the water God). Varuna was performing a yagna (sacrifice) and needed the smartest scholars from across the country to help him perform the task. Therefore Bandi was sent on the mission to collect the smartest people from earth and bring them to Varuna’s abode – the water. The yagna had lasted several years and had come to an end by the time Ashtavakra defeated Bandi. So Bandi immediately brought back all the sages from the water back to earth, to go back and continue their respective preaching. Kahoda was also revived now, and he felt ashamed at seeing how his cursed son had grown up to a deformed boy. He repented, and prayed to Bandi to lift the curse on his son, Ashtavakra. Bandi obliged and transformed the deformed Ashtavakra into a handsome young lad.
Ashtavakra stayed in his father’s hermitage until he completed his formal education as a Brahmin, and then embarked on a journey to the Himalayas where he meditated and attained the Brahman (realization). Following that, Ashtavakra realized that his duty was to spread his teachings to the world, and he came back to Bihar and instructed King Janaka on the Brahman and the Atman. The dialogue between Ashtavakra and King Janaka has been recorded in our scriptures as the Ashtavakra Samhita, commonly refered to as the Ashtavakra gita. The Ashtavakra Samhita contains deep philosophical teachings on Sanatana Dharma philosophy.
There is yet another wonderful anecdote about King Janaka’s devotion to his guru, Ashtavakra. King Janaka would go to Ashtavakra’s hermitage everyday to listen to his teachings. On certain days, due to kingly duties, King Janaka would be a few minutes late. The other disciples who always showed up on time and followed a rigorously ascetic life were discontent about the rich King Janaka also being a disciple to the great Ashtavakra. The others also felt that Ashtavakra was being partial to King Janaka. One day, Ashtavakra decided to show the others how Janaka’s devotion to learning, was far superior than theirs. As Janaka walked in late one day, Ashtavakra started the lecture saying that he was seeing a vision of Mithila (the capital city where Janaka was ruling) going down in flames that very moment, due to a random fire. After hearing this, all the other disciples panicked and rushed back home to protect their possessions and their families. On the other hand, Janaka, calmly came and sat down for the lecture. When Ashtavakra questioned him as to why he did not run to protect his belongings from his palace, he said “The only thing that is worth protecting and preserving is learning. Everything else is just material illusion.” Ashtavakra was pleased to hear this answer. After an hour, the other disciples returned to the hermitage, when they found no fire. Janaka had been sitting there all along. When they learnt of Janaka’s devotion, they were ashamed of their lowly thoughts and jealousy feelings towards Janaka.
These two stories are the most commonly known stories from Ashtavakra’s life. The Ashtavakra Gita, can be found in http://sanskritdocuments.org/all_pdf/ashtgita.pdf. Even though the text covers only 8 pages, the subject is so profound that it would take one several years to understand the depth of its teachings.