Epics for children: the significance of Ashtavakra Gita

While everybody has heard of the Bhagavad Gita, not many are aware that there are 25 Gitas in all. One of these is the Ashtavakra Gita. Scholars rate it as highly as the Bhagavad Gita, yet it is virtually unknown among common people. This book is in the form of a dialogue between Ashtavakra, and king Janaka of Mithila. Ashtavakra was a sage whose body was deformed in eight places. Thus, he got this name where ashta means eight and vakra means deformed.

The Mahabharata tells the story of how he became deformed. When Ashtavakra was in the womb of his mother, he used to hear his father Kahor, a scholar, recite the Vedas. Ashtavakra was so intelligent that, though unborn, he learnt the Vedas. One day, he politely pointed out mistakes in his father’s recitation. Though he was correct, his enraged father cursed him and he was born with deformities in his arms, back and legs.

Kahor went to King Janaka’s court and engaged in shastrartha (intellectual debate) with Sri Bandi, the court philosopher. He was defeated and had to work for Sri Bandi. When Ashtavakra was 12 years old, he learnt about his father and immediately left for Videha, the capital of King Janaka. When he arrived in the city, the King, who was taking rounds there, noticed him. Ashtavakra saw Janaka staring at his crooked form and said, “Just as the shape of a temple does not affect the sky, the crookedness of my body has no effect on the atma. A wise man looks at the reality behind the appearances while an ignorant man gets lost in forms.”

Janaka was highly impressed by the young boy’s intelligence and took him to the palace. After honouring Ashtavakra, he engaged in a dialogue with him. This is the Ashtavakra Gita consisting of 303 verses. Its key teaching is that you are not your body; you are atma. You will remain even when the body dies. It also emphasises the unity of beings, saying—you are all beings and all beings are you.

The Ashtavakra Gita maintains that the world is an illusion, not a reality. There is an interesting analogy. Imagine, you are sleeping in a room where a piece of rope is lying. You wake up in the middle of the night and look at the rope, and in your sleep think it to be a snake. You are convinced that there is a snake in the room, unable to see the reality that it is a rope. Similarly, due to a lack of knowledge, human beings may think that this world is real, but the actual reality lies hidden behind the appearances of this world.

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