Ashtavakra's advice to King Janaka to free himself from the desire to react and connect with the universal divine energy within.
Belavadi Shankar is a retired doctor who has a keen interest in Vedanta philosophy. He currently resides in Bangalore.
[Note: Janaka was an enlightened king and appears in a few Upanishads. He was a student of Ashtavakra. This Essay is based on a book titled ‘The Ancient Wisdom of ASHTAVAKRA’ by Manuel Schoch (1). The book vividly describes the advice given to King Janaka by Ashtavakra.]
Background: Ashtavakra’s father Kahola was a Vedanta scholar, and a disciple of the great sage Uddalaka, whose daughter Sujata, married Kahola. When Sujata was pregnant, the baby in the womb was already in possession of Vedantic Knowledge; maybe inherited from Uddalaka’s genius. Sujata wanted her child to be the greatest scholar of Vedanta. So she would sit in the teaching sessions during her pregnancy, when Uddalaka taught Kahola. Whenever his father mispronounced a Sanskrit word or made any mistakes while reciting Sanskrit Hymns, the baby inside the womb would shrug and squirm by bending its body. It would recognize the mistake. So when the baby was born there were awkward bends in his body in many places. [Another version to this story is: whenever Kahola made a mistake, the baby in the womb would point out his mistake. Kahola did not like this and would become very angry and curse the baby to become deformed.] Thus upon the birth the boy was named ‘Ashtavakra’: Ashta = eight, Vakra = nasty bend. (See REF. 4 for details of his story.) He became a distinguished scholar and had Janaka as his student. The following is Ashtavakra’s response to Janaka’s enquiries which, in turn, is a message to everyone:
“You are neither earth nor air nor fire nor water nor ether. To attain liberation, know yourself as the witnessing consciousness of all these. If you separate yourself from the physical body and rest in consciousness, then this very moment you will be happy, at peace, and free from bondage”. This is the answer Ashtavakra gave Janaka to his question, “Who am I?” In other words he says: you are not the body. You are ‘Atman’ which is covered by the body.
(Note: Here ‘you’ refers to the ‘Atman’ the divine spirit in the body, eternal and a part of Brahman. Without ‘mincing’ any words Ashtavakra jumps right in to the core teachings of the Upanishads regarding the TRUE nature of human beings.)
Ashtavakra tells us that we constantly accept the form of the body as a fact. He does not say, however, that the body is not a fact. In this sutra (First), he is urging you to see that you are much more than just the body. You are consciousness – beyond the body, beyond the existence of form.
Ashtavakra asks us to imagine what it would be like to wake up in the middle of a dream in which a lion is chasing you, you turn around, and command the lion to stop. The lion would disappear when you wake up. We cannot make the lion disappear even in our dreams, let alone in our daily lives. Nevertheless, he tells us that we are nothing more than the observer and until we realize that (‘Jagan Mithya’, said Shankaracharya, the 8th century ‘visionary’, meaning this world is ‘temporary’ or illusion), we can never obtain liberation.
Ashtavakra asks us to observe the external phenomenon without reacting to it. We see millions of things in our life; some pleasant and many unpleasant. Many of them may be personally directed at you. The mind will suggest that you take action (sensory input) on every one of these external happenings directed at you. Before you take action (motor output), there is a little space. (Neuro-Scientists say this space may be of around 10 seconds duration). But now switch your observation to inside of you; into that space. Ashtavakra says; “Observe that space as long as you can, maybe even mentally saying to yourself the action indicated by the mind without acting”. Here, it is apt to mention what Socrates had said in this respect (5). He said that there are 3 golden gates for the way out of this space: 1) Truth. Ask yourself if what you are going to say is the truth. 2) Necessity - Is it necessary to say anything at all. 3) Anyone else – Should someone else respond rather than you? (Ref: Plato). By then, you suddenly wake up to the truth that enlightenment is the absence of the desire to act. It all happens in a matter of seconds, and you lose the desire to react. Ashtavakra calls this, ‘bliss’. He says; “Once you are enlightened you won’t be concerned about the question of enlightenment. You won’t even know that you are enlightened”.
In Vedanta literature ‘action’ includes: Kaaya, Vaacha, and Manasa. Kaaya means physical, Vaacha means verbal, and Manasa means mental. It may be difficult to imagine that one might incur ‘Karma-phala’ (3) just by imagining doing something. Schoch (1) says: “In the brain’s limbic system, which is where motor control is expressed, just thinking of slapping someone activates all the muscles that would be used to do it”. So, just by thinking of doing something repeatedly might, one day, lead to doing it consciously or unconsciously.
Ashtavakra says religion and atheism, happiness and misery, success and failure, are all in the mind. [Lord Krishna says, in the Bhagavad Gita, that Heaven and Hell are also in our mind (2)].Ashtavakra does not object to your enjoyment, but simply reminds you that this will not bring about true liberation. He also reminds us that, religious systems occur only when there is plenty of space for interpretation of the original texts by an exponent of a religion. Different people interpret the original script so variedly, that the essence of the initial message gets totally lost or distorted. In fact there is no room for religion in the Upanishad. Mundaka Upanishad declares that anyone who believes in religion has a deluded mind.
Ego is the conductor using the mind as the instrument, and “I” is the operator. At this stage “I” is situated in the Ego ‘Complex’ as a prisoner. Renouncing the Ego means liberating the “I” from the prison, and enable it to unite with Atman. It is Enlightenment in that sense. So, in the enlightenment stage the Ego is completely ‘passive’ since its operator “I” is no more with it. And this ‘I’ is now different from the one in Ego’s captivity; in the sense it is “Pure Consciousness” here. (This is my understanding after studying the Upanishads, including the Bhagavad Gita and Ashtavakra Samhita)
Ashtavakra says: Each time someone acts in a particular way towards you, there is an opportunity to practice the art of observation; as explained previously, if you just keep your attention on yourself. The moment you react, the possibility of choice and the space to see what is happening inside you is lost. Even when people act positively towards you, Ashtavakra urges you to observe the ‘inside’. This is profound wisdom. Ashtavakra is emphatic about this. He says, even if you are 100% right in a confrontation with someone; just observe the space inside you instead of reacting. And, even in the most unjust situation, do not react. How else can one describe the enlightenment!
It is true, following this advice is not easy. There is a famous cartoon called “Calvin and Hobbs” which is carried in many English daily newspapers around the globe. In one of their daily cartoon strips, the following dialog appeared: Calvin says; “You know what I’ve noticed, Hobbs? Things don’t bug you if you don’t think about them. So from now on, I simply won’t think about anything I don’t like, and I’ll be happy all the time!” To this Hobbs responds; “Don’t you think that’s a pretty silly and irresponsible way to live?” Calvin replies: “What a pretty afternoon”. I quote this dialog to illustrate that we can start by at least ignoring negative observations by selecting the positive part of that observation as Calvin has done. Eventually we may be able to follow Ashtavakra’s advice i.e. “Observe and do not react”, immediately.
To summarize Ashtavakra’s messages briefly:
In order to escape from the miseries of this life, know yourself as the witnessing consciousness. If you separate yourself from the physical body and rest in consciousness, then this very moment you will be happy, at peace, and free of bondage. “The mind and the ego are primarily responsible for the bondage, since they mask the vision of Atman; just like dust on the mirror prevents you to see the reflection of your face."
As you think, so you are; you are the reflection of what you think. This message comes very clearly in the Upanishads. The ‘Atman’ is the witness, all pervading one, and pure consciousness; free from doing, absolutely alone, non-attached, desireless, and peaceful. Know that anything that has form is false (Transient) and know that the formless is unchanging and everlasting. If this knowledge is truly understood, then one is not born in this world again. God is within and without this body. (Third Sutra)
Everything in this physical world arises, suffers, changes, and passes away. This is the nature. When you understand this, you desire nothing, you grieve for nothing. You are happy when you withdraw your senses. Whatever you do brings joy or sorrow, life or death. ….the world with all its wonders is nothing. (Fourth Sutra)
Concentrate on your inner consciousness. When the mind stops putting one thing against the other, it no longer craves pleasure. It no longer cares for wealth or religious duties or salvation, (Fifth Sutra) You are not this physical body you see - meaning it is temporary; your body is not you, because it changes all the time, and one day it falls off. You are pure awareness, the witness of all things. If the body lasted till the end of time or vanished today, what would you win or lose.
In conclusion, the message is that all living beings have a spiritual energy inside, which facilitates all activities. The body just responds to the command of the brain which, in turn, is energized by ‘Atman’. Thus, Atman is ‘true you’ and the body is just a cover. Everything disappears one day except Atman. His message as summarized by Swami Nityaswarupananda (4): “… there is but One Reality, the infinite, indivisible Self which is Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute. The realization of the Self is the only summum bonum and in this, does life finds its fulfillment”.
NOTE: My question relates to our belief in reincarnation. We are told that we all go through several births, depending upon what we earn through our ‘Karma’ during our current lifetime. If body is not me because it is temporary and will be destroyed upon death and Atman has neither birth nor death – i.e. Eternal – then ‘WHO’ is being born again and again? I have some thoughts on this and will discuss in another essay.
1. The Ancient Wisdom of Ashtavakra: The Great Indian Sage, Translated and commented by Manuel Schoch.
2. The Bhagavad Gita: Translated by Winthrop Sargent
3. What is Karma? By Paul Brenton
4. Ashtavakra Samhita. Swami Nityaswarupananda.
5. The Dialogues of Plato. By Plato. A Bantam Book