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Ashtavakra Gita

ashtavakra gita 2

The day of full moon, Purnima, in the month of Ashadha is traditionally celebrated as Guru Purnima also as Vyas Purnima. Today, 29 July, 2007 ; Sunday is the Guru Purnima. Think of the Guru.

Guru (Gu- ignorance, Ru-destroyer)is one, who removes the darkness and delusion. Purnima is the effulgent full moon. The true Guru is in our heart. Purify the heart to let the Divinity dwell in it. Guru Purnima is an occasion for cleaning the mind to make it absolutely pure.

In what better way can we do that than by talking of Guru Ashtavakra?

One of my favorite readings is Ashtavakra Gita also called Ashtavakra Samhita. It is in the form of a dialogue between King Janaka and a brilliant but physically deformed boy genius, Ashtavakra. It comprises 298 verses in 20 chapters of varied length. It glorifies the state of Self-realization. The story of Ashtavakra appears in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata.

The story of Ashtavakra is narrated in a simple form here

Sri Ramana Mahrishi’s rendering of the tale is here

John Richards’s translation of Ashtavakra Gita is simple, lucid and popular.

The translation of Bart Marshall is  brilliant.

Those interested may also see the notes made by Swami Shraddhananda, a sannyasin of Sri Ramakrishna order.


Ashtavakra Gita is an Advaita text of the highest order, addressed to advanced learners. We do not know who wrote this classic. The estimate of its date varies from third or fourth century BC to post  Sri Shankara period. The author, whoever he was, employed the King Janaka- Ashtavakra episode with great imagination and wove around it a sublime philosophical work , in simple, lucid, classic Sanskrit. The text deals with bondage and liberation, the nature of the Self, means of realizing the Self (atmanu-bhuti) , state of mystic experience  in the embodied state. This is Advaita in its distilled form, devoid of stories, examples, arguments.

Janaka, here, unlike Arjuna , is not a confused person. He is not seeking refuge from despair or delusion. Janaka is mature and knowledgeable; an earnest seeker. The Guru did not have to go through the preliminary exercise of convincing the disciple of the futility of pursuing after objects.

Sage Ashtavakra says that the Self alone exists and all else within the mind-senses vortex is unreal. He draws his disciple’s attention to his restlessness, despite being a model king. This, Ashtavakra recognizes as Janaka’s yearning for truth.

Ashtavakra maintains that all prayers, mantras, rituals, meditation, actions, devotion, breathing practices, etc are secondary. These distract the aspirant from self-knowledge. Knowledge/awareness is all that is required. Ignorance does not exist in itself; it is just the absence of knowledge or awareness. The light of knowledge or consciousness will dispel ignorance revealing the Self. The Self is merely forgotten, not lost, not to be attained. This is not a belief system or a school of thought. This is simply ‘What Is’ and the recognition of ‘What is’.

Admittedly this stringent approach is not suitable for all. A  sharp , discriminating and inward-looking mind is required for understanding Asthavakra’s  teaching. Perhaps due to its  rigor , the text has not been popular

It starts with the King Janaka asking the sage Ashtavakra how he can attain knowledge, detachment and liberation. It quickly becomes a guru-disciple dialogue; however, after Janaka realizes his true Self, they get into an Advaitic discussion of the highest caliber.

white lotus

The sage instructs:


To be free, Shun the experiences of the senses Like  poison / Turn your attention to/ Forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, simplicity, truth.

muktiṃ icchasi cettāta viṣayān viṣavattyaja । kṣamārjavadayātoṣasatyaṃ pīyūṣavad bhaja ॥ 1-2॥


It is true what they say: “You are what you think.”/ If you think you are bound you are bound./ If you think you are free you are free.

muktābhimānī mukto hi baddho baddhābhimānyapi । kiṃvadantīha satyeyaṃ yā matiḥ sā gatirbhavet ॥ 1-11॥


You are now and forever/ Free, luminous, transparent, still./ The practice of meditation/ Keeps one in bondage.

niḥsaṃgo niṣkriyo’si tvaṃ svaprakāśo niraṃjanaḥ । ayameva hi te bandhaḥ samādhi manutiṣṭhati ॥ 1-15॥


You are pure Consciousness/ The substance of the universe./ The universe exists within you.’ Don’t be small-minded.

tvayā vyāptamidaṃ viśvaṃ tvayi protaṃ yathārthataḥ śuddha buddha svarūpastvaṃ mā gamaḥ kṣudracittatām ॥ 1-16॥


You are unconditioned, changeless, formless./ You are solid, unfathomable, cool./ Desire nothing./ You are Consciousness.

nirapekṣo nirvikāro nirbharaḥ śītalāśayaḥ । agādha buddhi rakṣubdho bhava cinmātra vāsanaḥ ॥ 1-17॥

The technique of Jnana used here is that of Vichara usually translated as self-enquiry but it signifies examination, reflection, or looking within.Sri Ramana Maharishi was the greatest exponent of this method in recent times. In other types of spiritual practices, the mind is assumed to be an independent entity and therefore efforts are made to control it, purify it and channel it towards the Godhead. Ashtavakra preaches that mind has no existence of its own. It is a bundle of thoughts, he says, take the direct path and plunge into consciousness. A conscious bliss ensues when one abides in Self. Sri Ramana Mahrshi echos these thoughts in his Upadesha Saram (verses 17-21 and 28).

Ashtavakra suggests that there is in reality only the Self and that it is all- pervasive. Just as waves, bubbles or foam have no existence without the sea, so too everything in experience is a phenomenal manifestation of the one great spiritual reality. Ashtavakra speaks of the rising of the winds of the mind and says the worlds are produced, as waves on the sea. He suggests it is the mental activity that gives rise to our experience of the world.


In the limitless ocean of Myself / The winds of the mind/ Roll the myriad waves of the world

aho bhuvanakallolairvicitrairdrāk samutthitam । mayyanaṃtamahāmbhodhau cittavāte samudyate ॥ 2-23

Upon hearing the Guru, Janaka is enlightened. He bursts into joy and wonder of his new-found state. Ashtavakra is pleased but notices inconsistencies in Janaka’s approach and lets out a series of confrontational verses about attachment to objects. He questions at the end:


Why should a person of steady mind,/ Who sees the nothingness of objects,/ Prefer one thing to another ? 

svabhāvād eva jānāno dṛśyametanna kiṃcana । idaṃ grāhyamidaṃ tyājyaṃ sa kiṃ paśyati dhīradhīḥ ॥ 3-13॥

Janaka defends by saying


Surely one who knows Self,/ Though he plays the game of life,/Differs greatly from the world’s/ Bewildered burdened beasts.

hantātmajñānasya dhīrasya khelato bhogalīlayā । na hi saṃsāra vāhīkair mūḍhaiḥ saha samānatā ॥ 4-1॥


Rare is he who knows himself / As One with no other—The Lord of the Universe./ He acts as he knows/ And is never afraid.

ātmānamadvayaṃ kaścijjānāti jagadīśvaram । yad vetti tatsa kurute na bhayaṃ tasya kutracit ॥ 4-6॥


Ashtavakra does not disagree; but in a terse four verses points to the next step—dissolution


You are immaculate,/ Touched by nothing./ What is there to renounce?/ The mind is complex—let it go./ Know the peace of dissolution.

na te saṃgo’sti kenāpi kiṃ śuddha styaktumicchasi । saṃghātavilayaṃ kurvannevameva layaṃ vraja ॥ 5-1॥


The universe arises from you/ Like foam from the sea./ Know yourself as One./ Enter the peace of dissolution.

udeti bhavato viśvaṃ vāridheriva budbudaḥ । iti jñātvaikamātmānaṃ evameva layaṃ vraja ॥ 5-2॥


Like an imagined snake in a rope/ The universe appears to exist/ In the immaculate Self / But does not./ Seeing this you know: “There is nothing to dissolve.”

pratyakṣamapyavastutvād viśvaṃ nāstyamale tvayi । rajju sarpa iva vyaktaṃ evameva layaṃ vraja ॥ 5-3॥


You are perfect, changeless,/ Through misery and happiness,/ Hope and despair,/ Life and death./ This is the state of dissolution.

sama duḥkha sukhaḥ pūrṇa āśānairāśyayoḥ samaḥ । sama jīvita mṛtyuḥ sannevameva layaṃ vraja ॥ 5-4॥

Ashtavakra makes a remarkable statement; the world however turbulent it may appear is within the infinite being and that it cannot alter the fundamental nature of the Self. He says, it is in the infinite ocean of myself that the mind-creation called the world takes place. I am supremely peaceful and formless and I remain as such.


In me, the shoreless ocean,/ The universe is imagined./ I am still and formless./ In this alone I abide.

mayya naṃta mahāmbhodhau viśvaṃ nāma vikalpanā । atiśāṃto nirākāra etad evā aham āsthitaḥ ॥ 7-3॥


Janaka says “I know that already,” matching him in style and number of verses Janaka goes on to further describes his enlightened state.Still hearing too much “I” in Janaka’s language, Ashtavakra instructs him in the subtleties of attachment and bondage.

Ashtavakra said:

Bondage is when the mind longs for something, grieves about something, rejects something, holds on to something, is pleased about something or displeased about something. 8.1

tadā bandho yadā cittaṃ kiñcid vāñchati śocati । kiṃcin muṃcati gṛṇhāti kiṃcid dṛṣyati kupyati ॥ 8-1॥

Liberation is when the mind does not long for anything, grieve about anything, reject anything, or hold on to anything, and is not pleased about anything or displeased about anything. 8.2

tadā muktiryadā cittaṃ na vāñchati na śocati । na muṃcati na gṛṇhāti na hṛṣyati na kupyati ॥ 8-2॥

Bondage is when the mind is tangled in one of the senses, and liberation is when the mind is not tangled in any of the senses. 8.3

tadā bandho yadā cittaṃ saktaṃ kāśvapi dṛṣṭiṣu । tadā mokṣo yadā cittamasaktaṃ sarvadṛṣṭiṣu ॥ 8-3॥

When there is no “me,” that is liberation, and when there is “me” there is bondage. Consider this carefully, and neither holds on to anything nor rejects anything. 8.4

yadā nāhaṃ tadā mokṣo yadāhaṃ bandhanaṃ tadā । matveti helayā kiṃcinmā gṛhāṇa vimuṃca mā ॥ 8-4॥


Ashtavakra goes on to annihilate the false sense of identification of the Self with the mind, saying that “it is bondage when the mind desires or grieves at anything, rejects or accepts anything, feels happy or angry at anything..” In a movingly simple verse, he sums up a free and fearless soul as one who has renounced desire, for “the renunciation of desire alone is renunciation of the world”.

Ashtavakra continues to describe the way of true detachment and stresses the folly of desire—no matter how elevated or subtle. Ashtavakra further describes the state of desireless-ness to which he points


“I am not the body, nor is the body my possession—I am Awareness itself.”/ One who realizes this for certain/ Has no memory of things done or left undone./ There is only the Absolute.

nāhaṃ deho na me deho bodho’hamiti niścayī । kaivalyaṃ iva samprāpto na smaratyakṛtaṃ kṛtam ॥ 11-6॥

Janaka says he understands what Ashtavakra is saying and summarizes his exalted state with calm indifference. Ashtavakra is impressed but tells the disciple he is not there yet.


Attachment and aversion/ Are attributes of the mind./ You are not the mind. You are Consciousness itself–Changeless, undivided, free./ Go in happiness

rāgadveṣau manodharmau na manaste kadācana । nirvikalpo’si bodhātmā nirvikāraḥ sukhaṃ cara ॥ 15-5॥


Leave behind such distinctions/ As “I am He, the Self,”/ And “I am not this.”/ Consider everything Self. / Be desire-less. / Be happy

sarvabhūteṣu cātmānaṃ sarvabhūtāni cātmani । vijñāya nirahaṅkāro nirmamastvaṃ sukhī bhava ॥ 15-6॥


Ashtavakra then attacks the futility of effort and knowing.

Being pure consciousness, do not disturb your mind with thoughts of for and against. Be at peace and remain happily in yourself, the essence of joy. 15.19

Give up meditation completely but don’t let the mind hold on to anything. You are free by nature, so what will you achieve by forcing the mind? 15.20


You can recite and discuss scripture / All you want,/ But until you drop everything / You will never know Truth.

ācakṣva śṛṇu vā tāta nānā śāstrā aṇyanekaśaḥ । tathāpi na tava svāsthyaṃ sarva vismaraṇād ṛte ॥ 16-1॥


Ashtavakra does not pay much heed to book learning or to the importance given to mind and its control. You are already free, what will you gain by deliberating or pondering. In other words, remain unattached at all times from all things (including the mind). He advocates direct approach. Teachings of Sri Ramona are remarkably similar to that of Ashtavakra.

Ashtavakra then goes on to describe the nature of a wise person or yogi (chapters 17 and 18) .The characteristics of the true knower as outlined by Ashtavakra are very similar to that of a sthitha_prajna described in Bhagavad-Gita Gita.


The sage sees no difference/ Between happiness and misery,/ Man and woman, / Adversity and success./ Everything is seen to be the same.

sukhe duḥkhe nare nāryāṃ sampatsu ca vipatsu ca । viśeṣo naiva dhīrasya sarvatra samadarśinaḥ ॥ 17-15॥


In the sage there is neither/ Violence nor mercy,/ Arrogance nor humility,/ Anxiety nor wonder./ His worldly life is exhausted./ He has transcended his role as a person.

na hiṃsā naiva kāruṇyaṃ nauddhatyaṃ na ca dīnatā । nāścaryaṃ naiva ca kṣobhaḥ kṣīṇasaṃsaraṇe nare ॥ 17-16॥


The sage is not conflicted/ By states of stillness and thought./ His mind is empty./ His home is the Absolute.

samādhāna samādhāna hitāhita vikalpanāḥ । śūnyacitto na jānāti kaivalyamiva saṃsthitaḥ ॥ 17-18॥


Knowing for certain that all is Self,/ The sage has no trace of thoughts/ Such as “I am this” or “I am not that.”

ayaṃ so’hamayaṃ nāhaṃ iti kṣīṇā vikalpanā । sarvamātmeti niścitya tūṣṇīmbhūtasya yoginaḥ ॥ 18-9॥


The yogi who finds stillness/ is neither distracted nor focused./ He knows neither pleasure nor pain./ Ignorance dispelled,/ He is free of knowing.

na vikṣepo na caikāgryaṃ nātibodho na mūḍhatā । na sukhaṃ na ca vā duḥkhaṃ upaśāntasya yoginaḥ ॥ 18-10॥


In a final flurry of questions pointing only at their own meaninglessness, Janaka bursts forth into inspired poetry and burns off the last vestiges of personhood and enters dissolution (chapters 19 and 20). He ends with: “No more can be said.” Ashtavakra smiles, nods approvingly, and says no more

Using the tweezers of the knowledge of the truth I have managed to extract the painful thorn of endless opinions from the recesses of my heart. 19.1


Where is illusion? Where is existence? Where is attachment or non-attachment? Where is person? Where is God?

I am Awareness./ Where are principles and scriptures? Where is the disciple or teacher? Where is the reason for life? I am boundless, Absolute.

kva māyā kva ca saṃsāraḥ kva prītirviratiḥ kva vā । kva jīvaḥ kva ca tadbrahma sarvadā vimalasya me ॥ 20-11॥

kva pravṛttirnirvṛttirvā kva muktiḥ kva ca bandhanam । kūṭasthanirvibhāgasya svasthasya mama sarvadā ॥ 20-12॥


Where is existence or non-existence? Where is Unity or duality? / Nothing emanates from me. / No more can be said.

kva cāsti kva ca vā nāsti kvāsti caikaṃ kva ca dvayam । bahunātra kimuktena kiṃcinnottiṣṭhate mama ॥ 20-14॥

॥ Om̃ tatsat ॥

 guru charana

white lotus

The approach and treatment of   Ashtavakra are logical and precise like mathematical equations.Yet, the Ashtaavakra Gita may not be read at a streatch , in one straight reading. It is preferable the verses are read few at a time , on a daily basis, and reflected upon .

One rarely comes across a Guru-disciple association as that of Sri Ashtavakra and King Janaka, a mature disciple. To such Sri Guru, who is the Para Brahman, I offer my salutations, on this Guru Purnima !



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