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Chapter 36: Ashtavakra

WHILE the Pandavas were wandering among holy places in the forest, they came one day to the hermitage of the personages immortalized in the Upanishads. Lomasa told Yudhishthira the story of that place.

Udalaka, a great sage and teacher of Vedanta, had a disciple named Kagola, who was virtuous and devoted but had no great learning. So, the other disciples used to laugh and mock at him.

Uddalaka, however, attached no great weight to his disciple's lack of erudition but really appreciated his virtues, devotion and good conduct and gave his daughter Sujata in marriage to him.

The couple was blessed with a son. A child generally inherits the characteristics of both the parents. But fortunately the grandson of Uddalaka took after his grandfather rather than his father and knew the Vedas even while he was in his mother's womb.

When Kagola made mistakes, as he often did in reciting the Vedas, the child in the womb would twist his body with pain, and so it came to pass that he had eight crooked bends in his body when he was born.

These crooked bends earned him the name of Ashtavakra, which means "Eight crooked bends." Kagola, one ill-fated day, provoked a polemical contest with Vandi, the court scholar of Mithila, and, having been defeated, was made to drown himself.

Meanwhile Ashtavakra grew up to be a towering scholar even in his boyhood, and at the age of twelve he had already completed his study of the Vedas and the Vedanta.

One day, Ashtavakra learnt that Janaka, the king of Mithila was performing a great sacrifice in the course of which the assembled scholars would, as usual, debate on the sastras.

Ashtavakra set out for Mithila, accompanied by his uncle Svetaketu. On their way to the place of sacrifice at Mithila, they came across the king and his retinue.

The attendants of the king marched in front shouting: "Move away. Make way for the King." Ashtavakra instead of moving out of the way said to the retainers:

"O royal attendants, even the king, if he is righteous, has to move and make way for the blind, the deformed, the fair sex, persons bearing loads and brahmanas learned in the Vedas. This is the rule enjoined by the scriptures."

The king, surprised at these wise words of the brahmana boy, accepted the justness of the rebuke and made way, observing to his attendants: "What this brahmana stripling says is true. Fire is fire whether it is tiny or big and it has the power to burn."

Ashtavakra and Svetaketu entered the sacrificial hall. The gatekeeper stopped them and said: "Boys cannot go in. Only old men learned in the Vedas may go into the sacrificial hall."

Ashtavakra replied: "We are not mere boys. We have observed the necessary vows and have learnt the Vedas. Those who have mastered the truths of the Vedanta will not judge another on mere considerations of age or appearance."

The gatekeeper said: "Stop. Have done with your idle brag. How can you, a mere boy, have learnt and realised the Vedanta?"

The boy said: "You mean I am not big like an over-grown gourd with no substance in it? Size is no indication of knowledge or worth, nor is age. A very tall old man may be a tall old fool. Let me pass."

The gatekeeper said: "You are certainly not old, nor tall, though you talk like all the hoary sages. Get out."

Ashtavakra replied: "Gatekeeper, Grey hairs do not prove the ripeness of the soul.

The really mature man is the one who has learnt the Vedas and the Vedangas, mastered their gist and realised their essence. I am here to meet the court pandit Vandi. Inform King Janaka of my desire."

At that moment the king himself came there and easily recognized Ashtavakra, the precociously wise boy he had met before.

The king asked: "Do you know that my court pandit Vandi has overthrown in argument many great scholars in the past and caused them to be cast into the ocean? Does that not deter you from this dangerous adventure?"

Ashtavakra replied: "Your eminent scholar has not hitherto encountered men like me who are proficient in the Vedas on Vedanta. He has become arrogant and vain with easy victories over good men who were not real scholars. I have come here to repay the debt due on account of my father, who was defeated by this man and made to drown himself, as I have heard from my mother. I have no doubt I shall vanquish Vandi, whom you will see crumple up like a broken-wheeled cart.

Please summon him."

Ashtavakra met Vandi. They took up a debatable thesis and started an argument, each employing his utmost learning and wits to confound the other. And in the end the assembly unanimously declared the victory of Ashtavakra and the defeat of Vandi.

The court pandit of Mithila bowed his head and paid the forfeit by drowning himself in the ocean and going to the abode of Varuna.Then the spirit of Kagola, the father of Ashtavakra, gained peace and joy in the glory of his son.

The author of the epic instructs us through these words put in Kagola's mouth: "A son need not be like his father. A father who is physically weak may have a very strong son and an ignorant father may have a scholarly son. It is wrong to acesess the greatness of a man on his physical appearance or age. External appearances are deceptive." Which shows that the unlearned Kagola was not devoid of common sense.