Ashtavakra - Vedic Saint

Ashtavakra was a sage in ancient India. Ashtavakra, also spelt as Ashtaavakra in Sanskrit:अष्‍टवक्र means "eight bends". Ashta means eight. Vakra means bend or deformity.

In ancient India, the sage Ashtavakra was known to be a very intelligent and spiritually well advanced rishi who realized self or Atman. More information about his birth and life comes from the Indian epic Ramayana. Sage Uddalaka ran a school (Ashram) teaching Vedic knowledge. Kahoda was one of his best disciples. Uddalaka was so pleased with him that he had his daughter Sujata married to him. Sujata, eventually got pregnant and in the natural desire of wanting her child to imbibe spirituality and intelligence, began to sit in the classes taught by Uddalaka and Kahoda, listening to their chanting of mantras.

In India, there is a belief that when expectant mothers expose themselves to spiritual teachings, the child in the womb hears it and gathers that knowledge and become a genius in that spiritual area after its birth. It was one day, as Kahoda recited the Vedas, and within hearing distance of the child growing in the womb, that it heard the recitation but, since it was already aware of the correct pronunciation of every syllable since its mother used to attend classes with rapt attention, whenever Kahoda pronounced a syllable wrong, the child in the womb squirmed in distress. Sujata informed Kahoda that he had pronounced the syllable wrongly as indicated by the child in the womb. This happened on eight occasions. Kahoda perceived this as arrogance on the part of something, yet to manifest itself in the world, and he cursed the foetus with eight deformities. So, when the baby was born, it had eight bends, was crooked in eight places. Naturally, he was named Ashtavakra (Eight Bends).

Around the time Ashtavakra was born, his father was invited to argue with the great philosopher, Bandi. In those days, philosophical arguments were commonplace and the best were invited to argue in the presence of the monarch Janaka. Bandi was supposedly the son of Varuna - the Lord of all water bodies - and was sent incognito to land to get rishes, or sages, to conduct a ritual that his father wanted to perform. Bandi was well known as a philosopher and easily defeated Kahoda. As per the rules of the contest, Bandi's victims had to 'drown' themselves in the river nearby (Ganges?). Nobody knew of Bandi's real identity or his intention in demanding that his victims should submerge in the river. Kahoda, too, lost the argument and had to submerge himself in the river. Ashtavakra was therefore raised by Uddalaka and his disciples and within a short time mastered everything that was expected of a 'Brahmin'. Uddalaka and his disciples took pains to see that Ashtavakra was always kept in the dark about the fate of his father. However, Ashtavakra came to know the truth when his young uncle, Shwetaketu advertently, blurted out that the person who Ashtavakra thought was his father, was, in fact, not his father. Ashtavakra then demanded the truth from his mother and decided to confront Bandi and defeat him in an argument.

Ashtavakra then made his way to the King's palace and presented himself as a challenger. The kind-hearted King could not bear the thought of someone so young losing to Bandi and meeting the same fate as countless other Brahmins and tried to dissuade the young boy. Ashtavakra, was, however adamant, and after an initial test, Janaka decided to let him face Bandi. Ashtavakra won the argument and demanded that Bandi restore to life all the sages and Brahmins he had forced to be drowned. One of the conditions of the contest was that if Bandi loses he would grant any wish of his vanquisher. By this time, Varuna's ritual was also complete and he had rewarded all the sages and Brahmins and so when Bandi was defeated, he revealed his true identity and the reason behind the 'drowning' of his victims. At Bandi's request, Varuna bade the sages and Brahmins farewell and brought them to surface. Kahoda was extremely pleased with his son's intelligence and knowledge.

Later Ashtavakra grew into a spiritually advanced rishi and realised Atman. He went to Mithila and instructed King Janaka about the concept of Atman. These teachings form the content of the Ashtavakra Gita or Ashtavakra Samhita as it is sometimes called.

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