Introduction to the Ashtavakra Gita

Ashtavakra Gita

The great and well known Bhagavad Gita was a discourse between Arjun and Krishna in the moment of Arjun’s great confusion on the battlefield, while the lesser known but amazing Ashtavakra Gita is between Ashtavakra and Janaka. And here Janaka is in a different state as a devotee and seeker. He is a king and has been longing for enlightenment for a long time. Entertaining and questioning wise men in his court for years. Yet he has not found the right master.

Different stories suggest different temperaments of this king – some say that he would imprison pandits if they could not enlighten him. Others say that he was of a more benevolent nature. But they all agree that he was impatient and keen to find the ultimate truth.

Eventually he meets Ashtavakra.

Again different stories tell varied versions of how it all unfolded. But all of them suggest that there was not much discourse.
Ashtavakra tells Janaka, ‘you cannot get enlightened here in your court. So come with me’.
And Janaka and Ashtavakra go to the forest.
Once they are alone in the forest, Ashtavakra: ‘enlightenment only comes from a Guru to Shishya. So you must become my disciple’
Janaka readily agrees and bows down to Ashtavakra his guru.
Next Ashtavakra tells him that, as his disciple Janaka must drop his kingship, wealth and all previous identity.
Janaka obeys instantaneously.

In this act and ability to drop his entire identity in a moment when his Guru says so, lies his enlightenment anyway.

Whether this happened while he had one foot on the stirrup of his horse, and swinging his other foot up is a matter of course. But in all stories this anecdote has been highlighted that,
when a person has one foot in the stirrup, about to climb the horse, she/he can get completely enlightened before the other foot reaches the other stirrup. It shows that enlightenment is matter of a moment and can happen in the midst of the most mundane activities.

So the Ashtavakra Gita is unique because this discourse took place after Janaka is enlightened. So parts of Janaka’s recitation are also very high level wisdom.

The Bhagavad Gita discourse took place in the end of Dwapar yuga. This Ashtavakra Gita comes a lot earlier probably in mid or end of Treta Yuga. This could explain the difference between the message in the books but more so the stark difference between how much effort Krishna has to do to enlighten Arjun, while Janaka was enlightened without much fanfare in a few words and then happened the Gita discourse. And he even went on to rule his kingdom. An enlightened king!

The talks between Ashtavakra and Janaka that happened later on, are between two enlightened beings. Even though it is also in form of Guru and Shishya.

This is the book I got from the Ramana Maharishi ashram, my time with this book has been amazing. 🙂

Initially when I read it I couldn’t grasp the context of the conversation at all. But it took a while. It stayed in my room and then many months later I had the longing to read it again. And this time around, the thoughts became clear to me, so beautifully! In Indian households there is importance given to keeping sacred scriptures in the house, I felt this significance, with this book.

अष्टावक्र गीता प्रथमो ध्यायः Ashtavakra Gita First Session

Ashtavakra Gita

I have added the Sanskrit line first. This Sanskrit line has been translated from the Kannada version by Ramana Maharishi himself. Since it was hand-written sanskrit letters, I checked it with another online source to ensure I had reproduced it correctly. Second is my own translation of the Sanskrit line, using online Sanskrit dictionaries and also personal understanding of this language (consider it a humble rookie attempt). The third line of translation in English is by Swami Nityaswarupananda of the Ramakrishna Math.

जनक उवाच –
कथं ज्ञान मवाप्नोति कथं मुक्ति र्भविष्यति | वैराग्यन्च कथं प्राप्तमेत द्बृहि मम प्रभो |

(My version) Janak Said
How to obtain knowledge, How to make liberation happen? Vairagya also, how this can happen Prabhu?

(Swami N version) Janak Said –
How can knowledge be acquired? How can liberation be attained? How is renunciation possible? Tell me this, O Lord.

Note: that Vairagya is being called Renunciation by Swami N. I have highlighted in an earlier blog post how these words change meaning over time. So while I understand Vairagya clearly, I don’t see the context for ‘Renunciation’ here. Because Vairagya is an internal quality while renunciation is just an act (for me).

अष्टावक्र उवाच –
मुक्तिमिच्छसि चेत्तात विषयान्विषवत्यज | क्षमार्जवदयातोषसत्यं पीयूष वद्भज |

Ashtavakra said –

(me version) Liberation if you wish dear, (विषय) sensual pleasures as poison you must abandon. (क्षमा) Forgiveness, (आर्जव) Honesty, (दया) Kindness, (तोष) Joy, (सत्य) Truth is nectar to cultivate.

(Swami N version) If you aspire after liberation, my child, shun the objects of the senses as poison and seek forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, contentment and truth as nectar.

 

न पृथ्वीं न जलं न अग्निर्न वायु र्ध्यौर्न वा भवान् | ऐषां साक्षिण मात्मानं चिद्रूपं विद्धि मुक्तये |

(My version) Not Earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind (air) nor heaven (ether) is you.
This pure perception of your witnessing self is liberation.
or
This awareness of the self as pure perception is liberation.

Both versions pretty much mean the same.

(Swami N version) You are neither Earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, nor ether. In order to attain liberation, realise yourself as the knower of all these and conciousness itself.

Again the translation is a little different but all three of them pretty much mean the same. There are two terms being used in the Sanskrit lines.
साक्षिण मात्मानं – witnessing self or knower or awareness or conciousness and,
चिद्रूपं विद्धि – pure act of perceiving or pure perception or conciousness

So basically the various terms are pretty much boiling down to the same meaning. Depending on which words resonate with you.

यदि देहं पृथक् कृत्य चिति विश्राम्य तिष्ठसि | अधुनै व सुखी शान्तो बन्दमुक्तो भविष्यसि |

(My version)
If body is treated as separate, thinking mind (चिति) ceased. At this time happiness, peace and freedom from bonds will happen.

(Swami N version)
If you detach the body and rest in Intelligence, you will at once be happy, peaceful and free from bondage.

Again interestingly, Swami N has used the word Intelligence for चिति विश्राम्य i.e. ceasing of Chiti (thinking mind). While I appreciate this because it adds another layer of insight for me. But it can be a cause for misunderstanding. Intelligence is a commonly used word. In fact people who score well in an exam are called intelligent. Definitely that is not the intelligence referred to here.

नत्वं विप्रादि को वर्णो नाश्रमी नाक्ष गोचरः |  असङ्गोऽसि निराकारो विश्व साक्षी सुखी भव |

(My version)
You don’t fill any class (social class), no ashram, not perceptible by sense organs. Free from ties you are, a formless world, aware and happy existence.

(Swami N version)
You do not belong to the Brahmana or any other caste or to any ashram. You are not visible to the eyes. Unattached, formless and witness of all are you. Be happy.

I wonder why Swami N has written Brahmana here, cause since Ashtavakra is addressing Janak who is a king, surely he would be a Kshatriya.

धर्म धर्मौ सुखं दुखं मानसानिन ते विभो | न कर्तासि न भोक्ताति मुक्त एवासि सर्वदा |

(My version)

Duality of conduct, happiness, sorrow are of the mind, O shining one. Not the doer, nor the experiencer, liberated you are always.

(Swami N)

Virtue and vice, pleasure and pain, are of the mind, not of you, O all-pervading one. You are neither doer nor enjoyer. Verily you are ever free.

This is the first line where I struggled with the translation and had to refer to Swami N’s version. I am but a rookie in Sanskrit, dependant on meagre online resources to help.

एको द्रष्टासि सर्वस्य मुक्तप्रयोसि सर्वदा | अयमेव हि ते  बन्धो द्रष्टारं पश्यसितरम् |

One observer of everything you are, ever free. Always endeavouring for favourable worship cause the observation is seen as bound.

Swami N version

You are the one seer of all and really ever free. Verily this alone is your bondage that you see the seer as other than such.

I think that the lines have gotten cryptic. A lot of delving has to be done to understand the meaning.

अहं कर्तेत्य हंमान महा कृष्णाहि दंशितः | नाहं कर्तेति विश्वासामृतं पीत्वसुखी भव |

I am the doer, self-love, is a great insect bite. I am not the doer, drink this nector trustfully and sleep happy.

(Swami N version)

Do you who have been bitten by the great black serpent of the egoism “I am the doer”, drink the nector of the faith “I am not the doer”, and be happy.

Again a bit of difference in translation, not so much in content but rather in the way it has been addressed. My humble views : Ashtavakra would not address Janaka as ‘you who have been bitten by….. ‘ because as I mentioned earlier, this is more like a conversation between two enlightened beings and also Guru-Shishya. Maybe Swami N has changed it a bit to address the reader.

एको विशुद्ध बोधो ह मिति निश्चय वह्निना | प्रज्वाल्या ज्ञानगहनं वीत शोकः सुखी भव |

“I am one completely pure perception” resolve fiercely. Ignite the fire of deep knowledge, grief departs, happy existence.

(Swami N version)

Burn down the wilderness of ignorance with the fire of the knowledge, “I am the One and Pure Intelligence”, and be free from grief and be happy.

 

यत्र विश्वमिदं (विश्व +इदं) भाति कल्पितं रज्जु सर्पवत् | आनन्द परमानन्दः स बोधस्त्वं सुखं चर |

This world is allegorical to the way it seems there is a snake in a rope. It is a supreme bliss, you are this consciousness, be happy.

Swami N version

That (Consciousness) in which this universe appears, being conceived like a snake in a rope, is Bliss – Supreme Bliss. You are that Consciousness. Be happy.

Swami N’s version is much simpler to understand. I love this line. It is a little cryptic in the way it is written. But it has been often said in ancient wisdom that the entire world that you ‘think’ is outside of you is in reality perceived within yourself (in your mind, through your senses etc…). And so, it is easier to understand that the entire world is like the snake in a rope illusion. And he says the reality is supreme bliss. And this bliss consciousness is you. And in this, the world is perceived. A very interesting way of referring to Maya.

For the rest, I am just sharing Swami N’s translation for your interest.

मुक्ताभिमानी मुक्तो हि बद्धो बद्धा भिमान्यपि | किंवदन्तीह सत्येयं यामतिस्सागतिर्भवेत् (या मतिः सा गतिर्भवेत् )|

Swami N version:

One who considers oneself free is free indeed and one who considers oneself bound remains bound. “As one thinks, so one becomes” is a popular saying in this world, which is true.

 

आत्मा साक्षी विभुः पूर्ण एको मुक्तश्र्चि दक्रियः | असंगो निःस्पृहःशान्तो भ्रमात्संसारवानिव |

‘Self (Atman) is the witness, unlimited, complete, free and action-less. Non-attached, free (desire-less), peaceful, mistakenly worldly illusion.

Swami N version:

The self is the witness and all-pervading perfect, one, free, Intelligence, action-less, unattached, desire-less and quiet. Through illusion it appears of the world.

 

कूटस्थं बोधमद्वैत मात्मानं परि भावय | आभासोहं भ्रमं मुक्त्वा भावं बाह्य मथान्तरम् |

Swami N’s version:

Meditate on the Atman as immovable, intelligence and non-dual, having given up external and internal self-modifications and the illusion that you are the reflected self (individual soul).

 

देहाभिमान पाशेन चिरं बद्धोसि पुत्रक | बोधोऽहं ज्ञानखंगेन तंनिकृन्त्य सुखी भव |

Body pride binds, these are ancient binds, son. “I am perception” (this) knowledge (is a) sword that cuts (this body pride),be happy.

Swami N’s version:

My child, you have long been trapped by body-consciousness. Sever the trap with the sword of the knowledge “I am intelligence” and be happy.

 

निस्संगो निष्क्रियो ऽसित्वं स्वप्रकाशो निरंजनः | अयमेव हि ते  बन्धः समाधिमनुतिष्ठसि |

Indifferent, silent (action-less) are you. Self-light, Pure. This really is their bondage, humans take samadhi.

Swami N’s version:

You are unattached, actionless, self-effulgent and without any blemish. This indeed is your bondage that you practice samadhi.

Very interesting sentence. I got really befuddled in the translation because I kept wondering what is he calling a bondage in the second line? Surely not Samadhi. Because Samadhi is considered a way to union, isn’t it.  But Swami N’s translation came to the rescue. It is indeed Samadhi that is called the bondage here. Often it has been referred in numerous places that the karma or path to enlightenment is your last bondage. In the final moment you have to drop that also.

Also note that Swami N again addresses the sentence to the reader as ‘You’ while as far as I can make out it is ‘They’ in the sanskrit version.

त्वयाव्याप्त मिदं विश्वं त्वयिप्रोतं यथार्थतः | शुद्ध बुद्ध स्वरूपस्त्वं मा गमः क्षुद्र चित्तताम् |

You all pervading this universe contained in you, truly. Pure, enlightened form you are, not moving, worthless yearning mind.

Swami N’s version:

You pervade this universe and this universe exists in you. You are really Pure and Conscious. Do not be small-minded.

 

निरपेक्षो निर्विकारो निर्भरः शीतलाशयः | अगाधबुद्धिर क्षुब्धो भव चिन्मात्रवासनः |

Desire-less, Formless, Without weight or measure, calm mind. Profound wisdom, embrace it, abode of pure knowledge.

Swami N version:

You are unconditioned, immutable, formless, unimpassioned, of unfathomable intelligence and unperturbed. Desire for chit alone.

This second line can have dual meaning from what I understand. I checked a few other translations English/Hindi online – क्षुब्ध can mean excited or agitated. So the two meanings are – agitate to be चिन्मात्रवासनः (abode of pure knowledge or chitta) or – embrace/be excited/hold on to only your purity. I feel it is the second one because in the previous line he said “अयमेव हि ते  बन्धः समाधिमनुतिष्ठसि” i.e.”this really is their bondage, humans take samadhi”.

साकार मनृतंविद्धि निराकारं तु निश्चलम्  | एतत त्वोप्देशेन न पुनर्भवसं भवः |

Beautiful form, (for) the enlightened mind (that) penetrates the formless and steady (nature). Varying truths teach, there is no rebirth.

Swami N’s version:

Know that which has form to be unreal and the formless to be permanent. Through this spiritual instruction you will escape the possibility of rebirth.

 

यथैवादर्श मध्यस्थे रुपेन्तः परितस्तुसः | तथै वास्मिन् शरीरेन्तः परितः परमेश्वरः |

Swami N’s version:

Just as the mirror exists within and without the image reflected in it, even so the supreme Lord exists within and outside the body.

This was a tricky analogy to understand. Translating it took so much time and then I kept grappling with my translation to fit it all correctly. Swami N’s version is so much more succinct and easy to understand. #phew. The tricky part I found, was that the word मध्यस्थे has a lot of meanings. So understanding the lines with literal translation doesn’t work. One has to delve deeper in our own understanding to grasp the deeper meaning.

 

एकं सर्व गतं व्योम बहिरन्तर्यथाघटे | नित्यं निरन्तरं ब्रह्म सर्व भूत गणे तथा |

The way one complete space pervades inside and outside a jug. That way eternal, all pervading Brahman is inside and outside the (5) elements group. (The 5 elements includes space)

Swami N’s version:

As the same all pervading ether is inside and outside a jar, even so the eternal all pervasive Brahman exists in all things.

 

So this is the first dhyaay of the Ashtavakra Gita. As I was writing this blog, I didn’t plan to translate all of this. But it just happened. I thought I will do a few lines but I thoroughly enjoyed it and kept going on. 🙂

The next dhyaay is Janak speaking. I am very keen on translating that as well. Will post it up soon. Not too soon as this is quite time consuming for me.

There are a few reasons I look into the Sanskrit translation,

  • It allows me to spend more time with these texts and get deeper in them.
  • It throws insight on the few times where the English translation does not resonate for me. For eg: when the word ‘Renunciation’ is used for Vairagya. Please understand here, it is not that Swami N has made a mistake. Maybe at his time and in his path they use the word Renunciation to mean complete detachment which translates to Vairagya. But for me coming from a different yoga background – ‘Vairagya’ works much better. Also a lot of times, being of Indian origin I don’t see the need to translate into English concepts like Vairagya, Brahma and so on. As I have a grasp of it. But keeping foreigners in mind a lot of these translations go little off as English may not have exact words for it.
  • There is something rejuvenating and precious about working with Sanskrit. Basically, I really enjoy it.

Suggest you to give it a try. It is not generally too hard. A few sentences can be a struggle but overall getting the grasp at least for Indians who are well versed in similar languages like Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi etc. It is really worth it. 🙂

2 Comment

  1. It’s amazing that the Ashtavakra Gita is floating around so much. I was introduced to this on the video series by Sandeep Maheshwari – which I’ve still not come to understand – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAQW7o4sNH26XaJQNi-rpfAu51TaHGByV. Yesterday, Sadhguru touched on it in his video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQRKRKmUjls – and you’re at it, today!

    1. Hi Pradeep, interesting that you have come across Ashtavakra Gita recently. It is not too common, nor do I think it is getting popular but maybe with Ram Navami that just went by, people were talking about this because it was in the same era. I know the recent Sadhguru’s video that spoke of it. I have heard him talk of it before I picked it up too. In fact I have been looking out for a few more stories on Ashtavakra but not a lot of people seem to have spoken about him in depth.

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