A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 1

The Ashtavakra Samhita—more commonly known as the Ashtavakra Gita—is an unambiguous statement of non-dual wisdom from the highest standpoint and this is both its strength and weakness.  On the one hand, unlike texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the uncompromising absolutist stance of the Ashtavakra Samhita makes it nearly immune to creative interpretation.  In this regard it is unmatched in its fidelity to non-dualism. On the other hand, its unyielding statements, which are rarely bolstered with supporting logic, can be difficult to comprehend because they generally refuse to cater to the lower levels of Vedanta’s teachings, sometimes outright rejecting them.  Also, the Ashtavakra Samhita has a clear monastic bias, flatly denying all day-to-day empirical activity in the apparent world, save for its descriptions of the ‘behavior’ of an enlightened person, and this can be hard to relate to for a non-monk.  So while the Ashtavakra Samhita is one of Vedanta’s finest texts, it greatly benefits from commentary to give its statements perspective and put them in the proper context.  However, since this is an advanced text that presupposes prior knowledge of Vedanta, the commentary I am providing will not dwell unnecessarily on the basics of the teaching.    

The Ashtavakra Samhita is written in the form of a dialogue between two people, Ashtavakra and Janaka.  No personal information is given about either of them in the text but they both make an appearance in the great mythological epic, the Mahabharata, where it is said that Ashtavakra is an ascetic sage and Janaka is a king (Janaka is also mentioned in the Upanisads).  Although both characters are most likely fictional—which in no way takes away from the truth expounded in the text—I find the authors choice to use the polar opposites of a monk and a king very interesting.  It shows that despite the fact that the teacher Ashtavakra would have been living an austere lifestyle of renunciation, his student Janaka—who as a king would have had many worldly responsibilities to attend to—is nonetheless is able to get enlightened.  As you will see, even though the Ashtavakra Samhita never admits to the value of activities in the empirical world or even encourages them, it does not set them up as an insurmountable obstacle to enlightenment or prohibit action for an enlightened person.  Instead, it encourages action to be understood in light of self-knowledge.  In this way, although the text espouses a very monastic viewpoint, it can remain relatable to a non-monk.       

I will be primarily using Swami Nityaswarupananda’s translation of the text published by Advaita Ashrama.  It is well written, cheap and readily available so I highly recommend picking up a copy.  I will also be consulting translations of the text by Hari Prasad Sastri and Ananada Wood.  Also, be aware that I will be altering the translation of certain verses as I see fit if I think they can benefit from clarification.      

The dialogue begins with Janaka questioning Astavakra.

Janaka said:

1.1 – How can knowledge be acquired? How can freedom be attained? How is dispassion possible?

Ashtavakra said:

1.2 – If you aspire after liberation, shun the objects of the senses as poison and seek forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, contentment and truth as nectar.

Here Ashtavakra describes the preliminary conditions for gaining the knowledge that leads to freedom.  “Shun the objects of the senses as poison” is an exaggeration since it is impractical to avoid the objects of day-to-day affairs.  For instance, you can’t shun food—an object of the senses—as poison, assuming you want to live long enough to get self-knowledge.  Besides, the teaching itself, in the form of sounds, books etc. is a sense object.  However, equating sense objects to poison emphasizes that being preoccupied with the gaining and maintaining of material possessions and particular circumstances is ‘deadly’ to self-inquiry because if you don’t truly see that acquisition and enjoyment of sense objects is not a permanent solution to suffering, it is unlikely that you’ll be serious about pursuing freedom. 

Furthermore, unless you are committed to a wholesome, peaceful lifestyle—such as one that cultivates a value for forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, contentment, truth etc.—the chances of gaining freedom are greatly decreased.  The reason is that a person who is insincere, unkind, discontent and untruthful is going to have conflict in their life that will inevitably disturb their mind.  So even if they want freedom, their mental condition will prevent them from assimilating knowledge when they are presented with the teaching. 

It’s important to note that Ashtavakra only devotes a single sentence to this topic before moving on.  Partly, I think this is because—owing to his austere disposition—he was not very interested in discussing worldly affairs.  But also I doubt he saw any point in thoroughly discussing an issue such as good conduct that is a matter of common sense.  The implication here is that if a student is genuinely confused about what it means to live a decent life, they probably have no business studying Vedanta in the first place.  Regardless, before getting into the teaching, Ashtavakra makes the point that a peaceful life leads to a peaceful mind and a peaceful mind is the fertile soil needed for the seed of knowledge to take root. 

1.3 – You are neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, nor space. Know yourself to be consciousness, the witness of these and be free. 

Ashtavakra then launches directly into the primary method of Vedanta, which is the practice of making a mental differentiation between yourself, consciousness, and the ‘not-self’—here described as the elements—until the distinction between the two is crystal clear.  “Elements” is an archaic way of referring to what we think of today as matter although a crucial difference must be understood: the Vedantic conception of matter also includes the mind and all of its modifications such as thought, emotion, memory etc.  So the bottom line of what he is saying is that your true nature is neither material nor mental, it is not the body or mind.  The reasoning behind this claim is based on the foundational logic of Vedanta, that you cannot be what is known to you.  If you know the body, you cannot be the body.  If you know the mind, you cannot be the mind.  Since you are the knower of the body and mind, here called the witness, you are not affected by the conditions of either, good or bad.  Knowing this is freedom, or rather the appreciation of the fact that you have always been free.  You simply thought you were bound because the distinction between yourself and the body and mind was not clear. 

1.4 – If you distinguish yourself from the body and rest in your true nature, consciousness, you will at once be happy, peaceful and free from bondage.

Ashtavakra makes it very clear that freedom is merely a matter of understanding that you are already free; it is not a matter of doing something or becoming something.  Even though he exhorts Janaka to distinguish himself from the body, the mental act of doing so is not itself the cause of freedom because it only points to what is already true.  And while the phrase “rest in your true nature” seems to recommend doing an action for the sake of freedom, the word “rest” is only being used in the metaphorical sense because there is no action you can do to rest in what you already are.  You are what you are despite of anything you do.  Therefore, “rest” merely means the cultivation of the mental appreciation of what already is.       

1.5 – You do not have a social status; you do not belong to any age group or stage of life.* You are not perceived by the senses. You are the unattached, formless witness of all.  Be happy. 

Previously, Ashtavakra approached the differentiation between yourself and the ‘not-self’ in terms of consciousness and matter.  Here matter is categorized as particular conditions of the body or the circumstances it inhabits.  These are things people commonly identify with such as financial status (lower, middle or upper class), age (young, middle aged, old) or stage of life (student, working adult, retiree).  While not explicitly stated, this includes things such as gender, race, religion, occupation or national identity.  This means that anything you normally think of as “I” or “me” is not really you at all.  You are not an object of the senses or even the senses themselves.  Nor are you somehow associated or attached to them.  Instead, you are the formless witness, that which knows the body, mind, senses and sense objects.  Understand that and you can be happy because all dissatisfaction stems from the conditions and circumstances of the body and mind described above.      

*The first part of the verse is literally, “You do not belong to the brahmana or any other caste or to any ashrama.” Vedanta undeniably originated in India and so it naturally reflects the cultural norms of that country.  But since the message of Vedanta is universal, I took the core meaning of the verse and re-interpreted it to apply to anyone from anywhere. 

1.6 – Good and bad conduct and pleasure and pain are of the mind, not of you, the all-pervading one. You are neither doer nor enjoyer. Verily you are ever free. 

Another way of identifying yourself with the ‘not-self’ is to associate who you are with what you do or what you feel.  So Ashtavakra is pointing out that when you say, “I did this” or “I experienced that” that you are mistakenly taking yourself, the “I”, to be a doer or an enjoyer (experiencer).  The “I” that you are mistaking yourself to be is the ego, which upon analysis is merely the thought of “I” in the mind.  Is this “I” that takes credit for the actions of the body and claims to experience the pleasure and pain of the mind known to you?  Yes, so it cannot be the “I” or at least not the real “I”.  The true “I” is the previously mentioned consciousness, which is the witness of the body, mind and ego.  Ashtavakra adds another piece of information about this consciousness, which is none other than yourself:  it is all-pervasive.   This means that you are everywhere, without exception. It only seems like you are in a particular place when you identify with the body and mind.    

1.7 – You are the one seer of all and are really ever free. Verily this alone is your bondage, that you think you are something other than the seer. 

To negate the possibility of thinking that there is more than one consciousness, Ashtavakra says, “You are the one seer of all.”  In other words, you, consciousness, are one without a second.  Taking this in conjunction with the previously mentioned fact that you are all-pervasive, the conclusion is that there is not simply one of you, there is only you.  Your nature is non-dual, meaning there is nothing other than you that exists.  Ashtavakra points out that not comprehending this is bondage.  Why? Because the only way you can be bound is if there is something other than yourself to bind you.  Saying this may initially seem contradictory since the text has already admitted to something other than yourself, namely the body and mind.  However, this is not a problem because even though Vedanta initially accepts the appearance of the body and mind, it only does so conditionally, in order to put itself on equal footing with the viewpoint of the average person.  Otherwise its claims would be incomprehensible but for a rare few people.  So as an intermediate step, it accepts the body and mind at face value and proceeds to the logical conclusion that you can’t be the body and mind because they are objects known to you.  But after that the second step of Vedanta is to realize that in reality there is no body and mind, only yourself, consciousness, appearing to be the body and mind, the same way clay appears to be a pot.  In the same way that the form of a pot cannot limit or change the nature of the clay because the pot is merely an appearance made of nothing but clay, the body and mind cannot limit you, consciousness, because they are simply an appearance made of nothing but consciousness.  In other words, if there is only consciousness, then consciousness cannot bind itself.  Not knowing this alone is bondage, meaning you are bound only because you think you are, not because you actually are.    

Part 2 coming soon.  In the meantime…

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