I was recently asked why I don’t give more extensive explanations for the verses in this text. One reason is that the Ashtavakra Samhita is an advanced text that assumes prior knowledge of the subject matter it teaches. The other is that the most common teaching method of Vedanta is dialogue. If an inquirer has a question, they discuss it with a teacher so the teacher can help them get the proper perspective on their query. So if you need further clarification on any of these verses, feel free to ask.
18:6 – Illusion ceases and sorrow is dispelled when one sees clearly that their true nature is the self.
As far as Vedanta is concerned, illusion comes in two basic forms. The first is the belief that the body-mind and the world it inhabits are real. The second is the belief that the body-mind, or at least some part of it, is the self.
By realizing the true self, consciousness-existence, the illusion ceases. But does that mean the body-mind and the world literally disappear? Not at all. They continue just as before. But despite their continued appearance, you know they’re not real, similar to the way you can realize a dream is unreal while you’re still having it.
Does knowing that the body-mind and world are like a dream make all sorrow disappear? No. Sorrow is part and parcel of the dream. When you still think the dream is real, you identify with the suffering of the body-mind and think it belongs to you. But when you know the dream is unreal—and that you’re actually the self—you understand that you always have and always will be untouched by sorrow.
18:7 – Knowing all as mere imagination and the self as free and eternal, does the wise one need to resort to study or practice like a child?
At the beginning of self-inquiry, the attention of the mind is usually fragmented and projected outward in an attempt to find satisfaction in external situations. Like a child, it needs training. In Vedanta, that training usually takes the form of scriptural study and spiritual practice. Through repeated hearing of the texts and dedication to practices such as meditation and yoga, the mind of the inquirer becomes calm and focused, which allows it to turn ‘inward’ in order to consistently investigate—and hopefully see firsthand—the nature of the self.
In light of the knowledge, “I am the self,” all scriptures and spiritual practices are seen to be just another aspect of the illusory world—they are known to be “mere imagination.” At that point they can be given up. But not before that. The scriptures and practices are like a boat that helps you get from one bank of the river to the other. Once you know who you are, you don’t need to keep studying and practicing, the same way that once you get to the other side of the river you don’t need to carry the boat on your head. But similar to the way you’ll be left treading water if you discard the boat before you reach the opposite bank, you’ll make little to no progress in self-inquiry if you discard study and practice before gaining self-knowledge.
Does that mean enlightenment isn’t possible for people who don’t do Hindu spiritual practices or study traditional Vedanta texts? Since I’d have to know the backstory of every enlightened person that’s ever walked the planet in order to answer that, I have to admit that I’m not certain.
But what I do know is that Vedanta is an excellent tool for discovering your true nature, one that’s helped me and many people I know. It’s the accumulated wisdom of countless people over thousands of years, so a lot of thought has gone into how it operates. Because of that I teach the Vedantic method and encourage others to give it fair consideration. If you find another method that works better, great. Because the point is to get enlightened, not how you get enlightened.
18:8 – Knowing for certain that oneself is brahman and that existence and non-existence are imaginary, what does one who is free from desire, know, say or do?
The answer is simple: They know, say and do whatever they feel is necessary with the understanding that as the self, they’re never knowing, saying or doing anything.
18:9 – For a yogi that knows all is the self, false notions such as, “I am this” or “I am not that” are destroyed. Such a yogi becomes silent.
Discrimination, the fundamental practice of self-inquiry, is continuously affirming that you’re the self (“I am this”) while negating your identity with the body-mind (“I am not that”). Once you’ve negated your identity with the body-mind, inquiry points you towards the vision of non-duality where your viewpoint shifts from, “I am not the body-mind. I am the self” to “There is only me, the self. The body-mind is me, but it’s only an illusory appearance of myself that never affects me.” When this is realized, you “become silent,” meaning you no longer need to practice discrimination, seeing as it employs false dualistic notions like “this” and “that.”
18:10 – The yogi who has attained tranquility has no distraction, no concentration, no increase in knowledge, no ignorance, and neither pleasure nor pain.
The “yogi who has attained tranquility” is the one who knows that they’re the self. As the self they’re free from the body-mind and all its states such as distraction and concentration, even though those states continue for the body-mind itself. So while there’s no happy ending for the body-mind, the one with self-knowledge can rest easy regardless of what condition the body-mind happens to be in.