A Conversation with Ashtavakra: Conclusion

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This is the final chapter of the Ashtavakra Samhita.  It’s the conclusion of Janaka’s statement of self-knowledge from Chapter 19, one last declaration of what he’s realized about his true nature.  Like Chapter 19, I’ve edited the verses of Chapter 20 for the purpose of nididhyasana, converting Janaka’s statements from question form to first person statements that can be used for recitation, contemplation and meditation. 

Some of these statements may appear confusing for someone still on the path to self-knowledge, seeing as they appear to contradict or negate the scripture and the path of inquiry itself.  It may make one wonder, “If scripture and the process of self-inquiry are eventually negated, are they even needed in the first place?”  The answer is a resounding and unequivocal “Yes.”  Only when, like Janaka, you’ve done self-inquiry and seen the truth of the scriptures for yourself do they become redundant. 

Like I said in the last post, scripture and self-inquiry are like a boat used to cross a raging river.  Once you arrive safely on the opposite bank, you no longer need the boat.  But that doesn’t mean you didn’t need the boat in the first place!  Without it you would have lost your way and drowned.  Similarly, if you disregard scripture and self-inquiry before you see for yourself that you’re the self, you’ll be lost, left to drown in the turbulent river of samsara. 

You can contemplate these statements even if you’re still doing self-inquiry.  Why?  Because they’re nonetheless true, even if you haven’t realized their truth for yourself.  Until that time, meditating on the meaning of these statements will provide positive reinforcement for your inquiry.  And further, they’ll protect you from clinging to the teaching as if it were a religion or dogma, rather than a relative—albeit indispensable—tool for understanding your true nature.   

Janaka said:
20:1 – Where are the elements, where is the body, where are the organs, and where is the mind? Where is the void? Where, too, is despair for me who am taintless by nature?

There are no elements, there is no body, there are no organs and there is no mind.  There is not even nothingness.  There is no despair for me—I am ever-pure. 

20:2 – Where are the scriptures, where is knowledge of the self?  Where is the mind not attached to sense-objects, where is contentment, and where is desirelessness for me who am ever devoid of the sense of duality?

There are no scriptures and no self-knowledge.  There is no mind unattached to sense objects, no contentment and no desirelessness—I am devoid of the sense of duality. 

20:3 – Where is knowledge and where is ignorance?  Where is “I,” where is “this,” and where is “mine”? Where is bondage and where is liberation? Where is an attribute to the nature of my self?

There is no knowledge and no ignorance.  There is no “I,” no “this” and no “mine.”  There is no bondage and no liberation.  My true nature has no form. 

20:4 – Where are prarabdha karmas, where is liberation-in-life (jivanmukta), and where is even liberation-at-death for me, the ever undifferentiated?

There is no prarabdha karma, no liberation-in-life or liberation-in-death—I am changeless. 

20:5 – Where is the doer or enjoyer, where is cessation of thought or the rising of thought, where is direct knowledge or it’s result for me who am ever impersonal?

There is no doer or enjoyer, no thought or absence of thought.  There is no direct knowledge or its result—I am not a person. 

20:6 – Where is the world and where is the aspirant for liberation?  Where is the contemplative person or the person with self-knowledge?  Where is the liberated one or the one in bondage when in my true nature, I am non-dual?

There is no world or seeker of liberation.  There is no yogi or person with self-knowledge.  There is no liberation or bondage—my true nature is non-dual.   

20:7 – Where are creation and destruction, where are the end and the means, where are seeker and success when in my true nature, I am non-dual? 

There is no creation or destruction, there is no end or means.  There is no seeker or finder—my true nature is non-dual. 

20:8 – Where is the knower, the means to knowledge, the object of knowledge or knowledge itself?  Where is anything or nothing for me who am ever pure?

There is no knower or means of knowledge, no object of knowledge or knowledge itself.  There is not anything and there is not nothing—I am ever pure. 

20:9 – Where is distraction, where is concentration?  Where is knowledge, where is delusion?  Where is joy and where is sorrow for me who am ever actionless?

There is no distraction or concentration.  There is no knowledge or delusion.  There is no joy or sorrow—I am ever free of action. 

20:10 – Where is the relative world, where is absolute reality?  Where is happiness or misery for me who am ever beyond thought?

There is no relative world or absolute reality.  There is no happiness or misery—I am beyond all thought. 

20:11 – Where is maya, where is samsara?  Where is attachment or detachment?  Where is jiva or brahman for me, who am ever pure?

There is no maya and no samsara.  There is no attachment or detachment.  There is no jiva and no brahman*—I am ever pure. 

*To say there’s no brahman is not to say that there’s no self.  This verse is merely pointing out that the idea that there’s a jiva as opposed to brahman is a false, dualistic notion.  Further, reality transcends all names and positive descriptions—it’s not a jiva, a brahman or anything else for that matter.  As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says in verse 2:3:6, reality can only be accurately described as “neti, neti” (“not this, not this”), meaning it can only be described negatively, in terms of what it isn’t. 

20:12 – Where is activity, where is inactivity? Where is liberation or bondage for me who am ever established in my immutable and indivisible self?

There is no action or inaction.  There is no liberation or bondage—I abide in my immutable and changeless self. 

20:13 – Where is instruction and where is scripture? Where is the teacher and where is the student? Where, indeed, is the goal of life for me who am absolute good and free from limitation?

There is no teaching and no scripture.  There is no teacher or student.  There is no goal of life for me—I am the limitless reality. 

20:14 – Where is existence, where is non-existence? Where is unity, where is duality? What need is there to say more? Nothing arises from me.

There is no existence or non-existence.  There is no duality or non-duality.  There is nothing more to say, nothing more to do, nothing more to learn—there is nothing other than myself. 

Thus ends the dialogue on self-knowledge between Ashtavakra and Janaka.

It’s hard to believe that this series has been going on for over a year.  Many thanks to the readers of this site for your continued support.  May the words of Ashtavakra and Janaka inspire you on the path to self-knowledge or help you become established in self-knowledge through nididhyasana. 

For those interested in nididhyasana, stay tuned for the upcoming Steady Wisdom series.  For the first 108 days of the New Year, I’ll be posting a statement of self-knowledge from the scriptures each day and commenting on it. I challenge you to read and contemplate these statements daily, in order to get your thinking aligned with the truth of who you are.   

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt.46

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Janaka said:
19:1 – Using the pincers of self-knowledge, I have extracted the thorn of different opinions [about my true nature] from my heart (mind).

Like a pair of tweezers removes a thorn from your hand, Vedanta removes different (false) opinions you have about your true nature.  The remaining verses of the text are Janaka’s statement of self-knowledge which show he’s divested himself of such false opinions.

19:2 – Where is dharma, where is kama, where is artha? Where, too, is discrimination, where is duality, and where, even, is non-duality for me who abide in my own glory?

Dharma, kama and artha—the three aims of life—are no longer relevant when self-knowledge negates the reality of the doer and the world in which the doer acts.  Even non-duality is negated, seeing as it’s just the conceptual opposite of duality.  Then only the self remains.  And although that last statement makes it sound very much like the self is non-dual, it’s not the case—the self is “not this, not this” and “that from which words and the mind return, unable to reach it.”  That means no words or ideas apply to the self even though the teaching uses words and ideas to help you understand this fact for yourself.

Like a stick used to stoke a fire is eventually thrown into the fire to be burned, all concepts used in the initial stages of the teaching to stoke the fire of self-knowledge are eventually burned in the selfsame fire.  This is the main theme of Chapter 19.

The takeaway is this: once Vedanta helps you understand what your true nature is, feel free to let the teaching go.  You don’t have to keep taking the medicine once you’ve been cured.  You don’t have to carry the boat on your head after it’s helped you cross the river.

One caveat: When you’ve spent your entire life believing that you’re the limited, flawed and inadequate body-mind, it can take a while to reorient the mind to the fact that you’re the limitless, perfect self.  If that’s something you want to do, then continuing to dwell on the teaching is a constructive practice called nididhyasana.  But always remember that successfully changing the mind in no way adds to you.  And not changing the mind in no way diminishes you.  Enlightenment is knowing that you’re not affected by the mind either way.

That being said, I’m going to edit the remaining verses for the purpose of nididhyasana. They can be used for recitation and contemplation, both by the enlightened and the unenlightened.  Because even if you’re not enlightened, you will be someday.  So you might as well start thinking of yourself as the self right now (especially considering that you already are the self).  You can “fake it until you make it” as one of my old teachers was fond of saying. Even if you feel like you’re faking it, it’s no problem because the statements you’re making are nonetheless true.

19:3 – Where is past, where is future, where, even, is the present? Where is space and where even, is eternity for me who abide in my own glory?

There is no past, present or future.  There is no space or eternity for me who abide in my own glory.

19:4 – Where is the self and where is the non-self, where, likewise, are good and evil? Where is anxiety or non-anxiety for me who abide in my own glory?

There is no self* or not-self, no good or bad.  There is no thought or thoughtlessness for me who abide in my own glory.

*While your true nature is often referred to as “self” in the Vedanta scriptures, this is merely out of necessity because you can’t teach something as subtle as Vedanta without words.  Understand that “self” is just a word used to point to a reality beyond all words and concepts.

19:5 – Where is dreaming, where is deep sleep, where is wakefulness, and where is the fourth (turiya)? Where, even, is fear for me who abide in my own glory?

There is no dream state, no deep sleep state and no waking state.  There is not even that which is called the “fourth.”* There is no fear for me who abide in my own glory.

*Turiya is often mistranslated as “the fourth state” in relation to the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep.  But it just means “fourth” and refers to the fact that the self is distinct from the three states.  But you can no longer refer to the self as the “fourth” when you know that the three states don’t really exist.

19:6 – Where is nearness or farness? Where is interior or exterior?  Where is grossness or subtlety for me who abide in my own glory?

There is no nearness or farness, no interior or exterior.  There are no gross objects or subtle objects for me who abide in my own glory.

19:7 – Where is life or death, where are the worlds and where is worldliness?  Where is dissolution of the world or absorption into the self for me who abide in my own glory?

There is no life or death, no world or worldliness.  There is the dissolution of the world or absorption into the self for me who abide in my own glory.

19:8 – To talk about the three ends of life is needless, to talk about yoga is purposeless, and even to talk about wisdom is irrelevant for me who repose in the self.

No editing is required here.  The meaning of this verse—and its implications—are unambiguous:  spiritual practice is only relevant until the dawn of self-knowledge, at which point the reality of doership (as well as the reality of every other aspect of the relative world) is negated.  Yes, life will continue much like it did before.  Your body-mind may continue to pursue things, practice spirituality or discuss the teaching.  But you know those things are 1) unreal and 2) that they have nothing to do with you.

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt.45

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18:92 – Where is careless behavior, where is restraint, and where is determination of truth for the yogi who has obtained the goal and who is the embodiment of guileless sincerity?

There’s no careless behavior or restraint from careless behavior for one who’s negated their identification with the doer, the body-mind.  There’s no determination of truth for the yogi (here meaning a self-realized person) who’s already seen firsthand, “I am the self.”  Whether such a yogi is the embodiment of guileless sincerity or not depends entirely on the condition of their mind.  But this is of no real consequence because of the aforementioned dis-identification with their body-mind.     

18:93 – How and to whom can be described what is experienced within by one who is desireless, whose sorrow is destroyed, and who is contented with repose in the self?

The point here is that to understand what enlightenment is like, you have to understand for yourself that you are the self.  Without that, the teaching will be a mere collection of words that point to what appears to be an ungraspable, abstract notion, namely, “I am the limitless self, free of desire and sorrow.”  At statement like that makes no sense until, through your own inquiry, you see that it’s true.    

18:94 – Not asleep even in the sleep state, not dreaming even in the dream state and not awake even in the waking state, the steadfast one is contented in all states.
18:95 – The person of knowledge is devoid of thought, even when engaged in thought, devoid of the sense-organs while having them, devoid of intelligence even though endowed with it, devoid of the sense of ego, even though possessed of it.
18:96 – The person of knowledge is neither happy nor miserable, neither attached nor unattached, neither liberated nor an aspirant for liberation—they are neither this nor that. 
18:97 – The blessed one is not distracted even in distraction, not meditative even in meditation, not dull even in a state of dullness and he is not learned even though possessed of learning.

Verses 94-97 are essentially saying the same thing: the one with self-knowledge knows that as the self, they’re free at all times and all places from any conceivable state of mind or body.  

Pay special attention to verse 95.  It clearly states that even though the enlightened person has an ego, they’re devoid of a sense of ego.  This means they don’t identify with the ego even though it continues to exist after enlightenment.  So anyone out there who thinks enlightenment is a literal destruction of the ego, take note and save yourself the unnecessary frustration of trying to destroy a figment of your imagination that 1) doesn’t belong to you and 2) has no real existence.  Trying to kill the ego is as pointless as killing a monster in a dream:  it’s not there in the first place so how can you really kill it?  Instead wake up and realize the ego has no reality, just a like a dream monster, and leave it be.        

18:98 – The liberated one who abides in the self under all conditions is the same everywhere and free from craving.  They are free from the idea of what is to be done or not done and they do not reflect on what they’ve done or not done. 

This is another one of those verses that describes the hypothetical gold standard of behavior for an enlightened person.  It’s a great goal to strive for if you wish, but wouldn’t it be better to just, as the verse says, “abide in the self under all conditions (identify with the self)” and accept the body-mind as it is?  Considering the quest for enlightenment is generally motivated by dissatisfaction with the shortcomings and limitations of the body-mind, I’d say yes.  Because if you don’t, at what point does the quest end?  At what point do you stop trying to fix the illusory body-mind and just be happy with the fact that you’re the perfect, limitless self?    

18:99 – Praised, the wise one does not feel pleased.  Blamed, they do not feel annoyed. They neither rejoice in life nor fear death.

To feel pleased when complimented or annoyed when blamed is a totally normal reaction.  But it’s misguided seeing as the body-mind (to whom the praise or blame belong) has absolutely nothing to do with you, the self.  It’s the same as feeling pleased or annoyed when someone compliments or blames your dog (or child, or house, or job or car etc.) when in reality their behavior or attributes have nothing to do with you. 

18:100 – The tranquil-minded one seeks neither the crowded place nor the wilderness.  They remain the same under any conditions and in any place.

Realize you’re the self.  Let the illusory body-mind live as it sees fit.  End of story.   

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt.44

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Ashtavakra said:
18:87 – Blessed is the wise one who stands alone, who is attached to nothing, who is without any possession, who moves freely and at pleasure, who is free from the pairs of opposites, and whose doubts have been rent asunder.

Once you get enlightened, you should give away all your possession, leave your home and wander about aimlessly.    

Actually, I’m just kidding.  If your doubts have “been rent asunder (removed),” meaning you’ve realized that you’re the self that “stands alone” (exists independently) and is attached to nothing (not affected by the body-mind or external circumstances), it doesn’t matter how your body-mind lives. 

This verse highlights the monastic bias of the author.  Being a monk is suitable for some, while living like a normal person is suitable for others.  Either way is fine depending on the temperament of the person.  This verse should be understood in that context. 

18:88 – Glorious is the wise one who is devoid of the feelings of “mine,” to whom earth, a stone and gold are all the same, the knots of whose heart have been rent asunder, and who has been purged of rajas and tamas.

As in verse 67 above, such a person would indeed be glorious.  But to the one with non-dual vision to whom “earth, a stone and gold are all the same,” wouldn’t the presence of rajas*, tamas* or the feeling of “mine” in the mind be the same as their absence? Yes. This understanding is key because as I’ve pointed out, the mind will always retain some sense of “mine” because it’s essential to functioning in everyday life (despite being ultimately unreal).  And as the Bhagavad Gita (a key Vedanta text) points out in verse 14:23 , rajas and tamas will always be present in the mind to some degree.  But they are never present in you, the self.      

*See Bhagavad Gita Chapter 14 for a more detailed description of rajas and tamas.  For now, in this context, rajas is desire, agitation and activity.  And tamas is dullness, inertia and ignorance. 

18:89 – Who is there to stand in comparison with the liberated soul who has no desire whatsoever at heart, who is contented and indifferent to everything?

Possibly no one because it’s unlikely that such person exists, unless by “liberated soul” the author is referring directly to the self, which is always free from desire, malcontent and care. 

If he’s referring directly to the self, there’s nothing for it to stand in comparison to because the self is non-dual and comparison is only possible between two different things.  If the author is referring to an enlightened person, I’d argue that comparison between the enlightened and the unenlightened isn’t productive because the point of enlightenment is to see that you’re not a person.  And by extension, to be free from the pain of comparing yourself to other people and trying to be different, rather than just accepting yourself as the perfect, limitless reality that you are.   

18:90 – Who but the desireless one knows not though knowing, sees not though seeing, and speaks not though speaking?

In other words, who but the self knows not though knowing etc.?  No one, because there’s nothing but the self. 

18:91 – Whether they be a mendicant or a king, the one who is unattached and whose view of things has been freed from the sense of good and evil excels.

Your body-mind can be a beggar with nothing or a king with everything.  But this doesn’t matter when your vision (understanding) has been freed from the sense of good and evil (duality). 

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 43

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Ashtavakra said: 
18:82 – The desireless one neither praises the peaceful nor blames the wicked.  Contented and same in happiness and misery, they find nothing to be done.

On the relative level of everyday life, peacefulness is certainly worthy of praise and wickedness is deserving of blame.  But the “desireless one” (one with self-knowledge) knows that ultimately peace and wickedness belong to the illusory body-mind alone.  As such, who is there to really praise or blame for such things?  Only the self exists and seeing as its actionless and free of all qualities, it can’t be praised or blamed for anything

18:83 – This wise one neither abhors birth and death nor wishes to perceive the self.  Free from joy and sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive.

The wise one doesn’t abhor birth and death because birth and death only apply to the body-mind, not the self.  Because the wise one is the self, not the body-mind, they’re neither dead nor alive.  They’re free from joy and sorrow because joy and sorrow pertain to the mind alone.  And they don’t wish to perceive the self for two reasons: 1) they know the self isn’t an object of experience available for perception and 2) they know they can’t perceive the self because they are the self.       

18:84 – Free from expectation and attachment to family, free from the desire for objects and free from concern for body, the wise one shines. 

Taken literally, this verse is potentially problematic.  How so?  Because it could give the impression that the standard of enlightenment is to have a mind completely free of expectation, attachment to family, desire for objects and bodily concern.  It isn’t.  Rather, it’s to know you’re the self.  And as the self, you have no expectation, attachment to family, desire for objects or concern for the body—even if the mind does. 

To put it differently, it makes no sense to say, “I’m not the body-mind, I’m the self…and the proof that I’m the self is the behavior of the body-mind.”  Because how can the condition of the body-mind validate or invalidate your status as the self if 1) You’re always the self no matter what and 2) If the illusory body-mind has no association with the self or effect on the self whatsoever? 

So figure out that you’re the self.  Then let the body-mind do what it’s going to do, whether that be taking care of a family or looking after its own health because ignoring family or health is no sign of enlightenment.  On the issue of health, I’ve often wondered if great teachers like Ramana Maharshi and Swami Chinmayananda (whose bodies succumbed to cancer and heart disease, respectively) could have continued their work longer if they’d paid more attention to the condition of their bodies. 

Of course, this shouldn’t be viewed as criticism of either teacher, especially not coming from someone who, at times, has shown great neglect for his own health.  But I think it bears mentioning in order to illustrate the point that matters of the illusory world don’t disappear at the dawn of self-knowledge.  Relative matters continue to apply on the level of the relative world even though they don’t apply to the self at all.      

18:85 – Contentment ever dwells in the heart of the wise one who lives on whatever happens to come to him, and who wanders about at pleasure, resting wherever he is when the sun sets.

This verse describes a very extreme lifestyle that isn’t necessary or suitable for everyone.  After all, numerous verses in the text clearly state that the one with self-knowledge can live however they please, seeing as they understand they aren’t the body-mind. 

All the same, this verse correctly points out that living simply and accepting what comes to you in life generally leads to contentment—relatively speaking. 

18:86 – Reposing on the foundation of their own being, and completely transcending birth and rebirth, the great-souled person does not care whether their body dies or is born.

“Reposing on the knowledge of their own being” means to dwell in the knowledge, “I am the self.”  Because the self is eternal and unchanging, it’s of no consequence whether the body dies or is reborn again. 

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