Once king Janaka was having a nap in the middle of a hot day, with servants faning him and soldiers outside his door, when he saw a dream where he was fighting with an enemy king and ends up losing all his kingdom and possessions. Scared for his life Janaka runs away into the forest to escape from the pursuing army. After running and walking all day he is tired, and hungry and thirsty. That is when he comes across a group of beggers who were being fed some watery rice by some rich philanthropist. Janaka also joins the queue, but when his turn comes he is asked for a begging bowl on which the food can be given. Janaka had no bowl and so he was turned away. Tired and depressed Janaka goes near the place where the food was being cooking and sat down to rest. One of the cooks taking pity on him scrubs the bottom of the pot and gets some watery rice into a plate and gives Janaka. Eager and grateful, king Janaka was just about to eat when two rampaging bulls come rushing and trample over the bowl, breaking it and spreading the little food on the ground. Janaka is completely aghast, and profoundly sad.. he laments loudly at his misfortune.. and that is when the dream ends and he wakes up. But this was one of those vivid dreams that leave an impact even after it gets over. Janaka calls his ministers, one by one, and asks them just one question, “Is this real, or was the dream real?“. They try to convince him by all sorts of logic but none of it eases Janaka’s troubled heart. He thinks maybe I have actually lost the kingdom and I am sitting somewhere sad, hungry and depressed and dreaming that I am living in comfort. Who can say which one is really real? What is real?
It was in such a frame of mind when Janaka’s court is graced by an deformed looking young man by the name of Astavakra (bend in eight places). Ashtavakra’s simple response impressed the whole assembly. He told Janak Raja, “When you tried to find out which existence was more real, did you consider the possibility that both are false?”
This ensuing dialogue between Janaka and Astavakra is a masterpiece of non-dual literature. Scholars believe that the seeds of Ajātivāda – theory of non-origination – is present in this text leading many to speculate that this was popular before the time of Gaudapadacharya, the guru of Adi Shankaracharya. Gaudapada says in his Karika that the Absolute is not subject to birth, change and death. The Absolute is therefore aja, the unborn, eternal.
Great saints of modern era like Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and Ramana Maharishi held this dialogue of Janaka and Astavakra in very high esteem. Infact Ramakrshna would allow only Narendranath (future Swami Vivekananda) to read the Astavakra Gita, for others, he warned, this will destroy “bhava” and could be detrimental to their spiritual growth.
Bondage is when the mind longs for something, grieves about something, rejects something, holds on to something, is pleased about something or displeased about something.
Liberation is when the mind does not long for anything, grieve about anything, reject anything, or hold on to anything, and is not pleased about anything or displeased about anything.
~ Astavakra to Raja Janaka.
Photo: 19th century painting of Rishi Astavakra, currently in the British Museum.