Aṣṭāvakra

(‘crooked in eight places’)

One of the great sages whose name has been associated with a well-known work of Advaita philosophy, the Aṣṭā-vakragītā, Aṣṭāvakra was the son of the sage Kahola. While yet in the womb, the baby-sage is said to have laughed at the wrong intonation of the Vedas by his father, incurred his wrath and was cursed by him to be born with a body crooked in eight places. Hence the name ‘Aṣṭāvakra.’

A scholar, Bandi by name, of the court of the king Janaka, had defeated Kahola and had got him imprisoned in water. When Aṣṭāvakra came to know of the tragedy that had befallen his father, he went to the court of Janaka, vanquished Bandi in disputation and rescued his father Kahola. At his instance, who was now highly pleased with his son, Aṣṭāvakra took bath in the river Samaṅgā (also called Madhuvilā) and got rid of all the physical defects.

Another well-known sage of the Upaniṣads, Śvetaketu, the son of Gautama Āruṇi was the uncle of Aṣṭāvakra.

The work Aṣṭāvakragītā, also known as Aṣṭāvakra Saṁhitā, contains 298 verses in the simple anuṣṭubh metre, spread over 20 chapters. Most of the chapters are very small. The 18th chapter alone, however, contains 100 verses.

The book, which often gives the description of the ātman in hyperbolic terms stresses that it can be realized here and now. Disciplines like renouncing the desires for the pleasures of life, cultivating virtues like forgiveness, kindness and truth are advocated. There is a beautiful description of the man of knowledge in the 17th chapter. Supreme detachment is a special characteristic of his. But it is difficult to recognize him since he often lives like an ordinary person. Only another man of knowledge can recognize him.