Story behind Ashtavakra Gita

Story behind Ashtavakra Gita

“As you are probably aware, all the kings of Mithila are known as Janakas. Amongst them, one Janaka, before he gained Self-knowledge heard one of the pandits reading, in the course of his studies, the following passage: `Knowledge of the Brahman can be gained even in such a short time taken for placing the second foot on the second stirrup after putting one’s foot in the first stirrup.’ He asked the pandit whether such a thing was true.

The pandit said that it was possible and there was not the slightest doubt about it. The king said that he would immediately send for his horse and test the correctness of what was stated in the Scriptures (sastras) and that the pandit would be held responsible for it. The pandit said that he was not capable of proving the correctness of the statement, but asserted that what was stated in the book was absolutely correct. The king got angry and said that if it could not be proved, the said sentence should be removed from the text.

Even then the pandit was not afraid and so said that he had not the slightest doubt about the truth of what was stated in the scriptures and that he would not therefore say anything against it.

“The king immediately put the pandit in jail and sent for all the pandits in the city. When he asked them about the correctness of the statement in the scriptures, they all said that it was correct. But when he asked them if they could prove it, they also, like the first pandit said that they were not capable of proving the truth of the statement. He therefore put them all in jail and also ordered that whichever brahmin entered his kingdom should be brought before him; and if they too replied in the same way as the others, they should also be put in jail.

The news spread throughout the country and so no brahmin ventured to set his foot into the kingdom. After some time, Ashtavakra Muni happened to pass that side and, while he was about to take rest under a tree, saw two Brahmins. He enquired of them as to who was the king of that city. They replied, `What do you propose to ask of that king? Do you intend to enter the city?’ When he said that he was thinking of going there and that was why he was asking them about the king, they said, `Swami, the king that rules this city has imprisoned a number of Brahmins and we would advise you not to go there. If any unfortunate brahmin goes into this city, he will be asked, “Can you prove that within the time taken to put both feet in the stirrups of the saddle of a horse, one can become a Realized Soul as stated in the scriptures?” And if he says he cannot prove it, he will be put in jail.’

Amused at that, he said, `Oho! Is that the way of things? Then do one thing. Carry me in a palanquin and take me to the king. I shall prove that the statement in the scriptures is correct and get all the pandits released.’ They were pleased and so immediately brought a palanquin, seated the Muni in it, carried it themselves and set it down before the king. The king was then sitting in the Durbar hall.

“As soon as he saw the shining face of the Muni, the king felt like worshipping him. Immediately he prostrated before him, stretching himself full length on the floor, with his eight limbs touching the ground, and with folded hands, said, `Swami, what is the purpose of your visit to this place? If there is anything I can do, please let me know.’

Satisfied with the respect shown to him, the Muni said, `What fault have the pandits committed that you have put them all in jail? Please tell me this first. Then we can consider other things.’ `They could not prove that the statement in the scriptures that Self-knowledge can be obtained within the short space of time taken by a person to place his other foot in the second stirrup after the first foot has been placed in the first stirrup. I have therefore put them all in jail. I have done so to find out the truth of that statement,’ said the king.

`How absurd!’ said the Muni, `can we say that what is stated in the scriptures is untrue merely because it cannot be proved? I declare that each word therein is true,’ said the Muni. `If that is so, I shall send for the horse just now. I pray that you favour me by proving that what is said in the scriptures is true,’ said the king. `As your desire is a good one, I am happy. But I suppose you know that initiation into realization cannot be given to one who is not fit for it. If you want that initiation you must have the fullest confidence in me and first release the pandits who are in jail. After that, if you come to the forest on a horseback, I shall judge your fitness and then give you upadesa (initiation)’ said the Muni.

“When he heard the words of the Muni, which inspired great confidence, the king’s eagerness increased vastly and so the prisoners were freed immediately. Ashtavakra was made to sit in the palanquin, the king himself rode on horseback, and went to the forest with his ministers and other followers. Then, when they stopped under a banyan tree, the Muni said, `Why not send away the whole retinue? Why all these for the initiation?’ Accordingly, the king sent them all away and unwilling to waste any further time, obtained the permission of Ashtavakra and placed one foot on the stirrup and as he was about to raise the other foot, the Muni said, `Wait, wait! Before you raise the other leg you must reply to my questions.’

On the king agreeing to it, the Muni asked, `In the scriptures under reference, is there merely the sentence that Realization can be obtained by one within the short time of putting his other foot in the stirrup, or is there something else also?’ asked the Muni. The king said that there were many other things also. When the Muni asked if it was also stated there that for obtaining realization, a Guru also would be necessary, he replied in the affirmative. `If that is so, why do you ask for initiation without first accepting me as your Guru?’ said the Muni to which the king replied that as stated in the scriptures he straightaway accepted the Muni as his Guru.

`What about Gurudakshina (gift to the Guru as fee)?’ asked the Muni. The king said that he was at the very moment placing at the feet of the Guru his body, his mind, his wealth, and everything that he possessed in this world and requested him to accept them.

“As soon as he heard that, Ashtavakra went into a bush close by and hid himself. The king with his one foot in the stirrup, remained as he was without moving. The sun set. His ministers and others, anxious at his not returning home, went to the forest. They found the palanquin but no Ashtavakra. The king was there motionless like a statue. They all stood aghast at the sight. The minister went to the king and asked him the reason for his remaining motionless but received no reply. Then they thought that the Muni must have used some black magic and so began searching for him, but he was not found anywhere. Giving up all hopes of finding him, they put the king in the palanquin, took him back to the palace and made him lie down on a cot. He lay on the bed in the same position as he was placed on it and remained motionless. The ministers were very much grieved over it and called all the cavalry men, and ordered them to go in search of the Muni with instructions not to return without him.

“Not only did the king not eat anything, he did not utter a single syllable. He would not even gulp down the water that was poured into his mouth. Seeing his state, the queen and other relatives of the king got overpowered with grief. The news spread amongst the people and a feeling of terror arose amongst them. Even at sunrise, the king did not get up nor did the Muni turn up.

While everyone was anxiously waiting for some news, one of the servants turned up towards sunset together with Ashtavakra seated in a palanquin. As soon as they saw the Muni, the ministers were wild with anger. But afraid that the work ahead would be spoiled if they expressed their resentment, they respectfully enquired of the Muni if any black magic had been practised on the king. `What do I gain by practising black magic on your king? Anyway, why not ask your master himself?’ said the Muni. `We did ask, but the king is unable to speak. He has not taken food, nor even water, for the last two days. Please somehow see that he eats something’, said the ministers.

Then the Muni approached the king and said `Rajah!’ Immediately the king said, `What orders, swami? What is that I have done against you?’ The Muni asked, `Who said that you have done anything against me? You have done nothing. It is all right. Don’t worry. Now get up and eat,’ said the Muni.

“The king got up, ate and sat again motionless. `Please have mercy on us and restore our king to his original condition,’ said the ministers. The Muni promised to do so. After sending them all out, he bolted the doors behind them, and approaching the king, asked him why he was sitting motionless like that.

Immediately the king said, `Swami, I have no rights whatsoever over this body. These legs and these hands are not mine; this tongue is not mine; these eyes, ears and all the senses — none of them are mine; this kingdom is not mine. In truth, I surrendered to you my body, my mind and my wealth. Without your orders, I am not competent to do anything. That is why I am like this,’ said the king.

“Hearing these words of faith and devotion, the Muni was pleased and satisfied and placing his hand on the head of the king said, `My dear man, to know whether you are fit to be a Mukta or not, I had to give you these preliminary tests. I have now secured a disciple who is fit for initiation. You are now Brahma Swarupa (of the nature of Brahman), a realised soul; one who has done successfully all that has to be done; one that has received all that has to be received.’ The king thereupon prostrated before the Muni wondering within himself how he had become Brahma Swarupa though he was fully enveloped in ignorance, and asked:

Katham jnanam avapnothi
Katham muktir bhavishyathi
Vairagyamcha katham praptham
Etat bruhi mama prabho

Swami, please tell me how realization can be obtained, how liberation is secured and how non-attachment is gained.

“Ashtavakra Gita is in the form of questions and answers, Janaka got initiated into Self-knowledge. As a result of that initiation, the whole night passed as though it were but a few moments.

“Immediately after sunrise, as the door was opened the ministers and others came in and were overjoyed to find the king in great ecstasy. Then the great Muni enquired of the king if he still had any doubts about obtaining knowledge within the short space of placing the other foot on the stirrup as mentioned in the scriptures and that if he had any, he might as well send for his horse so that the statement could be proved. With a heart full of gratitude and devotion, the king said that there was no room in his mind for any sort of doubt and that what was said in the scriptures was absolutely true. He again expressed his gratitude for the great favour shown to him.

That is the story.

The Ashtavakra Gita, like the Ribhu Gita, teaches about the Supreme state of Realization. That is to say, when Janaka surrendered his body, mind and wealth unreservedly to the Guru, he became absorbed in his own Self and went into the state of samadhi. In other words, by teaching him the Gita, he was told that that was his real state and that he could remain established in that natural state.”


~ Sri Ramana Maharshi   (Source: ‘Letters from Sri Ramanasramam’; 24th April, 1948)