Yoga, as we know, is a physical practice. But its origins do not originate on the yoga mat. Yoga has its roots in ancient scriptures that offer profound spiritual insights. Among these is the Ashtavakra Gita, a historical dialogue that has inspired the modern-day yogi.
In this article, we will take a look at the wisdom of the Ashtavakra Gita by examining the following:
- The Origin & History of the Ashtavakra Gita
- The Song of Ashtavakra
- The Meaning of the Ashtavakra Gita
- Interpretation of Relevant Verses
- Relationship to Modern Times
- How to Practice the Lessons of the Ashtavakra Gita
Origin & History of the Ashtavakra Gita
The exact origins and date of the Ashtavakra Gita, also known as the Ashtavakra Samhita, are quite mysterious, which is common for many ancient Indian scriptures.
Most scholars, though, believe that the Ashtavakra Gita was written between 500 BCE to 500 CE, but this is a broad estimate. Some place it after the Bhagavad Gita (600 BCE) while some place its iteration before.
There seems to be no definitive timeline for this text that has been universally accepted. We have to remember, stories like the Ashtavakra Gita were passed down orally for generations before they were written down.
But more importantly, it is the story that transpires within this ancient text. (A “gita,” by the way, is a story, song or poem.) Let’s take a look.
The Song of Ashtavakra
Picture, if you will, a royal court. The room glows from the surrounding oil lamps. The ceilings and walls are intricately decorated with detailed paintings and carvings. In the center of the room is a large throne: ornately carved from wood and sits amidst a circle of scholars and sages.
On the throne sits Janaka, King of Mithila. He is a wise and just ruler, known not just for his administrative skills but also for his spiritual depth. Royal robes adorn him. His posture accentuates his wisdom and regal.
In stark contrast to this grandeur, on the floor opposite the king, sits a sage unlike any other the court has witnessed. Ashtavakra, his name stemming from the Sanskrit words ‘Ashta’ (eight) and ‘Vakra’ (bend or deformity), has a distinctive appearance.
Born this way, each of the eight deformities in his body – perhaps a crooked limb, an uneven shoulder, or a twisted spine – tells a story of its own. In contrast, his face is serene, his gaze piercing, and his aura radiates an unparalleled tranquility.A dialogue ensues between the two. Their engrossing conversation delves deep into the nature of existence, self-realization, and non-dualism.
This is the scene for the Ashtavakra Gita. Its historical origins are a mix of myth and mysticism, yet it holds an esteemed place alongside revered texts like the Bhagavad Gita. The dialogue between the enlightened King Janaka and the sage Ashtavakra, reveals the realm of life and existence.
The Meaning of the Ashtavakra Gita
At the heart of the Ashtavakra Gita is a message of non-duality. The ancient text dives into profound questions like: Who am I? What is the nature of reality?
King Janaka’s questions reflect our own eternal quest for meaning. In response, Ashtavakra paints a picture of a reality where the individual soul and the universal consciousness are one. This unity, where the self merges with the universe, is the crux of the Ashtavakra Gita.
This intriguing conversation derives from the Advaita Vedanta, a non-dualistic school of Indian philosophy. This system of thinking proposes that the individual soul and the universal soul are the same.
So, what does this all mean? Let’s try to make this more clear:
Imagine you have a drop of water. Alone, it’s just a small drop. But if you put it into the ocean, it becomes part of that vast body of water. It’s hard to tell where the drop ends and the ocean begins; they become one.
Similarly, the Advaita Vedanta states that each of us (our individual souls) is like that drop of water in the big ocean (the universal soul).
This philosophy believes that, deep down, our true nature (or soul) is not separate from the big universal soul. We’re all connected, and at our core, we are one and the same with everything in the universe.
So, the conversation from the Ashtavakra Gita discusses this idea: that each of us is not separate from the world or universe, but rather, we are all interconnected and essentially the same at our deepest level.
Interpretation of Relevant Verses
It is worth highlighting some relevant verses from this gita to get a better understanding of its message.
- Exploring the True Self:
“You are the one observer of all, and in reality always free. Your bondage is this: You see the other. Do not see the other! See yourself!”
This verse urges introspection. It encourages us to realize that by seeing others, we differentiate and create distinctions. In recognizing our true self, we merge with the universal consciousness.
- Understanding the Impermanence:
“The universe arises from you like foam from the sea. Know yourself as one, and enter into peace.”
Just as foam is temporary, our worldly attachments too are fleeting. Not everything lasts as we desire. It is important to recognize impermanence. We can exist with a more peaceful mind having this knowledge.
- Embracing Stillness:
“In you the worlds arise like waves in the sea. It is true! You are the unchanging essence, in whom all this appears superimposed.”
In the constant tumult of life, the Ashtavakra Gita calls us to find stillness, to realize that beneath the waves, the ocean remains undisturbed.
Relationship to Modern Times
The contrast between our ancient spiritual roots and the rapid pace of the 21st century is striking. Yet, the Ashtavakra Gita, an age-old scripture, speaks volumes to the contemporary heart.
- Digital Overload: We live in a digital age, where screens dictate our rhythms. Notifications, emails, social media pings — they constantly vie for our attention. Every “like”, “share”, or “comment” becomes a metric of our worth. The Ashtavakra Gita reminds us that our true value isn’t determined by these digital validations but is intrinsic and unchanging.
- Quest for Material Wealth: The modern era is marked by the race to acquire – be it money, property, or the latest tech gadgets. The Ashtavakra Gita, in its profound wisdom, prompts us to ask: “How much is enough?” It points out the fleeting nature of material possessions and urges us to seek riches of the soul, which offer lasting contentment.
- Stress and Mental Well-being: Burnout, anxiety, and depression are often described as the epidemics of our times. The relentless hustle, the pressure to always be “on,” takes a toll on our mental health. Through its teachings, the Ashtavakra Gita encourages us to pause, reflect, and understand our true nature, which is beyond the ebb and flow of life’s challenges. It offers solace in the idea that our true self remains untouched by external circumstances.
- The Search for Purpose: In a world of endless choices, finding one’s purpose has become a dominant narrative. The existential questions of “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” weigh heavily on modern minds. The Gita guides us in this introspective journey, suggesting that our purpose is not just an external pursuit but an inward realization of our union with the universe.
- Simplification and Minimalism: Today, there’s a growing trend towards simplification and minimalism, be it in living spaces, lifestyles, or thoughts. This is a reflection of our collective yearning for clarity amidst chaos. The Ashtavakra Gita has, at its core, a message of simplicity — to peel away the layers of illusion and recognize our authentic self.
In essence, while the Ashtavakra Gita was written many centuries ago, its teachings are timeless. In the face of modern complexities, it serves as a compass, guiding us towards inner peace, authenticity, and a deeper understanding of our place in the universe.
It stands as a testament to the idea that wisdom transcends time, offering solutions that are as relevant today as they were when first spoken.
How to Practice the Lessons of the Ashtavakra Gita
So, how do we bring this age-old wisdom into our daily routines? Here’s a start:
- Meditation: Root your practice in the teachings of the Gita. Go beyond surface-level mindfulness. Dive deep, seeking the unity the Gita speaks of.
- Self-reflection: Set aside moments to question, introspect, and understand your true self. Let the Gita be your guiding light.
- Simplicity: Reassess your life. Do you need everything you’re chasing? Or is it time to declutter, not just your home but your life and mind?
And if you didn’t know already, there is a yoga pose dedicated to this wise sage.
Ashtavakrasana, named after Sage Ashtavakra himself, is a powerful representation of this blend between the physical and the spiritual. As you move into this challenging arm balance, the Eight Bend Pose mirrors the very essence of the Gita’s teachings.
- Ashtavakrasana: Eight Bend Pose
- Preparation: Warm up with Sun Salutations, focusing on poses that strengthen the arms and open the hips.
- Entering the Pose:
- From Dandasana, bend your right knee, placing your heel close to your hip.
- Slide your right arm under the knee, aiming to place the knee high up on the shoulder.
- With presented hands, lean toward the floor on your left side.
- Get low enough to firmly press your palms onto the mat.
- Engaging your core, shift your weight onto your hands, lifting your seat and eventually your left leg.
- Cross your right foot over your left ankle.
- Extend your left leg out to the side, parallel to the floor, as you breathe and balance.
The Ashtavakra Gita isn’t just a text; it’s an experience, a guide, and a mentor. While yoga helps us balance on one foot, the Gita teaches us to find balance in life.
As we roll up our mats, let’s also roll out the teachings of the Gita in our lives, seeking a union that’s truly holistic.