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Aṣṭāvakra was born with physical handicap and grows up into a celebrated sage in Hinduism. Above, a 19th-century painting.
Religion Hinduism

Ashtavakra (Sanskrit: अष्टावक्रः, IAST Aṣṭāvakra) is a revered Vedic sage in Hinduism. His name literally means "eight bends", reflecting the eight physical handicaps he was born with. His maternal grandfather was the Vedic sage Aruni, his parents were both vedic students at Aruni's school. Ashtavakra studied, became a sage and a celebrated character in the mythologies of the Hindu Epics and Puranas.[1]

Ashtavakra is the author of the text Aṣṭāvakra Gītā, also known as Aṣṭāvakra Saṃhitā, in Hindu traditions. The text is a treatise on Brahman, Atman and monism (Advaita).[2]


Little is known about the life or century in which Ashtavakra actually lived, except for the mythologies found in the major Indian Epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and the Puranas. The legends state that sage Aruni, mentioned in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, ran a school (Āśrama) teaching the Vedas. Kahoḍa was one of his students, along with Aruni's daughter Sujata. Aruni's daughter married Kahoḍa. She got pregnant, and during her pregnancy, the developing baby heard the chanting of the Vedas and learnt the correct recitation.[3] According to one version of the legends surrounding Ashtavakra, his father was once reciting the Vedas, but erred in correct intonation. The fetus corrected his father, the father got angry and cursed him. The curse caused him to be born crooked, with eight bends, which is what his name "Ashtavakra" means.[1]

The different versions of the legends chronologically place him with Janaka, the ancient king of Videha.[4]


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Aṣṭāvakra is credited as the author of the Ashtavakra Gita (IAST: Aṣṭāvakra Gītā), which means "song of Ashtavakra". The text is also known as Aṣṭāvakra Saṃhitā.[5] The Ashtavakra Gita examines the metaphysical nature of existence and the meaning of individual freedom, presenting its thesis that there is only one Supreme Reality (Brahman), the entirety of universe is oneness and manifestation of this reality, everything is interconnected, all Self (Atman, soul) are part of that one, and that individual freedom is not the end point but a given, a starting point, innate.[2]

If you wish to be free,
Know you are the Self,
The witness of all these,
The heart of awareness.
Set your body aside.
Sit in your own awareness.
You will at once be happy,
Forever still, Forever free.
You are everywhere,
Forever free.
If you think you are free, You are free.
If you think you are bound, You are bound.
Meditate on the Self.
One without two,
Exalted awareness.

Ashtavakra Gita 1.4–14 , Translator: Thomas Byrom[6][7]

According to Jessica Wilson, the Sanskrit poetics in Ashtavakra Gita is not driven by critical syllogism, but it is rich in philosophical premises, spiritual effectiveness and its resonant narrative because of "textual indeterminacy between the audience's disposition and the foregrounded theme of non-individuation in the text. This tension . . . results in consistency building by the audience, which enables the transcendence of these two viewpoints (reader and text)".[8][5]

According to Radhakamal Mukerjee, the Ashtavakra Gita was likely composed after the Bhagavad Gita but before the start of the common era, and attributed to sage Ashtavakra out of reverence for his ideas.[9]



Aṣṭāvakra is referenced in verse 6.119.17 of Yuddha Kāṇḍa in Vālmikī's Rāmāyaṇa. When Daśaratha comes to see Rāma from heaven after the war of the Rāmāyaṇa, he tells Rāma –[10]

O son! I have been conveyed across (redeemed) by you, who are a deserving son and a great being; like the virtuous Brahmin Kahoḍa [was redeemed] by [his son] Aṣṭāvakra. ॥ 6.119.17 ॥

In the Aranya Kanda of Adhyatma Ramayana, the demon Kabandha narrates his story to Rama and Lakshmana, in which he says that he was a Gandharva earlier who was cursed by Ashtavakra to become a demon when he laughed on seeing him (Ashtavakra).[11] When the Gandharva then bowed down to Ashtavakra, Ashtavakra said that he would be released from the curse by Rama in Treta Yuga.[11]


Janaka debating with Ashtavakra. Art from the epic Ashtavakra (2010).

In the Vana Parva of the Mahābhārata, the legend of Aṣṭāvakra is described in greater detail. On losing the game of dice with the Kauravas, the five Pāṇḍava princes and Draupadi are exiled for twelve years. On their pilgrimage, they meet the sage Lomaśa, and he narrates to the Pāṇḍava princes the legend of Aṣṭāvakra, over three chapters of Vana Parva of the Mahābhārata.[12][13] Aṣṭāvakra's wisdom on various aspects of human existence is recited in the Mahābhārata. For example:

A grey head does not make an elder,
Not by years, not by grey hairs, not by riches nor by relations did the seers make the Law,
He who is great to us, is one who has learning.

Ashtavakra, Vana Parva, Mahabharata Book iii[13]


Aṣṭāvakra and Śvetaketu made his way to Janaka's palace. Aṣṭāvakra first faced the gatekeeper who tried to keep the young boy out. On convincing the gatekeeper that he was well versed in the scriptures and hence old, he was let in. Then Janaka tested Aṣṭāvakra with cryptic questions which Aṣṭāvakra answered with ease. Janaka decided to let Aṣṭāvakra face Vandin. Vandin and Aṣṭāvakra began the debate, with Vandin starting. They alternately composed six extempore verses on the numbers one to twelve. Then Vandin could only compose the first half of a verse on the number thirteen. Aṣṭāvakra completed the verse by composing the second half and thus won the argument against Vandin. This unique debate is full of enigmas and latent meanings which lie under the simple counts of the numbers one to thirteen.[14]

In arts

  • Aṣṭāvakra is one of the characters in the First Act of the Sanskrit play Uttara-Rāmacaritam composed by Bhavabhuti in the 8th century.
  • The 571st volume of the Amar Chitra Katha, published in 2005, is titled Dhruva and Ashtavakra.[15][16] The second half of the volume presents the narrative of Ashtavakra.
  • A puppet play on Ashtavakra was staged by the Dhaatu Artist group in Ranga Shankara in Bangalore in 2010.[17]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Roshen Dalal (2010). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin Books. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-14-341421-6. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8. 
  3. Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam. ed. India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. pp. 71–2. 
  4. Aṣṭāvakra; Radhakamal Mukerjee (1971). Aṣṭāvakragītā (the Song of the Self Supreme): The Classical Text of Ātmādvaita by Aṣṭāvakra. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-81-208-1367-0. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stroud, Scott R. (2004). "Narrative as Argument in Indian Philosophy: The Astavakra Gita as Multivalent Narrative". Philosophy and Rhetoric (The Pennsylvania State University Press) 37 (1): 42–71. doi:10.1353/par.2004.0011. , Quote: "Philosophical dialogues such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Astavakra Gita (also known as the Astavakra Samhita ) use a portrayed conversation involving a guru or deity to convey didactic lessons and values to the receptive audience, both ancient and modern."
  6. Thomas Byrom (1990). The heart of awareness: a translation of the Ashtavakra Gita. Shambhala. pp. 7–9. ISBN 978-0-87773-574-8. 
  7. Aṣṭāvakra; Hari Prasad Shastri (Transl) (1949). Ashtavakra Gita. Shanti Sadan. pp. 1–3. OCLC 768088461. 
  8. Jessica Wilson (2014). "Narrative as Philosophy: Methodological Issues in Abstracting from Hebrew Scripture". Journal of Analytic Theology 2: 276–277. 
  9. Aṣṭāvakra; Radhakamal Mukerjee (1971). Aṣṭāvakragītā (the Song of the Self Supreme): The Classical Text of Ātmādvaita by Aṣṭāvakra. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-81-208-1367-0. 
  10. Murthy, K. M. K. (September 2009), Valmiki Ramayana – Book VI:Yuddha Kanda – Book Of War – Chapter 119, http://www.valmikiRā, retrieved 7 April 2011, "tārito'haṃ tvayā putra suputreṇa mahātmanā । aṣṭāvakreṇa dharmātmā kaholo brāhmaṇo yathā ॥ (तारितोऽहं त्वया पुत्र सुपुत्रेण महात्मना । अष्टावक्रेण धर्मात्मा कहोलो ब्राह्मणो यथा ॥)" 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Munilal (2008) (in Sanskrit, Hindi). अध्यात्मरामायण – हिन्दी अनुवादसहित [Adhyatma Ramayana, with Hindi translation]. Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, India: Gita Press. p. 136. ISBN 81-293-0014-1. 
  12. Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (26 February 2006), The Mahābhārata, Book 3: Vana Parva: Tirtha-yatra Parva:Section CXXXII-CXXIV,, retrieved 7 April 2011 
  13. 13.0 13.1 J. A. B. van Buitenen (Translator), The Mahabharata, Volume 2, 1981, Template:ISBN
  14. Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (26 February 2006), The Mahābhārata, Book 3: Vana Parva: Tīrtha-yātrā Parva:Section CXXXIV, pp. Footnotes on pages 277–279,, retrieved 8 March 2011 
  15. Pai, Anant (31 December 2005), Dhruva and Ashtavakra, 571, Amar Chitra Katha, ISBN 978-81-7508-068-3 
  16. Dhruva and Ashtavakra (571),, retrieved 7 April 2011 
  17. News Service, Deccan Herald (12 March 2010), Storytelling through puppet play,, retrieved 7 April 2011 

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