Ashtavakra Gita

The Ashtavakra Gita, also known as the Ashtavakra Samhita, is a famous, highly regarded Sanskrit poem in which the main character, a sage named Ashtavakra, talks about Self-realization with one of his students, King Janaka. The language is spare and concentrated; the message is experiential Advaita Vedanta.

This poem’s reputation is very great. For example, Osho wrote:

Man has many scriptures, but none are comparable to the Gita of Ashtavakra. Before it the Vedas pale, the Upanishads speak with a weak voice. Even the Bhagavad Gita does not have the majesty found in the Ashtavakra Samhita — it is simply unparalleled.[1]

As is the case with many classical Indian texts, nobody knows how old the Ashtavakra Gita is. Some scholars think it was written in the fifth century BCE; others think it was written as late as the 14th century CE. That’s a disagreement of 1700 years.

The main character in this poem, Ashtavakra, was a sage, perhaps a real historical person, who also appears in stories in other scriptures. He got his name, which means “having eight bends," because he was born with multiple deformities. Ashtavakra Gita means Ashtavakra’s Song; Ashtavakra Samhita means Ashtavakra’s Collection [of verses].

People often assume that the historical Ashtavakra (or somebody who used his name as a pseudonym) is the author of this poem. By that same logic, Shakespeare’s play Henry V was written by Henry V. To us it seems equally likely that the author’s name was something else and has been forgotten. Like all ancient Indian texts, this poem was handed down in oral form for centuries, and since it lacked the equivalent of a title page, the author's name would have been easily lost just like the date of composition was lost.

Three Aspects of the Absolute by Bulaki, 1823. Click to enlarge.

Our Opinion

Like Osho, we too have come under this poem’s spell. Years ago we wrote on an earlier version of this page:

If we tell you this is a famous Sanskrit scripture, you’ll probably think ugh, heavy turgid stilted.

But it’s none of those things. It’s just a guy talking to you, an enlightened guy, telling you what he knows and how to see it for yourself. His words are weightless, airy, transparent — especially in the remarkable translation by Thomas Byrom.

These are words for eye dancing, for mere awareness, for floating into infinity.

And yet we have to be honest with you. Even though this poem sounds as new as today’s email, it really is a classical scripture, infinitely substantial, one of the most beautiful expositions of Advaita Vedanta and Jnana Yoga ever written.

Ashtavakra Gita means “Ashtavakra’s Song” in Sanskrit. It’s also sometimes called Ashtavakra Samhita, meaning “Ashtavakra’s Collection.” Ashtavakra was a character in ancient Sanskrit literature, and when the relatively modern author of the Ashtavakra Gita wrote his poem, he pretended that he was recording words spoken by the ancient character. Hence the title.

1. Osho, The Mahageeta, Volume 1 (also known as Enlightenment: The Only Revolution).

Painting: Three Aspects of the Absolute, folio 1 from the Nath Charit. By Bulaki. India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1823 (Samvat 1880). Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper; 47 x 123 cm. Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.

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This page was published on June 22, 2014.


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