THE AṢṬĀVAKRAGĪTĀ, which Dr. Byrom has so ably translated here, is known under several different names, for example, Adhyātmaśāstra, Avadhūtānubhūti, Jñānānandasamuccaya and so forth, as well as variants on the Aṣṭāvakragītā title such as Aṣṭāvakrasūkta and Aṣṭāvakrasaṃhitā. This variation in its naming suggests its essential anonymity — a feature which superficially would link it with the “anonymous literature” par excellence of the Epics and Purāṇas, as would also both parts of the name Aṣṭāvakragītā. There have been, of course, numerous texts called Gītās, composed in imitation of the Bhagavadgītā, which is perhaps the most famous single part of the Mahābhārata, and most of these are (or at any rate claim to be) incorporated in one or another of the Purāṇas. There are, however, a few Gītās which make no such claim but are fully independent, and it is to these that the Aṣṭāvakragītā belongs, as is only to be expected from its clearly Vedantin outlook. Unlike many such Gītās, the Aṣṭāvakragītā is not a mere reworking of the Bhagavadgītā and does not even quote directly from it, although there is little doubt that its author was well acquainted with the Bhagavadgītā; for example, echoes of BhG. 5.8‒9 are probably seen in AG 17.8 + 12 and 18.47 + 65.
Occasionally, these independent Gītās are named after their supposed author rather than with a title indicating their sectarian affiliation. Two instances are the Utathyagītā and the Vāmadevagītā, both found in the Mahābhārata (at Mbh. 12.91‒92 and 93‒94). Similarly, Aṣṭāvakra first appears as the protagonist of the episode usually termed the Aṣṭāvakrakrīya but sometimes known as the Aṣṭāvakragītā (Mbh. 3.132‒4), an episode which was probably inserted into the Mahābhārata during the course of its expansion but is nonetheless alluded to in the other epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, at a late point in its growth (Ram. 6.107.16). In this episode, Aṣṭāvakra, who appears as something of a child prodigy, at the age of twelve is able to defeat Janaka’s sūta (bard or herald); Bandin, in riddling debate (probably a later form of the Vedic ritual brahmodyas, or contests about brahman). Although the numerical contest in which they engage (with each in turn composing a verse which lists concepts or entities characteristic of the numbers from one upward) is very different in form, its underlying concern with brahman is presumably the reason why Aṣṭāvakra was chosen as the expounder of the Aṣṭāvakragītā; if so, it is interesting that the sūta Bandin is replaced as the other main figure by Janaka, who is well known as one of the major debaters in the Upaniṣads.
This Mahābhārata episode interprets Aṣṭāvakra’s name as meaning “crooked in eight ways” and explains it as resulting from his father’s curse — rather obviously an etymological legend, a secondary explanation for an otherwise inexplicable name. The same mechanism of the curse is invoked in the story about Aṣṭāvakra found in the Puraṇas (ViP. 5.31.71‒84 and Brahma P. 212.72‒85), but this time Aṣṭāvakra curses the Apsaras who mock his deformity, which is much more in keeping with the popular view of ascetics as extremely irascible and liable to utter curses at the slightest provocation. Both stories are found together in later Sanskrit literature, for example the Ayodhyāmāhātmya (ed. Bakker, vol. 2, pp. 434‒439). The same deformity and readiness to curse are found also in the modern Indian languages. In a story found in Adbhutācāryya's Bengali Rāmāyaṇa and the svarga khaṇḍa of the Bengali Padmapurāṇa, a mother takes advantage of both to make her son whole: she gives birth to a son, Bhagīratha, who is just a lump of flesh without bones, and following Vasiṣṭha’s advice places him where he will see Aṣṭāvakra and, as anticipated, excite Aṣṭāvakra’s wrath by his laughter which, since it is not ridiculing Aṣṭāvakra, leads in fact to his healing. In several versions of the the Manasāmangal of Bengal, Aṣṭāvakra curses Manasā’s younger sister, Neto. In an Oriya work, the sixteenth-century Śūnya Saṃhitā, it is said that Aṣṭāvakra cursed the Yādavas for “some petty reason.” However, there is nothing in these later traditions about Aṣṭāvakra which is in any way helpful in understanding his role in the Aṣṭāvakragītā or why he was chosen to give a name to this essentially anonymous text. We are left with the significance of the context of the Mahābhārata episode as the only real clue. It is perhaps the relevance of that alone, combined with the similarity in title to the Bhagavadgītā, which has encouraged many Indian scholars to see it as belonging to the same period and thus as dating to around the fourth century B.C.E. They therefore see certain radical Advaitin views found in the Aṣṭāvakragītā which occur also in Gaudapada’s writings as anticipating his ideas. In reality, however, the Aṣṭāvakragītā as a whole reveals a form of Advaita Vedanta which has undoubtedly undergone a long line of development and must at the least be later than Śankara, the renowned codifier of the Advaita system. Doctrinally, the text has much in common with Sadānanda’s Vedāntasāra and Vidyāraṇya’s Jīvanmuktiviveka from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, while in its adaptation of an epic setting to the propagation of an Advaitin viewpoint it has analogies with the Yogavāsiṣṭa, a monumental twelfth- or thirteenth-century recasting of the Rāmāyana as the basis for a passionate exposition of Advaita.
Gauḍapāda was the first exponent of Advaita Vedānta and traditionally is held to have been the teacher of Śaṃkara’s teacher but more probably lived about three centuries earlier than Śaṃkara. Gauḍapāda’s main doctrine was that of non-origination, according to which the whole world is merely an appearance: nothing ever really comes into being, since nothing other than brahman really exists, and the whole world is an illusion like a dream. Indeed, he goes so far as to declare that there is in principle no difference between waking and dreaming (Māṇḍūkyakārikā 2.4), thus abolishing a distinction on which Śaṃkara later insists. In the radicalism of his position on some points and in the evident similarities to Buddhist thought, Gauḍapāda exhibits a more extreme position than Śaṃkara and also than the Aṣṭāvakragītā.
Śaṃkara, as the founder of Advaita Vedānta and author of the Brahmasūtrabhāṣya, is the pivotal figure not only in philosophical views of the Advaita system, but also, to an extent often not sufficiently realized, in its organizational structure and hence its subsequent popularity. His central doctrine of the identity of ātman and brahman, of the individual self with the ground of the universe, is based on the Vedas, reconciling their apparent contradictions by recourse to the exegetical device of two levels of truth, already well established in Buddhist thought. Much as Śaṃkara is admired as a philosopher, philosophy was not in fact his prime concern but the tool with which to achieve mokṣa, liberation, for himself and others. The multiple and finite entities of the phenomenal world are essentially identical with brahman, the Absolute, and it is only our ignorance or misunderstanding (avidyā) which prevents our seeing this. The multiplicity and individuality of phenomena lie in their separate identities which avidyā superimposes on the Absolute. When we perceive the world around us, we do perceive something but our mistake, our avidyā, consists in taking it as something other than brahman; this basic teaching Śaṃkara embodies repeatedly in illustrations, such as the rope and the snake or the silver and the mother-of-pearl, which have become part of the stock imagery of later Advaita.
For Śaṃkara the nature of avidyā is indescribable, since if it were entirely unreal we should not be entrapped by it and if it were real then brahman would not be the sole reality. Thus he denies the absolute reality of the world in order to affirm the sole reality of brahman, with which in its essential nature the ātman is identical. However, the individual self is a combination of reality and appearance — real insofar as it is ātman and thus brahman, but illusory insofar as it is limited and finite. Brahman, though, is not just an abstract concept but the goal of spiritual quest; release is achieved with the arrival of true knowledge, the realization that oneself and brahman are in truth identical. The awakening of this realization is therefore the overriding aim of all Śaṃkara’s teaching. Later Advaita may sometimes become mainly scholastic (indeed, debate on the nature of avidyā and where it resides was to divide it into two subschools), but individual writers later were to prsent these ideas with all the fervor and persuasiveness of Śaṃkara himself.
At a later date a definite trend developed of using a somewhat more literary form as the vehicle for the teaching, often adopting the easy śloka metre of the Epics and Purānas as the medium and sometimes, as we have seen, even borrowing from the Epic narrative, in works like the Yogavāsiṣṭa and the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa. It is in this tradition that the Aṣṭāvakragītā stands and within which it has achieved considerable popularity, not only in India but also in the West. The first translation into a European language was made as much as 120 years ago (an edition, published in 1868 at Florence, with Italian translation by Carlo Giussani); its author used three manuscripts from Tübingen and Petersburg. The more recent edition with German translation by Richard Hauschild is based on three manuscripts in Leipzig, as well as those by Giussani. Many other manuscripts exist in other European libraries, to say nothing of India. For example, there are as many as nine in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, including two which by their dates are older than any used by Giussani or Hauschild; however a sample collation of these two demonstrates that there has been little variation in transmission of the text, though some in the titles given to the sections of the dialogue.
The text’s significance for modern Vedāntins is well illustrated by the tradition that Vivekananda was introduced to the Aṣṭāvakragītā by Ramakrishna and valued the text. Its popularity is intimately connected with its character, for it is in many ways as much poetic as didactic, using the standard images of the Avaita system to excellent effect. It has with good reason been characterized as the outpourings of a realized individual. Certainly, its traditional form as a dialogue between Aṣṭāvakra as a teacher and Janaka as pupil bears very little relationship to the message actually propounded. However, rather than trying to characterize the text any further, let me conclude and give the reader the opportunity of savoring it in this new and elegant translation by Dr. Byrom. There have been English translations before, but this is the first to capture the spirit of the original in its freshness and directness; I warmly recommend it.
Book © 1990 Thomas Byrom.
Photo of sky diver by Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume. Courtesy U.S. Navy.
Drawing of Ashtavakra © 2013 Pobsant Roockarangsarith
John L. Brockington is Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh.
Translated by Thomas Byrom
Foreword by J.L. Brockington
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 this 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 e-mail, it really is a classical scripture, infinitely substantial, one of the most beautiful expositions of Advaita Vedanta and Jnana Yoga ever written.
Translated by John Henry Richards
The Ashtavakra Gita, also known as the Ashtavakra Samhita, is a famous Sanskrit scripture. It may be the purest, most uncompromising expression of Advaita Vedanta that has ever been written.
The Ashtavakra Gita has a very great reputation. 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.”
Realization.org wrote about this book:
“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.”
The translator, John Henry Richards, MA, BD, is a retired Anglican priest. He has also translated the Dhammapada and Vivekachudamani.
This page was published on May 26, 2017 and last revised on January 9, 2018.