Ashtavakra Gita, the Gospel of self-effacement

Instruction on Self-Realization
The text starts with three  questions put by the student Janaka to the teacher, Ashtavakra:
1.How can knowledge be acquired?
2.How can liberation be attained?
3.How is renunciation achieved?

Knowledge means the realization  of the identity of the individual self and the Supreme Self or Brahman which is  Existence, Knowledge and Bliss absolute (Sat-Chit-Ananda). Liberation  means freedom from ignorance, all bondage and limitations which leads to the  complete destruction of all misery and the attainment of supreme bliss.  Renunciation means unattachment to the pleasure and pain derived from worldly  objects and even the joy of heaven, which is also impermanent.

It may be noted that renunciation  is defined as unattachment and it has nothing to do with giving up possessions,  as usually understood. Even with no possession one need not be a renunciate for  he can identify himself mentally with possessions to have them or to reject  them.

Unattachment is neither indifference  nor suppression of natural feelings of pleasure and pain. Attachment springs  from a sense of duality, the individual on the one side and the world on the  other side. The individual who consists of body, mind, and senses has also got  Consciousness which enlivens all the other components of the body-mind-senses  complex. The individual is Consciousness, identified with his own  body-mind-senses complex, and regards all the other individuals and objects in  the world as separate and different from him.

As long as this identification  persists, the individual’s relationship with the world outside will be based on  duality or the sense of difference between the two. The individual is attracted  towards the persons and objects he likes and is repelled by those whom he does  not like. He derives pleasure out of those whom he likes and pain out of those  he does not like. Thus pleasure and pain are rooted in attraction and  repulsion, which in turn is based on duality. Once this concept of duality is  dissolved into the concept of unity of Consciousness, our perspective of life  will undergo a change. We will be viewing ourselves in others and others in  ourselves and conclude that there is but one Absolute Existence.

Thus whatever is so far observed  by the mind, it is all but a temporary superimposition on the Self. The Self in  all is thus the only reality; the world as it appears is unreal and its reality  is in the Self and not in its outer form.

Living in the world we are not  aware of this truth about the reality and erroneously take the superimposed  form as the only reality. This state of mind is called ‘ignorance’ and all our  relationships in the world are thus rooted in ignorance and not on reality.

The concept of unity of  Consciousness will revolutionize the relationship between the individual and  the world and such Knowledge will make us realize that it is the Self, the one  real existence in all that is the source of attraction to them. Hence  Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says “It is not for the sake of the husband that the  husband is loved, but for the sake of the Self that the husband is loved.”

Ashtavakra replied to Janaka “If  you aspire after liberation, my child, reject the objects of the senses as  poison and seek forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, contentment and truth as  nectar.”

Attachment to worldly objects is  a great bar to spiritual progress and hence they should be shunned as poison at  the outset which also implies the necessity of a total control over  sense-organs and mind. Here both the positive and the negative practices of a  spiritual aspirant have been described. Giving up the attachment to worldly  objects indicates negative aspect while cultivating moral virtues indicates  positive aspect.

Ashtavakra continues his  teaching:

The Self is distinct from the  five elements that constitute the body, mind and universe. It is Consciousness  itself and is their witness. Liberation lies in knowing the Self as such. The  essence of the Advaita Sadhana is that by identifying the Self with the body  which is not Self, and thus attributing the limitations of the body such as  birth, death, old age or disease, to the Self we suffer all kinds of misery.  The Self is really not the body. So if we can only get rid of this  identification, we shall at once realize that we are Consciousness itself and  thus become happy and free from bondage because the Self is never affected by  body and mind which merely hide its glory just as clouds hide the sun.

Ashtavakra enumerates several  instances showing that the body is not the Self, nor does it have any  distinction of varna (caste) or asrma (stages of life). It does  not have virtue and vice, pleasure and pain all of which are properties of the  mind alone.  The Self is neither the doer  nor the enjoyer. Verily we are all free and the bondage lies in the wrong  identification of the Self with the non-self. He advises Janaka to cast aside  the egoistic feeling ‘I am the doer’ and take to the faith ‘I am not the doer’  and be happy. He advises “burn down the forest of ignorance with the fire of  the conviction ‘I am the one and Pure Consciousness’, and be free from grief  and happy. You are that Consciousness, Supreme Bliss in and upon which this  universe appears superimposed, like a snake on a rope. Live happily.”

“He, who considers himself free,  is free indeed and he who considers himself bound remains bound.” As one  thinks, so one becomes, is true always. The Self is an all-pervading eternal witness  but through illusion it appears as if it is subject to the cycle of life and  death. You have long been caught in the web of body-consciousness; sever it  with the sword of knowledge ‘I am Consciousness’ and be happy. You are  unattached, self-effulgent and without any blemish. Your bondage lies in your  thinking that you are bound and then taking resort to such practices like  meditation etc.”  What Ashtavakra here  means is that we must altogether give up the thought of our being bound for the  reason already mentioned that as one thinks so one becomes.

“The Self is the substance which  pervades the universe just as gold pervades the ornament and the universe  exists in the Self just as an ornament exists in gold.” The idea is that the  name and form exists in the substance without having their own independent  separate existence. “Know that which has form to be unreal and the formless to  be permanent. Through this spiritual instruction you will escape the  possibility of rebirth. Just as a mirror exists within and without the image  reflected in it, so the Supreme Self exists inside and outside the body. Just  as the same all-pervading, space is inside and outside a jar, so the eternal,  all-pervasive Brahman exists in all things.”

After hearing this elaborate  exposition of the Self by Ashtavakra, Janaka demonstrates that he has become  enlightened and tells that all his illusions have been suddenly lifted. He  tells that the tripod of knowledge-knower- knowable has changed into one vision  of the infinite Tranquility- the Self. Janaka here gives a beautiful  description of the process of such fusion by citing several vivid examples.

Janaka says “As cloth, when analyzed  is found to be nothing but thread, so this universe, when analyzed, is nothing  but the Self. Just as sugar generated in sugar-cane juice is wholly pervaded by  that juice, so the universe produced in the Self is permeated by the Self  through out. Just as the snake appears from the non-cognition of the rope and  disappears with its recognition, the world appears from the ignorance of the  Self and disappears with the knowledge of the Self. O, Wonderful is the way of  the Self who knows no decay and survives even after the destruction of the  world, from Lord Brahma down to a blade of grass. I am pure Consciousness with  neither bondage nor freedom and the universe though exists does not really  exist. Adoration to the Self!”

On hearing such an assertion from  Janaka, Ashtavakra responds by ridiculing him with teasing questions doubting  his claim of enlightenment. The thrust of Ashtavakra’s counter is how can Janaka  claim self-realization with his apparent involvements in the functioning of the  throne and continue to perform the outer duties of the world? Ashtavakra points  out instances in Janaka’s behavior one by one as serious deviations from the  life of a liberated person and accuses him of acting in ignorance. However,  Janaka gives spirited and penetrating replies to all the questions of  Ashtavakra and meets his challenge thoroughly. He proves himself to be ever  dwelling in self-knowledge and completely unidentified with his own mental and  physical actions and therefore beyond the domain of value judgment.

These questions and answers are  extremely exciting and illuminating to the students of Advaita Vedanta.

The substance of Janaka’s replies  is as under:

The entire universe is but one’s  own essential form and one is not separate from it. An individual is not a sum  of his parts. The head, heart, hand, leg, liver etc are different names of  parts of the body but are not separate ‘events’ or ‘items’. Similarly an  individual is separate from the universe only in name. In fact he is not only  an essential part of  the universe but he  is the very being of the universe just as heart, head etc.are not part of the  individual but they are the essential aspect of the whole of him.

When this oneness is not realized  man is fooled by his own name and the world appears as a mere bundle of names  and forms. This alienation from the world is the cause of all fears. Once we  realize that we are the Infinite Self, the sense of alienation disappears. To  realize that I am the Self is to recognize at once the society and the world  are but an extension of my own mind and body.

Space is not contaminated by the  things existing in it. Similarly, activities of the body cannot affect the Pure  Self with which the man of realization identifies himself.

Dissolution of Ego or Laya
While experiencing the Self a  complete dissolution of the perceiving equipments and the perceived world of  experiences take place which according to Ashtavakra is called Laya. In  this absolute state of laya, the consciousness of body, mind and the senses  vanishes i.e. the ego disappears and hence a merger of the individual in  Brahman happens. He describes four methods through which such a state of  dissolution can be attained viz.
1. by destroying the identification of the Self with body,  mind and the senses
2. by having known the oneness of the Self and man just as  sea and the bubbles
3. by having known the universe to be non-real and  illusory just like a snake in the rope and
4. by remaining unaffected by the pairs of opposites like  pain and pleasure, life and death, hope and disappointment etc.

Janaka takes the dialogue to a  still higher level and suggests that even this dissolution arises out of the  vestige of ignorance. Just as the space inside a jar is the same as the  infinite space outside it, so the universe exists in and through the One  Infinite Self. A man of Self-realization looks upon the world as a magician’s  performance, false and illusory having no existence even though it is visible  to a spectator. Therefore no object of the world can attract or repel such an  enlightened man.

Bondage, Freedom, Detachment, Tranquility, Wisdom
Ashtavakra then explains certain  concepts relevant to the main topic of Self-Realization.

Bondage and Freedom:  
It is bondage when the mind  desires or grieves at anything, rejects or accepts anything, feels happy or  angry at anything. It is bondage when the mind is attached to any sense  experience. When there is “I” there is bondage. It is freedom when the mind  does not desire or grieve or reject or accept or feel happy or angry. It is  freedom when the mind is detached from all sense experiences. When there is no  “I” there is freedom.

Our life is a mixture of  opposites like joy and sorrow, success and failure and good and evil. We have  always preferences which drive us to do certain things and avoid doing certain  others. Hence, our conception of duty. As long as we consider the world as  real, we cannot escape the pairs of opposites nor get rid of the sense of duty.  The only way out of this situation is to realize the unreality of the world and  renounce our identification with its relative life and remaining unattached to  its experiences. Rare is the case where a man with this quality of mind did not  attain quietude. Such a person becomes a spiritual guide to others by virtue of  his knowledge of Pure consciousness on account of his detachment from the  world.

It is desire that binds us to the  world and makes us to think it is real which in turn leads us to the unending  rounds of birth and death. The moment we are free from desire, the reality of  the world will vanish and there will be no further reincarnation for us. The  man who has renounced desire is completely free and the desire bug cannot hurt  him wherever he may live to spend the remaining part of his life tenure.

Bondage consists only in desire,  and the destruction of desire is said to be liberation. One attains the  constant joy of realization of the Self by non-attachment to the world. It is  really strange that even when we love kingdoms, sons, wives, bodies, and the other  worldly pleasures very dearly, we cannot retain them for long. We inevitably  lose them and thus they cause us suffering. This process has been repeated life  after life. What is the fun then, in being attached to such things? Enough of  prosperity, desires and charitable deeds! The mind does not find peace in this  dreary forest of the world. For how many births have we not done hard and  painful work with this multifaceted gadget of body, mind, intellect and senses?  Therefore, stop this at least today.

This section of Ashtavakra Gita  can be considered as Jnana Ashtakam, a Hymn to Pure Knowledge in eight  verses. Here are the eight lessons for a healthier understanding of the world  which will bring peace and tranquility to the seekers.

He who knows for certain that
1. change in the form of existence and destruction is inherent in things,
2. Self is the creator of all and there is none else here.
3. misfortune and fortune come in their own time due to the effects of past actions,
4. happiness and misery, birth and death are due to the effects of past actions.
5. it is anxiety and nothing else that brings sorrow in the world
6. he is  not the body nor is the body his. He is pure consciousness itself
7. he is  indeed in everything from Lord Brahma to a blade of grass and
8. this manifold and wonderful universe is unreal becomes Pure  Consciousness, unperturbed, free from pain, desireless and finds peace as if  nothing exists.

Abiding in The Self
King Janaka, explains in the form  of a do-it-yourself manual how despite carrying on
the duties of the world the mind  can be kept unattached by the happenings around it like a lotus leaf in the  water.

Janaka explains the process  through which he succeeded in abiding himself in the Self. He says “He became  intolerant of physical action, extensive speech, and thought. Having no  attachment for sensory objects and because the Self is not an object of perception, his mind became free from distraction and turned one-pointed. Whenever  his mind is distracted he made an effort to bring it back to concentrate.

He became perfect by convincing  himself that there is nothing to accept or to reject and has neither joy nor  sorrow. Considering even the stages of life, meditation, controlling the functions  of the mind, performing and non- performing of actions as distractions and  ignorance he was biding in the Self. As thinking about the Unthinkable One (the  Self) is also resorting to a form of thought, he gave up thought itself  altogether. The man who is of such nature and who has accomplished this task  ever lives in Bliss Absolute and in perfect Tranquility.”

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