Sadhguru on Gurus – Ashtavakra and the Enlightened King
In this installment of the “Sadhguru on Gurus” series, Sadhguru narrates stories from the life of Ashtavakra and his disciple, the enlightened King Janaka.
As we approach Guru Purnima on July 9, we look back at the historical tradition of this nation which revered the Guru – a culture which is unfortunately almost lost in modern times. Guru Purnima was cherished throughout the country in the past and was seen as a possibility to receive Grace. To revive this culture, we present a collection of inspiring stories from the lives of Gurus past, narrated by Sadhguru, which illustrate the unique methods each Master employed to bring transformation to disciples.
In this installment, Sadhguru tells us the story of Ashtavakra, an incredible Guru who had a crippled body, and his disciple king Janaka, who was one of the few enlightened kings.
Sadhguru: Many thousands of years ago, there was a great master named Ashtavakra. He was one of the greatest sages on this planet who caused a huge spiritual movement at that time. The name “Ashtavakra” means “one with eight different types of deformities in his body.” This was because of a curse from his father.
The Cursed Child
When Ashtavakra was in his mother’s womb, various teachings were expounded to him by his father, Kahola, who was himself a famed scholar and sage. In his fetal state, Ashtavakra received all this and before he was born, when he was still in his mother’s womb, he gained tremendous mastery over the various dimensions of the Self.
One day, in the process of transmitting the teachings, Kahola made a mistake. Ashtavakra, the unborn child, said “hum” from his mother’s womb. He was indicating that it was a mistake and that what Kahola was saying was not right. Unfortunately, his father lost his temper and cursed the child to be born with eight types of deformities. So the child was born physically deformed – his feet, hands, knees, chest and neck were bent.
King Janaka’s Longing
Later, when Ashtavakra grew up but was still quite young, he accompanied his father to a great debate that had been organized by the ruler of the land, King Janaka. Janaka was a truly phenomenal man of great intensity. Though he was a king, he was a true seeker. He was burning to get enlightened. His longing for enlightenment was so strong that he had gathered in his court everyone in the whole land who could be of spiritual value. He welcomed them, treated them well, gave them the necessary sustenance and supported them because he was hoping that they would show him the path.
Every day, he finished his temporal duties as quickly as he could and spent hours listening to these people, conducting debates and discussions to somehow know which is the way to enlightenment. Different scholars who had mastered different traditions of spiritual scriptures would sit together and start off great intellectual debates which would run for days, weeks and months. Usually, the winner of the debate would receive a great reward. They would receive a great deal of money or be appointed to some high position in the kingdom. These were not ordinary people. He had gathered good ones, but no one could give him enlightenment.
Kahola was invited to one such debate and he went accompanied by Ashtavakra. The debate began and a great argument was underway between the best scholars there. Many intellectual questions were raised and the intricacies of the scriptures were being discussed when Ashtavakra stood up and said, “All this is empty talk. None of these people knows anything of the Self. They are all talking about it, but not one person here including my father knows anything about the Self.”
King Janaka looked at Ashtavakra – this young man with a twisted-out body speaking like this – and said “Can you substantiate what you just said? Otherwise you will lose even that crippled body of yours.”
Ashtavakra replied, “Yes I can.”
“Then what is it that you can offer?” asked Janaka.
Ashtavakra said, “If you want to receive this, you must be willing to follow my word to the limit. Only then I can offer this to you. If you are willing to just do what I ask you to do, I will see that you know yourself.”
Janaka appreciated this straightforwardness and said “Tell me anything, I will do it.” He was not simply saying that. He really meant it.
Ashtavakra said, “I live in the forest. Come there and we will see what to do.” And he left.
“Stop Right There!”
After a few days, Janaka went in search of Ashtavakra in the forest. When a king goes anywhere, he always goes with his guard of soldiers and ministers. Janaka set off into the forest with his retinue. But when they entered the forest, the jungle kept getting denser and denser. Gradually, after many hours of searching, Janaka got separated from the rest of the group and lost his way. As he was wandering around in the forest searching for a way out, all of a sudden he came upon Ashtavakra sitting under a tree.
When he saw Ashtavakra, Janaka began to dismount from the horse. He was on one stirrup and his other leg was up in the air when Ashtavakra said, “Stop. Stop right there.” Janaka just stopped in that absolutely uncomfortable position – hanging onto the horse, with one leg up in the air.
He just stood there in that absolutely awkward position. We do not know for how long. Some legends say for many years, some say it was just a moment. The chronological time does not matter. He stood in that position long enough. Long enough can be just one moment. Because of that absoluteness of him following the instruction – just stopping there, where he has to be – he became a fully realized being.
Once Janaka became enlightened, he got off his horse and fell at Ashtavakra’s feet. He said to Ashtavakra, “What am I going to do with my kingdom and my palace – these things are not important to me anymore. I just want to sit at your feet. Please let me stay with you in your ashram in the forest.”
But Ashtavakra replied, “Now that you have attained, your life is no more about your likes and dislikes. Your life is no more about your needs because you have none actually. Your people deserve an enlightened king. You must stay as their king.”
Reluctantly, Janaka stayed back in his palace and governed his kingdom with great wisdom.
Janaka was a true blessing to his people because he was a fully enlightened being, but he functioned as a king. In India, many sages and saints were once kings and emperors who willingly and voluntarily gave away everything they had and walked as beggars, with great dignity. There have been many like this – Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Bahubali – but an enlightened king was a rare being. Janaka remained a king but as often as possible, whenever his regal responsibilities gave him some time, he would visit Ashtavakra in his ashram.
The Monks and the Monkeys
At the ashram, Ashtavakra had gathered a few monks who were being taught by him. These monks slowly began to resent Janaka because whenever he came, Ashtavakra went out of his way and spent a lot of time with the king because they had such a good rapport with each other. The moment Janaka came, both of them lit up. With the monks whom Ashtavakra was teaching, he did not light up the same way. This was resented by the monks.
The monks would whisper to each other, “Why has our Guru sold out to a man like that? It looks like our Guru is getting corrupted. This man is a king. He lives in a palace. He has got so many wives and so many children. He has so much wealth. Look at the way he walks. He walks like a king. And look at the way he is dressed. Look at the ornaments he wears. What is spiritual about him that our Guru should even pay attention to this man? We are here totally dedicated to our spiritual process. We have come here as monks but he is just ignoring us.”
Ashtavakra knew that this feeling was growing among his monks. So one day he arranged for something to happen. He was sitting and speaking to the monks in a hall and king Janaka was also present. As the discourse was going on, a soldier came barging into the room, bowed down to Janaka but not to Ashtavakra, and said, “Oh king, the palace is on fire! Everything is burning. The whole kingdom is in disarray.”
Janaka got up and just yelled at the soldier, “Get out of here! How dare you come and disturb the satsang and how dare you bow down to me and not to my Guru! Just get out of here!” The soldier fled from the room. Janaka sat back down and Ashtavakra continued to speak.
A few days later, Ashtavakra set up something else. All of them were once again seated in the hall and Ashtavakra was giving a discourse. Right in the middle of the discourse, a helper in the ashram came running into the hall and said, “The monkeys have taken the clothes off the clothesline and are playing havoc with the monks’ garments.”
All the monks immediately got up and ran to save their clothes. They did not want the monkeys to tamper with them. But when they got to the clothes-drying area, there were no monkeys and their loin cloths were still hanging on the clothesline. They realized what had happened. They hung their heads down and walked back.
Then as a part of the discourse, Ashtavakra said, “Look at this. This man is a king. A few days ago his palace was burning. His whole kingdom was in turmoil. Wealth at its peak was burning, but his concern was that his soldier disturbed the satsang. That was his concern.
You are monks. You have nothing. You don’t have a palace, you don’t have a wife, you don’t have children, you have got nothing. But when the monkeys came and picked up your clothing, you ran. Most people would not use your clothing even as mop cloths. That is the kind of clothing you wear. But for that loin cloth, without even paying attention to what I was saying, you just ran out to save those worthless pieces of cloth. Where is your renunciation? He is the true renunciate. He is a king, but he is a renunciate. You are monks. You are using things that other people discard, but there is no renunciation in you. This is where you are. That is where he is.”
One’s progress within oneself has nothing to do with what a person does on the outside, what is most important is, what a person is doing within him or herself. What you are doing with the outside world is just social; you conduct yourself as it is suitable for the situation in which you exist. It has social relevance but no existential or spiritual relevance. How you are within yourself is all that matters.
Editor’s Note: Celebrate Guru Purnima by joining the Satsang with Sadhguru at Isha Yoga Center. Register to join in-person or via live webstream at your local Isha Center or at home.