Ashtavakra was a child prodigy who rose to become one of the great philosophers of ancient times. He lived at the time of king Janaka of Videha who was the father of Sita of Ramayana fame. Janaka was himself a highly learned man. A philosophical work attributed to Ashtavakra, called the Ashtavakra Geeta, is considered by many as great as the famous Bhagavad Geeta. This Geeta is by way of a session in which king Janaka raises his doubts and Ashtavakra clarifies the points. Quite a few English translations are available of this Geeta on the Net. Sri Sri Ravishankar of The Art of Living has given a series of lectures on this.
Sage Lomasa pointed out the place where hermitage of Ashtavakra stood to Yudhishthira during their pilgrimage and narrated the story of the sage to the Pandava.
Born with eight bends
There was a famous Brahmin by name Uddalaka who had a son by name Swetaketu, daughter, Sujata and a disciple called Kahoda. Uddalaka was very pleased with his disciple, Kahoda, and gave his daughter Sujata in marriage to him.
Sujata soon became pregnant. It is said that the child, while in his mother’s womb, corrected the mistakes his father committed in chanting the Vedas. Kahoda got angry with his son for what he took to be his impudence. He cursed the child to be born with eight bends on his body.
Untimely death of Kahoda
Sujata was worried about their poverty when she knew about her pregnancy and that soon she would have to bring up a child. She pleaded with her husband to raise, somehow, some money. What Kahoda had with him as asset was his vast knowledge. He decided to approach king Janaka of Videha, who was himself a great scholar, for help. He was widely known for his generosity to learned men.
It was the custom those days for kings to set up debates among participating scholars and reward the winner by giving gifts of wealth. Often, there was also punishment for those who were defeated. When Kahoda reached the palace there was a great scholar there by name Vandi, who was the son of Varuna, the god of oceans. He was also ruthless in his dealings with his opponents in debates. He kept a stiff condition that those who lost should be thrown into the sea.
Kahoda had to accept the challenge as he was desperate for money. Unfortunately, he was defeated and was drowned in the sea by the king’s soldiers.
Ashtavakra learns the truth
The child was born to Kahoda only after his death. He had eight bends on his body exactly as cursed by his father. But, he was a genius from birth. The boy picked up all the Vedas and Sastras (sciences) in his early childhood.
Swetaketu lived in the hermitage along with his sister and nephew. Sujata tried to hide the truth about her husband’s untimely death from the boy. One day, Ashtavakra learnt the truth from his uncle Swetaketu. He was only in his teens at that time. Yet, he wanted to avenge the death of his father and went to king Janaka. Vandi was still living in great honour with king Janaka.
Too young for debate
But, Ashtavakra was denied entrance to the palace by the gate keepers. They told him that he was too young to challenge a great scholar like Vandi. There was a long argument between Ashtavakra and the sentry. The king’s gate keepers soon realized that they were in the presence of a boy of exceptional intelligence and learning. But, the king’s orders would not let the boy through. Finally, the gate keepers slipped him through pretending ignorance of his arrival.
In the presence of the mighty scholar
King Janaka was surprised finding a small boy arriving unannounced. The boy also had the audacity to ask for a debate with Vandi who was the greatest of all living scholars. Janaka tried to send the boy back and got into a debate with him in the process. The king soon realized that the boy was a child prodigy and indeed a match for the great Vandi in intelligence and scholarship. He was curious to know how he would fare against Vandi.
The debate between the two did not last long. The senior scholar had to accept defeat and the impending punishment. But, Vandi laughed and said that he would not drown in any ocean as he was the son of Varuna, the god of oceans. Instead, he promised to bring Kahoda back to life by appealing to his father, Varuna. True to his words, Kahoda rose from the ocean at the very instant, sent back by the god of oceans.
Ashtavakra regains form
Ashtavakra returned home to his mother with his father. Lomasa pointed the river called Samanga to Yudhiswhthira and said that Ashtavakra had regained the form of his body free from the bends by dipping into that river. Such was the power of its waters. Lomasa advised the Pandavas to take a holy dip and continue with their journey.