Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 3, Verse 01

Ashtavakra

Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V

Chapter-Index | Verse Index

Verse 1

ashtavakra uvacha,
avinashinamaatmaanam ekam vij~naaya tattvatah
tavaatmajnanasya dheerasya kathamarthaarjane ratih


Translation

Ashtavakra said, “Knowing that the self by nature is one and indestructible, how could a steadfast knower of the Self such as you take pleasure in acquiring wealth?”


Meaning

The seeker of wealth and the knower of the Self.

In this verse we come across three important themes, the pursuit of wealth in worldly life, the difference between the knower of the Self and the seeker of material wealth, and the distinction between having knowledge and knowing the truth of it as an existential reality. Let us examine each of them and their relevance to spiritual practice and liberation.

Wealth, worldly life and renunciation

After speaking at length about the wondrous nature of the Self in the previous chapter, Ashtavakra turned to the subject of wealth. Why so? He could have used any other aspect of worldly life for his teaching, but he chose the subject of wealth and particularly juxtaposed the seeker of wealth who took pleasure in acquiring or possessing wealth with the knower of the Self.

A teacher conducts his teaching according to the disciple in a language and idiom he understands better. Here, his disciple was King Janaka, who was a wealthy person by birth and as a king had better knowledge of wealth seeking behavior. Ashtavakra knew that Janaka lived in opulence and sought wealth through various means to perform his kingly duties or establish his authority and sovereignty or to protect his empire from internal and external threats. Therefore, Janaka was not unaware of wealth and its implications to worldly life as well as spiritual life.

Secondly, following the Vedic injunctions, Janaka also led the life of a householder (grihasta). According to the tradition, householders had the permission to pursue wealth (Artha) as one the four chief aims (Parmarthas) of human life. Indeed, they had the obligation to acquire wealth to perform their obligatory duties, which included daily sacrifices, professional duties and family responsibilities. Wealth seeking is not discouraged in Hinduism, since it plays an important role in the order and regularity of the world. However, it has to be earned in deference to the other aims of human life, namely Dharma, Kama and Moksha.

Wealth becomes a problem only when one pursues the goal of liberation. Hence, householders in Vedic society were encouraged to take up Sanyasa at a later stage in their lives, after they fulfilled their family obligations. People pursue wealth for various reasons. Firstly, it makes life comfortable and satisfies many needs such as the need for security, status, recognition, pride, ego satisfaction, approval, acceptance, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure and so on.

Wealth does mean not only material wealth only but other forms of wealth also such as knowledge, courage, strength, health, children, material possessions, name and fame, beauty, etc. All these forms of wealth give worldly people fulfillment, happiness, satisfaction or pleasure. Wealth has such a strong pull upon the human mind that unless one genuinely overcomes the desire for wealth, one cannot truly practice renunciation. Every spiritual person has to grapple with the problem.

The Self and the being

Ashtavakra also emphasized two important attributes of the Self, unity or oneness (ekam) and indestructibility (avinasinam). It was done to underscore that desires and attachments would arise in duality. In the unified state of the Self there is no scope for attracting and aversion or any desire. When you are everything, what else can you seek? You are the subject and the object, the desire and the desired. All arise and subside in the ocean of your unified consciousness as aspects of yourself.

The being and the Self represented two opposite realities which he wanted to compare and contrast. The Self is complete, unattached, self-existent and independent, while the being is incomplete, attached and dependent upon the Self for its existence. The Self does not desire anything because it has everything. As the Vedas declare, that which is eternally complete (purnam) remains eternally complete. Whether you add anything to it or subtract anything from it does not make any difference. That completeness or perfection does not seek or depend upon anything to become complete or perfect because it is always complete and perfect in itself.

Human beings do not possess that completeness or the experience of fulfillment because they do not perceive themselves as eternal souls. They see themselves as limited beings who are subject to birth, impermanence, aging and death. Hence, they experience gain and loss, attraction and aversion and other dualities of life. Accordingly, they also look upon wealth as an object which can complement them and fulfill them. Hence, householders, who engaged in worldly activities cannot easily overcome the desire for wealth. Even the wise Brahmanas of the Vedic times sought wealth. They performed sacrifices and sang hymns from the Vedas, extolling gods, seeking wealth and happiness.

In worldly life, the desire for wealth arises because of egoism, ignorance and delusion which we experience as fear, greed, envy, anger, pride, lust, selfishness, etc. When you truly realize that you are everything and exist in everything, you will not desire things, but see the Self in them. A seer sees himself as the ocean, not as the wave. With that all seeking and striving disappear. Ashtavakra referred to this unified experience of the self-realized seer who transcended the duality of subject and object or the ocean and wave. However, that awareness and discernment are not easily attained. As you will find in the follow discussion, mere knowledge of the scriptures is also not much helpful.

Knowledge and realization

It appears strange that Ashtavakra asked Janaka, “How could a steadfast knower of the Self such as you take pleasure in acquiring wealth?” If King Janaka was already a knower of the Self, why would he need further instruction from Ashtavakra? Where was the need for him to approach Janaka to know the Self?

Based upon the conversation, we have to assume at the stage Janaka was a knower of the Self in a limited sense. He might have had intellectual or scriptural knowledge of the Self, but was not yet fully established in it, or understood its truth as an existential reality.

On the path of liberation, learned knowledge is the starting point. You may acquire it from self-study (Svadhyaya) or from others, but knowledge by itself does not lead to liberation or to the unwavering state of unity or unified consciousness. Mere knowing is not sufficient to experience self-absorption. Sadhana (Practice) is required. If it is not the case, anyone who has even a little knowledge of the scriptures, would be a self-realized seer.

Knowledge has to become ingrained in the consciousness through transformative and purificatory practices. The spiritual knowledge which you learn through the intellect has to take firm root and become a guiding factor. It must seep through your being and become an inseparable part of your awareness.

A mere assertion that the Self is eternal, imperishable and complete is not going to transform you. You must take that idea and live it in word and deed in complete surrender. It must become an inseparable part of your whole being and the foundation of your faith. It is what a dheera represents. He is stable and steadfast in his thinking and conviction. He cannot be enticed or distracted with worldly pleasures or the lure of wealth.

That state of unwavering conviction in the essential reality of the Self and the perspective of the Self as the omniscient all is attained through rigorous practice. A guru can only ignite the thought or the idea, or he may set in motion a transformational, spiritual thought process through initiation. However, it is up to the student to carry that little flame and use it to light up his mind and consciousness. He can do so only when he absorbs his mind in the thought process that he is the infinite Self and he must abide in it. Hence, in our tradition there is so much emphasis upon listening (sravanam), remembering (mananam) and contemplation (nidhidhyasanam).

The Bhagavadgita repeatedly emphasizes that God is easily attainable to those who remain forever absorbed in the thoughts of God. Here, God is not different from the seer. The seer becomes God through the realization that he is not the mind and body but the eternal Self. In this adventure, faith (shraddah) in the Self is the support. Surrender (saranam) to the Self is the shield. Establishing the mind in the contemplation of the Self (samyama) is the weapon to remove the obstacles and clear the path that leads to self-absorption (samadhi).

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