Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 9, Verse 01

Ashtavakra and Janaka

Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V

Index, Verse Index, Verse 1, Verse 2, Verse 3, Verse 4, Verse 5, Verse 6, Verse 7, Verse 8,

Verse 01

ashtaavakra uvaacha
kritaakrite cha dvandvaani kadaa shaantaani kasya vaa
evam jnaatveha nirvedaad bhava tyaagaparo.avratee.


Ashtavakra said, “Knowing when the dualities such as the duties to be performed or not performed cease and for whom, practice renunciation with impassion and indifference.


Cultivating Indifference to the Dualities

The dualities or pairs of opposites such as heat and cold are universal. No one can be free from them, nor can anyone escape from their influence. The mind makes sense of the world through them only. Without the dualities, if everything is the same, there will be no knower and the known, and no knowledge of the material world or mental awareness. Because of them only we know about others or make decisions to ensure your self-preservation.

Whether it is happiness, peace, prosperity or friendship, or the worth of things and people in our lives, we know them or experience them because of their presence or absence only. No one can ever be free from them. They also exert a lot of influence upon our thinking and actions as are compelled to interact with them and make our choices. The dualities are not a problem in themselves. Our attachment to them and attraction and aversion (raga and dvesha) towards them are the real problems.

While the dualities are universal and exert their influence everywhere, most people do not even recognize their influence upon us or the problems they create. They are chiefly responsible for our mental modifications and the consequential suffering and bondage which arise from them. Because of them we experience desires, attachments, attraction and aversion and engage in desire-ridden actions which lead to karma and bondage.

From a materialistic point of view the dualities give us freedom of choice and an opportunity to make decision and decide our own fate. From a spiritual point of view, they are responsible for our delusion and ignorance and stand between us and our true freedom. If we do not recognize their role in our lives, we will continue to make mistakes and delay our progress. One of the ways to become aware of them is cultivate discernment and see how they create ripples in our consciousness and influence our thinking and actions. By observing them we find the right way to deal with them, which is to cultivate sameness and equanimity. For that, renunciation, self-restraint, withdrawal, detachment, dispassion and indifference are considered the right means.

They are the recommended approaches in almost all spiritual traditions of India. The dualities are an integral part of our experiential reality. You cannot remove them or destroy them since they arise from Nature due to maya. Therefore, it will be futile to think that anyone can escape from them or avoid them. The right way to deal with them is to relinquish choice and cultivate sameness and indifference. The wise ones do it because they know that they cannot control the world or its dualities while they can look within themselves and change their responses and habitual reactions to become indifferent and undisturbed to external events.

However, it is not an easy process. Even adepts may not always succeed in that effort, because however determined and strong willed we may be, our minds and bodies have certain limitations. We may tolerate the extreme conditions of life up to a point, beyond which our minds and bodies break down and we lose the battle. Therefore, most spiritual traditions suggest people to follow the middle course and avoid extreme penances and self-torture.

If liberation is the goal, one must practice renunciation with discernment and detachment. With discernment we realize what to give up and what not to give up, and with detachment we learn to see things as they are, as we become free from the influence of dualities, desires and attachment. Spiritual practice involves an adventurous journey into the unchartered territory of your own consciousness where you have to depend upon your judgment and discernment to make right choices and avoid mistakes and pitfalls.

Therefore, no one can dispute the importance of discernment in spiritual practice. In many ways, it is the ultimate teacher. Knowledge of the scriptures and guidance of a guru may help, but without proper intelligence and discernment you will not make much progress. For yogis, discernment is their guiding star. It is required at every stage on the path of renunciation. True discernment arises from detachment and indifference, when you withdraw the  mind and senses from worldly objects.

This verse conveys the same idea. Ashtavakra suggested an intelligent approach to deal with the problem of dualities and how to practice renunciation without renouncing duties and obligations. Renunciation does not mean one should give up everything and live a life of inactivity and passivity. It is not a license to escape from the hardships of life.

True renunciation requires giving up desire and attachment, but not actions which are obligatory. On the path of renunciation, one has to be active and intelligent, and remain on guard with awareness and wisdom. Self-discipline is an important aspect of it, for which one has to conquer the mind and body. As the Bhagavadgita clearly states, inaction is not a solution to the problem of suffering, and it is not possible for anyone to remain inactive and shun all duties and obligations.

Yogis may renounce the world and householder duties, but they are not completely free. They still need to perform certain duties and live a responsible life as a part of their vows and self-purification. Some duties are continuous and some arise in specific situations. They should be performed with discernment as the situation demands. Hence, Ashtavakra rightly recommended that one should practice renunciation with discernment, knowing what duties need to be given up and what needs to be performed and in which circumstances, cultivating the right attitude of self-restraint, indifference and sameness.

A Yogi on the path of renunciation should engage in his spiritual purification, with the right attitude, observing vows, controlling his mind and body, performing desireless actions, contemplating upon the self and avoiding distractions and temptations. At times, he may have to even help others on the path or return to the world to perform certain duties for a higher purpose.

A renunciant becomes an avrati when he renounces the world and takes up Sanyasa. Avrati means one who is not required to engage in vratas (penances) and sacrifices. Daily sacrifices, rituals and penances are not obligatory to a renunciant. Brahman, the formless reality or the pure consciousness is his goal as well as the means. He is not obligated to worship any gods and goddesses of the subtle realms although he may seek their help to attain oneness with the highest Self.

At the same time, he cannot ignore the vows he has undertaken or the duties he has to perform to ensure his progress and perfection. Renunciation is the means to an end, which is liberation, but not an end in itself. A renunciant has a greater responsibility not only to work for his salvation but also set an example to others to follow and work for their own salvation.

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