By Swami Harshananda
Aṣṭāvakra literally means ‘crooked in eight places’. It also refers to sage Aṣṭāvakra.
One of the great sages Aṣṭāvakra, was the son of the sage Kahola. While yet in the womb, the baby-sage is said to have laughed at the wrong intonation of the Vedas by his father. His angry father cursed him to be born with a body crooked in eight places. Hence he was named as ‘Aṣṭāvakra.’ He was the author of the Astā- vakragītā.
A scholar named Bandi in the court of the king Janaka had defeated Kahola and had got him imprisoned in water. When Aṣṭāvakra came to know about the tragedy that had befallen his father, he went to the court of Janaka and vanquished Bandi in disputation and rescued his father Kahola. His father who was highly pleased with his son took his curse back. Aṣṭāvakra took bath in the river Samaṅgā (also called Madhuvilā) and got rid of all the physical defects.
The work Astāvakragitā, also known as Astāvakra Samhitā, contains 298 verses in the simple anuṣṭubh meter, spread over 20 chapters. Most of the chapters are very small. The 18th chapter alone, however, contains 100 verses. The book, which often gives the description of the ātman in hyperbolic terms stresses that it can be realized here and now. Disciplines like renouncing the desires for the pleasures of life, cultivating virtues like forgiveness, kindness and truth are advocated in this Samhitā. There is a beautiful description of the man of knowledge in the 17th chapter. Supreme detachment is a special characteristic of his. But it is difficult to recognize him since he often lives like an ordinary person. Only another man of knowledge can recognize him.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore