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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ashtavakra and Vandin - Maha Bharata Series 15

In Book 3, Sections 133-134, there is a story of a contest between Ashtavakra and a priest in King Janaka’s court, by the name of Vandin.  Ashtavakra was the son of Kahoda, a disciple of the famous Uddalaka of Upanishad fame and Sujata, Uddalaka’s daughter.

Ashtavakra goes to the court of King Janaka to regain his father’s life which was taken by Vandin. Vandin had a habit of punishing those whom he defeated in philosophical arguments by drowning them in water. The gate-keepers did not let Ashtavakra in since he was a child.  Ashtavakra tells them that he has mastered all the Vedas and reminds them that one should not ignore fire even if it be small, because it is capable of consuming everything. He also says: “True growth cannot be inferred from the mere development of the body”. Also, “ One does not become knowledgeable just because his hair is gray. Even a child can be possessed of knowledge . A man's merit consists in not years, or gray hair, or wealth, or friends. He is great who is versed in the Vedas”. He is admitted to the king’s court.

Ashtavakra then addresses the king and says that he came to defeat Vandin in arguments and get him drowned. The king cautions him but Ashtavakra says Vandin has not met with anyone who is superior to him. “That is why he is so arrogant”.

The king wanted to test Ashtavakra and so asked a few questions. When he asked: “What has thirty divisions, twelve part, 24 joints and 360 spokes?”, Ashtavakra identified it as the wheel of time.

Janaka asked: “who among the gods bears those two who are yoked to a car and sweep like a hawk and what do they give birth to?”. Ashtavakra answered: “Thunder and lightning with cloud (as the base); or misery and death and mind (as the base)”.

Janaka asked: “What is that which does not close its eyes when asleep? What is it that does not move when born? What is it that has no heart? What increases its own speed?”  Ashtavakra answered: “Fish, egg, stone and a river.

Janaka was pleased and invited Vandin to face the challenge from Ashtavakra. The contest is for Ashtavakra to establish that there is only one Supreme Being (advaita). Ashtavakra said “You answer my questions and I will answer yours”. Vandin starts with “Only one fire takes various shapes. Only one sun illuminates this world. Only one hero, Indra destroys enemies. Only one Yama is the Lord of pitris (ancestors)”. The hidden idea is that just the one intellect guides the senses and gives us perception.

Ashtavakra says: “Indra and Agni move together. Narada and Parvata are two sages; Aswins are twins; there are two wheels to a car; a husband and wife make a couple”. He means that there is another faculty besides intellect which is consciousness and the two of them have to act together to guide the senses.

Vandin says: “Three is the number of words; three are the number of divine lights; three kinds of beings are born; three Vedas are needed to perform Vajapeya yagna; the Adhwaryus commence sacrificial rites three different times”. The suggested meaning is that intellect and consciousness are subservient to acts.

Ashtavakra points out the four ashramas, the four orders who perform sacrifices; four cardinal directions and the four legs of a cow. Even if acts are important, when the fourth, namely the Supreme Being becomes manifest to the individual Atman, It stands on Its own and without any need to act.

Vandin says: “there are five fires; the poetic meter called pankti has five feet; there are five sacrifices; and there are five sacred rivers”. He is now referring to the five senses which are capable of cognizing their respective objects. Ashtavakra counters with the custom of donating six cows at the start of a sacred fire, the six seasons, six senses, the six stars in the constellation krithika. The implication is that the five senses cannot do anything without the mind, and mind is considered a sense organ in the Vedic philosophy.

Vandin now counts all seven: domestic animals, wild animals, seven rishis, seven ways of paying homage and seven strings of the Veena. The point is that although the five senses and the mind are needed to perceive, the intellect is involved in the happiness or misery generated by those perceptions.

It is now Ashtavakra’s turn for listing number eight: eight legs of a mythical animal called Sarabha which is said to be an enemy or lion; eight Vasus; and eight angles of a sacrificial stake. This leads to the eight items in Samkhya philosophy, namely five senses, the mind, intellect and ego. Vandin answers with nine mantras used to kindle fire in sacrifices to the ancestors, functions in the process of creation, the meter (chandas) called brahati and the maximum single digit. (Incidentally, this number is important in the Bahai faith)

I could not understand the hidden meanings beyond number eight. Only thing I am sure is that they refer to arguments based on the differences between Samkhya philosophy and Advaita.

Ashtavakra lists 10 cardinal points, 10 months of pregnancy and 10 big teachers of the past. Vandin lists 11 objects of enjoyment and 11 stages in the life cycle of animals. Ashtavakra lists the following items for number 12: months of a year; number of feet in the meter (chandas) Jagati and the number of Adityas (which includes Vishnu and the Sun). The number 12 also includes a list of 12 virtues such as truth, self-restraint, tapas, forgiveness and charity.

Vandin starts with 13, but  is not able to complete the list. Ashtavkara does (13th month, 13 special sacrifices and 13 long poetic meters) and thus wins the contest.

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