Janak is widely known as the the King-philosopher of ancient India. He was a Rishi, a Seer, as well as a noble and accomplished king. His court was famous for patronizing philosophers, sages and poets. He used to hold debates on philosophy and dharma. These were known as shastrarthas. Leading scholars, young and old, were invited to these shashtrarthas.
Janak himself was an ardent thinker and had a deep yearning for knowledge. But, in spite of all his knowledge, he lacked the spiritual wisdom and so became increasingly arrogant as his knowledge grew. However, he was perhaps aware of this deficiency in him and so his deepest aspiration was to meet a spiritually realized being, a sage, who would consent to be his Guru and lead him to perfection. He met countless sages but never did he meet the one he was awaiting.
One day, it so happened, that the Sage Ashtavakra, known as much for his profound wisdom as for his physical deformities, was visiting Janak’s kingdom. He heard about a shastrarth that was being conducted by King Janak, and so he reached the palace and entered the court of King Janak.
As he entered, the courtiers and scholars present there looked up at him and could not suppress their emotions as they saw the deformed young boy walking into the court. The name Ashtavakra itself meant eight bends or deformities in the body. The story goes that Ashtavakra was cursed by his father while he was still in the womb, and so was born deformed.
Some felt pity, some a bit of horror, and some laughed out in obvious derision. Ashtavakra remained calm as he looked around the assembly. And then he spoke in a voice clear and sharp: “I thought I had come into the company of wise men! Isn’t this King Janak’s court? But I only see cobblers here — for you see only my skin and try to assess me, even as a cobbler assesses quality by seeing the skin! Know you not that a river may run a crooked course but never the water?”
As the words rang out loud and clear, all the courtiers and guests fell silent, embarrassed by their own action.
The King himself stood up and did his namaskara to the young stranger.
“I see force in your bearing, young man, and a power in your voice. There is also a calm in your eyes. I can sense a wisdom and light around you. Can you give me the highest knowledge?” The King asked his young guest.
Ashtavakra said, “Yes, O King, I can.”
Suddenly feeling inspired and confident, the King asked more directly: “Will you give me the knowledge of Brahman in the wink of an eye?”
“Indeed,” replied Ashtavakra, “I will. But for that you have to give me Gurudakshina first!” Gurudakshina is the gift that the disciple gives to the Guru to repay him for all that he has gained at the feet of the Guru.
“What is it that you would want, Sir?” Asked the King
“Everything that you have,” replied Ashtavakra.
In the presence of all the scholars and courtiers, King Janak immediately and unhesitatingly agreed.
“Your throne and kingdom, first, O Janak!” Said Ashtavakra.
Janak said quietly, “Yours, Noble Sir”
Ashtavakra then asked Janak to leave his throne and sit amongst the courtiers and scholars as the throne no longer belonged to him. Janak quietly obeyed.
Then Ashtavakra said, “Cease all your planning and thinking about your kingdom for it is no longer yours.”
Janak threw out all his planning and scheming and sat still, his mind empty. Ashtavakra then asked Janak to drop the body awareness — “Your body is no longer yours, Janak. Drop your identification with it!”
Next Ashtavakra asked Janak to give up all thoughts, for the mind, and all its activities, were not his anymore. In the proximity of a realized Guru, Janak could empty his whole consciousness and become utterly still in mind and body. In a trice, the realization of the Self came upon him.
Janak, enlightened, bowed deeply before Ashtavakra, the great rishi who had given him the knowledge of Self in “the wink of an eye”.
Ashtavakra then asked the King to return to the throne, saying: “O King, now rule your kingdom as a custodian, a trustee, for you are now free of all ownership and doership. Live your life as a witness, for you are free of all identification.”
And so it came to pass that Janak became one of the legendary Sage-kings of ancient India.
Even the highest knowledge can come to one who is willing to give up his all in a single moment if asked by the Guru. The Guru’s Presence and Grace are inestimable in one’s spiritual quest.
Retold by Nirakara