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#121: BECAUSE YOU THINK YOU ARE THE BODY. The Oriental schools of thought have amassed enormous libraries of scripture and commentary, daunting in size and baffling in complexity; they have also on occasion crystallized themselves into short works, devotional or meditative, and the versets of the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching and the Dhammapada have opened the doors of their traditions to many readers who might find the larger works forbidding. It is curious to me that the Hindu Ashtavakra Gita, so common in India, has not been more widely known in the West; it shares with those other works the virtues of beauty, profundity and brevity. Its message is of the indivisibility of the real—as Yeats many centuries later phrased it, “One is animate, / Mankind inanimate phantasy.” As with the Sikh poet Kabir, God is real, and Ashtavakra seeks to pierce the irreal that surrounds us, fools us, and leaves us with the taste of ashes. But the particular music in Ashtavakra is of an assured, supernal calm, like a voice heard from across a lake; the utter simplicity of the language convinces us of the author’s accomplishment. The translator Thomas Byrom recalls reading the text aloud with his teacher, sitting by a fire as dawn came up: “Until you forget everything, / You will never live in your heart.” The Gita is a work which, encountered at a receptive time, could mark an era in a life.

Ashtavakra shows up first in the Mahabharata, as a badly deformed child (his name means “eight times twisted”) cursed by his father for challenging his Vedic knowledge, who is himself cursed afterwards during a philosophic debate (the Hindu sages have always been portrayed as a tetchy lot); he is rescued by his child, and heals the child’s deformities in gratitude. There are other tales of him in the Puranas and elsewhere and, as recently as 2010, he was the hero of a new Hindi epic by Jagadguru Rambhadracharya which examines the old Indian prejudices against deformed children and females. On linguistic grounds the Gita is almost impossible to date; its monism connects it to the philosophic school of Advaita Vedanta, but even that only narrows it down to anywhere between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. To most of us the authorship will be nothing, its message and poetry everything. It is modeled on the tale of Ashtavakra’s debate with the philosopher-king Janaka, but the poem is, as one translator called it, a dialogue of one. That we know nothing of the author’s identity is one of literature’s great jests, as the poem climaxes with a series of questions that calmly erases all the clouds of illusion and identity to which we pin our lives. “I have no bounds. / I am Shiva…. / Nothing is, / Nothing is not. / What more is there to say?”

There are several translations available, both in print and online; very much my favorite is the one by Thomas Byrom, who has also done an excellent version of the Dhammapada; both are in print from Shambhala.


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