21 of 31 Questions for Reflection. Today’s question is inspired by reading Dṛg Dṛsya Viveka: An Inquiry Into the Seer and the Seen alongside the story of Astavakra who was cursed in the epic Mahabharata.
What questions arise when I focus on “twisted limbs” as an object of Vedanta meditation?
When Astavakra was in his mother’s womb, his father would sit by her every evening, and he would chant the Vedas. One evening, father and mother heard a voice come from within the womb, the unborn child—who already knew the scriptures—said, “Father, you are chanting the Vedas incorrectly; you are mispronouncing some words and messing it up!” The father, Khoda, cursed the unborn child. The baby came out of the womb with twisted limbs. So, he was named Astavakra, which means 8 twists.
Years later, Khoda visited the court of King Janaka to challenge the illustrious scholar, Bandin, to a debate. Khoda lost this debate and was punished. Astavakra heard that his father’s punishment for losing the debate to Bandin was death by drowning. So, Astavakra went to the king’s court to debate Bandin to restore his father’s dignity. Astavakra won this debate by proving Brahmadvaitam (ultimate oneness). When he won, Astavakra learned that his father was not drown but was only banished to serve the king at the bottom of the sea. Astavakra requested Bandin set Khoda free, and the scholar obliged. Khoda was grateful to his son Astavakra and wanted to lift his curse. He told him to go bathe in Samanga River. The son obeyed his father, bathed in the river, and when he came out, his limbs were straight.
There is a book in the Vedanta tradition called The Astavakra Samhita whose author is unknown. He/she/they, the author(s), took on the persona of Astavakra to enable a transmission of Brahmadvaitam. The Astavakra Samhita does not present a philosophical argument; it is not theology; it is not scripture; it is not narrative; it is not poetry or any kind of literary expression; it is not teachings. The Astavakra Samhita is a transmission of wisdom. To read this text is to be in Brahmadvaitam.
I love this word, Brahmadvaitam, and I could repeat it all day; but, this kind of japa practice is not necessary with the Astavakra Samhita. One line from this book is enough to bestow the experience of moksha (liberation). Actually, Brahmadvaitam, this is the real experience pervading all the objects of meditation. But it is not spoken, it is not named; the real object is not an object at all.
Advaita Vedanta meditation is an experience of making what is commonly regarded as gross—the body, stories, mind-stuff, objects—into the subtlety of illusion; meanwhile, it also makes what is commonly regarded as subtle—Brahmavidya—into the gross.
This is how it was so when Swami Vivekananda asked “Have you seen God?” Ramakrishna said, “Yes, I see God right now as real to me as you are, but even more intensely.” This answer convinced Swami Vivekananda to take Ramakrishna as his teacher because he was so impressed that this man actually sees God, not as a belief but as an experience right now.
Over time, Ramakrishna requested Swami Vivekananda to read aloud to him the Astavakra Samhita. The swami didn’t like the book at first. He didn’t want to read it. But Ramakrishna innocently and gently requested him to read it aloud to him, and eventually the Astavakra Samhita became dear to him.
Let’s read it aloud all over again, dear One! Let’s know we’re already free!
Meditating on twisted limbs, a Jnana yogi might ask, “In a world where fathers curse sons, where friends hurt each other, where races hate each other, how dare you show these pains have no impact on our Freedom? Despite my struggle, I see this reality: now, how do I remain in this knowledge that nothing binds me? Oh, all the pain and hurt shall carry on, you say? Then how shall freedom remain ever most real in my awareness?”