Aruni Uddhalak was a great rishi revered in the land for his knowledge and wisdom. His ashram, or hermitage, had come to be a great place for learning. People desirous of learning came to his hermitage from far and wide. Like all centres of learning, there were no monetary fees. Yet, there were set responsibilities assigned to students.
It did not matter to Aruni if the student came from an affluent background or from abject poverty. If the person had an incessant thirst for knowledge – he was welcome. All students had to live just the way he lived. Plain loin cloth, pure vegan food and life of simplicity.
During his travels, Aruni once saw an abandoned girl child in the woods. Unable to find her parents or guardians, the sage took her under his aegis. He called her Sujata – born of right values. Under his tutelage and parenthood Sujata grew to be a scholar in Sanskrit, Jyoti Shastra a.k.a. Jyotish (Vedic Astronomy), Ayurveda, Vanaspati Shastra (Botany), Rasayana Shastra (Chemistry), Neeti Shastra and, even, Dharma Shastra.
When she came of age, Aruni asked if she had as yet chosen her partner for life. Dedicated to her learning and father, she had no time for romance. But as any father, he decided to have her married to someone who would share her desire for knowledge and wisdom.
A few years back, a young orphaned lad named Kahoda had come to Aruni for education. He was a bright lad who also helped in running the ashram in many other ways. Since Aruni was growing old he was looking for someone to replace himself as the Kulapathi or head of the ashram. Kahoda seemed competent to him.
Under the circumstances, Aruni saw it fair to have Sujata and Kahoda married. When they both consented, Kahoda and Sujata were married. Soon, Sujata became pregnant.
To ensure that her kid received the best of Garbha Samskaras she began to attend the classes of various teachers in the ashram, including those conducted by her father and her husband. However, when she sat through her husband’s classes, she noticed many mistakes in his uttering of Vedic Shlokas and Sutras. She tried ignoring them at first. But as time passed, it became difficult for her to let them pass. She began correcting him whenever he mispronounced – and that she did pretty frequently. Kahoda did not like being corrected, and on one such occasion he became furious with her, rose up from his seat and asked her to shut up!
She humbly asked him to calm down and tried reasoning with him that she was correcting him for her child inside her. But Kahoda could not be pacified and in a fit of rage, he pushed her hard and she fell to the ground, right on her pregnant belly.
This caused complications; not just in Sujata’s health, but also in the relationship between Aruni and Kahoda. The sage was not happy with the way in which his daughter had been treated. Instead of being furious – he decided to choose the path of silence. Aruni began ignoring Kahoda. Eventually, everyone began ignoring Kahoda.
The decent way out for Kahoda would have been to ask for forgiveness from his wife and father-in-law. But his ego would not let him.
During this time, a messenger from the King of Mythila – Raja Janaka – came to the ashram inviting Aruni to participate in Shastrartha – competition of knowledge and wisdom. Aruni declined, mentioning to the messenger that he was not interested in showing off his knowledge.
Kahoda, however, took this as an opportunity to prove his scholarship. Winning the competition would win him a seat at the royal court — an entry into the King’s cabinet along with sizeable wealth as remuneration.
On the day of the competition, just before the King was to adjudicate the winner, a formidable intellectual named Varuna came to the court and asked Raja Janaka if he had any scholar who could challenge his knowledge and wisdom. Kahoda, who had by then overcome many scholars in intellectual debate, accepted the challenge on behalf of Janaka.
Varuna laid down a condition for the intellectual debate: the losing scholar would have to hand over all his material wealth and become the slave of the victor. Kahoda agreed to this condition and Raja Janaka was appointed as the judge.
Kahoda lost the debate and became the slave of Varuna.
Meanwhile, Sujata gave birth to a son. The fall caused by her husband’s push had caused complications in her pregnancy and her son was not just unhealthy but also had eight severe deformities in his body. These deformities gave the boy his name Ashtavakra – literally translating to “eight deformities”.
Sujata, through her unparalleled knowledge of Vanaspati Shastra (botany) and Ayurveda, assisted Ashtavakra in coping with his severe deformities, and made him grow both in body and intellect. Under the tutelage of Aruni, who also became his surrogate father, Ashtavakra become a phenomenal scholar by the age of just 13.
He was never told about his biological father Kahoda who had left the ashram for Shastrartha without taking permission from his guru Aruni or leave from his wife.
But one day, shortly after Ashtavakra turned 13, Aruni revealed the truth: about Kahoda being his biological father; about the incident leading to his physical deformities; and about Kahoda losing to Varuna. Ashtavakra took it all in with equanimity; he was neither angry or sad. When he realized that Kahoda had become Varuna’s slave, he desired to free him out of compassion.
“But why do you want to do that?” asked Aruni.
“Father, I intend to do that not for the sake of wealth or popularity, but for the sake of my conscience. I desire to forgive him by liberating him from the slavery of Varuna.” Saying thus, with permission from Aruni and Sujata, Ashtavakra went to Mythila, the capital of Raja Janaka’s Kingdom.
When Ashtavakra entered the royal assembly, everyone there burst into fits of laughter at the sight of his severely deformed body. Ashtavakra received their laughter with silence and without any sign of anger, sadness or frustration. When King Janaka asked them all to calm down, Ashtavakra began laughing at them.
Perplexed, Raja Janaka rose from his throne and approached the deformed boy. He asked Ashtavakra why he was mocking his assembly.
“I beg your pardon, but it appears to me that your assembly is full of shoemakers, O King!”
“Shoemakers?” Janaka was perplexed further, “Why do you say so?”
“Only shoemakers buy and sell things at face value, not scholars. When people judge others only by their looks, and not by their inherent qualities, actions or achievements, they deprive themselves of knowledge and wisdom. Those who waste their time and energy on their appearances, who hope – in vain – to extend their youthfulness and those who always compare themselves with others are eternally tormented by their stupidity. To call such (wo)men as scholars is abject stupidity for, they are worse than beasts.”
Humbled, Raja Janaka, asked for forgiveness and to compensate for the heinous insult from his courtiers, decided to have Ashtavakra seated on his throne!
“You seem to have come from far, O young scholar! How may I be of use to you?” the King then asked.
“O King, I am here to challenge Varuna – the finest scholar in your court,” Ashtavakra declared.
“But he doesn’t accept challenges without condition. Are you aware of his conditions?”
“I am very well aware, O King, I’d be obliged if you provide me with a fair opportunity to challenge and defeat him.”
Under the conditions, Raja Janaka invited Varuna to face Ashtavakra’s challenge. The intellectual debate lasted many days, and Raja Janaka sat through all of it. Throughout, he wondered at the deformed, barely teen-aged, boy’s ability to debate a seasoned scholar four times his age.
Eventually, on the eighth day, Varuna stopped his argument, acknowledging Ashtavakra’s victory.
“I am now your slave and all my wealth, and my slaves, are yours,” Varuna declared.
“Nobody is nobody’s slave in this world. The person who considers others as his slaves is the slave of his own ego. Ego is slave to none. O great scholar Varuna, I am here to seek your permission to liberate my biological father along with all your other slaves. Kindly oblige and let me take your leave.”
This added further to Ashtavakra’s charm.
After the Shastrartha, Raja Janaka asked Ashtavakra “Revered sire, how did you defeat a scholar elder to you in age and experience?”
“O King, Knowledge is that which instils humility. In the absence of humility, knowledge destructs and wisdom become elusive. The collapse of great empires and destruction of finest people has happened not due to external factors but owing to internal circumstances – all emanating from departure from humility. Varuna is still a great scholar and I’ll be happy to learn from him. It is his lack of humility and my ability to hold on to my humility which caused his defeat and my victory.”
The answer left a lasting impression on Raja Janaka. The 40-odd year-old King, then decided to become a disciple of the 13-year-old scholar. One of the discourses of Ashtavakra to Raja Janaka became popular as Ashtavakra Gita, a towering work of wisdom which, even to this day, only a handful are able to comprehend.