The Story Behind Aṣṭāvakra (updated)
Many times you would have seen this pose Aṣṭāvakra-asana; on social media, in publications and perhaps even tried this posture in a class. You may have been told that this pose is dedicated to the Hindu sage Aṣṭāvakra which means "one having eight bends". Aṣṭāvakra was not the sage's real name but the name he was given.
So what is the story behind this pose?
In order to follow and understand Hindu mythology and its narratives, art and rituals, you must firstly suspend your belief. The first impression of many is that Hindu mythology is often confusing and contradictory. The reality is that there are so many hidden meanings to all the ancient stories involving the various gods, that it would take us a lifetime to understand. Our best hope is to find something within these stories that may inspire us. If we cannot find any relevance when reading these fascinating stories, then maybe that particular story is not meant for you.
There are a number of stories of Aṣṭāvakra and how he became crooked. The one I remember reading fondly is taken from the Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, in which it tells this version:
Once there lived a sage named Asita. He did great penance to please Lord Śiva to bless him with a child, a wish Śiva granted and he was blessed with a son named Devala. Rambha, the queen of Devaloka (a plane of existence where gods and devas exist), fell in love with him, but Devala did not yield to her wishes. Feeling spurned Rambha cursed him and made him into one with eight crooks. Thus Devala came to be called Aṣṭāvakra.
Devala then did penance and practiced Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) for many years and eventually the Kṛiṣhṇa (of the Bhagavad-gītā), accompanied by his consort Rādhā, appeared before him. Rādhā was shocked by the ugliness of the sage and did not relish his sight, but Kṛiṣhṇa went and embraced him. At once Aṣṭāvakra lost all his crooks and became a beautiful man. At that time a chariot descended and all three left for heaven.
The above story was passed through generations trying to inspire the people of India, with the hope to instil in them that God does not care for your physical appearance, God only cares for what is in your heart. And we shouldn't judge on physical appearance either.
Aṣṭāvakra is credited as the author of the Aṣṭāvakra Gītā, which means "song of Aṣṭāvakra". The text examines the metaphysical nature of existence and the meaning of individual freedom, presenting its thesis that there is only one Supreme Reality (God/Brahman/Universal Consciousness).
Osho Rajneesh in his book Theologica Mystica (1983), says of the Gita; "Man has many scriptures , but none are comparable to the Gita of Aṣṭāvakra. Before it the Vedas pale, the Upanishads are a mere whisper. Even the Bhagavad-gītā does not have the majesty found in the Aṣṭāvakra Gītā - it is simply unparalleled."
Sadhguru Jagi Vasudev a spiritualist guru in India summarises the story of Aṣṭāvakra ; "One’s progress within oneself has nothing to do with what a person does on the outside, what is most important is, what a person is doing within him or herself. What you are doing with the outside world is just social. How you are within yourself is all that matters."
Bhatt, G. P., 2017. Brahmavaivarta Purana Part 2: Prakrti Khanda Book 2: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Volume 79. 1st ed. London: Motilal Banarsidass; 1 edition (1 Jan. 2017).
Byrom, Thomas, 2001. The Heart of Awareness: A Translation of the "Ashtavakra Gita" (Shambhala Dragon Editions): A Translation of the "Ashtavakra Gita". 1st ed. London: Shambhala Publications Inc; New edition edition (13 Nov. 2001).
Rajneesh, Osho, 1983. Theologica Mystica. 1st ed. B00LCCZWGM: Rajneesh/Osho Books (1983).
Mani, Vettam, 2010. Puranic Encyclopaedia (English and Spanish Edition). 2nd ed. B01182H010: Mumbai.
Image of Aṣṭāvakra taken from Wikipedia.