Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Crooked Sage

BMS_6782Image by kyle.stern via Flickr

To introduce Astavakrasana, or eight-angle pose, to my kids yoga class, I wrote this version of Astavakra's story. I thought I'd put it out there in case anyone else would like to use it. Please note that my telling of the story is based on a number of different sources and I took some liberties with the story, so don't expect historical or mythological accuracy.

The Crooked Sage

Once, a long time ago, there was a scholarly man who spent a great deal of time reading aloud from his religion's scriptures. His wife, who was pregnant with their first child, would often sit beside him as he chanted the spiritual words.

Late one evening, as the scholar wearily recited verses, a tiny voice spoke from inside his wife's belly. "Sir, you have mispronounced that verse!"

The tired and short-tempered scholar was so insulted that he didn't even think of the wonder of an unborn baby speaking. Instead, he cursed the small voice and, since words have power, the curse took hold. The baby was born deformed and was given the name Astavakra, which means "eight bends", for the eight crooks in his little body.

Shortly after Astavakra was born, his father was called to King Janaka's court to have a debate with Bandi, a great philosopher who was tormenting the king. Everyone who lost his argument with Bandi was ordered to walk into the river, where he sunk to the bottom and was lost. The king had no sages left to help with his rituals, and the kingdom was suffering. Astavakra's father was no match for Bandi and was drowned like the others, so Astavakra never got to know his father.

Despite his deformities, Astavakra was a brilliant child and quickly learned as much as the great sages of the time. When he was twelve years old, he went to King Janaka's court. When he hobbled in, the guards and guests took one look a the bent, crippled boy and started to laugh. Astavakra looked around and started to laugh, too. King Janaka saw this and asked Astavakra why he was laughing when everyone was laughing at him.

Astavakra replied, "I am laughing because you are supposed to be a great scholar and king, yet you have surrounded yourself with cobblers. You must be a cobbler, too." (In those days, you called someone a cobbler when he only looked at the skin and not inside. Astavakra knew the king's friends were judging him by his shape and not his being.)

Astavakra told King Janaka that he wanted to argue with Bandi, who was still sending scholars to the bottom of the river. King Janaka was desperate for someone to defeat Bandi and help him with the rituals, so he agreed.

Bandi and Astavakra had their debate and, of course, brilliant Astavakra won. To avenge his father and all the other sages, Astavakra demanded that Bandi drown himself in the river. Bandi revealed that he was in fact the son of the god of water. His father, Varuna, had sent Bandi to earth to gather sages to perform an ancient ritual. Since the ritual was complete and Bandi had lost, the sages were freed and all walked, unharmed, out of the river.

Astavakra's father begged Astavakra to forgive him for cursing him and said that Astavakra was clearly more intelligent than he. King Janaka became one of Astavakra's students, and the things Astavakra taught the king were written down and have been studied by many scholars since then. Astavakrasana, or the Crooked Pose, was created to honor the little crooked boy who was a great sage.

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