Ashtavakra Gita – Four Ways to Dissolve

अष्टावक्र उवाच ।।

aṣṭāvakra uvāca

न ते संगोऽस्ति केनापि किं शुद्धस्त्यक्तुमिच्छसि।

संघातविलयं कुर्वन्नेवमेव लयं व्रज ॥५- १॥

na te saṁgo’sti kenāpi kiṁ śuddhastyaktumicchasi

saṁghātavilayaṁ kurvannevameva layaṁ vraja ।।5-1।।

____________________

उदेति भवतो विश्वं वारिधेरिव बुद्बुदः।

इति ज्ञात्वैकमात्मानं एवमेव लयं व्रज ॥५- २॥

udeti bhavato viśvaṁ vāridheriva budbudaḥ

iti jñātvaikamātmānaṁ evameva layaṁ vraja ।।5-2।।

____________________

प्रत्यक्षमप्यवस्तुत्वाद् विश्वं नास्त्यमले त्वयि।

रज्जुसर्प इव व्यक्तं एवमेव लयं व्रज ॥५- ३॥

pratyakṣamapyavastutvād viśvaṁ nāstyamale tvayi

rajjusarpa iva vyaktaṁ evameva layaṁ vraja ।।5-3।।

____________________

समदुःखसुखः पूर्ण आशानैराश्ययोः समः।

समजीवितमृत्युः सन्नेवमेव लयं व्रज ॥५- ४॥

samaduḥkhasukhaḥ pūrṇa āśānairāśyayoḥ samaḥ

samajīvitamṛtyuḥ sannevameva layaṁ vraja ।।5-4।।


These are the four verses that together comprise the 5th chapter of Ashtavakra Gita – a text that is regarded as the highest text of Advait Vedant even above the Bhagavad Gita. The chapter is widely named as ‘Four Ways to Dissolve’. These four verses can be summarized in one word each –

  • असंगत्वम् (Non-attached)
  • एकत्वम् (One)
  • मिथ्यात्वम् (False)
  • समत्वम् (Equal)

Now, let’s look what these verses say and why this particular chapter is frequently studied and referred to when we talk of Ashtavakra Gita and the most, what do these four words mean.


The first verse explains that you are not attached to anything around you whether it be other people, relationships, material wealth, society, or even your own body and mind for that matter because you are none of these rather, you are beyond them all. In the third verse of the first chapter, Ashtavakra says,

न पृथ्वी न जलं नाग्निर्न वायुर्द्यौर्न वा भवान्।
एषां साक्षिणमात्मानं चिद्रूपं विद्धि मुक्तये ॥१-३॥

na pṛthvī na jalaṁ nāgnirna vāyurdyaurna vā bhavān
eṣāṁ sākṣiṇamātmānaṁ cidrūpaṁ viddhi muktaye ॥1.3॥

Earth, water, fire, air and space – these पंचतत्व (panch tatva) or five elements are considered fundamental components of the universe. The ancient sage highlights here that one’s true-self is none of these elements rather it is that which witnesses all these, the ultimate conscious-self. This realization will liberate you, Ashtavakra says.

Similarly, Ashtavakra, in the first verse here, claims complete non-attachment. He further asks that if you are not attached to anything, then who/what is it that you are trying to detach from, what is it that you want to renounce. He says that you have nothing to renounce as you are not attached to anything.

Here, a story I had heard as a child begs mention. Here is the story albeit in a slightly different form. As it went in the story,

A caravan of people were traveling from village to village through the deserts of Rajasthan. Since it was close to sunset, they decided to pitch their tent before the cold night set in. As the men got busy, tying their camels with a rope, they realized that they were short of just one peg and a rope. They were worried about losing their camel in the night and so decided to go to the village headman to seek a solution. The village sarpanch was a wise and intelligent man. The travelers approached him with their problem, “Sir, we are here to ask you for a solution to our problem.” The headman listened to their problem and said, “Go near the camel and pretend as if you are tying it down.” Although they had their doubts, the travelers did just as they were told. To their surprise, the next morning, the camel was right there. He had not moved an inch, forget about going anywhere. They untied the other camels and tents to move on with their journey. But this one wouldn’t move. Fearing something was wrong with him, they went back to the village head. “Did you untie the camel?” asked the village head. “Sir, we had not tied it in the first place.” The headman said, “My dear fellows, that’s what you know. The camel still believes that you had tied him. You pretended to tie him, now pretend to untie him!” The travelers went back to the camel and pretended to untie the rope and remove the peg. They were a picture of amazement seeing the camel get up and move on as if nothing had happened at all. In his own way, the village head had shown the travelers that the rope and peg were just an illusion which the camel thought to be real. In the same way, all of us are bound by our thoughts, which are actually not real but appear to be so. We are conditioned in that direction and are thus unable to experience complete freedom. If we assume that we are born in a middle class family and therefore will remain middle class all our lives, then the ‘middle class’ label will tie us up forever and will not allow us to explore further horizons. If you simply look inward, into your own life, you will see how much you have been conditioned. The realization of being conditioned is the first step towards breaking free from the artificial chains, which are but an illusion. Break free from all the limitations and conditioning that limit you.

Similarly, the sage urges you to realize that you actually do not need to detach, as you were never really attached to anything in the first place. And once you realize it, you just need to dissolve into it, live into it. Or else, we remain as ignorant as the camel in the story was.

And hence, असंगत्वम् (Non-attachment).


The 2nd verse goes on to propound exactly the opposite. It says that the universe arises in you and then dissolves back in you. Just as frames come and go on a screen in theater, universe appears in you, and then disappears in you. Just as waves rise and fall in ocean and just as thoughts come and go in your mind, everything around you appears in you, exists in you and then disappears in you. This implies that the universe isn’t outside you, rather, it is one with you; it is in you; it IS you. Thus, here it underscores the oneness of whole universe, the oneness of all existence, that is, एकत्वम् (One). This is in stark contrast to the असंगत्वम् (Non-attachment) that the previous verse had highlighted. Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 of the Sama Veda says:

तत् त्वम असि। Or तत्त्वमसि।

Tat Tvam Asi

Thou Art That. Or say, You Are That.

Similarly, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.10) of the Yajur Veda also says,

अहम् ब्रह्मास्मि।

Aham Brahmasmi

I am Brahman.

These are two of the four Mahavakyas that appear in the Upanishads. If you closely look, both are implying the unity of all existence. Tat Tvam Asi, when everything which can be called upon as ‘That’ (and this ‘everything’ will comprise of Everything, i.e., all existence) is you yourself, there is nothing else left. Thus, implying the oneness of all existence. Similarly, ‘I am Brahman’ will also imply that everything is Brahman or rather everything is one.

Now, if everything is you and you are everything, there are no separations. Hence, एकत्वम् or Oneness of all existence.


The 3rd verse then builds upon the earlier two verses and claims the falsity of everything you see around you, the falsity of whole universe, and the falsity of all existence. Here, it’s pertinent to mention the definition of ‘मिथ्या’ (mithya) or False as given by नागार्जुन (Nagarjuna) in शून्यवाद (Shunyavaad; शून्य or Shunya means ‘emptiness/void’), which is- That which borrows its existence is False. This implies that falsehood is neither existent nor non-existent, for it is manifest but its manifestation is not its own. The verse here gives example of a rope which appears as a snake but is definitely not. Here, an ancient Chinese story of philosopher Zhuang Zhou, which appears in his book titled ‘Zhuangzi’. begs mention for it dwells upon the concept of मिथ्यात्वम् brilliantly.

The most famous of all Zhuangzi stories – “Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly” – appears at the end of the second chapter, “On the Equality of Things”. This has also appeared in western philosophical thought as the dream argument widely associated with Rene Descartes. The story goes on like this:

昔者莊周夢為胡蝶,栩栩然胡蝶也,自喻適志與。不知周也。

Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.

俄然覺,則蘧蘧然周也。不知周之夢為胡蝶與,胡蝶之夢為周與。周與胡蝶,則必有分矣。此之謂物化。

Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

— Zhuangzi, chapter 2 (Watson translation)

Just as Zhuang Zhou finds it difficult to grasp the difference between the dream and the perceived reality, and ultimately ends up realizing that there is no difference or dichotomy between reality and dreams. Or simply put, the reality is just as much real or fictious as is a dream.

What’s interesting to note here is that there is a third entity that exists beyond the experiences of the life of the philosopher and the butterfly, both. Both the dream and the life, are like two dreams for this third entity, equally real and equally false. It is this third entity to which Ashtavakra addresses here and urges to realize the truth that what it experiences around it, is not attached to it; exists in it; but is false for its existence is derived and not independent.

And hence, this third verse declares – मिथ्यात्वम् – Falsity, of this universe.


Now finally, the fourth verse sums up असंगत्वम् (Non-attached), एकत्वम् (One), and मिथ्यात्वम् (False) To draw the final conclusion as समदुःखसमसुखः पूर्ण आशानैराश्ययौः समः…. It concludes that if the true self is non-attached and is the One, and the universe is false, then the ultimate reality or rather the ब्रह्मन् (Brahman) is unaffected in all situations and remains equal in all situations as they don’t truly exist for it. Thus, the Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) or rather You are untouched by anything that goes on around you. Your true self is unstirred by pain and pleasure alike, is uninfluenced to hope and disappointment alike, is unchanged in life and death alike. Thus, the one true self is constant (equal, सम) throughout everything.


Summed up in one sentence, these four verses say that since you have no attachments and yet you are all existence, everything around you is false and hence, you must not be affected slightest by it. It is this straight-forward way of presenting the unblemished truth that makes Ashtavakra Gita stand out amongst other texts, raising it to an unparalleled status. This text neither addresses the मन (mann or heart) as a Bhakti (भक्ति) text would nor does it addresses the बुद्धि (buddhi or mind) as other philosophical texts would do. Instead, it is one of those rare texts which directly addresses the ब्रह्मन् (Brahman) that resides in us and thus, disregarding the mann and the buddhi. It is this quality that makes it different.

Postscript – This post is based on an answer I wrote on Quora. It is result of my reading of different sources and some YouTube videos. However, it all started when I chanced upon Swami Sarvapriyananda’s lecture on YouTube. List of some references I used is given down below.

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