The story of Ashtavakra is taken from the great ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. It is the story of a deformed young boy whose intelligence surpassed many old sages of his time.
Sage Uddalaka ran a school (Ashram) teaching Vedic knowledge. Kahoda was one of his best disciples. Uddalaka was so pleased with him that he got his daughter Sujata married to him. Sujata, eventually got pregnant and wanted her child to surpass all the sages of his time. So, she began to sit in the classes taught by Uddalaka and Kahoda, listening to their chanting with the unborn baby. It was one day, in a class taught by Kahoda, the unborn baby spoke up from inside the womb, “This is not the way to chant the verse, father.” Kahoda felt insulted in front of the class and cursed, “You will be born deformed.”
Sujata did not take the instance too seriously and was ambitious. She wanted more money to raise her child the best. So she asked her husband to go to king Janak who was then preparing for a fire worship ceremony (Yagna) hoping that the ceremony will bring money to the family.
When Kahoda approached Janak, the king received him respectfully but said with regret “Kahoda, I am unable to perform the Yagna which I decided to perform several years back. Sage, Bandhi arrived from no where and asked me to start the Yagna only after he is defeated in an academic discussion with the sages participating in the Yagna. His condition further includes that the sages who come forth for the debate, if defeated, will be drowned. So far he has killed many learned sages. Now it is up to you to take the challenge.” Kahoda agreed to debate with Bandhi. He was defeated and drowned in the nearby river. The widowed Sujata heard the news and repented her actions. A few months later she gave birth to a boy who was deformed at eight joints and so named Ashtavakra. He got his education from his grandfather Uddalaka. Ashtavakra was extremely intelligent and his grandfather loved him dearly and was very proud of him. When Ashtavakra was only twelve, he finished all that he needed to know from his grandfather. He also heard the fate of his father and the Yagna of king Janak which still remained unfinished as no one could defeat Bandhi.
One night Ashtavakra ran away from the hermitage and came to king Janak. Looking to his deformed body, the guards were amused. Ashtavakra retorted, “Do not judge a person by his appearance and age, judge him by what he knows. Inform your king that there is a person ready to challenge Bandhi.” The king came and was surprised to see a small deformed boy. He asked a few questions and was greatly impressed by his knowledge. King Janak soon arranged for the debate with Bandhi. When the spectators laughed on seeing the deformed Ashtavakra, Ashtavakra said with anger, “I did not know that the so called learned gathering is no better than a bunch of cobblers who judge a person by the skin and not by the knowledge he has.”
To everyone’s surprise Ashtavakara defeated Bandhi in no time. With vengeance he then requested the king to drown his father’s killer. Bandhi then disclosed his identity. He said, “I am the son of Varuna, the god of water. I came to earth on the request of my father to get the best sages from here to perform his twelve years of Yagna. The only way I could get them to my father was to challenge them in a debate and throw them into water. Now that my father has completed the Yagna, let us go to the river band and watch the sages walk out of the river.”
People rushed to the river bank and watched the sages return from the river. Kahoda came and embraced his learned son Ashtavakra. He then openly admitted that his son Ashtavakra was a lot more intelligent than he. Bandhi then asked Ashtavakra to take a dip in the river, with the blessings of his father, Varuna, which would make him normal. Ashtavakra did as he was told and came out of the river as a handsome young man. Janak rewarded Ashtavakra and Kahoda. They went back to their hermitage to be united with the family. Uddalaka, was so happy to see his worthy grandson surpassing in knowledge to all the great sages of his time. Sujata rejoiced at seeing her handsome son and the husband.