Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Sample case of nature of debates in ancient India - Ashtavakra vs Vandin.

King Janaka of Mithila had hosted the best brains of the day whose words of wisdom have been immortalised in Upanishads and Epics. One among them was Ashtavakra who as a 12 year old lad won over a seasoned debater called Vandin in Janaka’s court. Vandin was notorious for having got the losers in the debate killed by drowning. Ashtavakra’s father, Kahoda was one such loser who was drowned to death. It happened just before Ashtavakra was born. Ashtavakra grew up without knowing what happened to his father. But when he came to know, he could not remain quiet. He was just 12 years then but decided to avenge the death of his father, in the same way that Vandin did. So he reached Janaka’s court accompanied with his uncle, another famous sage, Swetaketu, who was of his same age then.

(19th-century painting of Aṣṭāvakra 
who was born with physical handicap and 
grows up into a celebrated sage of Vedic culture) 

The first argument was with the gate keeper who stopped them for the reason that lads were not old enough to debate with Vandin. This argument is around who is old or what makes one old.

Gate keeper: Only old people are eligible to enter the court (and into argument with Vandin)

Ashtavakra: Who is old? What makes one old?
Old are those who
·       observe sacred vows,
·       are in possession of energy proceeding from the Vedic lore,
·       served the superiors,
·       subdued their passions, and
·       have also won proficiency in knowledge. 
(Ashtavakra fulfilled all these criteria, so old enough)

It is said that even boys are not to be slighted, for a fire, small though it be, burns on being touched.

Gate keeper: Well, I still consider you as a boy. If you are old enough, you must be able to recite the verse demonstrating the existence of the Supreme Being, and adored by the divine sages, and which, although composed of one letter, is yet multifarious.

Ashtavakra: ‘True growth cannot be inferred from the mere development of the body, as the growth of the knots of the Salmali tree cannot signify its age. That tree is called full-grown which although slender and short, beareth fruits. But that which doth not bear fruits, is not considered as grown'

Gate keeper: Boys receive instruction from the old and they also in time grow old. Knowledge certainly is not attainable in a short time. (indirectly hinting that his knowledge was not in-depth but only a case of repeating what he had heard)

Ashtavakra:  ‘One is not old because his head is gray. But the gods regard him as old who, although a child in years, is yet possessed of knowledge’. One’s merit does not depend on his age or gray hair or wealth or friends.


After this Ashtavakra was allowed to meet King Janaka to whom he expressed his wish to trounce Vandin in an argument. Looking at his age, King Janaka wanted to test his knowledge. Some of what they spoke is difficult to understand, and I have given my interpretation along with, in blue colour fonts and in brackets.

Janaka: ‘He alone is a truly learned man who understandeth the significance of the thing that hath thirty divisions, twelve parts twenty four joints, and three hundred and sixty spokes'

(Seems to refer to the scale of Time at macro level, i.e., for a year when the earth completes one revolution. A month of 30 days, 12 months and 24 pakshas (phases of moon) and 360 days in a year. Similar ideas are found in Rig Veda 1.164)

Ashtavakra: ‘May that ever-moving wheel that hath twenty four joints, six naves, twelve peripheries, and sixty spokes protect thee'

(Seems to refer to the scale of Time at micro level, i.e., for a day. The wheel of Time (earth’s rotation) completes one round in a day wherein 24 minutes make one ghati / Nazhigai, 6 ghati make 1 Jaamam, the wheel passes through 12 lagnas and 60 ghatis)

Janaka: ‘Who amongst the gods beareth those two which go together like two mares yoked to a car, and sweep like a hawk, and to what also do they give birth' 

Ashtavakra:  ‘May God, O king, forfend the presence of these two in thy house; aye, even in the house of thine enemies. He who appeareth, having for his charioteer the wind begetteth them, and they also produce him'

(The answer is ‘Wind’ (vayu). The two mares must be Indra (rain) and Agni (fire), as is known from an answer later in the debate with Vandin. The wind bears the two mares, rain and fire, sweeps like a hawk and is a life giver.)

Janaka: ‘What is that doth not close its eyes even while sleeping; what is it that doth not move, even when born; what is it that hath no heart; and what doth increase even in its own speed'

Ashtavakra: ‘It is a fish that doth not close its eye-lids, while sleeping; and it is an a egg that doth not move when produced; it is stone that hath no heart; and it is a river that increase in its own speed'
The king was pleased with these answers and permitted him to debate with Vandin.


The debate with Vandin is interesting as it involves numbers in increasing order. Each of them must compose a verse having relevant ones for a number. When one begins with a number, the other must continue with the succeeding number. It seems that a minimum of 4 ideas have to be given by each debater in a verse- form to continue the debate. It also appears that the debater challenging Vandin would not have any clue on how the debate would be like. Vandin decides how to test the challenger and begins the debate with a verse on number 1.

This particular debate with Ashtavakra, though looks simple at the outset, cannot be continued unless one is widely read. In the end Vandin himself falls into the trap he laid for Ashtavakra as he could not produce 4 ideas relevant to number 13. Ashtavakra completes the verse with ease and wins the debate.

Vandin: One – only one fire blazeth forth in various shapes; only one sun illumineth this whole world; only one hero, Indra, the lord of celestials, destroyeth enemies; and only one Yama is the sole lord of the Pitris

Ashtavakra: Two -  The two friends, Indra and Agni, ever move together; the two celestial sages are Narada and Parvata; twins are the Aswinikumaras; two is the number of the wheels of a car; and it is as a couple that husband and wife live together, as ordained by the deity.

Vandin: Three - Three kinds of born beings are produced by acts; the three Vedas together perform the sacrifice, Vajapeya; at three different times, the Adhwaryus commence sacrificial rites; three is the number of words: and three also are the divine lights.

Ashtavakra: Four - Four are the Asramas of the Brahmanas; the four orders perform sacrifices; four are the cardinal points; four is the number of letters; and four also, as is ever known, are the legs of a cow.

Vandin: Five - Five is the number of fires; five are the feet of the metre called Punki; five are the sacrifices; five locks, it is said in the Vedas, are on the heads of the Apsaras; and five sacred rivers are known in the world 

Ashtavakra: Six -  Six cows, it is asserted by some, and paid as a gratuity on the occasion of establishing the sacred fire; six are the seasons belonging to the wheel of time; six is the number of the senses; six stars constitute the constellation Kirtika; and six, it is found in all the Vedas, is the number of the Sadyaska sacrifice 

Vandin: Seven -  Seven is the number of the domesticated animals; seven are the wild animals; seven metres are used in completing a sacrifice; seven are the Rishis, seven forms of paying homage are extant in the world; and seven, it is known, are the strings of the Vina 

Ashtavakra: Eight -  Eight are the bags containing a hundred fold; eight is the number of the legs of the Sarabha, which preyeth upon lions; eight Vasus, as we hear, are amongst the celestials; and eight are the angles of yupa stake, in all sacrificial rites

Vandin: Nine -  Nine is the number of the mantras used in kindling the fire in sacrifices to the Pitris; nine are the appointed functions in the processes of creation; nine letters compose the foot of the metre, Vrihati; and nine also is ever the number of the figures in calculation

Ashtavakra: Ten - Ten is said to be the number of cardinal points, entering into the cognition of men in this world; ten times hundred make up a thousand; ten is the number of months, during which women bear; and ten are the teachers of true knowledge, and ten, the haters thereof, and ten again are those capable of learning it.

Vandin: Eleven -  Eleven are the objects enjoyable by beings; eleven is the number of the yupas; eleven are the changes of the natural state pertaining to those having life; and eleven are the Rudras among the gods in heaven.

Ashtavakra: Twelve - Twelve months compose the year; twelve letters go to the composition of a foot of the metre called Jagati; twelve are the minor sacrifices; and twelve, according to the learned, is the number of the Adityas.

Vandin: Thirteen - The thirteenth lunar day is considered the most auspicious; thirteen islands exist on earth....... (pause)

Ashtavakra: (continues)  Thirteen sacrifices are presided over by Kesi; and thirteen are devoured by Atichhandas, the longer metres of the Veda. 

{Source:  Mahabharata -3: 132-133}


Dr Rama Krishnan said...

Madam Ji
Thanks for the article. As usual, very informative.
Sorry for bringing to your attention an article unrelated to the topic here. My apologies upfront. I would very much appreciate it if you can please comment on this article. You are only the scholarly person I know of who can analyse and gives us an appropriate response.

Jayasree Saranathan said...

I read that article and liked it on Twitter. The entire predictive astrological literature is based on inputs from data. Only we are under the impression that they have been handed down to us arbitrarily. For ages sages and their continuing schools have observed nature and events and found a correlation and codified them as rules. The rainfall astrology that I am doing at present is also of that type- data analysis of events and planetary movements. The point is it is verifiable year after year in rainfall astrology, but not possible in human life. To prove that it is also verifiable in human life, the university where I did my PhD (Potti Sreeramulu Telugu university) is concentrating on research on easily verifiable topic of diseases. We get lot of sample cases and can verify past, present and future events related to each case. My thesis was done like that only where I did a multi- faceted data analysis for oral cancer and deduced the different levels of frequency that helped me to arrive at the most reliable pointers. I showed how it is possible to compare with every other disease of the mouth or face (neck & head) and differentiate from oral cancer. My deduction on oral cancer blooming into throat cancer in some cases also had features unique to it. Another area of data analysis that can be verified and proven within a reasonable time period is failed marriages. I have done that also based on 100 sample cases. My analysis like this convinces me of the reliability of astrology handed down to us. Only issue is how prudent & efficient we are in interpreting the data. So interpretation skill decides the success of an astrologer. A failure of that (human limitations) must not be treated as the failure of astrology.

Dr Rama Krishnan said...

Thank you Madam ji. As a Dr of medicine, it will be very interesting and informative for me to know about your research on oral cancer based on Astrology. Can one predict with decent possibility about one getting oral cancer based on his/ her horoscope? It will open up a whole new field and Western medicine might have to rethink their concept of causes that result in diseases. I hope to see your article on the failed marriages also! Thanks once again.

Jayasree Saranathan said...

Yes. It is possible but not humane to tell a person that he is going to get it. But one can suggest remedies well beforehand so that its impact will come down. A popular example is Angelina Jolie who on her own volition (not through astrology but perhaps propelled by Destiny/karma )started doing lot of good work related to cancer that she got at a later date and got rid of it medically. I did hers as a case study in one of the issues of Astrological magazine as a cover story a year ago. Planning to bring out a book on my research on oral cancer. Some features of failed marriage was written in my blog on mars - Venus article