‘Janaka and Ashtavakra’: An ambrosia for the freedom seekers

Life lessons from a mythological tale

Ashraf Karayath Ashraf Karayath

When it comes to a book under the genre of mythology, there is a niche crowd of mostly the grey population who fancy reading it. While this generalisation might be false like all others, Ashraf Karayath’s Janaka and Ashtavakra―A Journey Beyond proves that mythology may not be just something of the past; these tales draw parallels to our present stories. Especially considering the fact that the world is in a state of uncertainty, thanks to the global pandemic. The turbulence, the confusion and, most of all, the in-betweens where everything is looked at as a conspiracy theory, political propaganda or, going by the myths, wrath of the gods. At a time like this, reading a mythological tale, dating back to the 5th century BCE, might seem thoroughly depressing. However, Ashraf takes a journey beyond these false notions and introduces the tale of the less-spoken Janaka (Sita’s father) who is in a quest for knowledge, spiritual liberation and enlightenment. He calls it one of the most gripping yet unknown episodes from the Ramayana. Interestingly, the author feels that the book is a pandemic read as this is the time that people should keep their negative emotions at bay and strengthen their quest. This, he believes, would elevate one’s immunity.

The mythological tale, like any other book, starts with a detailed prologue. From the walls to the dusty ground to the elephant shrieks and the tortured screams of men. Flipping through the initial pages of the book, one wonders how a king can go on a quest when there is an impending war in his kingdom. And who is Ashtavakra? A divinely intelligent boy who later goes on to disciple king Janaka. Unaffected by the scoffs of the courtiers for his deformed body, Ashtavakra lets his intellect do the work and triumphs over some of the most learned sages in the kingdom. After Ashtavakra’s victory, Janaka, awed by the boy’s extraordinary intellect and obsessed with his quest for spiritual liberation, submits to the sage’s guidance. While most people think the novel revolves around Janaka and hence his name comes first, there is a school of thought that firmly believes that Ashtavakra is the lead man.

Soon, the war horns blare and intensifies on the horizon of Mithila, but Janaka, unperturbed by the turbulence, stays on the path of spiritual enlightenment. At the end, he steps into a new realm that alters the reality for him and his kingdom. In the epilogue, the author quote Ashtavakra Gita: “Like a leaf in the wind, the liberated one is untethered from life—desireless, independent, free.” Surely, these three attributes are, in all ways, synonymous with spiritual liberation.

Published by Rupa Publications, the novel uniquely answers some of the reader’s existential questions on the realities of life. There is an element of drama in the initial chapters as the story of the king, his kingdom politics and secretive conspiracies unfold but the vibrant and descriptive style of writing has the reader hooked till the last page. Imagine, waking up in a different realm of mind and asking yourself, ‘Is what I see real?’ But what is true, the dream world or the conscious world? Ashtavakra says both of them are untrue. Maybe asking ‘why so?’ is not required; maybe, that is all we need to know. Maybe, this is what it means to be on a journey beyond; a journey beyond questions and set answers.

Book: Janaka and Ashtavakra―A Journey Beyond

Author: Ashraf Karayath

Pages: 218

Price: Rs 295

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