Aren’t We All Shoe Makers? – The Story of Ashtavakra

Ashtavakra

This is the story of sage Ashtavakra, which my grand mother narrated me several hundred times during my childhood days. This story had a lasting impression on me, and this story is also the root of several other Zen and Buddhist folk stories in China.

During a time of absolute harmony and prosperity, in the city of Mithila, lived the wise king Janaka, one of the greatest philosopher kings of India. Art, science, spirituality, and philosophy thrived during his regime. During that time a sage named Uddalaka lived in a forest of Mithila  and ran a school (Āśrama) teaching several kids. Kahoḍa was one of his best disciples and Uddalaka took special care of him and also had his daughter Sujata married to him.

In our culture expectant mothers are told spiritual stories and excerpts from vedas to imbibe spirituality and intelligence in the child in the womb (Today it is scientifically proven that babies in the womb can listen and learn). Sujata also attended the classes taught by Uddalaka to Kahoda. One day, as Kahoda was reciting the Vedas (with minor pronunciation errors), the fetus in Sujata’s womb kicked her 8 times, as it was aware of the correct pronunciation of every syllable. Realizing this Kahoda became so angry and cursed the fetus with eight deformities of the body. The baby was then born with a dark complexion and 8 deformities, he was named  Ashtavakra (meaning a person with 8 deformities).

Meanwhile king Janaka sleeping in his palace had a vivid dream. He was in the middle of an extremely violent war and his entire army got decimated; he ran away from the war throwing away his weapons trying to get away from the enemy soldiers (Back then to run away from a battle was considered as the most shameful act).

After running for several hours he escaped in to a forest, he was completely exhausted and hungry. In the middle of the forest he saw a hut and knocked its door to ask for help. The old women who came out, tried to chase him away assuming him to be a thief. He begged her for some food, but the lady was afraid to open her door to a stranger. Hence she gave him a cooking pot, some water and lentils, and asked him to cook and eat. When he started cooking the smoke hurt his eyes and it took an eternity for him to cook the lentils. When he was about to eat, two wild boars came screaming and fighting, they broke the pot and all the food got mixed with the soil.

King Janaka could take no more.. He screamed out in agony with tears running down, he woke up! The dream had a devastating effect on him and unfortunately for him his wise guru Yajnavalkya was not in the courthouse to counsel him that day. He asked himself “Was that a dream, or is this a dream?”. “May be I am defeated in battle, and starving in the forest dreaming that everything is normal!”. “Who am I? What is going on really?”

He asked all the wise men in Mithila about his doubt and promised great wealth for the right counsel. He was not convinced with any of the explanations and he jailed all of them. Ashtavakra’s father Kahoda went to the courthouse to win that reward, but he too was jailed.

When Sujatha narrated the events to Ashtavakra (he was just 12 years old), he wanted to save his father. Despite his mother’s pleading, he set off for the royal palace.

When he entered the court room, he was greeted with taunts and laughter, as he was a dark kid with 8 deformities. He was unperturbed by the ridicule and looked up to the king and asked the king with a strong voice,  “King Janaka, why have you filled your court with shoe makers?”

There was an uneasy silence in the court, with everyone waiting to hear the king’s response to such an arrogant outburst. King Janaka calmly asked Ashtavakra “Why are you belittling my highly learned ministers?”

Ashtavakra

Ashtavakra replied “They are obviously shoemakers, because when they look at me they see only the skin, my age and my deformities”. (Shoe makers back then looked for well grown animals without any deformity or injury to get the best skins for making shoes, irrespective of the animal they see they just evaluate its skin and nothing else.) “If they are not shoe makers then don’t they know that the soul is not limited to age, skin color or to this physical body?”

Janaka smiled, and the entire court felt the embarrassment. Ashtavakra sat on a chair and explained Janaka about the ultimate reality, considered by many as a teaching far superior to Bagavat Gita and is widely quoted by most spiritual gurus till date. (I will post a separate blog about his teachings and Ashtavakra Gita). The king released all the prisoners and also became a good friend of Ashtavakra.

Thousands of years have passed and yet an overwhelming majority still prejudiced. We all are shoe makers in that sense, right from the most popular celebrity to a beggar in the alley, we just see their skin. Being a victim of prejudice due to the color and complexion of our skin on a daily basis can be devastating. Not everyone is a realized sage like Ashtavakra to be indifferent to such taunts and ridicule. The bigger evil however is the other side of this attitude, when the skin is beautiful, people become hunters and go after that skin. In my opinion vast majority of the social evils today is due to this attitude, especially the ones against women like, sex abuse, rapes and molestation. When we see a girl, we just see her skin and not the person beneath it, that person might have immense knowledge, exceptional skills, great passion and above all a pure soul.

The only way to fight this evil is to raise our kids the right way and to let them see the world with a the right perspective. The minimum we can do to our society is to raise our kid as a someone who is not a shoe maker.

  • Anantha Krishnan

    Would be nice if you write more about the conversations between Ashtavakra and Janaka

  • Thayumanaswamy

    Beautiful article. one of your best articles

  • Ranjit Sinha

    One more feminist article. I read your blogs regularly, but this is bulls**t.. More than 50% of the sex abuse and rape cases are fabricated by women. it is a fact that women are weaker both physically and mentally.. it is not stereotyping.. they are dependent on us and there is nothing wrong when men go after beautiful girls. even the girls want to be an eye candy rather than an intelligent professional. Most of the working women use this tactic to grow in companies. It is not like men are treating them like that, they want to be treated like that.