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Who is really a wise man? || Acharya Prashant, on Sage Ashtavakra (2014)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
25 min
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prakṛtyā śūnyacitto yaḥ pramādād bhāvabhāvanaḥnidrito bodhita iva kṣīṇasaṁsmaraṇo hi saḥ.

(Ashtavakra Gita 14.1)

Translation: He indeed has his recollections of worldly life extinguished – who becomes void-minded spontaneously, who thinks of sense objects only by chance, and who is, as it were, awake though physically asleep.

Question: Why is it being said that the wise man thinks of sense objects only by chance?

Speaker: Only by chance, not by memory. Only by chance, not by memory. Not by a compulsive tendency to ponder. We do not think by chance, we are slaves to our compulsive tendencies to keep brooding. Now the event has not yet chanced. There is nothing in the surrounding, or in the situation to necessitate thought, and yet thought is there. You are thinking about an event that is probably going to happen six months down the line. The chance has yet not occurred, the happening is yet distant, and no one knows whether the happening would occur at all. But you are constantly contemplating. It is not by chance but by some kind of an inner compulsion – slavery. Our mind is hostage to its latent tendencies – vritti.

You come in front of me, then thought is activated, and that is alright. If you come in front of me, eyes have a look at you, then I must recollect your name at least. And to recollect your name, the apparatus will get functional, the mental apparatus will get functional. And that is called ‘thought’. Right? A few things from the memory are bound to arise, and that is alright. That is alright because right now you have chanced. So it’s okay.

(Addressing one of the listeners) I take a fraction of a second and I say, “Oh! Rachit. Rachit you are here.” And thought is there, the thought is serving its legitimate purpose. This thought is not a load upon the mind. This thought is an accompaniment of a healthy, physical and worldly life. Because the body cannot exist without thought, and the mind cannot exist without thought. Because limited beings, by the fact that they are limited, need to be differentiated, and have a name. If one is different from the other, then the otherness needs to be established by giving a name. So thought has to be there, and this is ‘healthy thought’.

And remember this thought does not constantly perpetuate itself. So I come to know that this is Rachit, and his whereabouts and whatever, and then that is all. I don’t need to think anymore. Now here is Rachit – the fact- in front of me. Memory is no more needed. I don’t need to recall his entire history. Now what is pertinent is- what is he saying to me? How does his face look? Is he sad? Am I able to relate to him? Now these are the things that are important, and these are not the domain of thought. These are the domain of attention.

If I am still caught in thought, then I will never be able to know that he looks a little gloomy. When he comes in front of me, I need thought. I need thought to recollect his name. I also need thought to figure out why he may be here, and a few other things. But that is all. What do I need after that? Do I need more thought, or do I need to pay attention to the living fact that is there in front of me?

Now thought is unwanted. Now it is sufficient that we are there. This togetherness, this contact – thoughtless contact. If thought is altogether missing, then as physical, worldly beings, we cannot relate. Because as a body, I exist with a name, with an identity, and so does he. So thought is needed to that extent. But if we exist just as identities, then we exist only as separation, and then life is hell. Because to the extent thoughts, names and identities exist, separation also exists. Then there can be no contact, no communion. Do you get this?

Thought is separation. Thought means that there is ‘me’ and the ‘other’. And the other needs to be thought of. When we started our discussion today, we said, “We are not one, but two. And the second is the function of the first.” The art of living lies in harmonizing the second, so that it lives in accordance with the first, in submission to the first, in surrender to the first. So let thought come, and let it quickly make way for attention. Let it not hang around.

Have you seen that when an important man is to arrive, his attendants come first? And they ensure that the things are properly laid out. Attendants are needed only till the time the dignitary has not arrived. Once he has come, then the attendant should vacate the area. If the attendants still hang around, then what will happen? They are an unnecessary impediment.

Imagine the leader is speaking from the stage, and the mike attendant, and the tea vendor are hanging around the stage. Now what will happen? Are they needed anymore? Is thought needed anymore?

Thought is good only as long as it makes way for attention. A good thought is one which quickly subsides. So that now there is only the vacant space, in which understanding can take place.


In fact the sutra , if you read it carefully, states what should be the life of the thought.

*“He indeed has his recollections of worldly life extinguished – who becomes void-minded spontaneously.*“

So thought arises, and then it extinguishes in no time. Spontaneously it goes away. Like a flash it comes, and like a flash it goes away. That should be the life of the thought. It should not stay there. It should not become a compulsive state of mind.

“Who thinks of sense objects only by chance, and who is, as it were, awake though physically asleep.”

What does it mean to be awake, even while physically asleep? What is the meaning of being awake?

Somebody has said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Imagination can never be as surprising as Truth can be. What is it to be awake? What is it that we usually call as ‘being awake’?

We say, “I am awake,” when the world of senses is active. When we can feel, touch, hear, speak and see. Those who have understood life, have said that this is clumsiness, drowsiness. That this is actually sleep. When the mind is dominated by the clouds of thought and sensual perception – that is what has been called as ‘sleep’. That has been called as ‘sleep’, because Truth cannot change. And whatever clouds the mind, whatever obfuscates it, constantly changes. So that cannot be Truth. What we call as our normal, awake state, can simply not be true, because our eyes and our ears bring us to nothing that does not change. And because we are a function of the world. If there is nothing unchangeable in the world, then there is nothing unchangeable in me as well.

But that is a contradiction. Because there is someone who wants to know the Truth. So there is somebody who is unchangeable. Even for a split second, he is there, unchanging. He wants to know.


The next moment he may want to know something else, but he still wants to know the Truth. Let us take a very crude example. This moment I want to know what is X. I want to know the Truth of X. Next moment I want to know what is Y. I want to know the Truth of Y. There is something here that always wants to know the Truth, and that something does not change. It is always asking for the same thing – the Truth. But whatever the eyes and the senses bring me from outside, is constantly changing. So either my eyes or ears are deceiving me, or there is a substratum beneath the ever-changing which does not change.

That foundation, that substratum, which is the basis of all that is changing, is the Truth. The one who is drowsy, the one who is half-asleep, lives believing the changing, to be the Truth. The fleeting, the momentary, the impermanent, to be Truth.

To be awake means to live in That which does not change. And That which does not change, That can be nothing. That has to be nothing. Because if it is something, then all the things change. It has to be a void, an emptiness. To be awake means to live in a place that is free of all that the eyes can see and the ears can hear. That is called ‘to be awake’.

Do you understand this?

‘To be awake’ means to be constantly living in contact with something that is free of this entire drama that is going on around us, and within us. That is called ‘awakening’. So when you say, “I am awake because I am seeing objects,” then you are actually asleep. The one who is really awake, does not see objects. Now it does not mean that if there is a stone hurled at him, then he won’t see the stone. Obviously, the eyes will see the stone. But there is another faculty within him, that is living in contact with something that is beyond the stone. Or you could say, something that is the foundation of the stone.

So real awakening means – “I am seeing nothing.” It is a kind of sleep. (Smilingly) It is a kind of deep relaxation. Real awakening means – “Even when the eyes are seeing, I am not seeing anything. I am free of all that the eyes see, the ears hear.” That is to be awake. Are you getting this?

Now our situation is such that we see objects in our so-called awake state, and we also see objects even when we are in our so-called asleep state. We are constantly dreaming. The intensity of the dream may vary. But if you use some equipment, you will come to see that even when you are sleeping, time is constantly active here. The proof of that is- you wake up. The system knows that enough of sleep, now wake up. So there is something within where the clock is ticking. And it knows eight hours, ten hours or at most twelve hours. “Now wake up!”

So there is something within, which knows enough of sleep. We are never sleeping actually, objects are always there. Time is an object. Right? If time is there, then objects are there. Time is there, world is there. So even when we are asleep, we are with objects. When we are awake, we are with objects. But to be really awake means – to be free of objects. We are never awake.

We sleep when we sleep, and we sleep when we are awake!

We sleep when we sleep, because we see objects. And even when we are awake, we are still seeing objects. So, we are still truly asleep. Are you getting this?

Ashtavakra here is saying, “He is awake, though physically asleep.”

It means that when he sleeps, he actually sleeps. In a sense, he is sleeping, even when he is awake. In what sense? In the sense that his eyes are seeing objects, but something within him is relaxing. It is not seeing anything. It is free. Sleeping, he is free. Not sleeping, he is still free.

And because what you see in your sleep is nothing but what you have gathered when you are in your so-called awake state, so to be free from objects in your sleep requires that you must be free from objects in your so-called awake state. Are you getting this?

When I am obsessed with the objects in the day time, obviously in the night my dreams and my entire movement, the brain waves, will reflect that same obsession. During the day, I am all the time thinking of money. What will happen in the night? I will dream of money. I may not explicitly dream of money. I might dream of horses, but that’s all the same. That dream is arising because I am obsessed with something. Are you getting this? During the day, I am constantly occupied with the world, so in the night there will be some mental activity going on, related to the world.

The wise man is free of the world in the day time, so he is free of the world in the night as well. The wise man is free of the world in the day, and that is why he is free of the world in the night. Remember, the day comes first. So do not try to start with your nights. “You know that when I sleep I must have a deep sleep.” The reflection in the night is in some way, a reflection of the day. How you spend your day, decides how your night goes. So spend your day well. If you can be really awake in the day, then you would also be really awake in the night.

Now you will also understand what Krishna means when he says,

“yā niśā sarva-bhūtānāḿ tasyāḿ jāgarti saḿyamīyasyāḿ jāgrati bhūtānsā niśā paśyato muneḥ”

(That which is night to all beings, in that the self-controlled man remains awake. When all beings are awake, that is the night for the sage who sees).

When the world sleeps then the sanyami – the real man – is awake. When the world sleeps, then the real man is awake. Do you understand this? When the world sees objects, he is situated at the center, which is free of objects. This ‘you’ that is the same in pain and pleasure, is the number one, not number two.

Listener 1: But number two opts it as number one.

Speaker: Number two tries to impersonate aatma . Body tries to act like aatma . Aatma will remain still. How can the body remain still? In heat and in cold, something within might remain untouched. But will the body not be affected?

That is the responsibility of both the writer and the audience to let it be made very clear. Sometimes even the writers think that to remain the same in pain and pleasure means to behave like a dead wood. Furniture is the same. (Pointing at the door) This door is same in April(summers) as well as in December(winters). Living beings are not supposed to be the same. But I am seeing that tendency sometimes with us also. We think that to be spiritually advanced means, to be dead. “I won’t laugh. I won’t cry – I am spiritual. I live like this.”

What bullshit? The spiritual man laughs louder than your ordinary man. The ordinaryman does not know how to laugh. He only whimpers. He can only giggle. The spiritualman roars. And the ordinary man can’t even cry. His crying is also limited. The spiritual man really breaks down. He doesn’t just cry, he collapses. Crying so much that he is really flooding. For the worldly man, everything is limited. Pain is limited, pleasure is limited, so life is limited. Everything is in limits. “Let’s not dance too much!”

In other words, a worldly man is always a slave of his decency. The worldly man is a slave of his…?

Listeners: Decency.

Speaker: (Sarcastically) Not too much, not too much! (Referring to the Kashmiri saint) He cannot be fully indecent like Lalla. He would always need some clothes. “Alright let us expose, but within limits.” You know these are the contours. This is off the limits. He can never be like Lalla. And that is the punishment of the worldly man.He can never go naked, never. His decency will always be his punishment. “Little bit we are respectable. Oh my God! Respectability.”



Spiritual man is actually a very indecent man. He is almost like an animal. He knows no limits. When he is hungry, he will eat like an animal. I was reading Bhaagwat Puran, and it is written in it that a realized man becomes Pashuvat (animal like). Actually like an animal! He rises to the level of animals.

If he has to eat, he will eat. And he doesn’t mind what you think. And if he doesn’t have to eat, you do what you want to do, he won’t eat. If he wants to mate, he will mate on the streets. “Let everybody have a look what this dog is doing. Let everybody curse and call Mrs. Dog a bitch. But it does not matter. My time, my heat, my season, my partner and my playground. I know no decency. (Sarcastically) You go and hide in your bedrooms. Why should I hide?”

Have you ever seen a horse being polite? Have you ever seen a polite horse? Or a decent lion, who does not want to hurt others? “How can I be rough and rude? If I have to rebuke someone, then I will rebuke offline.” When the lions kills, he kills in full view of the jungle. He doesn’t say that I will kill over phone, so that everybody does not see, and this fellow may feel bad.

Our decency is our punishment.

But again just as I had said, “No responsibility does not mean irresponsibility.” Similarly, no decency does not mean indecency. No decency means – beyond decency. No decency means – an inner dignity. So Lalla is naked, yet she is more dignified than a housewife. A naked Lalla is much more dignified than your housewife wrapped in ten metres of cloth and forty ornaments. Lalla is beyond decency.

There is this beautiful story of a Buddhist monk. Have you heard of nagarvadhu (mistress of the city)? At the time of the Buddha there was this prevalent concept of nagarvadhu. There was this nagarvadhu who was actually a prostitute, but a very famed prostitute. The head prostitute of the city, the mistress of the entire city. Only the rich and the most powerful would come to her. So this nagarvadhu, she has been seeing the kings and the wealthy merchants, and the other powerful and respectable people since long. To be a nagarvadhu also meant lot of wealth and lot of power also. It was a status symbol to be a nagarvadhu . And this nagarvadhu was supposed to be intelligent, and also incredibly beautiful and powerful.

This nagarvadhu saw this Buddhist monk and tried to seduce him. While seducing, she expected to be resisted by monk because she had heard that the monks are beyond attraction and repulsion. She thought that this fellow would resist her advances. And that he would not be trapped at all. But she was in for a surprise. He was trapped more easily than she could ever imagine. He just walked into the trap. She seduced, and he got seduced, without an iota of resistance.

He said, “Yes lady. What do you want from me?”She said, “Live with me.”He said, “Alright.” She was taken by surprise. She thought, “What kind of a monk is he? He is agreeing to live with a prostitute.” He said, “I will live with you.”

She thought that probably he was a corrupt monk, that probably the Buddha could not teach him fully. Slowly she came to see what it meant to be a disciple of the Buddha. He lived with her, he experienced whatever was there to be experienced. Because she was intelligent, she was able to figure out that something within him remained untouched even in their most intimate moments. She realized that she could not trap him. He was so sure of himself that he just walked into the trap. He knew that nothing could enslave him. He had a very deep-seated confidence.

The monk said to her, “What can you do to me? Yes, come on let’s play! Let’s play. Let me see what deepest seduction you can offer. Let me see what deepest pleasure you have laid out. And let me see whether they are strong enough to corrupt my core.”

Nothing corrupted him. And he never boasted. He just stayed with her. Slowly she started realizing that he was no ordinary man. She started realizing that it was not she who had won him over, in fact, she had been won over by him. And one day he set-off to go.

He said, “I am going.” She knew that he couldn’t be stopped. His time had come. He would go. And after he had gone, she wept. She remembered him. But she was a nagarvadhu and he was monk. What could she do?

A few months after he had gone, she realized that she was actually no more a prostitute. His very touch had permanently changed her. She had become the same that he was. Just as he was untouched even during the physical arousal, she found that the same was happening to her. In the middle of the world, she no longer belonged to the world. She saw that her time too had come. So when the king came to her, she declared it to the king that she would leave the palace.

The king asked, “Where will you go?”

She said, “I will no more be a nagarvadhu . I will stay with him.”

The king thought for a while. The king had been in love with her since long. Not only was she physically attractive, she was also a very intelligent woman. So the king said, “Your life as a nagarvadhu is ending now. You are beginning another life.”

She said, “Yes.”

He then said, “Then why not as my queen? Now that the nagarvadhu is dying, passing away, why don’t you begin your second life as my queen?”

She said, “No. I have to go to him.”

The king said, “But he is a monk. Just as he has left you this time, he will leave you again. He is never going to marry you. You will never become his wife. No monk is ever going to take a wife.”

And her reply is worth remembering. She said,”Better his mistress than your wife. There is more dignity in being his mistress, than there is in being your wife.”

That is Lalla for you. There is more dignity in my nakedness than is there in all your sarees and your ornaments. Often mistresses are far more dignified, than wives. Do you understand the difference between dignity and decency? To be a king’s wife is a very decent affair. But to be a monk’s mistress – monks don’t have mistresses, monks have friends – is a far more dignified thing than to be a worldly man’s wife.


Some of us are obsessed with decency. To them I implore, “Please get rid of your decency. Only when you get rid of your decency, will you enter into the domain of dignity. That is the domain of aatman.” Mind knows decency. Decency is social. Dignity is innate. All decency comes from the society.

A child is not born decent. Have you ever seen a decent child? A child is super indecent. Then you teach him decency. But dignity is a thing of the core. Learn dignity, discover your dignity. And you cannot be both: decent and dignified.

We are so obsessed with decency that we omit the indecent portions of the lives of our great masters. We don’t want to remember that Jesus used to walk with Mary. Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute. We edit these things out, because we are social beings. We don’t see the dignified lady that she was. We are crushed under the weight of the society, under our own decency.

We don’t want to talk about Krishna’s love affairs, and the physical aspect thereof. We pretend as if those were purely spiritual happenings, occurring in some ethereal space. As if those things never really happened in flesh and blood.

We were talking of Lalla. Even when we portray Lalla, we portray her with her hair so long that they cover her entire body. And there is a myth that Lalla never actually lived naked. The myth says that her hair were so long that they covered her entire body. (Sarcastically) So you wear garments made of sheep hair, Lalla wore garments made of her own hair. There is no great difference. She was within the purview of the society. So, decent enough. Have you ever seen the photographs of Jain munis on hoardings outside a Jain temple? They do not show the complete body of the muni (saint), decency has to be maintained. “How can munivar’s all-important organs be put up for public display? So that has to be left out. You know some dark paint has to be applied, or something else has to be done so.”

And we forget the dignity of Mahavir when he walks upright, truly naked. We forget that in our concern for decency we totally forget the dignity of Mahavir.

Decency is taught, dignity arises from within, and that is the difference. Nobody can teach you dignity. No school, no education can give you dignity. It arises from the heart. There is an ancient tale that when the Goddess of beauty dances, then the ornaments of all the women looking at her, disappear, and they go to the Goddess of beauty. The tale is significant, it has to be understood.

It means that when the Goddess of beauty, also the Goddess of dignity, arrives, then all your ornaments mean nothing, they disappear. Then all your respectability, and all your mannerisms, and all your make-up and all your clothes disappear. You are nothing in front of the Goddess of dignity, and she has nothing. She has nothing.

You have clothes from society , you have ornaments from society, you have etiquette from the society. And she has nothing. But when she arrives, then all your ornaments disappear. They don’t mean anything. In her nakedness, in her austerity, in her ascetic like appearance, she is still a thousand times more beautiful than you. In fact, it is only because of her austerity and her staunch nakedness, that she is beautiful.

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