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Astavakra at the Assembly of Scholars
Once upon a time, King Janaka called an assembly of great scholars. Noted academicians participated. Famous pundits and logicians came from all over the realm. Scholars of renown, who were extremely articulate in their arguments, streamed in. A number of highly gifted persons who were capable of impressing the whole world with their intellectual and verbal prowess came to the great hall of the palace where the assembly was being held. This assembly was composed of such giants that there was no room at all for ordinary people to enter.
The daily meetings were presided over by King Janaka himself. Of the highly select group in attendance, only the most outstanding and accomplished were given an opportunity to speak and present their views. Into this magnificent and august assembly, young Astavakra, a young boy with a hideously deformed body, sought to gain admission. But who would permit Astavakra to enter? He did not have any credentials or any recommendation whatsoever. He did not have the help of any great teacher or sponsor. The only help he had was his deep faith in God.
Whoever has an abiding faith in God will not be put to any insurmountable difficulties. Temporarily there may be some obstacles, but in the end he is sure to meet with success. For three days Astavakra waited at the gate of King Janaka's palace through which all the participants to the great assembly entered. There, while waiting, Astavakra observed all the world-famous scholars who were coming to attend the meeting. Although only recognized scholars were being allowed inside, Astavakra was not prepared to give up his resolution to join the assembly and participate in its deliberations. 'I, too, have a chance,' he said to himself and continued to wait patiently at the gate, day after day.
There was one observant and sympathetic old scholar who noticed Astavakra standing by that gate whenever he entered and exited through it, morning and evening. The kindly old scholar informed King Janaka of the boy's presence. He told King Janaka that there was someone standing outside waiting for days to enter the assembly, although he did not have any of the usual qualifications necessary for being permitted inside. He told the king that this was not an elderly scholar, nor even a middle-aged one, but a very young person who did not seem to have much experience and who did not wear any of the accepted marks of achievement in scholarship, nor was he personally recommended by any of the pundits present. In short, nothing was known of this person or his qualifications except that he had been continuously waiting to come inside.
King Janaka directed his attendants to find the boy who was waiting at the gate outside and to bring him into the assembly hall. Shortly after King Janaka had taken his seat and the meeting began in the solemn and sacred atmosphere befitting such an august assembly, Astavakra entered the hall. The moment they saw this young boy with such a crooked form come to take part in the assembly, most of the great scholars who had gathered there began to laugh. King Janaka, who was keenly observing Astavakra as he entered, did not laugh.
Astavakra carefully looked around the hall, and then quite inexplicably started laughing even louder than the scholars who were seated there. This loud burst of laughter from Astavakra was quite inadmissible and greatly surprised the scholars. It became a real problem for them. 'Why should this young scamp be laughing at us?' they thought. 'There certainly is reason enough for our laughter, considering how funny he looks, but there is nothing at all strange about us, so what conceivable reason does he have for all this laughter?' They were very disturbed and irritated by what they considered the boy's impertinence.
You find this to be a rather common experience in the world, that when ordinary people see someone who has a physical defect which gives him a crooked appearance or makes him appear strange or unusual, they are inclined to laugh. Such gross behavior can only be considered a sign of ignorance. It is totally different from the warm smile of an innocent child. A small child will smile at any person, regardless of their appearance. When the child smiles, every other person seeing this child will also smile along with it. Such a child's smile, which infects everyone who sees it, arises from the sacredness of innocence. But in that assembly hall, the laughter that Astavakra met with was very different from a child's innocent smile. That hall was packed full with very great and noted scholars, persons of exceptional accomplishments in learning; but there was no child-like innocence to be found there.
The assembled scholars were eagerly waiting to find out why this strange-looking young lad who had just come in was laughing so loudly. One of the scholars was bold enough to speak to Astavakra. He asked, "Young stranger, who are you? We do not know you. When we looked at you as you came in, your form made us laugh. In response to our laughter, you are laughing even more loudly. What is the reason for this? What is so ludicrous about all the renowned scholars seated here that you have not stopped laughing even for a moment?"