The Pandavas were travelling to holy places in the forest accompanied by Sage Lomasa. They came to a hermitage where Uddaalaka lived, a great sage and teacher of Vedanta. Lomasa told Yudhishthira and the Pandavas the story of that place.
Sage Uddaalaka, who is mentioned many times in the Upanishads, had a disciple named Kahola. Kahola was virtuous but not so knowledgeable. Uddaalaka appreciated his disciple’s virtues, devotion and manners, and gave his daughter Sujata in marriage to him.
The couple was blessed with a child who inherited the characteristics of his grandfather. It is said that he had learned the Vedas while he was in his mother’s womb. Every time his father made mistakes while reciting the Vedas, the child in the womb twisted his body in pain. As a result, the child was born with eight crooked twists in his body. Due to that, the child was known as Ashtavakra, meaning eight deformities.
Kahola met his end by drowning in the sea, by getting defeated in a debate on the scriptures with Vandi, a court scholar of Mithila. So Ashtavakra pretty much grew up under the guidance of his mother. Yet he became a scholar in Vedas and Vedanta when he was just twelve.
One day Ashtavakra came to know about a King Janaka of Mithila, who was holding great yaj~na and debates on the scriptures by scholars. Accompanied by his uncle Svetaketu, Ashtavakra set out to Mithila to attend the yaj~na and debates.
On their way, they came across the king himself with his entourage. The guards were shouting ahead asking people to move away to make way for the king. Hearing and seeing this, Ashtavakra intervened. Stepping forward, he spoke to the guards in a manner that caught the King’s attention. He said that a righteous man, even if he is a king, must make way for the blind, deformed, women, people carrying loads, great beings, and those learned in the Vedas, reminding them that this is instructed in the scriptures.
Astonished by the words of this young wise child, the king accepted the truth in his words and made way for them. When Ashtavakra and Svetaketu were trying to enter the yaj~na hall, they were stopped again by the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers said only wise men learned in the Vedas are allowed into the hall. Ashtavakra politely pointed out that they should not judge anyone by age or appearance. And assured that they both have observed the necessary vows and have learnt the Vedas sufficiently.
The gatekeepers refused to believe how a mere boy could have learned the Vedas and was come to debate with renowned Vedic scholars. They decided that Ashtavakra was simply bragging about himself to enter the court. Ashtavakra insisted that looks is no indication of knowledge or worth, nor is age. And he reminded the guards that those who have understood the truths of the Vedanta will not judge another on mere considerations such as age or appearance. He also emphasized that grey hair does not prove the maturity of the soul. The mature man is the one who has learnt the Vedas and mastered their substance and realized their essence.
As this commotion was going on at the gate, the king himself happened to come there. He easily recognized Ashtavakra, the wise boy whom he had met before. King Janaka asked, “Do you know that my court scholar Vandi has defeated many great scholars in the past and caused them to be cast into the ocean? Would that not discourage you?”
Ashtavakra confidently said, “Your renowned scholar Vandi has not yet met someone like me who is an expert in the Vedas and Vedanta. Vandi has become arrogant with easy victories over decent men who were not real scholars. I have come here to repay the debt on the account of my father, who was defeated by Vandi and made to drown.”
Saying this, he requested the king to summon Vandi. The king invited Ashtavakra into the debate hall and summoned Vandi for a debate. Ashtavakra and Vandi debated for a while, each devoting their utmost learning and wits to amaze the other.
At the end, the court unanimously declared the victory of Ashtavakra. Vandi accepted his defeat by drowning himself in the ocean. It is said that the soul of Kahola gained peace and joy in the glory of his son.
Completing this story Sage Lomasa gave the teaching on the subject, quoting Kahola, “A son not necessarily should be like his father. A father who is weak may have a strong son and an ignorant father may have a scholarly son. It is wrong to access the greatness of a person by the person’s physical appearance or age. External appearances are deceptive.”
During their time in the forest, Yudhishthira, along with his brothers, heard other stories from various other sages.
Sage Markandeya, to emphasize the importance of controlling oneself and duty, told the story of Kaushika, an ascetic who observed the vow of celibacy. However, Kaushika had anger management issues.
One day, while sitting under a tree and reciting the Vedas, a crane’s dropping fell on Kaushika. His reciting of the Vedas was disturbed by this, so he looked up angrily at the bird and the poor bird died. Kaushika felt so bad and regretted that a sinful thought passing through in his mind in that moment of anger had killed an innocent bird. Yet his anger remained as an issue.
Another day he went to beg for alms from a household. The lady of the house was serving her husband at that time, therefore was delayed in attending to him. Kaushika got angry and looked at her with fiery eyes. The lady calmly apologized for being late, and politely asked him to control his anger. She said, “I am not a crane, to be affected by your anger, as I was merely doing my duty towards my husband. That’s my dharma.”
Kaushika was taken by this, as he wondered how she knew about the crane. She told Kaushika that anger is the worst enemy that lives in all, and that he was not aware of that. She then asked him to forgive her for the delay. She also requested him to visit Dharmavyadha of Mithila to learn to live one’s life dutifully.
Astonished by her words Kaushika blessed her and went in search for Dharmavyadha, thinking that he is a great being living in a hermitage far from the city. After searching for him in ashramas and holy places, Kaushika was dumfounded to find him in a butcher’s stall. Kaushika was disgusted by the fact that Dharmavyadha was a butcher, so Kaushika was reluctant to even go close to him.
But Dharmavyadha came running to him and paid his respect and took Kaushika to his home. There Kaushika witnessed Dharmavyadha, after all his hard work at the shop, serving his parents and family dutifully with all his heart. Seeing this Kaushika, learned about duty and dharma, and returned home to take care of his neglected parents, a dharma which he had forgotten to fulfill.
The teaching from this story is that the occupation may be one a person is born to perform in society, or forced on to him by circumstances or taken up by choice, but what really matters is the attitude of sincerity and faithfulness with which the person does the life’s work with compassion.
Later one day, Yudhishthira asked Sage Markandeya, whether there had ever been a woman who was devoted to her husband as much as Draupadi. The sage recited the following story.
King of Madra, Ashwapati prayed to the Sun God, wishing to have a son. He was blessed with a daughter whom he named Savitri, honoring the deity. Savitri’s beauty was unmatched. That intimidated all the men, so no one dared to ask for her hand. Thus her father, the king, asked her to find a suitable groom on her own.
The princess was sent out on a journey with the chosen best warriors to protect her. She went around the land to find a suitable husband. In the forest, she found a handsome young prince, Satyavan, the son of a blind king, Dyumatsena.
Dyumatsena had been exiled by his enemy and was living as a forest dweller. Satyavan was taking care of his blind father and mother. To take care of them he chopped and sold wood. With the humble income they got, they lived a happy life. Savitri was strongly drawn towards them and fell in love with the young prince.
As her search ended with finding Satyavan, she returned to her father. Sage Narada was visiting the king and alarmed the king that Savitri had made a mistake by choosing Satyavan, for Satyavan destined to die in a year. That didn’t change Savitri’s decision as she was determined to marry Satyavan.