Once, long, long ago in the city of Benares, in India, there was a king called Janaka, who, one hot day, had a very disturbing experience. Lying on his bed to take some rest in the afternoon, surrounded by silken curtains and flower petals, while his servants gently fanned him, he fell into a sleep in which he had a dream.
In this dream, Janaka saw his kingdom invaded by an enemy, his palace overrun, himself captured, bound, and sent to be cruelly tortured.
Just as the dream-torture was about to begin, he woke. Looking about him, he saw that all was as it had been before : his servants were there, the room was the same, and he was still the king of his kingdom.
Reassured, Janaka relaxed, and soon was asleep again – but exactly the same frightening dream appeared to him, that he was overthrown, captured and sent to face torture.
When Janaka awoke this time, he commanded that philosophers, sages and counsellors of every kind be assembled, for he wished to consult them.
Once every person known for their wisdom and knowledge had gathered at the palace, Janaka told them of his experience, and said, “Now, you, who are said to be wise, tell me : is that dream reality? Or is this, which I see before me now, reality?”
For a long time the various counsellors debated among themselves. Some were of the opinion that the dream represented reality, while others denied this and said that our waking condition is real. But however long they argued they could not come to an agreement, and Janaka was left without an answer.
But Janaka could not forget this mystery, and for years his search continued, until one day a poor man dressed in rags came to the palace and asked to speak to the king. This man was called Ashtravakra, which means ‘crooked and deformed’ – for that is how he had been born. Seeing his condition, the king was sceptical. “What could a poor and threadbare man such as you know about wisdom?” he asked.
“Born so twisted,” replied Ashtravakra, “all doors in life have been closed to me – all but the door to inner understanding.”
Then the king agreed to speak with him, and telling him about his experience, asked the same question : which is reality? This? Or the dream?
“O king,” said Ashtravakra, “Neither this world of the senses nor the world of your dreams is real. When you dream, this world of the senses disappears. When you wake, the world of dreams also vanishes. Therefore neither one can be reality.”
“But,” said the king, “if neither the waking nor the dream state is real – what is reality?”
“There is a state beyond them both,” said Ashtravakra. “That is reality. Know that state, O king, and you will no longer need to consult philosophers.”