The Meaning of the word Anādi

Question: I have a query regarding the use of the word anādi and the conditioning of the jīva as described in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Someone recently raised the following argument to me: “All Sanskrit words in śāstra that indicate an unlimited time span—anādi, śāśvata, nitya, etc.—are used nonliterally when referring to events in the material world, and literally when referring to eternal objects such as God, the soul, or the spiritual world.” Dr. Gopal Gupta makes similar arguments in his book, Māyā in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa: Human Suffering and Divine Play. [Editor’s note: There is no such quote in Dr. Gupta’s book. It may be that the questioner was merely paraphrasing the argument.]

For example, the word śāśvata, which means ‘eternal, constant, perpetual.’ 

1.     When applied to spiritual objects, śāśvata means ‘eternal’ in the literal sense. Examples: 

Gītā 2.20: ajo nityaḥ śāśvato ‘yam—“This soul is unborn, perpetual, eternal.” 

Gītā 10.12: puruṣaṃ śāśvataṃ divyam—“The eternal, divine person.” 

Gītā 18.56: śāśvatam padam avyayam—“The eternal, unperishing abode.” 

2. The same word, śāśvata, when applied to material objects, does not literally mean ‘eternal.’ An example is found in Gītā 1.42: kula-dharmāś ca śāśvatāḥ—“And eternal family duties.” Clearly, upon liberation, the soul gives up worldly family duties. 

3. This is an even more striking example. In Gītā 6.41: prāpya puṇya-kṛtāṃ lokān uṣitvā śāśvatīḥ samāḥ śucīnāṃ śrīmatāṃ gehe yoga-bhraṣṭo ’bhijāyate—Lord Kṛṣṇa here says that “On reaching the worlds of the pious-doers, and having dwelled there for ‘eternal’ years, one fallen from yoga takes birth in the home of decent and prosperous people.” Remarkably, Lord Kṛṣṇa explicitly describes here a beginning—prāpya—and an end—abhijāyate—of one’s residence in higher worlds, yet He states that one dwells there for śāśvatīḥ samāḥ, eternal or endless years. Note that śāśvatī is simply the feminine form of śāśvata, since it here modifies the feminine samāḥ, ‘years.’ We find many similar examples for the word anādi. 

Answer: To give a specific reply to the meaning of the word anādi, I would like to first explain the various meanings of words in general. The relation between a word and its meaning is very deeply discussed subject in Vyākaraṇam, Sāhitya, Nyāya, and Pūrva-mīmāmsa. In brief, there are three types of meanings, called vācya or mukhya (primary), lakṣya (indicatory), and vyaṅgya (suggested).

Naiyāyikas do not accept the third type of meaning. Generally, we accept the primary meaning of a word, and that has further three divisions: yaugika (derivational), ruḍhi (popular), and yoga-rūḍhi (derivational but popular in a specific sense). 

However, it is not always possible to use the primary sense of a word because either the primary meaning does not make sense semantically, or it does not convey the true intent of the speaker. The first is called anvaya-anupaptti and the second is called tātparya-anupapatti. The common example of the first one is gaṅgāyām ghoṣa, which literally means “a hamlet in the river Gaṅgā.” This obviously does not make sense. How can a hamlet be in the river? Therefore, the primary meaning of the word Gaṅgā is dropped, and a secondary meaning is given, i.e., the bank of Gaṅgā. Thus, gaṅgāyām ghoṣa means “a hamlet on the bank of river Gaṅgā.” There is a reason why the speaker makes such a statement. He wants to convey that the village atmosphere is clean, that the people are pious, and so on. Such a meaning is called vyaṅgya or suggested. This meaning is not derived from the words directly. 

The example of tātparya-anupapatti is given in the sentence kākebhyo dadhi rakṣyatām, “Protect the yogurt from crows.” This is an instruction given by a mother to her young son. Now the question arises, “If a cat, dog, or a parrot comes and wants to eat the curd, should the boy protect it or not?” The answer is that he should certainly protect it. But was he instructed to do that? Yes and no. He was not told so in the literal sense of the word, but such indeed was the intention, tātparya, of the mother. So, in this sentence kākebhyo dadhi rakṣyatām, there is no anvaya-anupapatti, i.e., semantically, the sentence makes sense. If, however, only the primary meaning is taken, then there is tātparya-anupapatti, i.e., the sentence does not convey the true intent of the speaker. Therefore, in such instances the primary meaning is given up and a secondary meaning is taken.

While defining the need for the secondary meaning, Ācārya Mammaṭa, author of the famous work Kāvyaprakāśa, writes:

mukhyārtha-bādhe tadyoge ruḍhito’tha prayojanāt

anyo’rtho lakṣyate yat sā lakṣanāropitā kriyā (2.9)

When the primary meaning is obstructed [either by anvaya-anupapatti or by tātparya-anupapatti], then a secondary meaning that is related to the primary meaning is indicated because of its popularity or because of the intention [of the speaker]. Such an action is called lakṣaṇā. 

A similar statement is found in Sahitya-darpaṇa (1.5).

This is a vast topic but in brief this explains the need for secondary meaning. I have not come across the rule cited by you, “All Sanskrit words in śāstra that indicate an unlimited time span—anādi, śāśvata, nitya, etc.—are used nonliterally when referring to events in the material world, and literally when referring to eternal objects such as God, the soul, or the spiritual world.” I am curious to know the source of this rule. Perhaps such an understanding may be derived from the above explanation of the different meaning of words.

As far as the word anādi is concerned, it means that which has no beginning, na ādir yasya iti. This is its primary meaning. It will take a secondary meaning only if the primary meaning is unsuitable. When it is used to define the conditioning of a jīva in the material world, I see no reason why its primary meaning should be dropped. There is neither anvaya-anupapatti nor tātparya-anupapatti to obstruct its primary meaning.

In Bhagavad Gītā 13.19, Kṛṣṇa says: 

prakṛtiṁ puruṣaṁ caiva   viddhy anādī ubhāv api

vikārāṁś ca guṇāṁś caiva   viddhi prakṛti-sambhavān

Know that both material nature and living beings are anādi, beginningless. And know that all modifications as well as the objects consisting of the material guṇas are born of material nature.

Using the principle mentioned in Dr. Gopal Gupta’s book, as quoted by you, shall we give two different meanings to the word anādi in relation to prakṛti and puruṣa? I have not seen any traditional commentator of the Gītā doing so. There is no reason to give a secondary meaning to the word anādi in relation to prakṛti. Moreover, it would not make any sense. Śri Viṣvanatha Cakravarti as well as Śrī Baladeva Vidyābhuṣaṇa while commenting on this verse write that the union of prakrti and puruṣa is also anādi. Their comment makes it clear that anādi must be taken in its primary sense.