Anadi for Beginners: We All Have to Start Somewhere… Or Do We?

By Swami B. V. Tripurari, originally published on June 24, 2012. For further discussion on this topic, see his follow-up article, Anadi Again.

What comes first, the seed or the tree? Vedanta, with its cyclical sense of beginningless world cycles, answers this Zen koanlike question, “Neither.” The Hindu cosmos involves beginningless cycles of expanding and contracting universes—of trees within seeds within trees within seeds. The Sanskrit word for beginningless (itself a word not found in the English dictionary) is anadi. It is used throughout the sacred texts of the Hindus in reference to the world and its source, Mahavisnu.

We find the word anadi in the Vedanta-sutra, a cryptic text that seeks to explain the significance of the Upanisads. In the text’s second section, chapter 1, aphorism 34, the subject of theodicy is raised—the question of God’s responsibility for the evil in the world. The sutra thus asks how God can be impartial when we find good and evil in the world he created. Some suffer while others enjoy.

Vedanta-sutra 2.1.34 reads,

vaisamya-nairghrnye na sapeknatvat tatah hi darsayati

The literal translation of this text is, “Not inequality and cruelty, because of having consideration. Thus indeed it demonstrates.”

Ramanujacarya, Sankaracarya, and Gaudiya Vedanta acarya Sri Baladeva Vidyabhusana all explain in their respective commentaries that this sutra is saying one cannot argue that God is partial and thereby responsible for suffering. The reason this is so, they continue, is that the Upanisads clearly teach that God only rewards and punishes the living beings with due consideration of their good and evil deeds. Such deeds and their due rewards are what is commonly known as karma. Karma and the world of repeated birth and death are inextricably entwined. Hence this sutra says, “No, God is not guilty of inequality and cruelty, because we must take karma into consideration. This is clearly stated in the Upanisads.”

In his commentary, Baladeva Vidyabhusana cites the Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad for support. There it is explained that in consideration of materially pious (sadhu-karma) and impious (asadhu-karma) acts God arranges for the elevation and degredation of living beings:

esa eva sadhu-karma karayati tam yamebhyo lokebhya unnininate
esa evasadhu karma karayati tam yam adho niniyate
-iti brhad-aranyaka-srutih

In this statement from Brhad-aranyaka found in his Bhagavatam commentary, Srila Prabhupada appropriately renders the words sadhu-karma and asadhu-karma as pious and impious karmic activities, not as bhakti and nondevotional activities, as some have misconstrued the words to mean in this context.

The next aphorism of Vedanta-sutra takes an opposing position for the sake of argument and then refutes it. Sutra 2.1.35 states,

na karmavibhagad iti cen nanaditvat

If it be objected that it is not so on account of the non-distinction, we refute the objection on the ground of being without a beginning.

Again, Ramanuja, Sankara, and Baladev Vidyabhusana have explained this sutra uniformly with regard to the term anadi. They show that this sutra raises the objection that before the first world cycle there was no karma, no distinction between souls on the basis of their merit and demerit—karma. To this objection, the sutra replies that this is incorrect because there is no beginning to the world cycles, to the cycles of birth and death each soul experiences under karmic law. The world cycles, its souls, and the karma that binds them together are all anadi, beginningless, as is Vishnu himself. Indeed, the world cycles are compared to his breathing, and God has no first breath. There is no first world cycle, and before each individual world cycle manifests, the infinite number of individual souls under the influence of karma remain within Mahavishnu in susupti, or deep sleep and content-less experience. At this time, their karma from the previous world cycle, which materially distinguishes them from one another, is still present, but in a dormant condition. Thus there is no time when karma did not exist, whether inside or outside of time—during the manifest creation or during its unmanifest condition. With all this in mind, this sutra is to be understood as follows:

If it be objected that it is not correct to say that karma is responsible for the evil in the world, since before the world cycles began there was non-distinction between souls on the basis of their karma, we refute the objection on the grounds that the world cycles and their karmic influence on the souls has no beginning.

On this aphorism (2.1.35), the Vedanta-sutra ends its discussion on theodicy with the conclusion that God is not partial or guilty of unfairly rewarding some and punishing others in the material world. No, reward and punishment are a result of the living entities’ own actions, their karma, which is anadi. Here it matters not how well such an argument satisfies one’s material intellect or how well one feels the issue of theodicy has been dealt with by Vedanta and Hinduism overall. This is Hinduism’s position on the  topic, a subject matter (beginninglessness) that one can only understand by virtue of sastrasastra yonitvat.1 Sastra reaches where reason on its own cannot rise.

Following this topic, the sutras begin the discussion of a new but somewhat related topic concerning Bhagavan’s spiritual partiality toward his devotees—how he is overwhelmed by the influence of bhakti constituted of his own svarupa-sakti. While material partiality would have been a great fault for God, his spiritual partiality towards his devotees is his greatest ornament. This is the emphasis of Baladeva Vidyabhusana in his Govinda-bhasya commentary on Vedanta-sutra.2

Lest anyone be unclear as to what Sri Baladeva understands the sutras to be referring to when they speak of anadi, we can turn to his commentary on the Gita. In Bhagavad-gita 5.15, Krishna says that he does not take responsibility for the karma of the jivas and attributes it to the influence of ignorance. In his commentary to this verse, Baladeva Vidyabhusana cites the relevant sutras of Vyasa quoted above. There he clearly explains that anadi in the sutras refers to karma, and that by the word karma he is referring to material pious and impious activities. Thus, again, sutras 2.1.34 and 35 speak of anadi karma, whereas 2.1.36 speaks of bhakti.

We find the same teachings differentiating karma from bhakti throughout Srimad-Bhagavatam, which declares itself to be the essence of the Upanisadssruti saram ekam. Sri Caitanya considered the Bhagavata to be the “natural commentary on the sutras,” as stated in the Garuda Purana, artho ‘yam brahma-sutranam. Thus the doctrine of anadi karma found in the Upanisads that is discussed in Vedanta-sutra is also posited in Srimad-Bhagavatam. The following list is a sampling of relevant verses from the text mentioning the beginningless nature of the jiva’s karmic entanglement with material nature: 5.14.1, 5.25.8, 5.26.3. 6.5.11, 11.11.4, 12.10.41.

While some have argued for a less-than-literal interpretation of the word anadi with regard to karma, any such rendering of the term leaves God open to the charge of being responsible for the suffering in the world. It undercuts the clear response to this charge that is given by the sutras, which in responding as they do, underscore a core teaching that is woven into the entire fabric of Vedanta—from monistic to theistic and throughout both the sruti and the smrti.

However, some contemporary Gaudiya Vaishnava acaryas have chosen to speak creatively about anadi karma with a view to emphasize the free will of the jiva;3 for example, speaking repeatedly of anadi karma as a time too distant to trace out but nonetheless not literally beginningless, or as being triggered by a choice “outside of time.” Such preaching strategies appear to have been developed in consideration of the Western audience and modernity with its Christian influence and conception of fall from grace as well as a penchant for concrete and linear explanations. Gaudiya Vedanta met these influences head on in the time of Thakura Bhaktivinoda. However fruitful such strategies were in their time, under scrutiny they fail both scripturally and logically. They inevitably allow for a starting point in one’s karmic sojourn and thereby a starting point in the world cycles, for there is no meaning to a material world cycle in which karma is not operative.

The idea that anadi karma begins outside of time is a logical contradiction. Something that exists outside of time has always existed. And there is no opportunity to make a choice in susupti where anadi karma is already present although dormant, as are the jivas themselves. As they arise from their slumber, so too does their karma from the previous world cycle. It arrests them and the world starts over again. And sastra posits no condition of the baddha-jiva prior to susupti other than another previous world cycle.

For that matter, even if anadi karma was to be taken figuratively and there was an actual beginning to karma that involved an initial choice on the part of the jiva, without full knowledge of the choices at hand there would not be much meaning to the jiva’s so-called free will. And if partial knowledge of Krishna and maya were available to the jiva to choose from in a condition of limbo, how could the jiva possibly choose maya over Krishna if indeed he is “all attractive.” Furthermore, how could the jiva choose and thereby ascend to Vaikuntha without bhakti?

Nonetheless, in preaching, taking liberties that contradict siddhanta has had its place at times in Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Among the foundational acaryas of the Gaudiya sampradaya, Sri Jiva Goswami adopted such a course with his emphasis on an eternal marriage of Radha and Krsna (svakiya) in the unmanifest lila, seemingly relegating their unwedded and apparent adulterous (parakiya) romantic life to the manifest lila alone. However, the entire Gaudiya sampradaya has unanimously concluded that although Jiva Goswami was a parakiyavadi and acknowledged the eternality of parakiya-bhava in the unmanifest lila, he did so somewhat covertly while overtly stressing svakiya-bhava in consideration of his audience.

In explaining the truth of parakiya in Krishna’s unmanifest lila, Visvantha Cakravarti Thakura cites Sri Jiva’s own cryptic verse in his commentary on Ujjvala-nilamani, in which he says that he has written about two opinions, his own and that of others:

Some portions I have written as my own opinions, and some portions I have written are the opinions of others. What is consistent is my view and what is not consistent is the view of others.

Sri Visvanatha has not shed light on the circumstances that compelled Sri Jiva Goswami to write two contradictory opinions, giving voice to opinions of others as well as those of himself as if both were his own. He has merely explained why there must be parakiya in the unmanifest lila. Cakravarti Thakura identifies Sri Jiva’s opinion as that which concurs with Rupa Goswami as to the eternality of parakiya-bhava in Krishna’s unmanifest lila.

But perhaps even more compelling is the precedent that the Bhagavatam itself establishes for embracing preaching strategies that do not posit actual metaphysical truths. The puranas embrace exaggeration for effect. This is one of the reasons we are told not to think that the glories of nama-dharma are an exaggeration. Unlike the puranas that sometimes seek to motivate through fear or material prospect and thus exaggerate the results of impiety and piety to bring humanity in the religious direction, the efficacy of nama-dharma is not an exaggeration. Bhaktivinoda Thakura points out an example of puranic exaggeration when he writes in his famous Bhagavat speech that while punishment and reward are certainly consequences of karmic engagement, the various descriptions of hells in the Bhagavatam are not to be taken as literal metaphysical truths, but rather constitute a preaching strategy.

From the Vaishnava perspective, we also find that the Buddha avatara employed a comprehensive preaching strategy. When asked about the existence of God he was silent and told his followers to focus on the immediate: the world is about suffering. This, the Vaishnavas say, does not mean that he did not accept the existence of God, but rather that he chose not to distract his followers from what he saw as the immediate necessity of ending suffering through extinguishing desire. Similarly several modern day Buddhist scholars/practitioners have reasoned well with support from the Pali cannon that the Buddha himself acknowledged the metaphysical existence of consciousness distinct from matter, but that he chose not to speak about it directly as part of a preaching strategy.4 Instead, they argue, he emphasized his doctrine of “no self” only with reference to the false self or conventional ego. He chose to emphasize a focus on dismantling the conventional ego—employing a doctrine of no self—at the cost for the moment of speaking about the transcendent self.

Returning to the topic of anadi karma, under scrutiny we find that some contemporary acaryas in the parivara of Thakura Bhaktivinoda have written about the implications of anadi karma in ways that contradict each other. Some have written that jivas fall from grace or a condition beyond karmic influence into a karma bound life by exercise of their free will, while some have also written that jivas do not fall into a karma bound life and by implication are literally materially conditioned from a time without beginning. As it is clear from the discussion of the relevant sutras above, the former position is not Gaudiya siddhanta. The latter position is. However, about the former position Thakura Bhaktivinoda has written thus in his Jaiva Dharma:

All Vaisnavas say that the jiva is an eternal servant of Krsna, that his eternal nature is to serve Krsna, and that he is now bound by maya, because he has forgotten that eternal nature. However, everyone knows that the jiva is an eternal entity, of which there are two types: eternally liberated and eternally conditioned. Thus the subject has been explained in this way (jivas forgetting Krsna, etc.) only because the conditioned human intellect being controlled by inattentiveness is unable to comprehend a subject matter.

Thus it is clear that to speak about the jiva’s “choice” and “fall” or to explain anadi figuratively rather than literally, when in fact the karmic conditioning of the materially illusioned souls has no beginning, is not in accordance with Gaudiya siddhanta, nor the siddhanta of any other school of Vedanta. As others have before me, and in greater detail, I have taken the position that although a “fall/choice” notion is not siddhanta, it may nonetheless have its place for preaching at times as a strategy to help illusioned jivas think about beginningless-ness, which again is a word not even found in the English dictionary. For that matter, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura does state once in his Bhagavatam tika that one cannot know “when and how” anadi karma began, and in this way he also appears to speak of anadi figuratively for a moment. Thus, doing so, as some acaryas of the Bhaktivinoda parivara have, is not entirely without precedent, despite its being contrary to siddhanta. The difference here of course is the development of a repeated strategy to explain anadi karma figuratively that we find in the Bhaktivinoda parivara, as opposed to occasionally discussing anadi karma with figurative language as acaryas of the more distant past have on occasion.

However, some have objected to this proposal that the fall notion is a preaching strategy. With tortured interpretations of sastra and faulty logic, they have tried to portray it as siddhanta. Furthermore, in their efforts to establish a fall doctrine as siddhanta, they have failed to make any effort to explain why the same esteemed acaryas in the Bhaktivinoda parivara that have posited a fall doctrine have also clearly written in other places that there is no such fall. This is poor scholarship at best.

To cite my own gurudeva, Srila A. C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, “It is a fact, no one falls from Vaikuntha.” Notably he writes this in his commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.1.35, the only place in the Bhagavata that this question is directly addressed. In verse 7.1.34, Yudhistira, speaking to Narada, states that, with regard to the apparent fall of the Vaikuntha gatekeepers Jaya and Vijaya, he cannot believe that anyone could fall from Vaikuntha, even on the strength of a sadhu’s (the Kumaras) curse, what to speak of by any other lesser influence. Why? He answers his own question in the following verse (7.1.35): Because the inhabitants of Vaikuntha have spiritual bodies. They have bodies constituted of Krishna’s svarupa-sakti. And this svarupa-sakti has not only the power to completely dispel the influence of the maya-sakti, which cannot stand in its presence anymore than darkness can stand in light, but moreover, it has the power to overwhelm Krishna!

The jiva, or tatastha-sakti, does not have the power to dispel the darkness of the maya-sakti, despite its being a unit of light or consciousness itself. However, when it comes under the influence of bhakti, the essence of the svarupa-sakti, not only can it dispel the influence of maya-sakti, it can also overwhelm Bhagavan with love and therefore obviously can never be overcome by the maya-sakti. This is so for sadhana siddhas, who have attained Vaikuntha and beyond owing to the ingress of Krishna’s svarupa-sakti into their lives—suddha sattva visesatma—and that much more so for nitya siddhas, who are constituted of svarupa-sakti.5

Thus the two positions—fall and no fall—cannot stand together as siddhanta. The two nonetheless need to be harmonized. Again, preaching and siddhanta are not always one. I once raised this point to a scholarly disciple of Bhaktisiddnatha Saraswati Thakura, Adi Kesava dasa—Dr. O. B. L. Kapoor. He replied that this was a policy of his gurudeva but that he was not entirely comfortable with it. At that time my Godbrother, Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha Maharaja, stated that were it not for such a policy he would not be a Gaudiya Vaishnava. With a chuckle, Dr. Kapoor replied, “Neither would I.” Consideration of time, place, and circumstances are the hallmark of effective parampara preaching. And, in the words of Thakura Bhaktivinoda, one should “live with times that are with thee, and progress thee shall call.”

  1. Vedanta-sutra 1.1.3. This sutra explains that comprehensive knowledge can only be arrived at through revelation, of which scripture is the principle manifestation. []
  2. The adikaranas or topics of the sutras are divided differently by different acaryas. While Baladeva understands sutra 2.1.36 to be referring to a new topic, Sankara and Ramauja do not. These latter two connect 2.1.34 and 35 with 2.1.36, understanding it to further confirm the conclusion of the former two verses with regard to karma and its beginningless-ness. Thus any explanation of these three sutras that connects all three together under one topic does not follow the lead of Sri Baladeva, and any explanation of them that connects all three together but does not support the doctrine of anadi karma does not follow Ramanuja or Sankara. []
  3. Note that the doctrine of anadi karma does not do away with free will. The jivas that experience beginningless material conditioning always have the opportunity to make choices including the choice to embrace God’s grace in the form of bhakti. Baladeva Vidyabhusana states in his Govinda-bhasya that were this not so, the scriptures prohibitions and proscriptions would be meaningless. Overall Baladeva’s Govinda-bhasya takes a compatibilist position on free will vs determinism. Jivas can choose but their ability to realize their choice is dependent upon the determination of God. []
  4. See https://harmonist.us/2012/05/buddhism-and-the-self/ []
  5. See Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu 1.3.1 for a definition of bhava-bhakti and how it constitutes an infusion of the svarupasakti into the jiva-sakti. This is a subjective union of the two consciousness-saktis similar to the chemistry of falling in love. It is unlike the encasement of the jiva in the maya-sakti in which the two never really touch, one being cit and the other acit. []


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