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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Vedic View of Infinity

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is believed by scholars to have been composed in the eighth or seventh centuries B.C., and is traditionally attributed to the Hindu Vedic philosopher Yajnavalkya, has a discussion of the concept of infinity. Here’s a hymn in which infinity is being discussed:

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते ।

पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥

(purnam adah, purnam idam purnat purnam udachyate; purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate.)

Translation: “Fullness is there, fullness is here, fullness from fullness proceeds; when fullness is taken from fullness, fullness remains.” In other words, when infinity is taken out of infinity, infinity is what remains. 

Those who composed this hymn were clearly comfortable with the concept of very large numbers which verge on infinity. There can be a religious interpretation of this hymn: god is infinite, a part of god has gone into the creation of the material world, but because of that god has not become less, he is still infinite. The Vedas and other ancient Hindu texts use several terms to depict the concept of infinity.

3 comments:

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

0. Not objecting to your write up, but rather to the overwhelming amount of literature that gives the same meaning as you quote.

1. Not even *one* of the meanings of पूर्ण ("pUrNa") is "infinite". SpokenSanskrit.org lists 20+ meanings, SanskritDictionary.com 15+. Not even by implication/stretching your imagination.

OTOH, this word पूर्ण ("pUrNa") does mean many things all of which *deny* infinitude, e.g.: *full*, fullness, *complete*, entirety, *concluded*, etc.

2. Not one Sanskrit word for "infinite" is पूर्ण ("pUrNa").

अनन्त ("anant") is the most obvious (lit. endless). So is अमित ("amita", lit: unmeasurable, uncountable). Other words are: नि:सीमन् ("ni-hi seemana", lit: unbounded, without boundaries), also noted as निस्सीमन् ("nisseeman").

3. In "पूर्णमद:" ("pUrNamadah"), people say it's पूर्णम् + अद: ("pUrNam-" + "ada-h"). This much looks reasonable to me. But then, they say अद: ("ada-h") means: "here". I am not at all sure about this part.

अद: ("ada-h") is not a word listed in any dictionary/source. There is not any easy to recall Sanskrit word which has अद: ("ada-h") even as just a part of a jointed word (I mean, as an ending part).

OTOH, the words for "here" are different; they go like: "इत:" ("ita-h") and similar, like "इदम्" ("idam-") etc.

The closest word for "here" is "अद्य" ("adya"), meaning "today", but note two things: (1) the word has *temporal* sense, not spatial, (2) the हलन्त "halant" (":") is missing, and य "ya" is added, which is a major change.

Probably, the word अद: ("ada-h") meant something definite in the time when the verse was composed, but we have lost the meaning.

And then, many of us have proceeded to substitute a different meaning for it, whatever that *seems* to make sense. Not right. (And yes, I would love to know from Sanskrit experts how this word translates to "here". I remain open.)

4. I do have some tentative guess-work about how to interpret this verse. I tried to reason through by looking at the entire spectrum of the meanings for the word पूर्ण ("pUrNa"), which is the key word here. You have to especially consider the fact that it is the "ण" ("Na") consonant which appears in it.

However, to avoid looking too stupid in case my guess-work turns out to be wrong, I will keep it with me (at least for the time being).

But one way or the other, one thing is for certain: This verse (actually a शान्तिमन्त्र ("shaanti-mantra")) doesn't talk about infinity. Neither infinity in the numerical sense nor in the more loose, metaphorical (or what people call "metaphysical") sense. It surely is something else that this मन्त्र ("mantra") talks about.

Best,
--Ajit

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

0. Not objecting to your write up, but rather to the overwhelming amount of literature that gives the same meaning as you quote.

1. Not even *one* of the meanings of पूर्ण ("pUrNa") is "infinite"; not even by implication/stretching your imagination. SpokenSanskrit.org lists 20+ meanings, SanskritDictionary.com 15+.

OTOH, this word पूर्ण ("pUrNa") does mean many things all of which *deny* infinitude, e.g.: *full*, fullness, *complete*, entirety, *concluded*, etc.

2. Further from English to Sanskrit side, not *one* Sanskrit word for "infinite" goes like पूर्ण ("pUrNa").

अनन्त ("anant") is the most obvious (lit. endless) translation of "infinite". So is अमित ("amita", lit: unmeasurable, uncountable). Other words are: नि:सीमन् ("ni-hi seemana", lit: unbounded, without boundaries), also noted as निस्सीमन् ("nisseeman").

3. In "पूर्णमद:" ("pUrNamadah"), people say it's पूर्णम् + अद: ("pUrNam-" + "ada-h"). This much looks reasonable to me, though I do wonder, is it really अद: ("ada-h") or अत: ("ata-h")?.

But then, they also say that अद: ("ada-h") means: "there". I am not at all sure about this part.

अद: ("ada-h") is not a word listed in any dictionary/source. There is not any easy-to-recall Sanskrit word which has अद: ("ada-h"), not as an ending part of a jointed word. (At least, I can't recall one easily.)

OTOH, the Sanskrit word for "there" is: तत्र ("tatra"), as in contrast to "अत्र" ("atra") which means "here".

Other words for "here" usually listed are: "इत:" ("ita-h", indicating the point of completion rather than the spatial "here"), and similarly, "इदम्" ("idam-", meaning: "this given thing, or this perception in the here and now") etc.

Actually, a close word for "here" is "अद्य" ("adya"), meaning "today", but note two things: (1) the word has *temporal* sense, not spatial, (2) the हलन्त "halant" (":") is missing, and य "ya" is added, which is a major change. So, it becomes even more difficult to see how अद: ("ada-h") could mean "there".

Probably, the word अद: ("ada-h") meant something definite in the time when the verse was composed, but we have lost that original meaning.

And then, many of us have proceeded to substitute a different meaning for it, whatever that *seems* to make sense. Not right. (And yes, I would love to know from Sanskrit experts how this word translates to "there". I remain open.)

4. I do have some tentative guess-work about how to interpret this verse. I tried to reason through by looking at the entire spectrum of meanings for the word पूर्ण ("pUrNa"), which is the key-word here. You have to especially consider the fact that it is the "ण" ("Na") consonant which appears in it.

However, to avoid looking too stupid in case my guess-work turns out to be wrong, I will keep it with me (at least for the time being).

But one way or the other, one thing is for certain: This verse (actually a शान्तिमन्त्र ("shaanti-mantra")) doesn't talk about infinity---neither infinity in the numerical sense nor in the more loose, metaphorical (or what people call "metaphysical") sense. It surely is something else that this मन्त्र ("mantra") talks about.

Best,
--Ajit

PS: I posted one reply a few minutes ago, which has many lines in the middle going wrong. That's because I was trying to reason through the meaning in a hurried (online) manner, and while doing so, I took one wrong turn, and despite a "feel" that something is going wrong, I continued with it. Happens. But to avoid confusion, that earlier reply might be deleted. The present reply is the correct version.

Anoop Verma said...

@Ajit, Good points.

To what you have said, I would like to add that the "mantras" of any culture and not just Hinduism are not language--they cannot be understood if you are looking at their linguistic meaning. The words in a mantra are mere sounds, the sound or the exact way of reciting is important. That is why the Vedics put so much importance on pronunciation -- they made their tradition oral because many of the mantras are "sound therapy", they are not meant to be taken in a literal sense. If you are translating the mantra into English and then trying to understand then, then you are missing the point. So to understand a mantra you have to examine the entire historical, cultural, and religious contexts. At times, such contexts are not available to us, so we are left with just sounds whose significance we cannot understand.

If you take the literal meaning of the words like पूर्ण ("pUrNa"), then you cannot guess what the mantra is saying. We have to go into the religious, linguistic, and cultural context to understand what is being said here. That is what I tried to do when I equated पूर्ण ("pUrNa") with infinity.