In Chaitanya Caritāmrita 20.117, Lord Chaitanya instructs Sanātana Goswami as follows: kṛṣṇa bhuli’ sei jīva anādi-bahirmukha ataeva māyā tāre deya saṁsāra-duḥkha. Śrila Prabhupāda translates this verse as “Forgetting Kṛṣṇa, the living entity has been attracted by the external feature from time immemorial. Therefore, the illusory energy [māyā] gives him all kinds of misery in his material existence”. The contentious issue here is the term anādi. Prabhupāda translates anādi as “time immemorial”. Many people are not satisfied with this translation. They would like to translate anādi as “beginningless”.
With the latter translation, we would conclude that the jīva has been in the material condition since eternity, although Śrila Prabhupāda explained many times that the jīva falls from the spiritual world. He makes this point by translating anādi as “time immemorial”, which means that we cannot recall our identity prior to the fall, or when precisely we fell, but that is not the absence of an eternal identity or the absence of a fall. However, the issue of the jīva fall doesn’t die, because the term anādi can be translated as “beginningless”.
In this post, I will discuss the meaning of anādi and why it does not mean “beginningless” but “time immemorial”. There are many other places where the issue of jīva fall has been discussed by various stalwarts, and it always revolves around the meaning of anādi. I don’t want to make this longer than necessary by citing every case of such discussion and hence I will just focus on the above statement of Lord Chaitanya. I think we can agree that the statement by Lord Chaitanya can be taken as the most authoritative verdict on this matter.
Table of Contents
- 1 Beginningless vs. Forgetfulness
- 2 The Meaning of Anādi and Ananta
- 3 The Problem of Non and Not
- 4 Nyāya Presence and Absence
- 5 The Problem of Unmanifest Form
- 6 The Problem of Non-Difference
- 7 Non-Beginning and Non-Ending
- 8 Qualitative Time and Space
- 9 Transcending Material Time
- 10 The Personification of Time
- 11 Impersonal Concept of Time
- 12 Spiritual and Material Time
- 13 Correct and Incorrect Translations
- 14 The Necessity of Semantics
- 15 The Unmanifest Form of Time
- 16 The Science of Entanglement
- 17 Process of Scriptural Exegesis
Beginningless vs. Forgetfulness
The “beginningless” translation presents an inconsistency with “forgetting Kṛṣṇa” because it is implicit that there was a time that the jīva knew Kṛṣṇa, that he subsequently forgot, which means that the fall cannot be beginningless. If the jīva never knew of Kṛṣṇa, then the question of forgetting does not arise.
There is no such conflict between anādi being translated as “time immemorial” and forgetting Kṛṣṇa because the latter pertains to our memory of the past and not to the past. I have discussed this issue earlier, noting the difference between the past and history. Our history exists in us as memory. Chitta, guna, and karma are three kinds of histories with each jīva. These histories are continuously created and destroyed. The destruction of history is not the refutation of the past. It is merely the inability to recall that it happened in the past. The event’s objective occurrence is the past, but our recollection of that event is our memory and history. History is not to be equated to the past.
Thus, “forgetting Kṛṣṇa” is inconsistent with “beginningless”, but consistent with “time immemorial” because the latter pertains to our memory of history rather than the past. We could reject the “beginningless” translation on that basis, but I will keep going to identify several other nuances of this issue.
The Meaning of Anādi and Ananta
The term anādi is often contrasted to ananta. The term ādi means beginning or start and anta means ending or culmination. The prefix “an” is used similarly to the prefix “a”, but the former is used when the suffix begins with “a” and the latter is used when the suffix begins with something other than “a”. For instance, dvaya means “dual” and “a” is prefixed to it to form advaya or “non-dual”. Similarly, bheda means “different” and “a” is prefixed to it to form abheda or “non-different”. The situation changes with words starting with “a”—such as ādi and anta. Now, the prefix changes to “an”. If we prefix “an” to ādi and anta to form the words anādi and ananta, the meaning is “non-start” and “non-end”.
The Problem of Non and Not
Someday I want to write a book on the difference between “non” and “not”, but I will be brief here. The term “not” is the prerogative of binary logic in which things are defined by three principles—(a) the principle of identity, (b) the principle of excluded middle, and (c) the principle of non-contradiction. For instance, it is either hot or not. It cannot be both hot and not hot. It cannot be neither hot nor not hot. These three principles constitute binary logic.
A new problem arises when we move beyond X and not-X (e.g., hot and not hot) into contrasts such as hot vs. cold vs. windy. We agree that hot is not cold. But how? The binary logician will say that cold is another word for not-hot. This doesn’t work as far as sense perception goes because hot and cold are two different sensations, and it is entirely possible that one has experienced hot but never felt cold. Having felt hot, it is not automatically implied that you know what it means to feel cold, or vice versa. Likewise, not-hot can also be windy, not necessarily cold. Thus, the inversion of hot is not fixed—i.e., it could be cold and windy. Therefore, by negating hot, we cannot know what it really is.
Thus, one of the guiding principles in logic is to say what it is and what it is not. One of them is not sufficient because if you say what something is, then you haven’t contrasted it to what it is not, and if you say what it is not, then you haven’t said what it is. This is the property of qualities, not of binary logic. Prabhupāda sometimes explained this as “always remember Kṛṣṇa and never forget Him”. The fact is that we can think of cooking for Kṛṣṇa which is strictly not identical to thinking of Kṛṣṇa. And yet, it is not forgetfulness of Kṛṣṇa. Therefore, while cooking for Kṛṣṇa, we haven’t forgotten Kṛṣṇa, although we aren’t thinking of Him only. This is the nuance of thinking and not thinking.
The use of “not” in logic is about the absence of a presence, but that absence can be many things. This problem is recognized in Sañkhyā to say that nature comprises three qualities, namely, sattva, rajas, and tamas, and each quality is the negation of the other qualities. Since there are three opposites, therefore, the negation of one opposite could yield either of the two remaining opposites.
The third quality of windy is neither hot nor cold. Since it is not-hot, therefore, it is the opposite of hot. Since it is not-cold, it is the opposite of cold. Since it is neither hot nor cold, hence, it is the opposite of both. The negation of a quality is indeterministic due to the presence of three qualities. If we have perceived one of those opposites, but not the other, then negation can seem deterministic. But that negation would only be true 50% of the time when one of the two opposites is involved. Since these qualities can mix, therefore, the negation can be true to various extents depending on the varied combinations.
The question is: When we did not prima facie know the negation of one quality as another quality, how do we know that they are opposites after we have experienced them? Why don’t we say that hot, cold, and windy are just three unrelated sensations? The problem is that if we treat hot, cold, and windy as merely three sensations, then we can only use assertions (i.e., that it is hot, cold, and windy) and never use negations (i.e., that it is not hot, cold, or windy).
Nyāya Presence and Absence
A system of philosophy—called Nyāya—is dedicated to the problem of quality logic. Those interested in this topic can read the commentary on Nyāya Sutra. I will focus on the solution to the problem of negation here, which is described using two terms, called bhāva and abhāva, or presence and absence. Nyāya contends that within each presence, there are many absences that exist as a “hole” in an object. For example, hot exists as a hole in cold, due to which we can say that cold is not hot. If we have felt hot but never cold, we don’t see this absence, although we could. But if we have felt both hot and cold, then we perceive the absence of one quality in another, to know that they are opposites.
The term not applies to the absence of a quality, but that absence can be another quality. We might not see this with hot vs. not hot, because we don’t expand “not hot” into “either cold or windy”. That is our flaw, not nature’s flaw. Not hot is not just the absence of heat but also the presence of either cold or windy. Thus, there are two meanings of not hot: (a) it is not hot, (b) it could be cold or windy. If we use binary logic not, then we just get the first meaning, but not the second. Binary logic is complete if we take the first meaning and incomplete if we take the second. This is the source of confusion in logic because some people believe that logic is consistent and complete because they are relying on the first meaning. But that meaning is a set of possibilities given by the second meaning.
We can call the set of possibilities given by not hot as “one thing” to claim determinism. Or we can call it “many things” to claim indeterminism. In the former case, logic is consistent and complete, but in the latter, it is inconsistent (not hot can be cold and windy, which are otherwise considered mutually opposed) and incomplete (since not hot can be cold or windy, which are simply possibilities). This problem is detected with sense perception rather than reasoning. In reasoning, “not hot” is good enough. However, during observation, it is either cold or windy. Hence, what seems to work perfectly under reasoning, becomes observationally and empirically incomplete.
Nyāya solves the problem of negation—e.g., “hot is not cold and windy”—by saying that cold and windy are present as holes within hot, so the claim about their opposition is not merely our opinion but an objective fact of reality. It would be merely our opinion if such a hole did not exist. We may not see that hole, but only such an objective existence makes it objectively true.
The new problem is: What should we call something that exists as a hole? We cannot say it is not present, and we cannot say that it is present. Hence, we call it non-present. It is neither present nor not present because it is present as a hole. This hole-like presence is non-presence. Thus, the term abhāva means non-presence. We don’t have a word for that in English, so we call it “absence”, but strictly speaking, absence is not-present, rather than non-presence. To understand non-presence, we have to say “it is conspicuous by its absence”. It is absent, and yet, conspicuous. This property of being conspicuous by its absence is what we mean when we use the term absence. This is also what we mean when we use the prefix non-X for any suffix. It is not not-X and it is not X.
The Problem of Unmanifest Form
Bhagavad-Gita 9.4 states: mayā tatam idaṁ sarvaṁ jagad avyakta-mūrtinā mat-sthāni sarva-bhūtāni na cāhaṁ teṣv avasthitaḥ, which means “By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them”. Note the conflict—(a) by Me, everything in the universe is pervaded, and yet, (b) I am not in the things within the universe. To resolve this contradiction, Kṛṣṇa clarifies: I am pervading everything in the universe in an unmanifest form. This “unmanifest form” is abhāva in the bhāva or absence in the presence. It pervades everything, and yet, it is not a presence. Hence it is correct to say that “I am not in them”. Kṛṣṇa is absent in this world, and yet, He is conspicuous by His absence. However, only a rare person sees how Kṛṣṇa is conspicuous by His absence. For everyone else, Kṛṣṇa is absent.
That means—absence is not absenteeism. Kṛṣṇa is present in each soul as an absence. This absence in the presence, which we normally don’t feel, becomes viraha or the feeling of separation upon spiritual progress. Due to that separation, we know “I am not Kṛṣṇa” just like we can know that “hot is not cold”. But if one has never experienced cold, he doesn’t know that. Kṛṣṇa is in everything as a hole. That hole has a specific form—the same form as the form of Kṛṣṇa. When the separation from Kṛṣṇa appears, then He is seen both inside and outside. Just as we can see hot and cold as opposites after we have seen both, similarly, we can see Kṛṣṇa absent in the world after we have seen Kṛṣṇa. Lord Chaitanya describes this absence as śūnyāyitaṁ jagat sarvaṁ govinda-viraheṇa me or “in separation from Govinda, the whole world is empty”.
The real Kṛṣṇa is outside, but He is present in everyone as a hole. We can say that Kṛṣṇa is present in us in an unmanifest form, but if that absence is recognized as the feeling of separation, then we see Kṛṣṇa in us because even that hole has the same form as Kṛṣṇa although the hole is not Kṛṣṇa. Thus, if we understand Nyāya, then we can understand Bhakti theoretically. There is no need to search for Kṛṣṇa externally because He is in everyone. We have to see Kṛṣṇa as the heart of hearts by developing the feeling of separation to see Him.
Kṛṣṇa within each person is non-Kṛṣṇa. We should not call that not-Kṛṣṇa because it would mean that this hole has a different form than that of Kṛṣṇa. And we should not call it Kṛṣṇa because it would mean that Kṛṣṇa is exclusively confined within one person, and if that person doesn’t know about the hole, then nobody knows Kṛṣṇa. The term non-Kṛṣṇa means that everyone can feel the separation from Kṛṣṇa because there is a hole in the heart of the jīva. That hole looks just like Kṛṣṇa, but if we don’t care about that hole, then Kṛṣṇa is still present outside. Kṛṣṇa is inside as absence and outside as presence.
The Problem of Non-Difference
Nyāya has been completely lost at present. In this age of quarrels, binary logic has appeared as the tool for reasoning when we know that it cannot be consistent and complete. Logic is the foundation for all quarrels. And yet, everyone is convinced that logic is totally fine. They also think that an alternative to logic is not needed. This logic is always used in binary forms—e.g., 1 and 0—akin to words like “hot” and “not hot”. We cannot say that “not hot” is either “cold” or “windy” or some combination of these, because that will make “not hot” undefined. When we ignore this problem and move further, then we find that logical theories don’t predict and explain the world completely. We call that Gödel’s Incompleteness Problem. Since qualities can be mixed, or they can be one or the other alternatively, therefore, the inability to define “not X” results in Set Theory paradoxes. It is one problem that appears in many forms because reality is three opposites and not binary opposites.
Vedānta is called nyāya-prasthān, which means that if we don’t know Nyāya, then we cannot know Vedānta. Since Nyāya is unknown, hence, Vedānta cannot be known. This is why one after another many Vedānta interpretations have been authored to deal with the problems of logic. The conclusion after six such interpretations is that reality is Achintya or inconceivable because if we use binary opposites then we can be either inconsistent or incomplete. If we want to know the complete truth, then we must sacrifice consistency under binary logic. Otherwise, we must use Nyāya. Thus, I have argued for the necessity of Nyāya (which I call modal, quality, or semantic logic) to understand Vedānta.
A simple example of using Nyāya is translating abheda as “non-difference” rather than “oneness”. Since everything is a combination of qualities, therefore, everything is non-different from each other: Every object is present in every other object as a hole. Binary logic separates these into thing-in-itself entities: One object is not other objects. But in Nyāya, one object is non other objects. In quantum physics, we call this “entanglement”—that we cannot define any object independently. We can only define quantum particles collectively. We cannot explain this problem in binary logic. This is why if quantum physics tries to explain it, it ends up using contradictory concepts like particle and wave.
Everything is also defined in a quality hierarchy. For instance, yellow is a quality, but it is defined in relation to color; color is defined in relation to sight. But what is sight? The answer is Kṛṣṇa. His sight is the definition of sight. My sight is not the definition of sight, because I am mostly blind. Similarly, His smell is the definition of smell; my smelling is not the definition of smell. Kṛṣṇa is the standard that defines everything, and progressively, everything is defined in relation to Him. Hence, when we use the term non-different, we mean that everything is entangled with each other because it is ultimately entangled with Kṛṣṇa. He is the whole, and everything else is a part of that whole. A table is different from a chair, and yet, because they are both part of Kṛṣṇa, therefore, they are non-different. Unless we stop using not, and replace it with non, there can be no scientific understanding of entanglement. Since Vedic texts use non-binary logic, hence, there is no “not”. Everywhere it is “non”. If we translate Vedic texts into English, almost everywhere “non” becomes “not”.
Non-Beginning and Non-Ending
It was important to discuss the difference between non and not, and illustrate its pervasive importance before we discuss the translation of anādi and ananta as “non-start” and “non-end”. If we don’t go through this process, then anādi and ananta could also be “not-starting” and “not-ending”, which is a great problem, because not is due to binary logic and non is due to quality logic.
Ananta is one of the names of the Lord, which means “non-ending”. Ananta is incorrectly translated as “infinite” because infinity is quantitative and you can only visualize this infinity by imagining a size bigger than the biggest you can imagine. The fact is that we can never perceive infinity. It is just an imaginary construct, produced in mathematics by imagining endless sequences. Therefore, if the Lord is Ananta, and that means “infinity”, then we can never perceive the Lord. There can be no Ananta deities because infinity cannot be visualized as any shape. The reason we are able to make deities of Ananta is that it doesn’t mean “infinite”. Rather, it means “non-ending”. When we treat reality as qualities, then everything is non-ending but they are not infinite.
Take for instance the quality of color. It is not infinite because if it were infinite, it would just remain an imaginary construct that could never be perceived. Since we can perceive color, therefore, color is not infinite. And yet, color is non-finite, because we can never enumerate all colors. Thereby, we can perceive color, and yet, never fully know color because to fully know color, we must enumerate all colors, which is impossible. This is also how everything is ananta because it is non-finite and yet perceivable. This non-finite entity is a quality. It is simultaneously perceivable and non-finite. Prakṛti is non-finite. She can be perceived as a person, and yet, a non-finite universe is within Her.
Ananta—as the name of the Lord—is akin to the white color, which includes all the shades. White can also be perceived, and yet, it contains all other colors, which cannot be enumerated. The merger of non-finite colors becomes white, which is perceivable, and hence not infinite. We must call Ananta non-finite because He is neither finite (due to non-finite colors) nor infinite (because He is perceivable). That non-finite entity is non-ending. It doesn’t have an end and it is not endless. The term “non” thus means “neither” instead of “not”.
Similarly, every shade of color is defined by the absence of other shades within itself. Hence, if you just knew red completely, then you will know that it is not green and blue, and just by that knowledge, you can construct green and blue based on the knowledge of red. Since this principle can be applied to all colors, therefore, you cannot say that one of these colors is the “original color”. Every shade of color can be used to know every other shade, so it is the starting color. And yet, it is not the only conceivable starting color, because we could also start with other colors, and obtain the same result. This is non-starting.
I can start with physics and progressively know God. I can start with biology and progressively know God. I can start with mathematics and progressively know God. This is non-starting. I have used this principle in my books in which I start with the problems in a subject, provide solutions to those problems, and show that this solution is the complete truth. I can start with any subject and come to the same conclusion because the whole truth is present in all partial truths. The whole truth can pop out of the partial truth; the partial truth contains the full truth, although it is not the full truth. We can keep a diamond in a box. We can open the box to get the diamond. We don’t equate the two.
However, this partial subject, which is also the complete truth, is not the historically original truth. Historically, some subjects came before other subjects. But if we advance time by a million years and delete the history of how things were created, then we can create everything from everything else. A good example of this fact is that at present most Vedic texts have been lost due to text burning during India’s invasions. But some texts are still left. We can create the complete Veda from these texts. If history has been deleted, then everything is anādi. But if history is preserved, then one thing is anādi. When we talk about God as anādi, we are talking about the temporal or historical origin. However, this origin is complete and it has produced many complete truths. After producing all those complete truths, the balance is still complete. So, temporal anādi is not equal to spatial anādi. Color is spatially anādi, but temporally it came after the sense of sight, and hence it is not anādi.
Qualitative Time and Space
Time and space are not scalars or vectors. They are qualities. Since one quality points to a more abstract quality, hence, a vector nature is created, although there is no vector. Since every quality refers to a more abstract quality, hence, there are no scalars. Thus, there are no scalars or vectors. Nothing can be a scalar because it refers. Nothing can be a vector because it is a quality rather than a quantity. Space and time are qualities, not scalars or vectors.
The implication of saying that time and space are qualities is that there isn’t one time or one space. There are infinite times and spaces, each of which is defined by a unique quality. The quality of space is known as a “graha” or “house” in Vedic cosmology (which is loosely and incorrectly translated as a planet). Each graha is a different space, embodying a different quality, which is also part of a bigger space, that embodies a more abstract quality. Similarly, the quality of time is unique to each individual. My time is not your time. We are all living in separate individual times because our quality of life is different.
Everyone lives for precisely 100 years based on the count of quality atoms we can consume in one life. But because quality atoms can be lower or higher, and the higher quality is long-lived while the lower quality is short-lived, hence, everyone seems to live longer or shorter. Thus, 100 years is not about calendar duration. It is about the number of quality atoms we can consume in one life.
A yogi slows down the quality consumption to increase his lifespan. Then the yogi rises on the quality ladder to redefine 100 years—i.e., the total count of quality atoms—against a higher quality. The concept of 100 years involves atomic units with each unit being one atomic quality. In one unit of time, we consume one atomic quality, which is one atomic space. But I can consume a higher or a lower quality atom which will be longer- or shorter-lived. Hence, the unit of time for me—which constitutes the time it takes to consume one quality atom—is not the same as the unit of time for you. 100 years is about the units of qualities. They can be short-lived or long-lived, with higher or lower qualities.
All these can be summarized simply—if we indulge in a low-quality life, then we have to consume a lot of quantity. The low-quality atom is short-lived, and rapid consumption of short-lived atoms shortens the lifespan. Indulging in a lot of low-quality consumption entails quick death. But if we indulge in a high-quality life, then we can consume a low quantity. The high-quality atom is also long-lived, which means that we not only consume high-quality but also less quantity, so it will take longer to exhaust the equivalent of 100 years defined by the number of atoms we can consume. Thus, those consuming higher-quality and lower-quantity atoms will naturally lead a longer life, akin to the demigods.
Apart from the sense of duration of an atomic unit of time, there is also a quality that sequences perceptual quality atoms to create a life. For instance, I can give you a bag of balls and ask you to sequence them. You can sequence the balls first by size, then by weight, then by color, etc. Someone else can sequence it differently. The balls are perceptual qualities, but sequencing them in some way is another quality where size comes first, weight comes second, color comes third, etc. One type of sequence is one type of personality, and a different way of sequencing is a different personality. Each personality is defined by a prioritized order of qualities. That means—given a choice, we prefer size over weight and weight over color. This is not a universal fact for everyone. It is a choice. Thereby, we can say that time is a subjective quality of sequencing priorities and space is an objective quality to be prioritized, because I can sequence the same set of balls differently from how you sequence them.
Thus, my personality constructs my personal time and your personality constructs your personal time. You measure my activity using your time, and I measure your activity using my time. There is no meaning to “time” other than this act of sequencing. There is no meaning to sequencing other than a type of personality that sequences things differently. And hence, time is constructed by a personality in the act of sequencing. I have chosen a personality. Once a personality is chosen, it creates a sequence. That sequence is time, but it was produced by a personality, which was prior chosen by a person.
Material time began for me when I chose a personality that started sequencing quality atoms. Based on this sequencing, my personality changes lawfully—i.e., it goes higher or lower—and hence my personal conception of time changes. I get a life of a human or an ant, which exists for 100 years based on the count of quality atoms. So how long have I lived in the material world? It is the number of lives multiplied by 100 years multiplied by the longevity of the consumed atoms. There is no way to know how long that is because (a) the number of lives in the past is unknown, (b) the quality of previous lives is unknown, and (c) the sequencing of high and low atoms within one life is unknown.
Transcending Material Time
If I give up the material personality, then the concept of time itself changes. The novelty is that the quality atoms are never consumed—e.g., if I eat the food, the food doesn’t disappear. The taste of food is still lingering while I am perceiving the smell of the food. If the past doesn’t disappear as the present appears, then every new experience is one more layer on top of the previous layers. The layers go on increasing because the previous layer never disappears.
Yesterday, there were some layers. Today, there are some more layers. Tomorrow, there will be even more layers. In this way, the spiritual time passes and yet it does not pass because the materialistic idea of “passing” is that the past has ceased to exist in the present. If the past hasn’t ceased to exist, and yet, the present has added some more layers, then the time has passed, and yet not. This is eternal time. We can call it non-time, because there is yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and yet yesterday has not “gone” today, although tomorrow is “yet to arrive”. History is continuously growing with the passing of time.
Entry into this eternal time is accepted only after the material past has been wiped out. After that, there are stages in which we know that I have no past, present, or future, (called Brahman), and a superior stage in which we recall the previously created impressions of spiritual experience. Entering eternal time is not entering a spiritual world as a blank slate with no memory of the previous experience. It is resuming the addition of layers to the previous layers. This resumption to the spiritual time after a short break is just like an employee who went on a vacation and then returned after a while to resume his work. The novelty in spiritual experience is that the returning soul does not remember going on vacation, or what happened during the vacation. Therefore, his vacation is likened to the blinking of an eye, where we don’t receive percepts but when we open the eyes again, we see everything as it was previously.
That duration for which the person blinks may be trillions of material years, but if we don’t remember that duration when we open our eyes, then it is just a blink—a time when our eyes were closed, we saw nothing, and we were missing in action for a while. In the normal blinking in this world, we don’t forget who we really are. Therefore, the metaphor should not be extended limitlessly.
The Personification of Time
The materialistic idea of time (used in modern science) imagines an “objective truth” about what happened in the past. And yet, in that conception, the past has no influence on the present. Similarly, the future has no influence on the present. In the personalistic conception of time, there is no “objective truth” about the past. The past is only that which influences the present.
During the material journey, we may not remember our past, but Nature and Time do. This objective past is called our unconscious, and it exists as chitta, guna, and karma. This is the only memory of the past. We cannot access that unconscious until it becomes conscious, so we are ignorant about it. But the unconscious is conscious for Nature and Time. If this unconscious memory is wiped out, then even Nature and Time have no recollection of this past.
If a person is liberated, and then meets Lord Shiva, who is Time personified, then Lord Shiva is not going to think: “Oh, I remember once you were a dog”. It is not that the past is in the past, and we should let bygones be bygones. There is no past and there is no bygone once a person is liberated. It never happened because nobody can remember it and they cannot remember it because the memory has been wiped out. The wiping of memory is precisely the reason that the past ceases to influence the present or the future. The eternal memory of the past is only true for the spiritual world where layers upon layers are added consecutively and hence the past exists in the present eternally.
Eternal past is a false idea for the material world because: (a) history is continuously being deleted, so there is a limited recollection of the past, (b) that recollection is based on a memory that is either influencing the present or can influence the present or will influence in future, (c) memory cannot exist without causal influence, (d) if the memory is wiped then the causal influence is wiped, and (e) we cannot claim that material journey has ended and yet the memory of the material past still exists. The combination of eternal material memory along with the ending of material causation is incoherent.
Kṛṣṇa remembers when we fell from the spiritual world because there is a stack of perceptual layers denominated with each person’s identity and those layers stopped increasing for some person while they were increasing for other persons. But He doesn’t remember what happened in the material world when the soul returns to the spiritual world. He is not interested in remembering those things either. Who wants to remember irrelevant and inconsequential facts when there are more interesting things to focus on? The impersonal idea of God remembering everything from the past denies God a choice to remember.
Impersonal Concept of Time
The impersonal idea of time talks about a past that is objectively true and yet has no causal influence on the present. It is a ridiculously unscientific idea. This unscientific conception of past history arose in some religions that called God “omniscient”. If God knows everything, then He must know the past.
People don’t ask: How can God remember the past, including the horrible things we have done, and yet that memory plays no role in God’s subsequent attitude toward us? When we talk to God, doesn’t God have flashes of recall about the awful things we have done for thousands of lifetimes? Don’t those flashes of recall eternally influence God’s relationship with us, because He is unable to forget the past? But making big claims and not following up with their necessary implications is the norm for some people. The absence of critical thinking has been the norm rather than the exception in many religions.
This impersonal idea of time doesn’t exist in personalism, because God is not omniscient. He can know everything, but He doesn’t want to know. He remembers things that are important for the future and forgets everything else. God is eternal doesn’t mean that His memory is eternal, specifically with regard to the material world which is defined by its temporality. The idea that the past exists eternally as God’s knowledge is also an unscientific idea because we cannot say something exists even if it has no effect. In simple words, God remembers the good past, and forgets the bad past, after liberation. We cannot expect God to remember the past and yet not let it interfere with His actions.
Spiritual and Material Time
Material time is not spiritual time because the idea of experience in the material world is “consumption” but it is “expansion” in the spiritual world. To understand this, we need to discuss the nature of experience.
Modern science states that when we observe something, light is “transferred” and “absorbed”, and the observed reality is modified in the act of observing it. In Vedic texts, nothing is “transferred” from observed reality, but properties of the observed reality are manifest in our senses and the mind, as they become unmanifest in reality. The process of manifest and unmanifest is “consumption”, but reality is a person with knowledge, who doesn’t become ignorant after imparting knowledge. However, having already spoken about himself, he stops speaking. Since knowledge is no longer received, it seems that it has been transferred. For the speaker to repeat the same thing, we have to request a repetition. That request for repeating what has been previously spoken involves what we call “adding energy”. It seems like lost energy because the same manifest-unmanifest process is followed during the repeat request: The energy in the requestor is unmanifest when the requested start speaking yet again.
The spiritual reality is different—the speaker can speak the same thing over and over, even after it has been spoken for trillions of years because every time it will be spoken slightly differently. But even if it were repeated exactly as it was before, there is still great pleasure in repeating it. That is the magical realization one gets by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. We can repeat the same thing over and over, and there will be no need for silence. There is no need to pump energy into the speaker because that speech is automatically springing out—described as svayameva sphurati. Thus, even as knowledge is not lost even in the material world after that knowledge has been expressed, we have to add energy to the speaker to make him speak the same thing again. But energy addition is unnecessary in the spiritual world because the action is spontaneous.
Since the manifest becomes unmanifest in the material world, therefore, we can model it as the consumption of experience. But since it never becomes unmanifest in the spiritual world, therefore, we have to model it as expansion. Since nothing is consumed, therefore, there is no price to be paid in return for consumption. This means that we don’t need an accounting system to keep track of who has consumed how much, and how much balance consumption is remaining in their account. Such ledgers are needed only in the material world. Science is only an accounting system in which there are debits and credits, assets and liabilities, income and expenses. We don’t need that accounting system in the spiritual world because that life is not a zero-sum game in which my gain ensures your loss (due to the process of consumption).
Once we gain a scientific understanding of time, along with the distinction between material and spiritual time, then we understand that the accounting ledger is not infinite. We want to keep track of the total assets and liabilities, incomes and expenses, and debits and credits for the current year. We want to know a little less about the previous years. We are totally disinterested in decades-old details. They do not matter because they may have no bearing on the present and the future. Thus, history is wiped because that history is an accounting ledger to keep track of a person’s life in this world.
Correct and Incorrect Translations
When history is wiped out, we cannot know the past. This is non-beginning not beginningless. It means that there is an oldest record in our current ledger, which we can consider to be the beginning. But it may not be the real beginning. I cannot say that it is not the beginning for sure. And I cannot say that it is the beginning for sure. When we have to insist upon “neither X nor not-X” then we use non. That non pertains to the beginning, and hence it is non-beginning. This is the meaning of anādi. It is consistent with ananta where I have to say “neither is it ending, nor is it endless”. If it were endless, then we could never perceive ananta. If ananta had an end, then it would never be spiritual or eternal truth. For me to perceive the eternal truth, I must negate both a temporal ending and need for infinite time before perception.
Acharyas give us simple truths such as translating anādi as “time immemorial”. That is not a dictionary translation because the dictionary was created by an Englishman who never thought about the problem of perceiving the infinite. He created a dictionary in which anādi is “beginningless”. That dictionary is flawed, and the translation by the Acharya is correct. Everything is present in “time immemorial”—(a) the past is history, (b) it is memory, (c) because memory is lost, hence, we cannot reach into the distant past, and (d) because we cannot reach into the distant past, hence we don’t know if it even existed.
The translation of anādi as “beginningless” is rooted in God’s omniscience. It is based on binary logic in which opposites are defined as beginning and not-beginning, and even if I cannot remember when it began, there must be an objective true beginning: The term anādi must pertain to that objective truth rather than my knowledge of it, and hence it must be beginningless.
The Necessity of Semantics
The essential lesson of these problems is that reality is also ideas. It is not stuff, things, or substances. Past and future exist in the present as the ideas of past and future. There is no contradiction between past, present, and future because the present also exists as an idea—there is the whole idea, and part of that whole is currently manifest by time, to create a partial idea called the present.
When the past, present, and future are all ideas, then there is no problem in their interaction because they exist right now, and yet, we can distinguish between them as the past, present, and future because every idea has an associated timestamp and we just consider some timestamp the present moment. That capacity to designate a timestamp as “present” is a choice. If my consciousness moves to the idea of the past, then that recollection becomes the present due to my choice. If my consciousness moves to the idea of the future, then that imagination becomes the present due to my choice. Thus, I can go into the past and the future, just as I can stay in the present. When I go into the past and future, they are still the experience of the present. Hence, any “objective” conception of the past, present, and future is deeply problematic.
We have to define the present through choice, which means that time passes because consciousness moves. If the movement of consciousness stops, then time stops. Those who can stop that movement in this life, elongate their life, because life is a fixed number of steps, and if we don’t take the step, then the steps are available in the kitty we call “life”. If we slow the steps, then fewer steps are used. If we take steps faster, then fewer steps are available. The steps can be longer or shorter. This is the personalist conception of time.
In the semantic approach, past, present, and future are mutually entangled ideas, which means that my idea of the present is shaped by my idea of the past and the future. If the past idea is deleted from the ensemble of ideas, then the present and the future ideas are modified because they are all mutually defined ideas. In simple words, I see the world in a specific manner right now because that perception is influenced by my ideas of the past and the future. If my ideas of the past and future change, then my present idea changes. The past and future ideas exist as absence in the present, and hence I can know the past from the present, although it exists in an unmanifest form in the present.
But if the past idea is deleted from the idea ensemble, then it ceases to exist in the unmanifest form in the present, and that changes the present. Then there is the oldest idea—as far as the idea ensemble is concerned—so we can call it ādi. If we progressively delete the past and future ideas from the ensemble, we come to a point where there is no past and future; there is only the present. Then the present becomes the ādi. Such a person can be said to be “living in the present” because his consciousness never goes to the past or future as they don’t exist.
The Unmanifest Form of Time
Since the consciousness can move to the past and future at any time, and that becomes the present, hence, hard and fast distinctions between past, present, and future are illusory even in the material world. They are real only in the sense that we tend to go to the past and future ideas lesser than we stay in the present, and we cannot imagine the distant future and the distant past beyond a certain limit. That limit is defined by the idea of present which has the past and future existing within as holes. If we can look into the holes—i.e., what the present is not—then we can perceive the past and future as well. For instance, an advanced soul can look at a person and perceive their past and future lives. That is not a fixed future. It is just what is entailed by the present.
That hole-like presence of the past and future in the present is not equally present in every person. People who have led good lives in the past, performed meditation, austerity, or scriptural study, have a hole in the present that says: The past was good. They can easily accept the eternity of the Vedic texts due to that hole. They can also accept a future in which that spiritual truth will be revived. But those who haven’t meditated, done austerities, or scriptural study in the past, don’t have a hole of a good past. Their prior actions and impressions exist in their present as holes and they say: The past was bad. Therefore, they never want to go to the past because think that it could not have been good.
Thus, there are people who easily accept a good past, and those that accept a bad past. This is because the past exists in the present as a hole, and we can see its form, and imagine how it was previously. But since everyone doesn’t have the same hole, therefore, everyone’s idea of history is different. Some people are still living in a present entangled with a bad past, while others are living in a present entangled with a good past. Some people think of the past and perceive it as bad, while others think of the past and perceive it as good. Their perception is neither an illusion nor an absolute truth. It is just their personal history.
Past, present, and future become completely illusory in the spiritual world because we can go to any idea at any time. That doesn’t mean everyone goes to everything at all times. Since there is a pattern of choices, therefore, there is a sense of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But since that pattern can be changed, therefore, the distinction between yesterday, today, and tomorrow is not fixed. This is what we call non-time. Factually, even material time is non-time to a limited extent because we can recollect the past and imagine the future. But it is less non-time because given the present, our capacity to look into the distant past and the distant future is considerably limited by our personal memories.
The Science of Entanglement
Purāṇa narrate histories in the distant past and sometimes the nature of the future. The story of Lord Rāma pertains to Treta-yuga, and is about a million years old. Present-day historians trying to construct that history imagine that this story could only be a few thousand years old because even as they read Vedic texts, and vocally support its historicity, they don’t completely believe in it. In their imagination, human history cannot be so distant. This is again because their present is more prominently entangled with a recent past rather than a distant past. They perceive the present more in terms of relatively recent historical records. Since the influence of distant historical records is weak, hence, their idea of the present does not prominently reveal a distant past. Hence, even if they read that Lord Rāma appeared close to a million years ago, they reduce it to a few thousand years. In this way, everyone is constructing their version of history based on their perception of the present.
Advanced devotees can also look into the distant future simply by looking at the present because the future exists in a “seed form” in the present. Most of us cannot see it, but many people can see. For instance, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa tells us that as Kali-yuga advances, the rulers will become thieves, and people will be so distressed by their rulers that they will escape into mountains and forests to return to the hunter-gatherer type of human existence. This was unimaginable in India a few thousand years ago because the job of a Kshatriya was defined as protecting citizens from thieves. But during colonial times in India, people saw how the Kshatriyas became plunderers. Thereby, what was unimaginable in India came true. This capacity to see into the future is supposed to be a mystical power. But mystical is not mysterious. It is also a science. That is the science of past, present, and future entanglement. Those who can see the holes in the present, due to the advancement of perception, can perceive the future.
Process of Scriptural Exegesis
Thus, if we try to account for a broader set of facts about time, such as—(a) the capacity to see in the past and future, (b) misconception about the past and future based on a misconception of the present, (c) that the past and future are elongated and shortened for different people, (d) existence of some past and future changes the present, (e) when we mentally go to the past or future, they reappear in the present, (f) how different people are differently influenced by the past and future, (g) how time seems longer and shorter to different people, (h) how lifetime elongates or shortens based on the capacity to decelerate or accelerate consumption in this life, and (i) it is only through an idea-like conception of reality that we can solve the problems of past and future interacting with the present, then we can get a semantic understanding of time, and the meaning of words like anādi and ananta becomes crystal clear.
But if we try to understand anādi and ananta in isolation, or translate them based on impersonalist ideas of space, time, and matter, or rely on dictionaries created by people influenced by binary logic instead of quality logic, then we will also get false ideas. Understanding the words in Vedic texts requires scientific analysis. It is not just about reading a book and thinking that because one has read a book, therefore, they know the truth. Reading is not studying. Without a scientific analysis, there is no understanding of what we are reading.
People who read Vedic texts faithfully but don’t do scientific analysis do not understand what the text is saying. They have not studied the book. All their interpretations are likely false, and contrary to other statements. A person who hasn’t done the scientific analysis says: The books are contradictory. This is why Vedic texts were restricted to a few people in former times who could do scientific analysis. Even as they are spread to everyone now, the criterion for understanding them hasn’t changed. Scientific analysis is still essential.