The Meaning and Concept of Ananta or Infinity in Hinduism

Vedas, Sruti

Brahma Granting a Boon to Adishesha

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the meaning and concept of Ananta or infinity in Hinduism with special reference to Adishesha or Anantashesha, the celestial serpent.

Ananta (San: अनन्त) means infinite, endless, without an end, eternal, boundless. Theoretically, Ananta may have a beginning, but no end, in contrast to the word anadi (without a beginning), which also denotes infinity but refers to a condition that has no beginning but an end. Both ananta and adi are aspects of Supreme Brahman as well as Atman (the individual Self) who are eternal, absolute, self-existent and without a beginning and an end. The word is used as a noun, as an adjective and as prefix. It is joined with other words to denote the state of infinity, greatness, eternity, endlessness, limitlessness, superiority, and the ability to expand endlessly of any object, state or condition with which it is associated.

The word is also used as an epithet of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Balarama. According to the Puranas he or his aspect (amsa) appeared a few times upon earth along with the incarnations of Vishnu. Lakshmana and Balarama are said to be two of his well-known incarnations. In Vaishnavism, Ananta is identified with Samkarshana, the deity who lives in the underworld (patala) in the company of several serpents as their lord.

According to the Mahabharata, the great serpent Vasuki, the elephant Airavata (the vahana of Indra) and the serpent Takshaka are his brothers only. He was a righteous serpent who did great penance having developed a distaste for worldly life. Brahma was pleased with his austerities and granted him the power to control his mind and remain stable. He requested him to go to the underworld, with his mind stabilized, and stay there to stabilize the earth. Ananta went to the underworld at his behest and remained there ever since, supporting and stabilizing the earth upon his stable hood.

In Hinduism, Ananta refers to Adishesha or Ananta-shesha, the celestial serpent with a thousand heads and endless coils. which floats in the infinite ocean of primeval waters (existence) upon which Lord Vishnu rests and keeps a watch on the worlds and beings. Ananta or Adishesha may also be an ancient reference to the milky way also, which appears to the people on earth as a shining, celestial serpent in the night stretching across the sky without an end.

Shesha means balance, remainder, surplus, etc. Adishesha refers to the indivisible state or the condition which is greater than everything else and remains so from the beginning (adi) of creation until the end, and beyond. As his name suggests, he remains indestructible and unchanged even after everything disappears. It is said that at the end of each cycle of creation (kalpa), after the worlds and beings are all destroyed or withdrawn, what remains unchanged and stable is the endless serpent. He remains as indestructible, infinite and complete as he was in the beginning.

Hence, he is fittingly known as Adishesha, the everlasting, primeval remainder. People worship him on Ananta Chaturdasi day which falls on the 14th day of the bright half of Bhadrapada. Dharmaraja’s conch is known as Anantavijaya. Vishnu is known as Anantarupa since he has endless forms. Images and iconography of Ananta are found in several Hindu temples.

Symbolically, Ananta refers to the materiality of the whole creation. His endless coils represent the endless coils of energy which remain hidden in the universe. He also represents erudition, the power of speech, wisdom, knowledge, support, indestructibility, stability, materiality and the mode of tamas or inertia (coiled energy).

Deities and qualities associated with Ananta also appear in Buddhism and Jainism. Snakes appear in several cultures and mythologies as symbols of both good and evil. In Hinduism, snakes are equated with Death (Kala) as well as the serpent-power of the Kundalini.

A snake holding its own tail is a symbol of infinity. The idea of a giant serpent as the symbol of infinity is well represented in Hinduism in the serpent Ananta, except no one can see his tail since it remains hidden in the infinite coils of energy, and he is without an end.

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