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NITAAI-Veda.nyf > All Scriptures By Acharyas > Suhotra Dasa Tapovanachari > Six Systems of Philosophy > Vaisesika or Atomic Theory

3. Vaisesika: Vedic Atomic Theory

An Analysis of the Aspects of Reality

The founder of vaisesika philosophy is the sage Kanada, who was also known as Uluka. So this system is sometimes called aulukya. Kanada wrote the first systematic work of this philosophy, Vaisesika-sutra. This work is divided into ten cantos, each canto containing two sections. Prasastapada wrote a commentary on this sutra entitled Svartha Dharma Samgraha that is so famous that it is called bhasya, which means simply "commentary." In Indian philosophical discourse, whenever the word bhasya is used by itself without further specification, it is understood to refer to this commentary. Two well-known explications of Prasastapada's work are Udayana's Kirana-vali and Sridhara's Nyayakandali. The significant feature of this system is the introduction of a special category of reality called uniqueness (visesa). Thus, this system is known as vaisesika.

Vaisesika is allied to the nyaya system of philosophy. Both systems accept the liberation of the individual self as the end goal; both view ignorance as the root cause of all pain and misery; and both believe that liberation is attained only through right knowledge of reality. There are, however, two major differences between nyaya and vaisesika. First, nyaya philosophy accepts four independent sources of knowledge -- perception, inference, comparison, and testimony -- but vaisesika accepts only two -- perception and inference. Second, nyaya maintain s that all of reality is comprehended by sixteen categories (padarthas), whereas vaisesika recognizes only seven categories of reality (see chart below). These are: dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (action), samanya (generality), visesa (uniqueness), samavaya (inherence), and abhava (nonexistence). The term padartha means "the object denoted by a word," and according to vaisesika philosophy all objects denoted by words can be broadly divided into two main classes -- that which exists, and that which does not exist. Six of the seven padarthas are in the first class, that which exists. In the second class, that which does not exist, there is only one padartha, abhava, which stands for all negative facts such as the nonexistence of things. The first two categories of reality -- substance and quality -- are treated in greater detail in the following discussion than are the remaining five.

Vaisesika's Seven Categories (Padirthas) of Reality

Substance (nine dravyas)

o Earth

o Water

o Fire

o Air

o Space or ether

o Time

o Direction

o Soul

o Mind

Quality (twenty-four gunas)

o Color

o taste

o smell

o touch

o sound

o number

o magnitude

o distinctness

o union

o separation

o remoteness

o nearness

o cognition

o pleasure

o pain

o desire

o aversion

o effort

o heaviness

o fluidity

o viscidity

o tendency

o virtue

o nonvirtue

Action (karma)

Generality (samanya)

Uniqueness (visesa)

Inherence (samavaya)

Nonexistence (abhava)

The Category of Substance -- Nine Dravyas


Dravya, substance, is that in which a quality or an action can exist but which in itself is different from both quality and action. Without substance, there cannot be a quality or an action because substance is the substratum of quality and action, and it is also the material cause of the composite things produced from it. A cloth, for example, is formed by the combination of a number threads of certain colors. The threads are the material or constitutive causes of the cloth because it is made of the threads that subsist in the cloth.

There are nine kinds of substances: earth, water, fire, air, ether, time, direction, soul, and mind. The first five of these are called physical elements because each of them possesses a specific quality that can be perceived by an external sense faculty. Each of the senses is composed of elements, whose distinguishing qualities are registered by specific sensory receptors. For example, smell is the particular property of the earth, and it is apprehended by the nostrils. Taste is the particular property of water, which is perceived by the tongue. Color is the particular property of fire or light, and it is discerned by the eyes. Touch is the particular property of air, which is experienced by the skin. And sound is the particular property of akasa (ether), which is received by the ears.

Paramanu -- the smallest particle of earth, water, fire, and air. In vaisesika the smallest indivisible part of matter is called paramanu, or atom. This is not to be confused with the modern scientific term atom because an atom as described in nuclear physics is itself composed of many parts. The vaisesika usage of the word is different. It simply refers to the most minute indivisible state of matter. The atoms of earth, water, fire, and air are eternal because an atom is partless and cannot be produced or destroyed. The common elements of earth, water, fire, and air, however, are noneternal because they are produced by combinations of atoms and therefore can disintegrate or change. The existence of atoms is proved by inference -- not by perception -- in the following way. All the composite objects of the world are made up of parts. In separating the parts of a composite object, one passes from the larger to the smaller, and then from the smaller to the smallest part. But when one comes to the smallest part that cannot be further divided in any way, then the process of separation has to stop. That indivisible and minutes part in vaisesika is called the atom.

If one does not accept the concept of indivisibility, then he will commit the fallacy of infinite regression. Because it has no parts, the atom cannot be said to be produced. and it cannot be destroyed because destruction means to break a thing down into its parts, and in an atom there are no parts. Atoms, therefore, can be neither produced nor destroyed; they are eternal.

Akasa -- ether. There are four kinds of atoms -- atoms of earth, atoms of water, atoms of fire, and atoms of air -- each having its own peculiar qualities. Akasa (ether), the fifth substance, is the substratum of the quality of sound; it is not made up of atoms. Akasa is also translated as space. Sound can be perceived, but akasa cannot be perceived because it lacks two conditions necessary for the perception of an object: perceptible dimension and manifest color. Akasa is unlimited, so it does not have a perceptible dimension, and it is formless, so does not have any color. Therefore, Akasa cannot be perceived, but it can be inferred from the perception of the quality of sound which it contains. It cannot be said that sound is the quality of time, direction, soul, or mind because these exist even when there is no sound to qualify them. Therefore, there must be some other substance that has the quality of sound in it; that substance is called akasa. Akasa is one and eternal because it is not made up of parts and does not depend on any other substance for its existence. It is all-pervading in the sense that it has an unlimited dimension and that its quality (sound) is perceived everywhere.

Direction and time. Direction and time are also imperceptible substances and they are likewise single, eternal, and all pervading . Direction is inferred on the basis of such concepts as here, there, near, far, on this side, by that way, and so on. Time is inferred from the concepts now, today, tomorrow, past, present, future, older, younger, and so forth. Although space, direction, and time are singular and all-pervading, indivisible and partless, they are spoken of as many because of certain limiting conditions, known as upadhis. For example, when the all-pervading, indivisible space is limited by the walls of a jar, that space is known as the space of the jar (ghatakasa). In the same way, direction and time are also thought of as multiple because of the notions of variety and specificity expressed as east, west, one hour, two hours, and so on.

Soul. The eighth kind of substance, the soul or atman, is also considered to be eternal and all-pervading and is the substratum of the phenomenon of consciousness. According to vaisesika philosophy, there are two kinds of souls: individual and supreme. Individual souls are known as jivatman. and the Supreme Soul is known as paramatman, or isvara. The Supreme Soul is inferred to be the creator of the world in the same manner as has been explained in the discussion of nyaya philosophy. In contrast to the Supreme Soul, the individual soul is perceived as possessing mental qualities, such as "I'm happy, I'm sorry" and so forth. Individual souls do not perceive other individual souls, but they do infer their existence in the manner described in the nyaya section.

Mind. The mind is considered to be the ninth kind of substance. It is the eternal sense faculty of the individual soul and the soul's qualities, such as pleasure and pain. Like the soul, the mind is atomic and indivisible -- there is one in each body. The existence of the mind is not perceived but is inferred from the following propositions. First, it is apparent that external sense faculties are necessary for the perception of external objects of the world. Likewise, an internal sense faculty is required for the perception of internal objects, such as soul, cognition, feeling, pleasure, pain, and so on. The mind is this internal sense faculty. Second, it is apparent that the five external senses may all be in contact with their respective objects simultaneously, but not all of these perceptions are received at the same time. This demonstrates that there must be some other agent besides the external senses that both limits the number of received perceptions to one perception at a time and that orders the perceptions in sequential succession. In other words, although two or more external senses may be simultaneously receiving data, only that which is being attended to is actually perceived. Attention therefore represents the coordination of the mind with the senses, and every perception requires the contact of the mind with an object by means of the senses. We must, therefore, admit the existence of mind as an internal sense faculty. Additionally, if the mind were not a partless entity, then there would be simultaneous contact of many parts of the mind with many senses, and many perceptions would subsequently appear at one time. The fact that this never happens proves that the mind is a partless, atomic, and internal sense faculty of perception.

The Category of Quality -- Twenty-four Gunas

Guna, quality, the second of the seven categories of reality, cannot exist by itself but exists only in a substance. * It cannot, therefore, be the constituent or material cause of anything's existence. It may be considered a nonmaterial cause of things, however, because it determines the nature of a thing. It differs

* In vaisesika "guna" refers to quality, whereas in sankhya this term is used to denote an essential feature of prakrti, nature. from both substance and action in that it is an unmoving property. There are twenty-four kinds of qualities: rupa (color), rasa (taste), gandha (smell), sparsa (touch), sabda (sound), sankhya (number), parimana (magnitudes), prthaktva (distinctness), samyoga (conjunction or unions), bibhaga (separation), paratva (remoteness), aparatva (nearness), buddhi (cognition), sukha (pleasure), dukha (pain), iccha (desire), dvesa (aversion), prayatna (effort), gurutva (heaviness), dravatva (fluidity), sneha (viscidity), samskara (tendency), dharma (merit or virtues), and adharma (demerit or nonvirtue). A brief description of these follows.

According to vaisesika there are six colors -- white, black, red, blue, yellow, and green -- and there are also six tastes -- sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, astringent, and salty. Smell is divided into two categories -- good and bad -- and touch is divided into three -- hot, cold, and neither hot nor cold. There are two kinds of sound: dhvani (inarticulated) and varna (articulated). Number is that quality by virtue of which a thing can be counted. Many numbers starting from one and stretching out beyond the imagination are used, but actually there is only one number which is used as many. Magnitude is the quality by which things are distinguished as big or small. There are four orders of magnitude: extremely small (the atom), extremely big, small, and large. Distinctness is the quality by which one knows that one thing is different from another. Conjunction, or union, is the quality by which one knows the existence of two or more things at one place or in one time, such as a book being on a table at noon. Disjunction, or disunion, is that quality by which a substance is perceived as being either remote or near in time or space. Older, younger, before, and after are temporal examples; far, near, here, and there are spatial examples.

Buddhi, a quality of the self, means "knowledge" or "cognition" in vaisesika and should not be confused with the concept of buddhi that is explained in sankhya philosophy as "intellect." Pleasure is a favorable experience of mind, and pain is an unfavorable experience of mind. Effort is the quality by virtue of which a substance is capable of changing its position. There are three kinds of effort: striving toward something (pravrtti); striving against something (nivrtti); and vital functioning (jivanayoni). Heaviness is that quality by virtue of which a substance is capable of falling, while fluidity is the quality by virtue of which it flow. Viscidity is the quality -- belonging exclusively to the element of water -- by which different particles of matter can be absorbed and formed into particular shapes.

Samskaras are innate tendencies; they can be of anything, not just the mind. There are three kinds of samskaras in a substance: activity, which keeps a thing in motion (vega); elasticity, which makes a thing tend toward equilibrium when it is disturbed (sthitisthapakatva); and mental impressions, which enable one to remember and recognize a thing (bhavana). This last category is exclusive to the mind. Dharma and adharma mean. respectively, that which is in accordance with conscience, and that which is not in accordance with conscience. Dharma leads to happiness, and adharma leads to pain and misery. The remaining five categories of reality are only briefly described.

The Category of Action -- Karma

Karma, action, is viewed in the vaisesika school as being physical movement, but the term physical here refers to more than just bodily movements because in vaisesika mind is also considered to be a kind of substance. Just like quality, the second category of reality, action also exists only in a substance and cannot exist by itself. It is, however, completely different from both quality and substance. The substance of a thing supports both quality and action. Quality is the static character of things, and action is their dynamic character, which is regarded as the independent cause of their union and disunion. Action or movement is always dependent on substances -- earth, water, fire, air, and mind. It is impossible to find action in the intangible substances -- space, time, direction, and soul -- because each is an all-pervading substance, whose position cannot be changed. There are five kinds of action: upward, downward, inward, outward, and linear. The action of perceptible substances like earth, water, fire, and air can be perceived by the five senses, but not all of the actions of tangible substances can be perceived. The movement of the Earth, for example, cannot be perceived; it can only be inferred.

The Category of Generality -- Samanya

Generality. Samanya, refers to an abstract characteristic that is singular and eternal (nitya) and yet pervades many. For example, leadership is a single characteristic, but it resides in many individuals. Leadership is also eternal because it was already in existence before the first leader emerged, and it will continue to exist even if there are no more leaders. All the things of a certain class -- such as men, or cows, or puppies, or horses -- share common name because of the common nature they possess. Samanya, generality, is the essence of the common characteristic that unites different entities into one class. Hence, modern scholars sometimes translate samanya as "universality."

Vaisesika recognizes three levels of generality or universality: highest, lowest, and intermediate. The highest kind of generality is existence itself (satta). Beingness or the state of being is the highest generality because all other universals are subsumed under it; it is all-pervading, and nothing is excluded from it. The lowest kind of generality has the most limited referents (such as American-ness, Indian-ness, pot-ness, and chair-ness, which are the generalities present in all Americans, Indians, pots, and chairs, respectively). Concepts such as substantiality (having the nature of substances) represent the intermediate level of generality because they do not include many other categories of reality like quality, actions and so on.

The Category of Uniqueness -- Visesa

Visesa, or uniqueness, is that characteristic of a thing by virtue of which it is distinguished from all other things. Like the imperceptible substances of space, time, direction, soul, and mind, visesa is abstract and is therefore eternal. Everything in the world, regardless of whether it is existent or nonexistent, is accompanied by uniqueness. Generality (samanya) and uniqueness (visesa) are opposite concepts.

The Category of Inherence -- Samavaya

There are two kinds of relationships between things: conjunction (samyoga), and inherence (samavaya). Conjunction is one of the twenty-four qualities (gunas) of vaisesika, but inherence is one of the seven categories of reality described in this system. Conjunction is a temporary, noneternal relationship between two things that may be separated at any time. In this kind of relationship, two or more things exist together, but each remains essentially unaffected by the other(s). For example, when a chair and a table are conjoined together, this does not change the existence of the chair or table. Thus, conjunction is an external relationship existing as an accidental quality of the substances related to it. Inherence on the other hand, is a permanent relation between two entities, one of which inheres in the other, as for example in the relation of the whole in its parts, a quality in its substance, or the universal in the individual. A conjunctional relation is temporary and is produced by the action of either or both of the things related to it. For example, the relation between a man and a chair on which he is sitting is temporary.

An inherent relation, in contrast, is not temporary and is not produced. The relation that exists between a whole and its parts, for instance, is not produced because the whole is always related to its parts. As long as the whole is not broken up, it must exist in the parts. Thus inherence is an eternal or permanent relation between two entities, one at which depends for its existence upon the other (the whole cannot exist separate from its parts). Two terms within an inherent relationship cannot be reversed, as can those that are related by conjunction. For example, in order for there to be a conjunctional relation of hand and pen, pen and hand must both be in some kind of contact with each other, but in an inherent relation this is not necessary. A quality or action is in a substance, but the substance is not in the quality or action; there is color in cloth, but no cloth in color; there is action in a fan but no fan in the action.

The Category of Nonexistence -- Abhava

Abhava, nonexistence, the seventh and last category of reality is negative in contrast to the first six categories, which are positive. Nonexistence is not found in any of the six positive categories, and yet according to vaisesika philosophy nonexistence exists, just as, for instance, space and direction do. To illustrate: How does one know that there is no chair in a room? Looking into the room, one can feel as sure of the nonexistence of the chair as of the existence of the carpet or of the people. Therefore, nonexistence also exists as such.

There are two kinds of nonexistence: the absence of something in something else (samsargabhava), and mutual nonexistence (anyonyabhava). The absence of something in something else is of three kinds: antecedent nonexistence (pragbhava), the nonexistence of a thing after its destruction (pradhvamsabhava), and absolute nonexistence (atyantabhava). Antecedent nonexistence refers to the nonexistence of a thing prior to its creation. For example, in the sentence, "A book will be written using this paper," the book is nonexistent in the paper. This type of nonexistence does not have a beginning, but it does have an end. The book never existed before it was written; therefore, there is a beginningless nonexistence of the book. But when it does come to be written, its previous nonexistence will come to an end. In direct contrast to antecedent nonexistence, the nonexistence of a thing after its destruction has a beginning but does not have an end. For instance, when a jar is broken into pieces, then there is nonexistence of that jar. The nonexistence of the jar begins with its destruction, but this nonexistence cannot be ended in any way, because the same jar cannot be brought back into existence.

The type of nonexistence that does not belong to a particular time and space but is in all times is called absolute nonexistence. This type of nonexistence is neither subject to origin nor to end. It is both beginning less and endless. Examples are the nonexistence of the son of a barren couple or the nonexistence of color in the air.

Mutual nonexistence (anyonyabhava), the second of the two major divisions of nonexistence, is the difference of one thing from another. When one thing is different from another, they mutually exclude each other, and there is the nonexistence of either as the other. For example, a pen is different from a book, so there is nonexistence of the book in the pen and of the pen in the book.

The Concept of the Creation and Annihilation of the World

Vaisesika holds to the atomic theory of existence, according to which the entire universe is composed of eternal atoms. But at the same time, vaisesika does not ignore the moral and spiritual laws that govern the process of union and separation of atoms. In this way, the atomic theory of vaisesika is different from the atomic theory of modern science. Modern science's theory proposes a materialistic philosophy; it explains the laws of the universe as mechanical, as being the result of the motions of atoms in infinite time, space, and direction. According to this view, the operation of the atoms is governed bye mechanical laws, but according to vaisesika the functioning of atoms is guided or directed by the creative or destructive will of the Supreme being. The will of the Supreme Being directs the operation of atoms according to the past samskaras of individual beings.

Vaisesika states that the universe has two aspects, one eternal and one noneternal. The eternal constituents of the universe are the four kinds of atoms (earth, water, fire, and air) and the five substances (space, time, direction, mind, and self). These are not subject to change, and they can be neither created nor destroyed. Another part of the universe is noneternal, that is, subject to creation and destruction in a particular time and spaces In the beginning of creation two atoms are united into a dyad, which is noneternal because it can be divided again into two. The dyads and atoms cannot be perceived but are known through inference. The combination of three dyads is called a triad (tryanuka), which is the smallest perceptible object. It is from these triads that other larger compounds develop. Thus the common elements comprised of eternal atoms are noneternal because they can be broken down into smaller units.

The entire universe is a systematic arrangement of physical things and living beings that interact with one another in time, space, and direction. Living beings are the souls of the selves who enjoy or suffer in this world, depending on their meritorious or nonmeritorious past impressions. Thus, according to vaisesika philosophy, the world is a moral stage on which the life and destiny of all individual beings is governed, not only by the physical laws of time and space but also by the moral law of karma. In the performance of present karma, an individual is free and is thus the creator of his own destiny, but the starting and ending point of the universe depends on the creative or destructive will of the Supreme Being, God. The universal law (adrsta) of the process of creation and annihilation influences the individual selves to function or to be active in the direction of the creative will. Directed by this unknown force of adrsta, the soul makes contact with an atom of air; thus, the primeval motion comes into being. That primeval activity in air atoms creates dyads, triads, and all the rest of the gross physical manifestations of air elements (mahabhutas). In a similar manner, there arises motion in the atoms of fire, water, and earth, which then compose the gross elements of fire, water, and earth. In this way the vast expansion of the physical world comes into existence.

The Supreme Lord is endowed with perfect wisdom, detachment, and excellence (jnana, vairagya and aisvarya). He releases the adrsta related to individual beings, which guides the individuals in their flow through the currents of life. At the end of life, the process of dissolution and annihilation also depends on the will of God. He inspires the adrsta corresponding to the individuals or to the universe, and then a destructive motion in the atoms of the body and senses or in the cosmos starts vibrating. On account of this destructive motion, there arises the process of disjunction and disintegration of the body and senses or of the universe. Compound things break down into simpler and simpler components, finally devolving into the state of triads and dads and ultimately into atoms. In this manner the physical elements of earth, water, fire, and air, and the related sense organs, are disintegrated. After the dissolution of the manifest universe, there remain the four kinds of atoms of earth, water, fire, and air as well as the eternal substances of space, time, direction, mind, and soul, with their attendant meritorious and non-meritorious samskaras.

Thus, according to the vaisesika system of philosophy, there is no creation or annihilation but rather an orderly and morally systematized composition and decomposition of compounds. An individual self or soul is involved in the universe because of adrsta. The karma of each soul is its own earnings, deposited in the safe of the Supreme Being, which come back to the self with interest. The vaisesika concepts of God, of the liberation of the soul, and of the path to liberation are all basically the same as the nyaya concepts, which have already been discussed in the preceding chapter.