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The vaisheShika sUtras and the science of the ancient Hindus.


Philosophical thought of the Indo-Aryans underwent considerable diversification in the Indian subcontinent towards the end of the vedic period and the periods that followed it. The rough temporal span of this development can be taken to be from 1000 BC to 850 AD and accompanied the political unification of greater India under various indigenous dynasties. Six principal spheres of thought or darshanas originating in this period are followed amidst the mainstream Hindus and include nyAya, vaisheShika, sAMkhya, yoga, mImAmsa and vedanta. In addition to these, there were more heterodox philosophical systems such as jaina, bauddha and charvAka that were excluded from mainstream Hindu thought due to lack of firm affliations to the classic vedic texts. The principle six claimed to be based on the vedas but strikingly differed from each other due to differential interpretation of the vedic texts. Of these systems nyAya and vaisheShika developed the atomic theory of matter and represent some of the most advanced sections Hindu thought. Below, I briefly consider the development of the ideas on nature of matter that are expounded in the vaisheShika sUtras of kaNAda.


All the classic lines of hindu philosophy claim their origins in the vedas and true enough the beginings of hindu atomic thought can be seen in the vedas. For example in the ancient chants from the R^igveda authored by dirghatamA of the clan of the gotamas and the kANva medhAthiti one can see primary references of the construction of universe by atoms:

#d< iv:[uivR c³me Çexa in dxe pdm!, smUFmSy pa<sure. RV 1.22.17

iv:[aenuR k< vIyaRi[ à vaec< y> paiwRvain ivmmerja<is,

yae ASk-ayÊÄr< sxSw< ivc³ma[ôexaeégay>. RV 1.154.1

Here in the three striding viShNu is said to collect the atoms together or measure out the world by means of atoms. Similarly in the taittriya saMhitA rudra is invoked as being present in the atoms and particles of the world. This atomic doctrine, with its beginnings in the vedas, had a long lasting life in the Indo-Aryan philosophical traditions as is attested by a very similar thought was voiced in the much later shakta tantric literature:


tnIya<s< pa<su< tv cr[ pNke éh-v<, ivriÂ> s<icNvn! ivrcyit laekanivkl<,

vhTyen< zaEir> kwm=ip shöe[ izrsa<, hr> s<]u_y @n< -jit -istaEÏ‚ln ivixm!. SL 2

This mantra from the saundaryalahari talks about the elementary particles (pAMsu) emerging from the feet of the primary shakti. Brahma generates the world with these, while viShNu with his 1000 heads holds them in place and rudra destroys the combinations and sets them free.  These examples point out that the concept of particular construction (vaisheShika) of the universe was an integral part of Indian cosmogony.


The general esteem for the hindu vaisheShika principles even in the heterodox schools generally illustrates its central position amidst the coeval philosophies. RAjashekhara the jaina scholar mentions one of the founders of vaisheShika- ulUka as being an ancient scholar who had discovered fundamental truths of the universe. Similarly, there is a vaisheShika text along with a sAMkhya treatise in the Chinese version of the buddhist tripITaka that probably originated as a result of the scholastic tradition of kumArajIva. VaisheShika also prominently figures in the list of things learned by the Indo-greek king Menander, in course of his explorations of philosophy, in the text-“The questions of Menander”. Thus, we get a glimpse of the fact that vaisheShika, rather than being a watershed of Indian thought as imagined by many, was one of the principal philosophies of the Indians.


Traditionally the first sUtras vaisheShika are supposed to have been founded by ulUka probably as early as 800 years before gautama buddha as mentioned in the vAyu purANna. This is independently attested by rajAshekhara in his nyAya kandalI and in the central Asian text of kumArajiva’s school. However, none of his works appear to survived to this date. He is supposed to have been followed by pa~nchashikha of one of the a~ngirasa clans who developed his works further. These developments can be gleaned from the teachings of his female student sulabhA of the vasishhTha family in the court of the maithila ruler dharmadhyaja. The Sanskrit version of a central Asian text in Chinese translation- the dashapadArtha shAstra of chandramati that explains pa~ncashikha’s work unfortunately does not exist thus pointing to lacunae in the extant vaisheShika traditions. Another early scholar of vaisheShika was a certain rAvaNa whose work while mentioned periodically does not appear to survive in complete form. The mention of the aNu/aNava- the small basic particle and space in the brahmasUtra stemming from the vyAsa-pArasharya- jaimini’s school may show that these concepts were well developed at a rather ancient date before 1000 BCE.  The first of the well preserved texts of the vaisheShika dating to between 700-600 BCE schools comprise of kaNAda the kAshyapa’s celebrated sUtras. These represent the most remarkable work of vaisheShika both in terms of their antiquity and the originality of thoughts they contain. The sUtras of KaNAda follow the traditional Indian aphoristic style with short sentences and some degree of purposeful ellipsis. KaNAda was followed by a brilliant, long tradition of vaisheShika-vAdins who composed both original works and some commentaries.  This tradition includes the following major names: 1) kaNAda 2) prashastapAda- who composed the padArtha dharma saMgraha that developed the theory of atomic combinations. 3) udayana 4) shrIdhara 5) vyomashiva 6) vardhamAna 7) shankara-mishra 8) shivAditya. Parallel to this line of vaisheShika exponents the other line of Indian atomic philosophers beginning from akshapAda the gotama developed their own apparatus- nyAya with many common principles. NyAya while developing a complex system of inference and argument had a less than robust theory of chemical transformation and it eventually fused with vaisheShika to spawn the conjoint nyAya-vaisheShika vij~nana vAdin school with pioneers such as gadAdhara. While the beginning in the form of kAshyapa kaNAda’s sUtras is spectacular, the subsequent competition from the irrational schools of buddhism and vedanta eclipsed vaisheShika by repulsing Indian intellectual elite from its pursuit. Thus, this brilliant school poised to develop into an advanced scientific venture met with near extinction in India by the time Dalton was postulating  modern Atomism several thousand kilometers away.


The vaisheshika sUtras when viewed in the true spirit of the vij~nanavAdins emerges as a mature scientific treatise that covers a range of physical descriptions of the world and the processes occuring therein. A number of physical laws are plainly expressed within these aphorisms as well as explanations for processes. The sUtras themselves show quite a haphazard arrangement, with prashastapAda’s work doing much to re-order the material more systematically. Some of the physical concepts covered in the text are to do with basic forces acting on bodies. The text rather early on defines a force and proceeds to consider the forces based on the changes related to matter:

s<yaegiv-agvegana< kmR smanm!, V.S 1.1.19

Force is that which displaces, holds together or moves things apart.

n ÔVya[a< Vyitrekat!, V.S 1.1.20

In the absence of a force, a particle of matter experiences no change.

%T]ep[m]ep[mak…ÁCn< àsar[< gmnimit kmaRi[, V.S 1.1.6

The forces to be considered are an external force, gravity, that with causes attraction of particles, that which causes repulsion of particles and the internal movements of them in matter. 


Thus, vaisheShika aims at understanding a substance in terms of the effect of external forces that act on it including gravity and the internal forces on its particles that cause their attraction, repulsion and vibrations.  Then the text makes a rather interesting statement:

kayaRivraeix kmR, V.S 1.1.13

Action is opposed by an equivalent opposite reaction- thus, here an echo of the Newton’s 3rd law of motion. Further, the role of forces in different processes is elaborated in the sUtras describing the motion of an arrow:

#;avyugpTs<yaegivze;a> kmaRNyTve hetu>,

naednada*im;ae> kmR kmRkairta½ s<SkaraÊÄr< twaeÄrmuÄr< c,

s<Skara-ave guéTvaTptnm!, V.S 5.1.16-18

The diversities of the movement of an arrow are due to the consecutive changes in the components of the acting forces. The stored energy provides the propulsion to the arrow and this causes it move further to a high point. This component keeps reducing while that of gravity increases resulting in its fall. Thus kaNAda kAshyapa clearly recognized the trajectory of an arrow as being dependent only on the two acting forces- one emerging from the stored energy that causes the horizontal movement and gravity that effects vertical movement.  The concept of work being done to counter gravity and in the absence of such work the tendency to attain an energy minimum can be rather plainly gleaned from the following sUtras:

guéTvàyÆs<yaeganamuT]ep[m!, V.S 1.1.27

The force on a body is the resultant of gravity and the work done against it.

àyÆa-ave guéTvaTsuÞSy ptnm!, V.S 5.1.13

Once the work against gravity ceases then the body reaches an energy-less state falling under gravity.

The importance of gravity is reiterated in the sUtra that suggests that even in the absence of all other forces (saMyoga-bindings) gravity exists thus suggesting it as a primary property matter:

s<yaega-ave guéTvaTptnm!, V.S 5.1.7

Finally, one of the sUtra’s perhaps hints at the vectorial nature of force by saying that the “guna” of forces (direction) prevents a magnitude from being obtained:

gu[ vExmRyat! n kmR[a< kmR, V.S.1.1.20a

Having laid out a basic physics KaNAda goes on to explore the nature of physical changes in matter in terms of work being done on the basic particles that constitute matter. For this he provides an understanding of the states of matter in terms of their particles. He clearly recognizes the “substantial nature” of air and that it is composed of particles.

vayaevaRyus<mUCDRn< nanaTve ilNgm!, V.S 2.1.14

The particular nature of air is suggested by the mixing of gases that occurs on their collision.

KaNAda goes on to say that despite of being made of atoms and occupying space air fails show orderly movement so its form cannot be perceived:

sTyip ÔVyTve mhTve êps<Skara-avaÖayavnupliBx>, V.S 4.1.8

Explaining solids, he says that they occupy space and assume form due to conglomeration of the constituent particles:

 mhTynekÔVyvÅvaÇUpa½aePliBx>, V.S 4.1.6

A fairly clear understanding of the liquid state and its transformation to gaseous or solids states - vaporization, melting and freezing is seen in the vaisheShika sUtras.



naf(a vayus<yaegadaraeh[m!,

naednaTpIfnaTs<yu­s<yaega½, V.S 5.2.4-5.2.7

The (fluid’s) particles possess energy. This causes them to possess the property of fluidity. The heat bearing rays provide the particles with energy to form a gas and rise. The heated particles of air impact the vapor and with this energy it mixes with it.


KaNAda also explains freezing and melting of a liquid as being a result of heat being taken up or given up by its particles:

Apa< s'œ"atae ivlyn tej> s<yaegat!, V.S 5.2.9

He states that some apparently solid substances like ghee, lac and wax are in reality liquids, as their particles are naturally “heat-conjoined” or disorganized as in water. Other true solid substances such as tin, lead, iron, silver and gold need their atoms to be supplied with external heat to disorder them before they become a fluid:

sipRjRtumxUiCDòanami¶s<yaegadœÔvta=iÑ> samaNym!,

ÇpusIslaehrjtsuv[aRna< tEjsanami¶s<yaegadœ Ôvta=iÑ>, V.S 2.1.6-7


The depth of KaNAda’s understanding of natural processes can be glimpsed in the fact that he was able to distinguish between the physical changes that merely alter the substance’s state and the chemical processes that result in new substances. Before proceeding to expound these ideas he makes a remarkable statement that echos the law of conservation of mass. This was the founding principle of the vaisheShika doctrine that was further developed by prashastapAda in explaining how any body’s mass needs to be wholly explained in terms of its constituent particles.

ÔVyai[ ÔVyaNtrmar-Nte,

gu[aí gu[aNtrm!,  V.S 1.1.8-9

A substance can only emerge from another substance and not on its own eventhough its properties change from one to another.

A-Ut< naStITynwaRNtm!R, V.S 9.1.9

Nothing can be produced de novo but has to rise from something.

Further, the fundamental particular entities are stated as maintaining their individuality inspite of their combinations forming and breaking under the influence of forces:

@kÔVymgu[< s<yaegiv-age:vnpe]< kar[imit kmRl][m!, V.S 1.1.16

Any fundamental particular entity can be a constituent multiple substances:

ÔVya[a< ÔVy< ky¡ samaNym!, V.S 1.1.22

Any substance comprising of two or more primary particle types requires a chemical reaction to generate it- the conjoining and break up of prexisting molecules:

iÖTvà-&tyí s<Oya> p&w®v< s<yaegiv-agaí, V.S 1.1.23

The “molecules” are stated as emerging from combinations between the fundamental entities:

s<yaegana< ÔVy<, V.S 1.1.25

Forces are necessary to bring about combination and break up of molecules:

s<yaegiv-aga> kmR[am!, V.S 1.1.28

The combinations of particles to produce molecules result in substances with states very different from those of the original particles:

AnekÔVye[ ÔVye[ smvayaÔ‚pivze;a½aepliBx>, V.S 4.1.9


Thus in the vaisheShika sUtras we see the development of an “atomic” theory of matter and also a theory for chemical reactions based on interactions between these “atomic” particles. As the eternality or the indestructability of the primary particles is explicity stated (inTy< pirm{flm!, V.S7.1.26) it is apparent that kaNAda was only allowing for integral combinations of his particles. In the sUtra -V.S 1.1.23 (see above) he raises the point of rejoining the primary particles in the formation of a particle of a new substance.


In the true tradition of all Hindu epistemologies kaNAda does not limit himself with this physical theory but proceeds to speculate on other matters including the mind, space and time. He takes the stance that mind has to be explained as being comprised of particles- a rather mature thought for his period. Commenting on space and time he considers both of them to be related and considers them as serving as a frame in which matter is distributed. Space and time are also claimed to be particular in nature like a gas and they are sums of their consitutent particles:

ApriSmNpr< yugpdyugpi½r< i]àimit kalil¼ain,

ÔVyvinTyTv vayuna VyaOyate,

tÅv< -aven, V.S 2.2.6-2.2.8

We get a hint that kaNAda was aware of other phenomena too- like for example he speaks of the force adR^isShTam as being responsible for the movement of the needle and the bead. Was he refering to electricity/magnetism here?

In the sUtras of kaNAda we see the origin of an objective Indian philosophy and an attempt to explain nature in a realistic manner. The early date of the text and acceptance of the view that vaisheShika represents a scientific exploration raises two issues: 1) Was there an empirical base for the sUtras  2) What were the causes for the cessation of a physical interpretation of nature in the periods of Indian history that followed the pinnacle of vaisheShika. With regards to the first issue, the fact that in some cases kaNAda uses examples such as the flight of the arrow suggests that in the least there had been an effort to observe. As early as the yajur vedic period (eg Taittriya saMhitA prapAThaKA 5) an understanding of metallurgy flourished across Greater India. Further, the veda of the atharvAngirasa also suggests the knowledge of a range of chemical operations. Thus between the vedic period to that of kaNAda one would expect a considerable development of practical techniques related to chemistry that could have provided kaNAda with the empirical observations necessary for his sUtras. However, given the style of Indian aphoristic literature, there is no reason to expect many of these empirical observations to occur explicitly in the text.


With regards to the follow-up on kaNAda’s work we see that in the early phase of development vaisheShika advanced rather rapidly with prashastapAda expanding the theory of the “paramANu” and its derivatives. He also thoroughly reorganizes the thoughts of kaNAda and provides sound explanations for many of the sutras. Nevertheless, in the following centuries vaisheShika was possibly being further distanced from its empirical roots and faced the adversity of the lack of new observations on natural processes. Simultaneously the rise of vedAnta after the 5th century CE dealt a fatal blow to vaisheShika crippling any further intellectual developments in a productive direction. Advaita amidsts the schools of vedanta was particularly successful in driving the Indian mind away from the exploration of the universe and thus it turned inwards to search the undefined “Atma”. Ironically, clash between advaita vedAnta and vaisheShika was entirely superfluous in purely logical terms. They were based on completely different axioms- advaita vedAnta started out by denying the existence of the world as a real entity and decryed its study as avidya while vaisheShika sought to study the world and pronounced the lack of knowledge of the particles to be avidya.