Atomism in ancient India & the Nyaaya-Vaiseshika system

But it is in the Vaiseshika and Nyaaya systems, especially the former, that this doctrine was developed further and an atomic theory was propounded.

Published: 06th January 2021 07:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th January 2021 08:31 AM   |  A+A-

NASA astronaut Terry Virts, commander of Expedition 43 on board the International Space Station tweeted this image of Earth.

Image used for representation

The doctrine of the panchabhootas was propounded in India to understand the apparently complex and diverse world during the Upanishadic period, as described in the previous article in the series (Dec 11). It was elaborated in the later Saamkhya system, according to which all gross things are formed by the grouping and regrouping of the five elements. But it is in the Vaiseshika and Nyaaya systems, especially the former, that this doctrine was developed further and an atomic theory was propounded.

The primary source of the Vaiseshika system is the Vaiseshika-sootra of Kanaada (around 600 BCE). In Sanskrit, ‘Kanaada’ means one who eats grains or particles. More appropriately, kana may mean atom and Kanaada, which would mean atom-eater, was called so as he was the propounder of the atomic theory. Prashastapaada’s Padaarthadharmasangraha (4th century CE) is the next important text of this school. This text and many others in the Nyaaya system take the Vaiseshika system significantly forward, resulting in what can be termed the Nyaaya-Vaiseshika system.

In the Vaiseshika system, all objects that exist and can be experienced are padaarthas that are classified into seven categories, of which dravya (substance) is the most basic one. There are nine dravyas. Five of them are the panchabhootas, namely prithvi (earth), ap (water), tejas (fire), vaayu (air) and aakaasha (ether), which are material and bhautika (physical). Four of them, namely kaala (time), dik (space), manas (mind) and aatma (soul) are non-physical. The translated terms are only indicative.

The first four dravyas, that is, ‘earth’, ‘water’, ‘fire’ and ‘air’, in the fundamental state, and the ‘mind’, always, are atomic in nature. In the ultimate stage, the physical universe consists of an indefinite number of paramaanus or atoms of the first four types and three infinite and pervasive entities, namely, aakaasha, time and space. The paramaanus are the ultimate constituents and cannot be divided further. The four of them in the atomic form enter into the composition of the world. The mind in the atomic form and the soul help in the organisation of productive forms into structures capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.

The  argument for the impossibility of dividing matter indefinitely was as follows. If it were possible, every material product would consist of an equally endless number of constituents and there would be no difference of dimension amongst the various products. But it cannot be denied that there is such a difference. Hence, it is necessary to hold that the process of  division stops at a certain stage and the constituents at that stage are paramaanus, which are indivisible.

There are different kinds of atoms—prithvi, ap, etc., and even all prithvi atoms, for instance, are not completely alike. A visesha (particularity) makes one atom different from the other. Jainism and Buddhism also developed atomism in their own ways, structurally different from that of the Nyaaya-Vaiseshika school. Also, atomism  developed by Democritus and Leucippus in the Greek tradition was different. There the differences among objects arise not  from inherent qualities of the different kinds of atoms, but from geometry, that is, from the structure and arrangement of the same kind of atoms.

Two primary atoms of the same kind form the dvayaanuka or the dyad. The dyad itself is different from the individual parts. Like the paramaanu, it is also infinitesimal and cannot be perceived by the senses. Three dvayaanukas form a trayaanuka (triad), also called a trasarenu. It has a finite magnitude and can be perceived by senses. The dust particles visible in a sunbeam coming through a small window hole are examples of triads. The magnitude of the triads is not due to the atoms, but because of the plurality of dyads. More than three dyads can also combine to form structures.

For example, a tetrad is made of four dyads. It is out of the triads, tetrads, etc., that the whole of the material universe, including the bodies of living beings, is created. The dyads, triads, etc., and the gross structures formed out of them are not eternal. Only the atoms are. An object that possesses magnitude and is non-eternal can be formed out of non-eternal products only. Hence, the atoms cannot directly produce the triads, etc., and an intermediary like a dyad is necessary. Though the picture is only qualitative, the process of formation of gross objects here has some similarity with modern atoms combining to form molecules, which in turn form the gross objects.

The  universe (samsara) is without a beginning and an end, and is ever-changing. At some stage, the world was in a state of dissolution (pralaya) when there were only paramaanus separated from one another. Due to an adrista (unseen) force, motion in the mind and atoms was initiated, eventually leading to the formation of the world. There will be dissolution again, when there are no gross objects but only paramaanus, and the formation of the world with the composites begins afresh. There is conceptual similarity with modern standard cosmology, where at the very beginning, the universe consisted of only the fundamental particles, all unbound, and no composites.

M S  Sriram
Theoretical Physicist & President, Prof. K.V. Sarma Research Foundation

(This is the seventh article in the series on India’s contributions to science and technology)    


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