History of Atom in Ancient India

These days the atomic theory is taught as the part of the modern physics, suggesting that this theory was proposed in the modern age. In reality though the idea of atoms is a quite old one. In India this theory of atoms was very popular in the ancient times and gets a mention in many texts. In this article let us learn about the theory of atoms in ancient India.

Indian Atomic Theory is Underrated

When asked, who proposed the theory of atoms, in most textbooks John Dalton is given the credit. However in reality John Dalton was not the first person to come up with the idea of atoms. This idea had been proposed in both Ancient Greece and Ancient India more that 2000 years before John Dalton. John Dalton just made the idea more concrete and in tune with the modern scientific knowledge. Now although in popular science Ancient Greeks are given the credit for coming up with the idea of atoms, these works are generally quiet on the works of Indians.

As an example in the Wikipedia article on atomic theory the first line acknowledges that the idea was present in ancient India, but then next two paragraphs of the articles are only talking about the idea as it was present in Ancient Greece and not much information is given about Indians. Such a disregard to the scientific achievements of other cultures besides western is quite common and is one reason why people are not aware of this. This is why when asked who proposed the atomic theory on Quora, many Indians mentioned the name of Democritus the Greek philosopher and did not know about Kanada the Indian philosopher who had also proposed the theory of atoms and possibly two centuries before Democritus. Anyways, I have requested the wikipedia author to include more information on the work of Indian philosophers. Maybe they will make the requested changes or maybe not, we will see.

Vaiseshika Philosophy and Indian Theory of Atomism

Lets us get into more details of what was the ancient Indian atomic theory. The Indian atomic theory was proposed by Maharishi Kanada who was the founder of Vaisheshika school of philosophy. We will cover Vaisheshika school of Philosophy as part of Indian philosophy series later, so there you will be able to learn about this theory through a philosophical perspective. Here we will focus mostly in terms of the physical sciences perspective.

Kanada was as much a natural scientist as he was a philosopher. According to Kanada if you take a physical object and start to subdivide it into smaller and smaller pieces a time will come when you would have broken it down to an entity beyond, which it cannot be subdivided any further. This entity is what he called Paramanu or atom. There are some very interesting inferences that he drew about the properties of atom through observation and logic.

Properties of Atoms of Kanada

Kanada mentioned that the atom must be invisible because it will be very small for us to be able to observe it. There are so many observations that could have caused Kanada to conclude this. One example is the observation of tiny particles in the sun light. You can observe these particles when under sunlight but if you remove the sunlight you can no longer observe them. Another observation could have been the evaporation of water, where on applying heat the water turns into steam and then the atoms of water are no longer observable.

Considering such breaking down of big objects into smaller one, Kanada concluded that the atoms are eternal and cannot be destroyed. Whenever anything comes into existence it come through the coming together of these atoms, which arrange themselves in a certain way to give that thing its characteristics, such as color, taste, smell etc. When that thing is destroyed, it breaks down into its constituent atoms. The thing no longer exists but the atoms that made that thing still exist and can rearrange differently to manifest something else. So these bigger objects which are the collections of atoms keep coming into existence and then get destroyed but the fundamental building blocks of things, the atoms, always stay in existence and are never destroyed. Kanada also stated that by changing the environmental conditions the arrangement of atoms changes, which alters its properties such as color, taste, touch and smell. The most obvious such environmental agent he considered was heat as in how on heating the earthen pot it becomes black causing change in color and a fruit ripens causing a change in taste.

Kanada theorized that the atoms must be spherical in shape. He came to this conclusion by arguing that since atoms are the fundamental building blocks of every material thing in this world, therefore their property must not have a directional dependence on its properties. If this is that case then its shape must also not have a directional dependence and therefore it must be spherical in shape. He also postulated four types of atoms in Kanada sutra, which were associated with four of the five material elements (Panchamahabhuta) i.e earth, water, air and fire. Akasha, which is the fifth element, was postulated not to be made up of atoms. All the material things in this world are a combination of these five elements (Panchamahabhuta) and therefore are made up of these four types of atoms.

Finally Kanada also mentioned that these atoms could combine with each other to form molecules. When two atoms of same element combined with each other he called it Dwinuka and when three of them combined then he called it Trinuka.

Indian Atomic Theory Vs Greek Atomic Theory

Now I mentioned in the beginning that the theory of atomism was also proposed in ancient Greece. In Greece it were the Pre-Socratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus who are credited with coming with the theory of atomism. A natural question that comes to our mind is whether one culture influenced the other in terms of coming up with the theory of atomism. The answer to this is we don’t know. There is a very distinct difference between Greek Theory and Indian Theory of atomism. In India the theory of atomism suggested four different types of atoms, corresponding to different elements, which combine to form all the different material things of this universe, Greek theory on the other hand suggested that the atoms in all the elements are the same and their difference in arrangement leads to the difference in elements. This is a very fundamental difference in the conception of this theory, which has made scholars theorize that maybe the two theories were developed separately. In any case, one thing that we all are sure of is that the theory of atomism was not very popular in Greece. There are no direct works of Democritus or Leucippus stating the theory of atomism, all we have is the accounts of subsequent Greek Philosophers such as Aristotle who were against this theory. In India on the other hand the theory of atomism was widely accepted and popular, as other schools of philosophy also adopted this idea.

Moreover, if we look at the timelines we see that Democritus and Leucippus lived during 460–370BC era, which is after Buddha. If we see Vaiseshika sutra we see no mention of Buddhism, which indicates that most probably this work was composed before the time of Buddha, suggesting that this theory might have been present in India before the time of Democritus and Leucippus. If this is true then we can be certain that the idea of atomism did not come to India from Greece.

What Questions was Kanada Asking?

I will close this article with one final note. You have to keep in mind that all this theory of atom that Kanada proposed is embedded in a higher moral framework. Basically Kanada was not developing the theory of atomism for the sake of the theory of atomism. For him the theory of atomism was a means to develop a full theory on how this world works and how to live your life in such a world. In this article we did not discuss that, as here I wanted to mostly focus on the scientific aspect of his theory. When we will do an article on Kanada’s Vaiseshika school of Philosophy this moral aspect of his theory will be discussed in detail.

It is so unfortunate that our ancient Indian sages do not get credit for the awesome scientific work they did. Just do a Google search on who proposed the theory of atom and the name of Dalton and Democritus pops up while Kanada is nowhere to be found. Then it is said that Indians were only interested in spirituality and ignored science. This then results in the inferiority complex amongst Indians. It is our duty to spread this information as much as possible, because if we will not do it then no one else will.

Originally published at https://stoicsadhu.com on August 25, 2019.

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Rahul Yadav

Rahul Yadav

Discover Indian Heritage: Arts, Science, Religion and Philosophy of India

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