Vaisheshika Philosophy: Atomic Theory of Naturalism in Ancient India

Vaisheshika is one of the six orthodox Hindu philosophies. Its original originator is Rishi Kanada. This philosophy is very similar to the nyaya philosophy, but actually is an independent philosophy with a naturalistic approach. Maharishi Kanada first wrote the foundational ideas of Vaisheshika philosophy in the sutra form in his work Vaisheshika Sutra. Since this philosophy focuses on the particularity of different entities present in this universe, therefore this philosophy has been given the name “Vaisheshika”, which means associated with particularity.


Hinduism identifies six reliable sources (Pramanas) of gathering knowledge about the truths, these are:

1. Pratyakṣa (perception, what you see is what you believe in)

2. Anumāṇa (inference, as an example if you see smoke then you can infer there is fire)

3. Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy, as an example if you have never seen a moose and I tell you that the moose looks like a stag with different antlers. In future you see a moose and you realize that you have identified moose then you have realized it through upmana)

4. Arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances, you see something and then you make a guess for the truth. This is how all modern scientific theories have been developed, as an example you observe that the galaxies are moving further from each other, so you postulate at some instance back in time all the galaxies were at a single point and the universe came into existence with big bang)

5. Anupalabdi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof, you have never seen a penguin fly in the sky, so you know that penguins cannot fly)

6. Śabda (scriptural testimony/ verbal testimony of past or present reliable experts, as an example considering the Vedas to be a reliable source of knowledge).

Out of these six pramanas, Vaisheshika Philosophy only considers Pratyakṣa (perception) and Anumāna (inference) to be reliable. Vaisheshika philosophy also accepts Vedas to be valid, but reduce them to Pratyaksa and Anumana when it comes to using them as a source of knowledge.

Natural World

In the Vaisheshika school, the whole world is divided into these two divisions “Bhav and Abhav”. There are further six divisions of “Bhava”, these are — Dravya, Guna, Karma, Samanya, Vishesh, and Samvay. Let’s understand them in detail:

Dravya: The substance in which or on which action happens is dravya. These are pṛthvī (earth), ap (water), tejas (fire), vāyu (air), ākaśa (ether), kāla (time), dik (space), ātman (self or soul) and manas (mind). The first five are called bhūtas, that is material objects. Of these five, there are two distinctions of the first four substances, Nitya (eternal) and Anitya (non-eternal). The eternal form is called paramāṇu (atom) and the non-eternal form is action on them. The atom cannot be re-partitioned; hence it is eternal.

That which one can smell is “earth”, which is cold to touch, is “water” which has a warm touch, is “tejas”, which does not have form and does not arise from the combination of fire, is dry and cold to touch, is “air”, and the word which has a quality is “ākaśa”. These five are also called ‘Panchabhutas’. Akash, Time, Space and Atman are the four “Vibhu” substances, which means they pervade everything. The mind is immaterial atom, it is eternal and is a generated in Atman.

Guna: The attribute of any function is the “Guna”. Guna reside in dravya and has no separate existence of its ow. The original Vaiśeṣika Sūtra mentions 17 guṇas to which Praśastapāda added 7 more. The original 17 guṇas (qualities) are: Rūpa (colour), Rasa (taste), Gandh (smell), Sparśa (touch), Saṁkhyā (number), Sparimāṇa (size/dimension/quantity) Pṛthaktva (individuality) Saṁyoga (conjunction/accompaniments) Vibhāga (disjunction), Paratva (priority), Aparatva (posteriority), Buddhi (knowledge), Sukha (pleasure), Duḥkha (pain), Icchā (desire), Dveṣa (aversion) and Prayatna (effort). To these Praśastapāda added Gurutva (heaviness), Dravatva (fluidity), Sneha (viscosity), Dharma (merit), Adharma (demerit), Sabda (sound) and Saṁskāra (faculty).

Karma: The process of action is called “karma”. Karma similar to Guna, also resides in the Dravya but while Guna is static, Karma is dynamic. Rising, falling, contracting, spreading and (other types of) movement, such as excursion, vibration, catharsis, etc., are five distinctions of the”karma”.

Samanya: Similarity present in different things.

Vishesha: that which “special” is called Vishesha. This differentiates between eternal substances.

Samvaya: A relation that exists between entities.

Aabhav: Absence of an entity

Understanding this world

In the Indian way of thinking this entire universe is a school where all beings come to develop knowledge about the self. In that reference Vaisheshika philosophy borrows its outlook from nyaya philosophy. The processes in this universe are controlled by the supreme being Ishwara through unseen methods called the Adrishta. The entire natural world which includes the four dravyas with atomic nature and five which are not atomic are controlled by Ishwara through the Adrishta. Ishwara sends the beings into this universe in a physical body to gain self-knowledge. This universe is ruled not only by the physical laws but also by the moral laws of karma. Living beings suffer or enjoy in this world based on their understanding of these laws that govern the universe.

The universe goes through a cycle of creation and destruction and this process is eternal. In one cycle after its creation the universe moves through its due course where the atoms start combining with each other to create all the different kinds of material objects present. All the beings go through the cycle of birth and death and earn merit or demerit based on their karma. After a certain period of existence, the process of the destruction of the world is initiated by him, where all the physical objects start disintegrating back into their constituent atoms. All being with their accumulated karma are withdrawn from the universe. The reason for the destruction of the universe is to give rest to all the beings from the hard work they go through while the universe exists. This is similar to how we all go to sleep at night to recover from the hard work of the day to come back refreshed on the next day. The cycle of creation and destruction has been going on since eternity and will continue to happen for eternity. The freedom is attained by a being when he gains the knowledge about how this universe functions.

Limitations of Vaisheshika Philosophy

Since Vaisheshika philosophy borrows its basic worldview from the Nyaya philosophy therefore it has the same limitations as that of the Nyaya philosophy. These are

1. Vaisheshika philosophy considers jeevatma to be a different substance from Ishwara and consciousness it considers just a property of jeevatma. This assumption limits us to only our subtle body and considering ourselves to be our subtle body leaves us with the problem of ego.

2. The process of liberation in this philosophy is just the process of gaining the knowledge of the universe. It is never well explained why this knowledge should lead to liberation of jeevatma.

3. The universe goes through the eternal process of creation and destruction and all beings are sent and withdrawn from the universe. It is not very clear what happens to the liberated beings in this process.

4. The Ishwara in Vaisheshika philosophy has been reduced to just a powerful monarch running his kingdom through the Adrishta. Ishwara to be separate from the physical universe reduces the divinity of the entire creation.

5. Leaving his rules for ruling this universe as adrishta limits us in terms of pursing to understand these rules deeply.

The major contribution of Vaisheshika is in its formulation of the physical matter to be made up of fundamental particles called Paramanu. In terms of spiritual development, the formulation of this philosophy is not as satisfying as some other Indian philosophies are.

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