Understanding the Vaisesika Philosophy: 11 Interesting Concepts We Need to Know!

Vaisesika Philosophy in the Indian Tradition!

Discussion about the Vaisesika philosophy

Understanding the Vaisesika Philosophy: 11 Interesting Concepts We Need to Know!


The Vaisesika philosophy was a school of thought which was established by the sage Kanada, also termed as Uluka. Kanada essentially refers to atom eating because the sage lived the life of an ascetic. It forms one of the six major schools of Indian philosophy. In the initial stages, Vaisesika was an independent school of philosophy with an independent metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, etc. But, gradually it was inscribed with the Nyaya philosophy of logical realism.

Yet, till date Vaisesika is considered distinct from the Nyaya philosophy of realism in its ontological categories, epistemology, and metaphysics. The Nyaya realism focuses upon four pramanas which include the perception, inference, verbal testimony and comparison. But, unlike the Nyaya realism, Vaisesika lays emphasis only on the perception and inference and thus terms them as prameya, as opposed to the four pramanas of the Nyaya. The Vaisesika philosophy considers its basic theology and knowledge to be indisputable and that it cannot be backed by any external argument than the views presented in the philosophy itself and it used to derive a major chunk of its ideology and views from the Vedas. There are several contemplations about the life of the sage Kanada, as to whether he lived before the advent of Buddhist philosophy or after it, as there is no mention of Buddha or Buddhism in the Vaisesika Sutra. But, it is stated that he lived during the period between 6th and 2nd century BCE.

The Vaisesika Sutra considers all objects of knowledge under seven categories of substance (dravya), quality (guna), action (karma), generality (samanya), particularity (visesa), the relation of inherence (samavaya), and non-existence (abhava). According to this philosophy, knowledge and liberation are achievable only through a complete understanding of the world of experience. It presents deep insights on naturalism and is a form of atomism for natural philosophy.

It proposes a theory that all the elements in the world are reducible as atoms (paramanu) and one’s experiences can be derived from the interplay of substance (function of atoms, their number and their spatial arrangements), quality, activity, commonality, particularity and inherence. Everything is composed of atoms, qualities, emerging from an aggregate/totality of atoms, but the aggregation and basic nature of these atoms is predetermined by cosmic forces. Although a particular substance is considered as a summation of qualities and activities, but is different from both. There are nine kinds of substances, which include earth(prithvi), fire (aag), water (jal), air (vayu), ether (akasa), time, space, soul and mind (manas). Of these nine elemens, the former five are termed as the bhutas (physical elements) and therefore respectively they have the specific qualities of smell, taste, color, touch and sound. Furthermore, the former four of these, are composed of four kinds of atoms (earth, fire, water, air), which are invisible and indestructible parts of matter. The atoms are uncreated and eternal entities which we get by resolving any material object into smaller and smaller parts, till it reaches a point from where it cannot be further divided.

It is stated in this school of thought that dravya, guna and karma are possess real, objective existence and that the latter three are products of intellectual discrimination. According to all the followers of the Vaisesika philosophy, the ultimate reality is more than one, and thus it is pluralistic. There is no objective presence of God in Vaisesika philosophy, he is always considered to be non-existent.

The nature of the pancabhuta and the concept of akasa

The five natural elements of fire, earth, water, air and ether have a specific property (visesaguna) which is related to an external sense.

Earth (prithvi) comprises of smell (gandha) and other substances can possess smell only because they are partially or wholly mixed with earth or muddy water. Similarly, water has a specific taste (rasa) and fire has a form or color (rupa), air has touch (sparsa) and ether has sound (sabda).

Akasa (ether) is of such nature that it cannot be perceived, as it has no color manifestation (udbhutarupavattva) and no perceptible dimension (mahattva). Therefore, the presence of akasa is inferred from sound, as after all each attribute must belong to a substance and through the process of elimination, the sound belongs to akasa. The atoms are discrete as particles, yet they are bound together by akasa. Akasa fills the space, though it is not space itself, and has sound production in it. But, akasa is not atomic, it is infinite and all pervading. It is the inherent sense which is directly or indirectly concerned with psychological functions such as cognition, feeling and willing.

Now, let us understand the concept and nature of the four bhutas in reference to eternal (nitya) and non-eternal (anitya). The paramanu is eternal and all other products are non-eternal. Atoms are indestructible and eternal. There are four types of atoms largely and each type has a specific unique trait which differentiates it from the others. So, ultimately the universe can be reduced to be consisting primarily of these four types of atoms, and the non-atomic akasa. But, then one must be wondering that how are atoms known if they cannot be reduced to anything and are indestructible? The answer lies in the inference of things as they might possibly be. Inference helps one understand things through varying magnitudes of sensible things and that everything is not made of infinitely ultimate parts.

Kala (time) and dik (space)

Both kala (time) and dik (space) are considered to be imperceptible, eternal and all-pervading. Space is considered the basis of our cognitions of here, there, near and far. Time is considered as the basis of past, present and young and old. Although time in essence is a singular entity, it is conceived of having many parts like east, west, minute, etc.

The concept of atman (soul)

The soul (atman) is considered as the substantial part of consciousness and consciousness is not in its nature and therefore there is nothing about spirituality of the soul in this case. Talking about its basic characteristics, then it can be stated that it differs from all other entities in the sense that it can easily come to possess knowledge, volition, feeling while other entities cannot possess these traits not so easily.

This philosophy also states that in order to attain the highest state of freedom and liberation from the entanglement of miseries, suffering and birth and death, one needs to first understand the soul and work towards embellishing it.

Even while talking about atman (soul), there are majorly two types of atman, one being the jivatman and the other being the paramatman. The jivatman is perceived internally as possessing cognitions, etc. and paratman is referred to the soul which is the Creator of the Universe.

There have been several theories regarding the existence and perception of God. In the Vaisesika theory, god is considered as either the sole Ultimate Reality and his presence/existence is the major reason of the presence of the Universe and all individuals and this perception is termed as cosmological or causal argument and the other perception is termed as teleological argument or intelligent design.

The concept of manas

In the Vaisesika philosophy, the manas is perceived in an internal sense (antarindriya) for perception of the soul and its qualities. The manas is atomic in nature but yet he is not perceived in totality, he is simply inferred as a manas due to several conceptions.

These conceptions include: – perception of internal states needs some sense of basic perceptibility, and this basic sense of perceptibility is considered as manas

  • Not all physical objects can be perceived at all moments and only those upon which our attention is focused need the contact of manas with their respective sense organs.

Quality (guna)

The quality of any substance is dravyasrayi and it has substance in its substratum. It is agunavan and so it is devoid of further qualities.

It is also samyogavibhagesv akaranam, which essentially means that it is not the cause for conjunction and disjunction, which is considered only to be present between substances. There are 24 qualities in number and they are distinct in their form, shape, smell, taste, pleasure, pain and sound.

Action (karma)

According to karmic theory, only those substances can come under the karmic debts or karmic bonds, who possess the ability to exhibit their intrinsic ‘aliveness’ and are therefore not inanimate.

Only finite and atomic objects can exhibit some sort of action and therefore get entangled into the karmic bonds. Action cannot be observed in akasa, dik, kala and atman as they are vibhu or stagnant and inactive and not possessing any kind of life. The movement of physical objects is always initiated by a sentient agent which is related to the cosmological argument of the presence of God. There are fibe kinds of actions as stated under karma which are as follows: throwing up (utksepana), throwing down (avaksepana), contraction (akuncana), expansion (prasarana) and locomotion (gamana).

Universal (samanya)

The universals are considered as nitya and are inherent (samavaya) in many individuals, the reason being that they have a sort of common snese present intrinsically within them and therefore they are nitya and inherent in most of the individuals.

The real entity of the universals is corresponding to the general idea in the mind. There are three kinds of universals: para (highest just like satta, i.e. existence), apara (lowest like jarness, i.e. ghatatva) and parapara (intermediate just like dravyatva). The satta is different from astitva and satta is latter to all the categories, it is abhava.

Particularity (visesa)

There is a unique individuality of substances which have no parts and are eternal, such as space, time, akasa, manas, atman and the four bhuta atoms. Particularity is a specific characteristic of the other indistinguishable atoms. Antyavisesa refers to the innovativeness of this school and it subsists in ultimate atoms and eternal substances, and it distinguishes its sub-strata from other entities.

There are countless number of visesas. They play a double role by particularizing its substrata as well as itself. They are known through inference.

Inherence (samavaya)

Inherence lays distinction from samyoga (conjunction) and is temporary and is between independent things and it does not affect the existence of things and therefore is an accidental property.

It is considered as the permanent relation between two, of which one inheres the other. It is generally found in five cases:

– Parts in whole

– Qualities in substance

– Activity in substance

– Universal in individual

– Particularity in eternal substances

Samavaya is the basis for asatkaryavada, since the effect is inhered in the cause.

Non-Existence (abhava)

Abhava is not mentioned as a separate category by the sage Kanada but it was discussed as a possible object of knowledge. It is a negative aspect of reality and is not restricted as a linguistic entity but a metaphysical entity.

There are four types of abhava : -pragabhava (cause in effect)

  • dhvamsabhava (of jar when broken)
  • atyantabhava (color in air)
  • anyonyabhava (absence of one thing as another, opposite of identity)

Perception (pratyaksa) and Inference (anumana)

Perception is described as ‘extraordinary’ or ‘transcendental’ (alaukika).

It is a concept which is beyond empirical psychology. It is believed that a yogin is able to directly perceive things which cannot be directly perceived by an average man, for instance he can easily perceive atoms, moral merit (dharma), etc. He is in possession of a mystical power which brings him face to face with super-sensuous activities. The conditions of developing this power are identical to those of attaining salvation i.e. moral purity and proficiency in meditation. Therefore, only a perfect saint is able to exercise his perceptibility in an extended and extraordinary way. Such knowledge is therefore valid and is the intuition of the individual seer.

Inference (anumana) in the Buddhistic conception confers it a legitimacy only when there is an existence of the cause and its presence is inferred from the presence of something which can be termed as its effect. Therefore, a major pre-requisite for the anumana of something is the presence of a causal relation between two objects. Although, in Buddhism, the cause is considered to be a necessary element for the presence of the effect, but in the Vaisesika, the presence of the cause is not considered to be necessary. Instead, it puts forth a view that the cause is considered to be a necessary element only when one thing is considered to be accompanying the other invariably. Although, the inner connection between them is not observable.

Inference is two- fold and such that it resolves a doubt in one’s own mind (svartha) and that which does so in another’s (parartha). The Vaisesika, like the other Indian schools of thought rejects the logic of the verbal view.



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