Indian atomism

The Indian atomistic position, like many movements in Indian Philosophy and Mathematics, starts with an argument from Linguistics. The Vedic etymologist and grammarian Yaska (c. 7th century BC) in his Nirukta, in dealing with models for how linguistic structures get to have their meanings, takes the atomistic position that words are the “primary” carrier of meaning – i.e. words have a preferred ontological status in defining meaning. This position was to be the subject of a fierce debate in the Indian tradition from the early Christian era till the 18th century, involving different philosophers from the Nyaya, Mimamsa and Buddhist schools. In the pratishakhya text (c. 2nd century BCE), the gist of the controversy was stated cryptically in the sutra form as “saMhitA pada-prakr^tiH”.[1] According to the atomist view, the words (pada) would be the primary elements (prakrti) out of which the sentence is constructed, while the holistic view considers the sentence as the primary entity, originally “given” in its context of utterance, and the words are arrived at only through analysis and abstraction.[2] These two positions came to be called a-kShaNDa-pakSha (indivisibility or sentence-holism), a position developed later by Bhartrihari (c. 500 AD), vs. kShaNDa-pakSha (atomism), a position adopted by the Mimamsa and Nyaya schools (Note: kShanDa = fragmented; “a-kShanDa” = whole).

Between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, the atom (anu or anor) is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 8, Verse 9):
kavim purānamanuśāsitāram anoranīryāsam anusmaredyah sarvasya dhātāramacintya-rūpamādityavarnai tamasah parastāt

One meditates on the omniscient, primordial, the controller, smaller than the atom, yet the maintainer of everything; whose form is inconceivable, resplendent like the sun and totally transcendental to material nature.
The ancient “shAshvata-vAda” doctrine of eternalism, which held that elements are eternal, is also suggestive of a possible starting point for atomism (Gangopadhyaya 1981).

There has been some debate among scholars as to the origin of Indian atomism; the general consensus is that the Indian and Greek versions of atomism developed independently. However, there is some doubt on this, given the similarities between Indian atomism and Greek atomism and the proximity of India to scholastic Europe, as well as the account, related by Diogenes Laertius, of Democritus “making acquaintance with the Gymnosophists in India”.[3] The atomist position had transcended language into epistemology by the time that Nyaya–Vaisesika, Buddhist and Jaina theology were developing mature philosophical positions. Will Durant wrote in Our Oriental Heritage: “Two systems of Indian thought propound physical theories suggestively similar to those of Greece. Kanada, founder of the Vaisheshika philosophy, held that the world was composed of atoms as many in kind as the various elements.

The Jains more nearly approximated to Democritus by teaching that all atoms were of the same kind, producing different effects by diverse modes of combinations. Kanada believed light and heat to be varieties of the same substance; Udayana taught that all heat comes from the sun; and Vachaspati, like Newton, interpreted light as composed of minute particles emitted by substances and striking the eye.

Indian atomism in the Middle Ages was still mostly philosophical and/or religious in intent, though it was also scientific. Because the “infallible Vedas”, the oldest Hindu texts, do not mention atoms (though they do mention elements), atomism was not orthodox in many schools of Hindu philosophy, although accommodationist interpretations or assumptions of lost text justified the use of atomism for non-orthodox schools of Hindu thought. The Buddhist and Jaina schools of atomism however, were more willing to accept the ideas of atomism.

The Nyaya–Vaisesika school developed one of the earliest forms of atomism; scholars date the Nyaya and Vaisesika texts from the 6th to 1st centuries BC. Like the Buddhist atomists, the Vaisesika had a pseudo-Aristotelian theory of atomism. They posited the four elemental atom types, but in Vaisesika physics atoms had 24 different possible qualities, divided between general extensive properties and specific (intensive) properties. Like the Jaina school, the Nyaya–Vaisesika atomists had elaborate theories of how atoms combine. In both Jaina and Vaisesika atomism, atoms first combine in pairs (dyads), and then group into trios of pairs (triads), which are the smallest visible units of matter.[4]

The Buddhist atomists had very qualitative, Aristotelian-style atomic theory. According to ancient Buddhist atomism, which probably began developing before the 4th century BC, there are four kinds of atoms, corresponding to the standard elements. Each of these elements has a specific property, such as solidity or motion, and performs a specific function in mixtures, such as providing support or causing growth. Like the Hindu Jains, the Buddhists were able to integrate a theory of atomism with their theological presuppositions. Later Indian Buddhist philosophers, such as Dharmakirti and Dignāga, considered atoms to be point-sized, durationless, and made of energy.

The most elaborate and well-preserved Indian theory of atomism comes from the philosophy of the Jaina school, dating back to at least the 6th century BC. Some of the Jain texts that refer to matter and atoms are Pancastikayasara, Kalpasutra, Tattvarthasutra and Pannavana Suttam. The Jains envisioned the world as consisting wholly of atoms, except for souls. Paramāņus or atoms were considered as the basic building blocks of all matter. Their concept of atoms was very similar to classical atomism, differing primarily in the specific properties of atoms. Each atom, according to Jain philosophy, has one kind of taste, one smell, one color, and two kinds of touch, though it is unclear what was meant by “kind of touch”. Atoms can exist in one of two states: subtle, in which case they can fit in infinitesimally small spaces, and gross, in which case they have extension and occupy a finite space. Certain characteristics of Paramāņu correspond with that sub-atomic particles. For example Paramāņu is characterized by continuous motion either in a straight line or in case of attractions from other Paramāņus, it follows a curved path. This corresponds with the description of orbit of electrons across the Nucleus. Ultimate particles are also described as particles with positive (Snigdha i.e. smooth charge) and negative (Rūksa – rough) charges that provide them the binding force. Although atoms are made of the same basic substance, they can combine based on their eternal properties to produce any of six “aggregates”, which seem to correspond with the Greek concept of “elements”: earth, water, shadow, sense objects, karmic matter, and unfit matter. To the Jains, karma was real, but was a naturalistic, mechanistic phenomenon caused by buildups of subtle karmic matter within the soul. They also had detailed theories of how atoms could combine, react, vibrate, move, and perform other actions, all of which were thoroughly deterministic.

1.‬ Bimal Krishna Matilal (1990). The word and the world: India’s contribution to the study of language. Oxford.

2. Yaska is dealt with in Chapter 3. ISBN 0-19-562515-3. ‪2.‬ McEvilley (2002), 317–320

‪3.‬ Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, ix, 35.

‪4.‬ Teresi, Dick (2003). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science. Simon & Schuster. pp. 213–214. ISBN 0-7432-4379-X.



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