Vaishesika Philosophy

M. R. Dwarakanath


Vaishesika is among the earliest of the Saddarshanas, a philosophical system to emerge from Vedic foundations in India around the 2nd century BCE. This system of philosophy is attributed to Kanada Kashyapa (or Uluka) the author of Vaishesika or Aulukya Darsana Sutras. Kanada is a pluralist realist / empiricist in his outlook who viewed the world as matter in motion. He set out to understand nature / reality by taking stock of the entities in this world and classifying them into groups and examining the interrelationships among them and how they present themselves to perception. Prashastapada of 4th century CE wrote an early commentary – Padartha-Dharma-Sangraha on Vaishesika Sutras.

The name Vaishesika is derived from the verbal root शिष् (to leave behind a remainder) and its derivative Vishesa which means a property or a distinguishing characteristic – an adjective by which an entity is distinguished from others. This system accepts the Vedas as veridical, yet is non-theistic and non-soteriologic in outlook. One can view Vaishesika as proto-physics and metaphysics. This system predates Nyaya. Nyaya and Vaishesika have much in common but differ in some details; they later merged into a single system the Nyaya-Vaishesika.

Kanada was concerned about the nature of reality, which he understood to mean Dharma. It embraces an atomistic view of creation. Vishesa or the distinguishing property is the means by which one can recognize an object as being different from another. Otherwise, one would have a continuum of sameness without any distinguishing features. The philosophical root of this system lies in recognizing individuality of both matter and souls in the particulars of the world and what sets one apart from the rest. This system is concerned about the independent reality of the objects in this world separate from the individual selves. There is no room for the rationalist’s concept of all reality being rooted in the mind. The Sutras begin by setting out to explain Dharma, which here means that which results in supreme good, conferring prosperity and well being. Supreme good in turn results from a proper knowledge of the physical world and its constituents. Vaishesika is not so much based on the Vedas as much as it is in tune with the Vedas which also uphold Dharma. The nature of reality is Dharma for Kanada Rsi.

Vaishesika Epistemology: This philosophical system accepts Sense perception (प्रत्यक्ष), Inference (अनुमान), Memory (स्मृति) and Intuition (सहजज्ञान) as valid means of acquiring correct knowledge of the world and of the individual selves. Comparison / simile (उपमान) is subsumed in perception and inference. Invalid sources of knowledge are Doubt (संशय,) misconception (विपर्यय) and Dream (स्वप्न.) Sense perception is the most direct way of acquiring knowledge of the world around us. However misconceptions arising from defective sense organs or sub-optimum conditions for the senses to operate in can result in invalid knowledge. Inference is also an important source of Knowledge that is further classified into categories. Intuition is self evident or axiomatic in nature. Memory calls to mind knowledge previously acquired by direct sense perception or inference. Memory is central to recognizing an object or person as the same or different from a prior encounter. It provides continuity. Without memory, knowledge would be fleeting and constrained only to the present.

Knowledge belongs to the self which it acquires through the sense organs in contact with sense objects. Perception is the nexus of the self, the senses and the objects of this world. Inference allows for knowledge of reality without direct perception but through reason. It allows for non-existence to be gleaned from existence, existence from non-existence and from the existence of one to the existence of a second.

Vaishesika Ontology: As a pluralistic system, its Ontological classification is extensive. The first step in this ontology is to systematically categorize everything that exists into broad classes. At the root of this ontology is पदार्थ i.e. category or reality. Although पदार्थ can mean substance or object, in Vaishesika it has to be taken as a category because there is a subclass of category (द्रव्य) which is much closer to the usual definition of substance. The word पदार्थ is composed of two words पद and अर्थ – name and meaning. These two words are inextricably connected. Neither can survive without the other! One can see a linguistic basis for this classification. According to Vaishesika, पदार्थ stands for something that can be apprehended, not necessarily as a physical object. Qualities and action are inherent in such a substance, yet are different from the substance. There are 7 subcategories in Vaishesika, 25 in Sankhya, 27 in Yoga etc.

Categories are 7: Substance (द्रव्य) Property (गुण) and Action (कर्म). Commonality (सामान्य) uniqueness (विशेष) and inherence (समवाय). Later Vaishesika introduced non-existence (अभाव) to be also classified as a पदार्थ.

Substance: द्रव्य is the most important category in Vaishesika ontology. Dravya can be simple or compound. Simple substances are eternal but compound substances are necessarily impermanent. The latter are both created and destroyed by external forces. Vaishesika definition of substance does not exactly match our modern idea of it. Properties and action are said to inhere in a substance. Yet, the substance is neither property nor action. Although properties are universally recognized as inherent, one does not similarly regard action to inhere in substances. It behooves one to reflect on how elements like Sodium, Phosphorus etc. spontaneously combust on expose to air; copper and silver tarnish. It thus appears this action of combustion or oxidation may have led Kanada to propose action as being inherent in substance. Classification of commonality, uniqueness and inherence in classification of substances according to these principles is a very scientific idea.

Kanada enumerates the 7 substances (द्रव्य) to be: पृथिव्यापस्तेजो वायुराकाशं कालो दिगात्मा मन इति द्रव्याणि। Of these, the last four – time, space, soul and mind are subtle, considered to be uncaused and eternal (नित्यवस्तूनि). The first five of these – earth, water, fire, air and ether are known by their intrinsic properties of smell, taste, form, touch and sound (गन्धः, रसः, रूपः, स्पर्शः, शब्दः।) It appears, these substances are not to be identified with what are commonly known as earth, water etc. but by their defining qualities. Earth is that which possesses all 5 of the above attributes, Water has the first 4, fire first 3, air 2 and ether has just one attribute – namely sound. Ether is not perceived but inferred from its property of supporting sound. The idea of linking sound to spatial extension may have arisen from the connection between the length of a pipe or a string and the quality (timbre) of the sound produced.

Objects are perceived only by the relative motion of matter. Motion is thus essential for perception. Ether, time and space have no motion associated with them, while the rest including mind are capable of action or motion. Ether, space and time are subtle, imperceptible, all pervading and eternal. Akasha is not made of substances, lacks color and is imperceptible on all grounds. However, as a locus of sound its existence can be inferred. Space allows for matter to be separated from each other as well as providing the ground for motion. Space and time, though all pervading, are considered to be many. Directions in space are not absolute but relative to the observer. Time is recognized as past, present and future. The mind is an internal sense faculty which is attuned to sense perceptions, processing sequentially even when the senses are all simultaneous engaged with objects. Mind is one, indivisible and its existence is also inferred from one’s psychology and the concept of a soul. The mind is not directly perceived. It is inferred from the need of an ‘internal’ sense to know the concepts of soul, the supreme, time, space etc. The selves are of two kinds – individual and the supreme self. The supreme is responsible for creation of this world.

अणुs are beyond perception and form the fundamental building blocks of matter. It is the smallest entity of the 4 gross elements and is further indivisible. This Anu, like an undifferentiated stem cell which can change into various specialized cells of the body, transforms into the building blocks of earth, water, fire and sound based on some intrinsic property within itself. By contrast महत् is considered to be a composite substance; it being composite is not eternal. Space is also regarded as Mahat. Both Anu and Mahat are cognized by the mind by their motion. In Pralaya all matter is reduced to Anu and all motion stops. As motion is essential for perception, in Pralaya everything looks like a void but matter remains. In creation the clock starts to tick leading to motion and the manifestation of the universe. Matter is neither created nor destroyed thus matter is conserved. Manifestation consists in energizing matter into motion.

Only matter consisting of many substances (compounds) can be cognized and color is an important property for objects to be visible. Compound substances are made up of other substances (other than themselves) are not eternal unlike simple substances that are independent and eternal.

Quality: (गुण): The list of qualities recognized in Vaishesika include: sound, touch, form, taste, smell, color, number, measure, size, distance, duration, connection, separation, happiness, sorrow, merit, demerit, etc. for a total of 25. Karma: (कर्म) and action are synonymous, basically referring to motion.  Motion is of 5 types – upward and downward motion, contraction and expansion, and locomotion. Karma is inherent in substance but it is not eternal. Ether, space, time and the self have no action in them.  Samanya: (सामान्य) is generality. It is an abstract concept that helps to classify substances into classes. The Universals are regarded as being eternal while the particulars are impermanent. This idea is very similar to Plato’s notion of forms which according to him are real while the particulars are less real. Contrasting with Samanya is Vishesa,  a distinguishing feature.

Samavaya: (समवाय) is what binds substance to qualities, cause and effect, the whole to its parts etc. The subsisting relationships within an object are inseparable. This inherence is radically different from proximity or Samyoga, which is an external accidental quality.

अभाव came to be regarded as the 7th real later on perhaps influenced by Nyaya thought. Abhava is of two kinds – संसर्ग and अन्योन्य / परस्पर. This latter is mutual absence exemplified by the absence of jarness in a piece of cloth and the absence of clothness in a jar. Samsarga is of 3 types – प्राग् प्रध्वंस and अत्यन्त. These are absence before creation, after destruction and absence at all times. A pot is absent before the potter creates it and after its destruction. The child of a barren woman is always absent.

Metaphysics: Although the Vaiseshika system is not theistic, its purpose is to propagate Dharma which confers prosperity and goodness through a bottoms-up approach. It recognizes अदृष्ट as a sort of extrasensory force. Ignorance is the root cause of all pain and suffering. The goal is Moksha or liberation of the individual soul; it is possible through correct knowledge of reality obtained by analysis of experience. God realization in Vaiseshika is correct knowledge of reality. The physicists can only hope! Being an orthodox system, it subscribes to Vedic injunctions and accepts merit, demerit and Moksha. It holds that the self and the mind are beyond perception. The soul is realized by inference. Non-eternal entities are termed Avidya. Desires and hatred result in accumulation of अदृष्ट and only correct knowledge leads to release.


॥ सर्वं श्रीकृष्णार्पणमस्तु॥

Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation (SVBF) is established as an international extension of the ancient Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, Karnataka State, India. It is incorporated as a non-profit religious and charitable organization in the USA. The Foundation functions under the direct guidance of the Jagadguru Shankaracharya, His Holiness Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham.

Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation Inc., USA. All rights reserved © 2019

May the Grace of Sharadamba and blessings of the Acharya be with you all !

SRI SHARADA TEMPLE : 327, Cays Rd, Stroudsburg, PA 18360 - USA| Ph:(570) 629-7881 / 1-800-45 HINDU

SRINGERI SADHANA CENTER : 327, Cays Rd, Stroudsburg, PA 18360 - USA| Ph:(570) 629-7881 / 1-800-45 HINDU

REGISTERED OFFICE : 5 Yates Drive, East Brunswick, NJ 08816 Ph:(732) 238-1119 | Fax: (732) 238 2249

Questions or Comments about this website ? Email the Web Master