Some considerations on Hindu atomism

tanIyAMsaM pAMsuM tava charaNa pa~NkeruhabhavaM
viri~nchiH saMchinvan virachayati lokAn avikalam
vahaty enaM shauriH katham api sahasreNa shirasAM
haraH saM-kShubhyainaM bhajati bhasitod-dhUlana-vidhim || (saundarya lahari 2)

Minute particles have arisen from the dust of your feet,
gathering these together brahmA constructs the orderly universe,
viShNu with his thousand heads verily holds these,
hara in destroying the universe splits these apart and smears himself with them as ash.

The learned kaivalyAshrama, the late medieval tantric guru from an orthoprax maTHa in the southern Konkans, in his commentary on the saundaryalahari clearly explains this shloka as describing the paramANus as emerging from the feet of tripura-sundarI and being used by the trimurti in their loka-kAryam. In his commentary mentions how the fundamental particles the paramANu-s combine to give rise to the basic aNu combinations like dvyANu-s and tryANu-s. This is consonant with the mantra prayoga of this shloka — mastery over the knowledge of all matter or nature (Long back while studying this shloka I was inspired by ShoDashikA that great mistress of the kula path, flanked by sa~nketA and sachiveshI).

In my opinion, one of the pinnacles of Hindu thought, along with pANini’s study of language are the vaisheShika sUtra-s of kaNAda. The vaisheShika thought in its pristine form was largely dead in the later days of Hindu thought. Yet, it was the beginning of physics in India, and the foundation of a very productive line of addressing the universe. To us (this a very personal view) vaisheShika is the best of the darshana-s for a veda-practicing AstIka in the context of modern knowledge. Many Hindus are unable to grasp the significance vaisheShika. We believe that vaisheShika is a prelude to scientific thought and not just a metaphysics. Thus, a “modern darshana” that an AstIka can follow without a contradiction in Weltanschauung would build from the base of vaisheShika, just as medieval Hindus built on early vaisheShika thought (e.g. vAchaspati mishra). Sadly many early works of the pristine vaisheShika period are now lost. It was once a great challenge to the nAstIka-s who expended their efforts to undermine or co-opt it.

Some early lost vaisheShika works are preserved in citations of nAstIka-s in their debates against the AstIkas. One example is given by paramArtha (499-569 CE), an AchArya who traveled from bhArata to the land of the chIna-s to teach darshanas and translated a number of works from Sanskrit to chIna-bhASha. In one such, the lakShaNAnusAra shAstra, he describes vaisheShika, albeit mistaking certain points. He gives an account of tIrthaka, a successor of prashastapAda, on the universe, which in broad outline agrees with the idea that saundaryalahari 2 has as its background: 1) The universe has two kinds of saMvarta-s (end or dissolution) — the antara saMvarta and the tejaH saMvarta. 2) The former saMvarta occurs at the end of each kalpa comprised of approximately 10^10 years, the total life of the universe being roughly 3*10^10 years. 3) The first kalpa is known as the tapah kalpa (the period of heat), the second the the jala-kalpa (the period of liquid) and the third the vAyu-kalpa (the period of gas). 4) At the end of each kalpa all matter is dissolved into the constituent paramANu-s (fundamental particles of vaisheShika) and exist in state of disjunction. 5) At the beginning of each kalpa the paramANu-s combine due to the unseen forces (as kaNada states) and produce aNu-s that grow larger in size to produce the entire universe. 5) The consciousness and mind are conjoined or separated when atoms do the same. 6) After three rounds of tejah saMvarta one coming at the end of each triadic universal period the universe lapses into a state of pure disjoint paramANu-s and consciousness.

A certain parallel with jaimini’s sUtra-s and the vaisheShika sUtra-s exists suggesting that their authors belonged to a common intellectual tradition (i.e. successors of the veda):
athAto dharma jij~nAsA | (MS1)
athAto dharma vyAkhyAsyAmaH | (VS1)
both mean the approximately same (jij~nAsA= inquire into or vyAkhyAsyAmaH – explain) and are clearly distinguished from the inquiry into brahman or yoga or causes of sorrow or principles of logic.
chodanAlatho artho dharmaH | (MS2)
yato.abhyudaya niHshreyasa siddhiH sa dharmaH | (VS2)
The constructs are very similar between mImAmsa and vaisheShika, but the former declares that the veda’s prescription is dharma. Whereas, vaisheShika declares that one that produces abhyudaya and niHshreyasa is dharma (Note that there two distinct terms used and not mokSha. Much after the pristine vaisheShika faded away, later authors thought that these terms were related to mokSha of vedAnta).

tasya nimitta-parIShTiH | (MS3)
tadvachanAd AmnAyasya prAmANyaM | (VS3)
Here again the two darshana-s probably imply similar (not same) things: The mImAmsaka-s seem to mean (going by shabara svAmin): examination (of veda) is proof of that (dharma).
The aNuvAdins state: authoritativeness rest with that vedas because it is a declaration of that (dharma).

So of all darshana-s these are the two that directly express their intent on dharma and its vedic roots. [As an aside- Since the tathAgata and his successors wanted to subvert precisely this, namely dharma, they used the same term dharma and tried to give it an entirely different meaning. It is not a big surprise that the initial conflicts of the bauddha nAstIka-s was precisely with these two darshanas (e.g. buddha attacking uruvelA jaTila kAshyapa).]

We observe that vaisheShika thought is present in the bhArata and the purANa-s. In the former it is seen in the lecture of the great kShatrIya woman sulabhA prAdhAnI during the discourse with the king of mithilA. In the purANa-s, for example the bhagavata purANa, it appears in the lecture of maitreya. However, unlike sAMkhya (yoga) and in the much latter paurANic milieu, vedAnta, neither mImAmsa nor vaisheShika are discussed in their technical details in these texts. Again, chANakya only mentions sAMkhya, yoga and lokAyata, suggesting the former two were the “popular” philosophies that were seen as successors of the upaniShadic philosophical speculation. Both mImAmsa and vaisheShika instead appear to have arisen in a specialized setting of vedic ritualists (ironically bauddha nAstIka-s also later arose in this setting), but assumed very different paths despite certain similar foundational concepts.

Many philosophers have noted the points of divergence of mImAmsa and vaisheShika after a similar opening of their darshana sUtra-s. vaisheShika is not interested in the two prime issues of mImAmsa: 1) The veda being by its very nature valid. 2) The eternal existence of the veda. While not bothered about these issues, in the very last sUtra-s (adhyAya 10, Ahnika 2), kaNAda stresses the authoritativeness of the veda. Then both vaisheShika and mImamsa agree upon a critical point: There is no creator for the universe and there is no Ishvara. The universe is entirely a result of combination of the fundamental particles and the sole agent for their combination is karma. Finally, mImAmsa depends heavily on the position that sound is eternal, and this is connected with its world view of the apauruSheyatva of the veda. kaNAda examines the possibility of the eternality of sound and then rejects it. To me in addition to the above positions, it is this position on sound that makes vaisheShika an over all superior philosophy of all the hindu systems.

If the opening stress on dharma and the closing stress on the veda is an important feature of vaisheShika, then the question arises as to its specific vedic antecedents if any. The use of vaisheShika terminology in charaka’s medical treatise is an important pointer in this regard. In charaka, vaisheShika is heavily overlayed by the “populist” saMkhya thought. It is possible that in the yajur-vedic school of charaka and kaThas arose the early formal vaisheShika which continued to linger on the later medical treatises produced by the former school. [Of the kR^iShNa yajurvedin-s the kaThas appear to be closest to the charakas. The brAhmaNa of the kaTha-s preserved now as the terminal brahmaNa of the kAThaka section of the taittirIya-s has a mImAmsa on the chyana with different metals, like gold, silver, lead etc. It is in this context that the paMsu-s (atoms) are mentioned.] An important corollary to this use of vaisheShika thought by the charaka-s is that vaisheShika actually served as a proto-scientific naturalistic base in hindu analysis of nature’s phenomena. The charaka-s saw that vaisheShika theories provided a reasonable frame to understand chemistry of substances, and there by determine the behavior or particular substances in the animal body or guide the deployment of particular substances in therapeutics.

That vaisheShika theory was principally meant as a system of proto-scientific explanation is seen in its application within its tradition starting from kaNAda. udyotakAra following the tradition used it to explain refraction of light. udayana used it to explain how heat from the sun was the ultimate source of all earthly heat stores. bhaTTa jayanta used it to explain photo-chemical reactions. It also influenced the great nAstIka intellectual, the jaina umAsvati who incorporated the vaisheShika concept of saMyoga, vibhAga in the form attractive and repulsive forces between paramANu-s and aNu-s.

In conclusion it might be said that the ancient Hindus had in vaisheShika a proto-scientific frame work whose important features included: 1) The absence of a creator for the universe or an Ishvara as the cause of the universe; 2) The construction of the universe through the combination of fundamental particles paramANu-s- “atoms” to give rise to “aNu-s” molecular particles. 3) The particle nature of light and heat. 4) An explanation of natural phenomena using molecular and atomic particles and a small set of basic physical forces. 5) karma chiefly implies physical forces and force itself has a particle nature. 6) The mind is molecular in nature. 7) consciousness is not per say “non-material” but associated with matter- perhaps as a distinct particle or as a “property” of a particle, perhaps like charge.

But going by later Indian thought and modern Hindus it is clear that this naturalism has been receding to the background. In this context, I have been puzzled by certain observations: I believe that the majority of modern Hindus believe in Ishvara as the cause of the universe or are creationists of different grades. Some may restrict themselves with seeing the universe’s cause as the Ishvara, others may see all the diversity and complexity of nature as a sign of Ishvara. Yet others may believe in the special entities like the sUkShma sharIra transmitting their pApa-s and puNya-s from one sthUla sharIra to another and so on. Majority of Hindus using the Abrahamistic terminology say they believe in God and even go through some effort to say that they are not polytheistic but actually believe in one basic God. Many Hindus and particularly Hindu vedAntic achArya-s do not accept evolution of life by natural selection. Is all of this because of Abrahamistic subversion of their thought alone? Or is it because they have been pre-conditioned for this mental state due to their separation from old vaisheShika and sAMkhya thought?

I feel that it might be a combination of both factors. If this were so it is disappointing that Hindus have actually lost their intellectual rigor and are no longer philosophically innovative as their predecessors.

At this point the learned jaina muni-s bhuvana-vijaya and jambu-vijaya must be acknowledged for their tremendous services to the AstIka-s. A proper text of the vaisheShika sUtra-s had been hard to get in modern times, in part due to the above reasons. muni bhuvana-vijaya obtained pristine manuscripts of the vaisheShika sUtra-s along with a commentary of chandrAnanda (~700-800 CE) from a jaina manuscript collection in jaisAlmer, rAjasthana. His son jambu-vijaya carefully edited the text to provide a reliable version of the vaisheShika sUtra along with chandrAnanda-s commentary. chandrAnanda cites the veda-s and purANa-s showing his wide knowledge of Hindu lore in general. My teacher knowing my proclivities pointed to me to chandrAnanda’s commentary and its importance in grasping the vedic milieu in which vaisheShika arose.

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