Elements of sAMkhyan theories of atomism and consciousness in early Hindu thought

I was told by some pious modern Hindus attached to advaita thought that I was either a strange case of a “Westernized Hindu” (!) or an “atheistic scientist (what ever that was)” to express such a proclivity for bhUta-chaitanya-vAda (or at least qualified bhUta-chaitanya-vAda) as I have done before. On being prodded by them I had to point out that I accepted the shruti (in particular the brAhmaNa portion) to have a diversity of thought, rather than being a monolithic authority. Perhaps, on this very point I lost some of them. Keeping with the spirit of this diversity of thought in the brahmavAda of the shruti, I had to point to the rest that I definitely favored certain ideas over others. This apart, I was questioned about whether there was any evidence for ideas of atomic thought (of the sAMkhyan or vaisheShikan kind) and bhUta-chaitanya vAda in the shruti itself. In this regard I would like to point to my interpretation of particular teachings from the shAnkhAyana AraNyaka 6.19 and 7.21, kaushItaki upaniShad 3.5 & 3.8 (~=>shAnkAyana AraNyaka 5.5 & 5.8) and KU 4.19 of the R^igvedic tradition:

In SA6.19 and KU4.19 (both of which narrate the same tale) the kShatriya teacher ajAtashatru the kAshi-rAja teaches the brAhmaNa scholar gArgya bAlAki regarding the nature of the consciousness of a person. ajAtashatru makes a striking statement about where the consciousness is localized at the time of the deep sleep state: “The vessels named hitA extend from the heart to the pericardium. [Here] they from a capillary bed of 1000 slender hair-like branches. They contain molecules of orange, white, black, yellow and red. In these [molecules] the [consciousness] is localized when he has no dreams.”

In his teaching to the king of kAshi, pratardana daivodAsi, the god indra presents an early version of the sAMkhya theory (KU 3.5 & 3.8 ~=>SA 5.5 & 5.8). While these paragraphs are simply constructed, their true purport is very difficult to grasp for the modern mind. In essence the first paragraph delivers a sAMkhya model stating that an explanation will be provided as to how every bhUta becomes one for the consciousness (praj~na). The paragraph describes 5 j~nAnendriya-s, 5 karmendriya-s and the manas as particular entities that feed information into consciousness. Now the indriya-s and manas in turn receive their signals from corresponding external particles they recognize [The word used in the shruti for these particles is bhUta-mAtra, a precursor of the more widely known word tanmAtra used in saMkhyan atomism]. In the subsequent paragraph (i.e KU 3.8 or SA 5.8) it is stated that molecules constituting the stimuli and the molecules corresponding to the receptors (in the 5 j~nAnendriya-s, 5 karmendriya-s) are inter-connected in such a way that (the information exchange of) their interaction/correspondence is necessary condition for conscious experience.

Then there is the teaching of the great vAlishikhAyani (SA 7.21). He states that all is made up of combinations of the 5 elements akAsha, vayu, jyoti, ApaH and pR^ithivi. These elements in turn are made up from the combinations of minute atoms.

Thus, we notice that various elements of atomic thought, especially of the sAMkhya type, originate in the vedic brahmodaya. Most importantly these early vedic presentations while supplying several of the major elements of the full-blown sAMkhya seen in the Great Epic is distinct from it. In it vedic version we sense a clear tendency towards an “particular” or “atomic” explanation for consciousness. Unlike the classical bhUta-chaitanya-vAda of the chArvAka-s, we do not exactly encounter the claim that consciousness is directly the interactions between the particles (molecules) –this argument faces the same problems as the modern issue of the “hard problem” of consciousness (vide Chalmers). However, the vedic expositors had a collection of views that saw: 1) consciousness as being a distinctive entity, which, however, did have direct association and interaction with particles (elementary particles or molecules) 2) consciousness as appearing to intimately depend on this interaction for the production what is termed the conscious experience. 3) The interaction between sensory systems and the stimuli as a purely “molecular” process which in itself was not the consciousness (i.e. the conscious experience).

The imprint of the above-mentioned vedic ideas on classical sAMkhya and its twin yoga is very apparent. yoga right from it vedic antecedents was always linked in terms of “world-view” to sAMkhya, which was emerging as the dominant theoretical frame to explain the origin of existence. One striking example from the classical period of yoga was the expansive work on the yoga-sUtra-s of pata~njali – its original commentary the vyAsa-bhAShya [Footnote 1]. The vyAsa bhAShya extensively uses the sAMkhya framework in order to explain the sUtra-s of pata~njali. In the commentary to the sUtra 3.44 [on the “subjugation” of matter by the yogin] the vyAsa-bhAShya provides an introduction to sAmkhyan atomism.

sthUla-svarUpa-sUkShma-anvaya-arthavattva saMyamAd bhUta jayaH || YS 3.44

The vyAsa bhAShya explains that sthUla is the bulk matter, which in turn in made up of an assembly of molecules or atoms – denoted by the term svarUpa in the sUtra. The VB does consider that bulk matter might be made up of combinations of the same or different types of molecules or atoms. But the molecule (or atom) is the smallest indivisible entity bearing the attributes of the gross substance – hence, he says pata~njali terms it svarUpa [ayuta-siddhAvayavaH saMghAtaH sharIraM vR^ikShaH paramANuriti | ayuta siddhAvayava-bhedAnugataH samUho dravyaM iti pata~njaliH ||] Beyond the molecules/atoms VB proposes that the tanmAtra-s exist – these are sub-atomic particles that tend not to exist on their own but tend to only exist as conjoined together to constitute the atoms. VB states that this is what is implied by the term sUkShma of the sUtra [atha kimeshAM sUkShma rUpaM? tanmAtraM bhUta-kAraNaM | tasyaiko .avyavaH paramANuH sAmAnya visheShAtmA .ayuta siddhAvayava bhedAnu gataH samudAya ity-evaM sarva-tanmAtrANy-etat-tR^itIyam |]. Further, the VB explains that the basis of all matter lies in the 3 guNa-s that are described as khyAti [information], kriyA [energy] and stithishIlA [mass], which in the saMkhya theory are the primary evolutes of prakR^iti [evidently these 3 guNa-s are descriptive physical terms for what are usually referred to as sattva, rajas and tamas]. This is what in the sUtra is denoted as anvaya. Finally, the sUtra has the term arthavattva. This term, the VB explains, corresponds to consciousness, which it says is inherently linked to the guNa-s. The guNa-s are inseparable linked to the tanmAtra-s which form the paramANu-s and their combinations that form all substance. Hence the consciousness inherited by these evolutes of guNa-s.

It can be seen that vAlishikhAyana’s theory of atoms, the bhUta-mAtra-s in indra’s teaching and their link to consciousness have all been inherited and elaborated into the atomic model of classical sAMkhya thought.

Another important idea that might derive from the vedic idea of the division of time (kalA-muhUrtA-kAShTha etc.) is that, like matter, time also exists as quanta. The vyAsa bhAShya explains this in the context of the commentary to sUtra 3.52 of pata~njali [kShaNa tat kramayoH samyamAd vivekajam j~nAnam |]. The VB states:
yathA .apakarSha-paryantam dravyam paramANur evam paramApakarSha-paryantaH kAlaH | kShaNo yAvatA vA samayena chalitah paramANuh pUrva-desham jahyAd uttara-desham upa-sampadyeta sa kAlah ksaNah ||
Just as the “atomic particle=paramANu” is the irreducible unit of matter, so also the kShaNa is the irreducible unit of time. Indeed, the time taken by a moving paramANu to leave origin and reach the next unit space in the coordinate system is defined as a kShaNa.

The advaita vedAnta darshana (despite constantly positioning itself as the true successor of vedic thought), increasingly tended to view things differently – especially so amongst the modern vedAntavAdin-s. Now, this is a subtle act of internal doctrinal subversion without really breaking with old allegiances in the ritual sense. sha~Nkara began by the process by taking up the yoga-sUtra-s for producing a commentary which moved yoga in the direction of vedAnta away from its sAMkhya moorings. The predecessor of sha~Nkara, gauDapAda, wrote a commentary on the sAmkhya kArika-s of Ishvara-kR^iShNa where he presents the concept of the dyvANuka (“diad atom”), suggesting that lineage of sha~Nkara might have had sAMkhya affinities to start with. Of course a similar process was at hand with respect to the core vedic material (i.e. the upaniShad-s as also the domain of pUrva mImAmsa).
[Footnote 1]This is a detour from the above discussion and deals with the issue of authorship of the vyAsa-bhAShya. The name vyAsa bhAShya has been taken by many later authors to mean a bhAShya by vyAsa, the author of the original mahAbhArata (or jaya) and the original purANa saMhitA. vyAsa is also considered by the vedAntins to be the same as bAdarAyaNa, the promulgator of their sUtra-s – the brahma sUtra-s. Vedic tradition starting from the aruNa section of the taittirIya AraNyaka and the subsequent lists of prior textual redactors in yajurvedic sUtra texts (E.g. hiraNyakeshin gR^ihya 2.7.2) mention the original vyAsa kR^iShNa dvaipAyana. Thus, he is of considerable antiquity. The earliest major yoga texts are found in the mahAbhArata- they appear to belong to the layer of the bhR^igu redaction of the Great Epic. The yoga systematized by pata~njali is a successor of this earlier yoga of the Mbh and the vyAsa bhAShya follows it. Thus, the vyAsa of the VB was definitely not the same as the original kR^iShNa dvaipAyana vyAsa, but someone else. His thinking shows affinities to the sAMkhya and vaiSheshika thought seen in the medical saMhitA-s like that of sushruta and charaka and he was known to sha~Nkara. More specifically he appears to have followed the works of the great early sAMkhya-yoga AchArya vArShagaNya (possible author of ShaShThI-tantra and the first proposer of the law of conservation of matter (energy)), whose ideas he cites. This would make vyAsa of the Vb one of the vArShagaNya school of sAMkhya mentioned by the chInAchArya Kuei-chi and the Indian brAhmaNa paramArtha who was an adviser to emperor Wu in Nanjing, China (Mid 500s of CE). As per their accounts the members of the vArShagaNya school of sAMkhya had beaten the AchArya-s of bauddha yogAchara in great debates in the city of Ayodhya about 150 years ago. Now, the chIna authors were aware of the sAMkhya kArika-s of Ishvara-kR^iShNa and they were translated into chIna-bhASha by paramArtha by mid-500 CE. This meant that Ishvara-kR^iShNa was definitely before 550 CE and given the history of debates with sAMkhyans recorded by the bauddha-s was probably at least around 400 CE. The vyAsa-bhAShya has no knowledge of Ishvara-kR^iShNa’s kArika-s while mentioning various older authorities. Thus we can be sure that this vyAsa was after pata~njali but before ishvara-kR^iShNa (thus mostly before 400 CE) Beyond this we have little specific information to pinpoint vyAsa’s identity and the time of composition of this bhAShya.

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