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The Unconventional: Atomism in Natural Philosophy: Vaisesika

The word ‘Vaisesika’ is derived from ‘Vishesa’ which translates to distinction or particularity. Vaisesika is one among the six schools of Indian Philosophy that belongs to the Vedic system. In earlier times, Vaisesika was identified as an independent form with its own metaphysical theories, epistemology, logic, ethical ideas and soteriology. However, as time passed, it became apparent that many of its philosophical ideologies were very similar to that of the Vedic school of logic, the Nyaya school, but it retains its individuality in its epistemology and metaphysics. The Vaisesika school of thought is familiar for its observations on naturalism. It is known to be a form of atomism in natural philosophy. It hypothesised that every object that belongs to the physical universe, can ultimately, be reduced to atoms (paramanu) and an individual’s life experiences originate from the interaction of substances, quality, activity, prevalence, singularity and inherence. According to this school, knowledge and freedom can be obtained through the complete understanding of human experiences. The theory of the Vaisesika school is only accepting of perception and inference as valid sources of knowledge. 


Vaisesika was predominantly a system of physics or metaphysics that broke down all objects of experience into atoms. Its founder was the renowned Hindu sage, Kanada, who wrote the ancient Sanskrit text, known as the Vaisesika Sutra. Vaisesika as a discipline came into being much before the Nyaya school of thought, and might have been a contemporary to the Jain and Buddhist school of thought. After the birth of the Nyaya school, Vaisesika and Nyaya were merged together to form the combined school of thought, Nyaya-Vaisesika. However, as time passed, Vaisesika was recognized as a separate entity due to its differences in its metaphysical characteristics as well as its epistemology. 


Vaisesika was then categorised into seven different categories or Padarthas based on different objects of experience. The word Padartha denotes objects that can be thought (jneya) of or named (abhidheya). The seven categories (Padarthas) are: 


  1. Substance (dravya)

A substance (dravya) is explained as ‘the substratum where actions and qualities inhere.’ Substances are the building blocks of qualities and actions, actual or potential, present or future. In total, there are nine substances, which are further divided based on their nature, wherein five of them are physical - Earth (prithvi), water (ap), fire (tejas), air (vayu), and ether (akasha) and the other four substance are pure forms of matter that are imperceivable - time (kala), space (dik), spirit (atman), and mind (manas)


  1. Quality (guna) 

Quality (guna) is dependent on the substance it is inherent in and cannot exist without it. It is deemed an independent reality because it can be thought of, named and conceived. Seven of these qualities were recognized by Kanada and Prashastapada added another seven to this list. They comprise both spiritual as well as material qualities. The Vaisesika identifies twenty-four qualities, they are (including both spiritual and material properties): Color (rupa), taste (rasa), smell (gandha), touch (sparsa), numerical values (samkhya), size (parimana), originality (prthaktva), conjunction (samyoga), disjunction (vibhaga), priority (paratva), posterity (aparatva), knowledge (buddhi), pleasure (sukha), pain (dukha), desire (iccha), aversion (dvesa), effort (prayatna), heaviness (gurutva), fluidity (dravatva), viscidity (sneha), merit (dharma), demerit (adharma), sound (sabda), and faculty (samskara)


  1. Action (karma) 

Similar to quality (guna), action cannot exist independently of substance, but only in association with it. However, while quality is a static entity, action can be considered a more dynamic and ephemeral entity. There are 5 different kinds of action - Upward movement (utksepana), downward movement (avaksepana), contraction (akunchana), expansion (prasārana), and locomotion (gamana)


  1. Generality (samanya)

Similar to European Scholastic philosophy, generality is a universal quality or trait inherent in different individuals who belong to the same class. It is often explained as the ‘eternal one, residing in many.’ There are two kinds of samanya - higher (in reference to the being which is inclusive of everything and is not included in anything) and lower (covering only a selected number of things) 


  1. Particularity (vishesa) 

Particularity helps us see the difference in individuals, giving importance to a person’s individuality. This category is applied to basic, simple items which would otherwise be seen as similar. 


  1. Inherence (samavaya) 

This category describes the eternal connection between two entities that are inseparably related. Kanada defines it as ‘the relationship between cause and effect.’

It involves the part and the whole 


  1. Non-existence (abhava)

The first six sections are absolute and positive, whereas non-existence is relative and negative. There are four kinds of non-existence - Antecedent non-existence, the non-existence of a thing before its been produced; subsequent non-existence, the non-existence of a thing after its been destroyed; mutual non-existence, the non-existence of a thing as another thing which is different from it.



FAQ’s:



Q1. Does the Vaisesika school of thought believe in the presence of a God? 


Vaisesika believers are of the belief that all the objects of the universe are constituted of five elements - earth, water, air, fire and ether and God is the guiding principle. 



Q2. Is the Vaisesika school of thought the oldest in Indian philosophy? 


The Vaisesika school of thought is not the oldest discipline in Indian philosophy. The oldest discipline of the Vedic system in Indian philosophy is the Samkhya school of thought. 



Q3. What is atomism? 


Vaisesika philosophers believe in the theory of atomism, wherein, the material gross objects of this universe consist of parts. Hence, they can be created and destroyed. In other words, they are divisible and the only indivisible particle of matter that exists is an atom, thus making it the eternal particle of matter.