Ancient Indian scientific thoughts and contributions has been ignored by the historians for long and due credit/place has not been given. The main reason behind this is deliberate attempts have been made to down play anything that is Indian or more precisely Hindu and lack of interest in proper research. The education system we have adopted does not suit or help either. Hence, in Indian universities the departments of science, philosophy and history are not well equipped and synced to do such studies. Another important reason is the understanding of language (Samskrit) which impedes this and when most rely on the translations the gist is lost. Although many have been contributing the credit goes to their individual efforts while the systemic approach/support is lacking.
The scientific thought process in ancient India can be understood through various philosophies presented in the form of sutras. The most important in this nyaaya-vaisheshika dasrshan. Before going to the details of it let’s have a look on the structure of Indian philosophy. Indian philosophy may be categorized into Vaidika and Avaidika. Vaidika schools of philosophy forms the foundation of Sanaatan Dharma (termed as Hinduism). It consists of six schools of philosophy known as Shatdarshan as shown in the Figure-1.
The first four of these schools accept the authority of the Vedas and do not derive their philosophical principles from the Vedas directly but from the teachings of Rishis or sages. The last two schools, i.e. Purva Mimaamsaa and Vedanta, base their theological systems specifically on the statements of the Vedas. These philosophies are generally paired into three groups as shown in the Figure-1 shaded by different colors. Let us look in to the first group the Nyaaya and Vaisheshika. They complement each other. Nyaaya was founded by Gautama (to be precise Aksapada Gautama of Gautama lineage). Word Nyaaya is derived from i by Panini which means gam “to go” hence Nyaaya is identical with nigama. So nyaaya means the science/philosophy in which definite conclusion established after countering all the objections by logic. Nyaaya based on pramaana, through deductive reasoning forms the basis of logic that can be used to explain the nature of substance and their properties and science behind it. Nyaaya accepts 4 pramaanas for gaining knowledge – pratyaksha (perception), anumaana (inference), upmaana (analogy), shabda (testimony or reference) as shown in Figure-2.
Vaisheshika founded by sage Kanada of Kashyap lineage (600-300 century BC) forms the basis of ancient Indian physical science, physics and metaphysics. Another contributor to the vaisheshika philosophy is Prashastapada. The vaisheshika comes from term Vishesha, by which he defined the particular nature of atom and then goes on to explain it as the ultimate unit Antya Vishesha. The vaisheshika deals with substance their its nature (dharma) and properties (swaroopa) and science behind. Vaishesika accepts only first two as means of knowledge: pratyaksha (perception), anumaana (inference) (see Figure-2). This series will try to understand the Vaisheshika Darshan.
Vaisheshika explains about seven padaarthas – dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (movement), samanya (generality), vishesha (specialty), samavaya (inherent)
धर्मविशेषप्रसूताद्द्रवयगुणकर्म सामान्यविशेषसमवायानां पदार्थानां साधर्म्यवैधर्म्यभ्यां तत्वज्ञानान्नि: श्रेयसम्। (VD – 1-1-4)
and understanding the essence of these in consistency vs. inconsistency with respect to dharma leads to self-realization. The existence of the physical world with space and time is what we perceive however vaishesika describes a creative perception in which the real entities exist whether it can be perceived through senses or not. It defines 9 dravyas from which the entire universe is formed and described by its guna and karma.
पृथिव्यापस्तेजो वायुराकाशं कालो दिगात्मा मन इति द्रव्याणि। (VD – 1-1-5)
In these dravyas 5 are panch mahabhoota as क्षिति जल पावक गगन समीरा others are time, space, aatma and mana. One needs to understand that these panch mahabhootas don’t have literal meaning like Earth or water etc. These have specific attributes, guna and can be understood by their karma and samanvaya. The first four (not akash or gagan) are associated with four senses smell, taste, sight and touch (from all four and decreasing gradually to last one respectively) are anitya dravyas as they are dependent on indriya. It becomes clear that – time, space, aatma and mana are nitya dravyas. This makes the distinction clear that anitya dravyas can be perceived while anitya dravyas can only be conceived by mind.
Many of us might have read that the Kanaada was the first to propose that there exists a fundamental particle called Anu which is nitya (eternal) which cannot be perceived but inferred. Although anu is molecule and atom is parmanu almost all scholars agree that what Kanaada meant was atom. The vaishesika explains that all 4 mahabhutas are made up of anu and its combinations.
अणुसंयोगस्त्वप्रतिषिद्ध: तत्र शरीरं द्विविधं (VD – 4-2-3)
These atoms and their properties are different for the different dravyas. They all react (by addition or breaking) and in different combinations to form this world. How the reaction takes place, vaisheshika has two different philosophies. While Kanaada proposes that atoms, as unit, react and form different dravyas while Prashastapada suggests that dyads (pair) of the atoms of the dravyas form a single unit. These dyads then react in different proportion to form substances. So, How or why these atoms/dyads react, what is produced after such reaction? Vaisheshika says by applying heat they join or break and various substances are produced are termed as Yonija and Ayonija. Ayonija have been further classified in to Ushmaja (Swedaja) and Udbhija. Needless to say that the products does not retain the basic properties of the atoms dyads.
This discussion clarifies that how scientific the sanaatana thought process was. The real physical world information was used, analyzed logically and proposed something 2500 years back that is difficult to know only by perception. The concept of Anu, material, its classification and biological reactions that forms different organisms has been discussed in detail. These outcome comply with modern scientific approach and outcome. This is only an attempt to highlight what many have been doing individually. There is a need to develop a support system to explore, propagate and preserve ancient Indian knowledge and heritage. We will continue to explore and discuss many such examples in coming articles.
Disclaimer: No such claims have been made that all the ancient scriptures contain science or can be explained scientifically. The scriptures are not simply meant for that. However, they certainly contain thoughts that can be explored and explained. One needs to examine and discuss carefully on case to case basis.
- Vaisheshik Darshan in Samskrita-Hindi
- The Vaisheshika Darshana – Translation and Commentary by John Wells
- The Nyaaya Sutras of Gotama – Satish Chandra Vidyabhushan
- Works of Dr. Subhash Kak
- Works of Roopa H. Narayan