Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy

Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy

1. Introduction

Philosophy has been one of the most thriving enterprises in Indian culture. It has continued to thrive even after the classical period. It has outgrown itself into various peaks and valleys of thought. The medieval period marked an era of inquiry, rationalization, and doubt. Systems were subjected to a closer, critical scrutiny under the impact of new scientific knowledge. We find it reflected in all branches of Indian philosophy – Samkhya altered its cosmology in order to bring it into harmony with the physics of its day, while a scholar of Nyaya wrote a treatise to prove that the Earth is round and not flat. It is generally believed that the so-called “Orthodox” systems of Indian philosophy are concerned only with speculation and a means to salvation – their main objective being the interpretation of the Veda. This is not entirely true. Each system has contributed something or other in the theoretical and applied sciences, and their contribution towards the philosophy of science is considerable. Many times, the ideas of the ancient philosophers bear startling resemblance to the modern scientific theories. The philosophy of atomism is a living testimony to this statement.

2. Historical Background

Indian philosophical schools in the first millennium BC. The intermingling of cultures had a profound impact on the history of Western philosophy. Between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, Ionian thinkers reached a consensus that the physical world, while amenable to mathematical study, must be fundamentally understood in terms of one or a few types of material stuff. This something, for Thales, was water; Anaximenes opted for air, conceiving the latter to be more primordial than water despite the fact that water could condense into air; Anaximander postulated an unnamed boundless substance from which the opposites of hot and cold separated off to produce the cosmos; Hippolytus reports the position of the Pythagoreans that all things are numbers; for Xenophanes it was stone or fire. In short, despite their considerable differences, each of these thinkers was trying to explain the diversity of the world in terms of some primary stuff, and the configurations and changes of that stuff in terms of varying modes of its being acted upon. By a process of logical deduction, or so it seems in hindsight, some of them also theorized the existence of particles too small to be perceived, whose interactions account for what is observed at the macroscopic level. It is this last step which gave us the first atomic theories, so-called because they propose a world ultimately composed of irreducible, unchanging particles, wherein the configurations and changes of the macroscopic world are held to be permutations of collections of such particles. The atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus, the most famous of the ancient atomists, reflect in many respects an attempt to provide a consistent and more lowly interpretation of the phenomena and methods of their predecessors in physics. Be that as it may, the plausibility of their theories has ensured they are accorded an honoured place in the histories of both science and philosophy. This status was largely denied to their Eastern counterparts, who, in formulating atomic theories of their own, were in fact attempting to redefine the etiology of the same phenomena as the Ionians, and it is these Eastern theories which are the concern of the present work.

3. Key Concepts of Atomic Theory

In the atomic theory, Indian philosophers were seeking a right answer to the problem of change. That is, things change, but what is the underlying reality, the stuff out of which all is made? How can one explain change without assuming a changeless background as a point of reference? The atomists’ answer was that the ultimate stuff is the atom, which is unchangeable. This is the case with the Vaisheshika atoms, while the Buddhists admitted only that atoms have a particular nature, different from the conglomerates into which they combine. The Vaisheshika atoms had no parts; they were eternal and imperceptibly small. Two atoms of different type could combine to form a dimercurial molecule, but two atoms of the same type spinning could never form a molecule because their orbital paths would be the same and one would collide with the other. Vaisheshika atoms were the ultimate particles of the universe. An atom of earth, water, fire or air was atomic only insofar as it was at least one of the constituent parts of a macroscopic earth, water, fire or air object. Otherwise the atoms of the so-called elements possessed secondary qualities contrary to their nature; thus in its free state an air atom might be involved with the secondary quality of sound. In an empty space governed only by time, place and motion, different permutations of atoms aggregated into a limitless variety of molecules. Atom movements were of five types: lateral motion, circular motion, movement upwards and downwards, and a swinging motion. Atom theory was used mainly as a system of materialistic metaphysics to combat the monism and ritualistic beliefs of the Brahmins.

4. Influence and Legacy

From the ancient time, history of Atomism can be traced in various philosophical and scientific literatures. The topic of atomism is elaborately dealt with in the Vaisheshika Sutras of Kanada. Kanada was the chief exponent of this system. Other chief literary sources of classical atomic theory are a dialogue called Vaisheshika Sutra also from the Vaisheshika school and a commentary on it by the elder contemporary of Hsuan-tsang, Manjushri. According to the Indian philosopher and historian of Philosophy, S.N. Dasgupta, Atomism is second only to the Vedanta in its age and its appeal to authority.

Atomism is a significant school of thought in Indian philosophy. The system traces its roots back to the time of Rishis (sages) and is responsible for a systematic treatise of anu (Atom) which has a long history of approximately 3000 years. Atomism was a comprehensive system and has been elaborated by various schools of philosophy. It embodies a coherent world-view, a particular vision of the cosmos, with distinctive concepts of matter, the earth, life, and the human person. This entry explores the system of classical Indian atomism as formulated by the school of Vaisheshika, which is also known as Kanada system.

5. Conclusion

From the detailed study of the atomic theories in Indian philosophy and physics, we find remarkable similarities between the basic conceptions of the two. In both, the earliest ideas of atom are of the ‘anu’ or the uncuttable. This persists as the ultimate particle, except in the Vaisheshika where it is considered as made up of smaller particles. The atom has properties such as form, size, and position in space. They also ascribe to it an infinity of characteristic qualities. The Sankhya and Vaisheshika give different numbers for these, the latter are much like the modern properties of the atom. These include mass, taste, smell, number, separateness, thought, and several others. The different weights and attractions of the atoms account for the various combinations which give rise to the diversity of the universe. All of this can be viewed in modern terms as a system of particles with internal forces. This has been shown to be mathematically equivalent to a field with the exchange of virtual particles (Feynman, Hibbs 1965) which cause forces on the particles. So it can be seen the Indian theories provide a very comprehensive and scientific method of describing the atomic structure of matter. Unfortunately, none of these theories were ever developed into a comprehensive atomic theory, with the like of those in the West by Dalton, Rutherford, Bohr, and others. But it is clear that the foundation was there and the ideas were not so different from those which led to the atomic theories in the West. This we have shown can be seen from the striking parallels drawn between the two.

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