A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the nyaya-vaisheshika physics: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the thirteenth part in the series called the “the nyaya-vaisheshika philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 13 - The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Physics

The four kinds of atoms are earth, water, fire, and air atoms. These have mass, number, weight, fluidity (or hardness), viscosity (or its opposite), velocity, characteristic potential colour, taste, smell, or touch, not produced by the chemical operation of heat. Ākāśa (space) is absolutely inert and structure-less being only as the substratum of sound, which is supposed to travel wave-like in the manifesting medium of air. Atomic combination is only possible with the four elements. Atoms cannot exist in an uncombined condition in the creation stage; atmospheric air however consists of atoms in an uncombined state.

Two atoms combine to form a binary molecule (dvyanuka). Two, three, four, or five dvyaṇukas form themselves into grosser molecules of tryaṇuka, caturaṇuka, etc.[1] Though this was the generally current view, there was also another view as has been pointed out by Dr B. N. Seal in his Positive Sciences of the A ncient Hindus, that the

“atoms have also an inherent tendency to unite,”

and that they do so in twos, threes, or fours,

“either by the atoms falling into groups of threes, fours, etc. directly, or by the successive addition of one atom to each preceding aggregate[2].”

Of course the atoms are regarded as possessed of an incessant vibratory motion. It must however be noted in this connection that behind this physical explanation of the union of atoms there is the adṛṣṭa, the will of Īśvara, which gives the direction of all such unions in harmony with the principle of a “moral government of the universe,” so that only such things are produced as can be arranged for the due disposal of the effects of karma. “An elementary substance thus produced by primary atomic combination may however suffer qualitative changes under the influence of heat (pākajotpatti).” The impact of heat corpuscles decomposes a dvyaṇuka into the atoms and transforms the characters of the atoms determining them all in the same way. The heat particles continuing to impinge reunite the atoms so transformed to form binary or other molecules in different orders or arrangements, which account for the specific characters or qualities finally produced. The Vaiśeṣika holds that there is first a disintegration into simple atoms, then change of atomic qualities, and then the final re-combination, under the influence of heat.

This doctrine is called the doctrine of pīlupāka (heating of atoms). Nyāya on the other hand thinks that no disintegration into atoms is necessary for change of qualities, but it is the molecules which assume new characters under the influence of heat. Heat thus according to Nyāya directly affects the characters of the molecules and changes their qualities without effecting a change in the atoms. Nyāya holds that the heat-corpuscles penetrate into the porous body of the object and thereby produce the change of colour. The object as a whole is not disintegrated into atoms and then reconstituted again, for such a procedure is never experienced by observation. This is called the doctrine of pitharapāka (heating of molecules). This is one of the few points of difference between the later Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika systems[3].

Chemical compounds of atoms may take place between the atoms of the same bhūta or of many bhūtas. According to the Nyāya view there are no differences in the atoms of the same bhūta, and all differences of quality and characteristics of the compound of the same bhūta are due only to diverse collocations of those atoms. Thus Udyotakara says (III. i. 4) that there is no difference between the atom of a barley seed and paddy seed, since these are all but atoms of earth. Under the continued impact of heat particles the atoms take new characters. It is heat and heat alone that can cause the transformations of colours, tastes etc. in the original bhūta atoms. The change of these physical characters depends on the colours etc. of the constituent substances in contact, on the intensity or degree of heat and also on the species of tejas corpuscles that impinge on the atoms. Heat breaks bodies in contact into atoms, transforms their qualities, and forms separate bodies with them.

Praśastapāda (the commentator of Vaiśeṣika) holds that in the higher compounds of the same bhūta the transformation takes place (under internal heat) in the constituent atoms of the compound molecules, atoms specially determined as the compound and not in the original atoms of the bhūta entering into the composition of the compound. Thus when milk is turned into curd, the transformation as curd takes place in the atoms determined as milk in the milk molecule, and it is not necessary that the milk molecule should be disintegrated into the atoms of the original bhūta of which the milk is a modification. The change as curd thus takes place in the milk atom, and the milk molecule has not to be disintegrated into kṣiti or ap atoms. So again in the fertilized ovum, the germ and the ovum substances, which in the Vaiśeṣika view are both isomeric modes of earth (with accompaniments of other bhūtas) are broken up into homogeneous earth atoms, and it is these that chemically combine under the animal heat and biomotor force vāyu to form the germ (kalala).

But when the germ plasm develops, deriving its nutrition from the blood of the mother, the animal heat breaks up the molecules of the germ plasm into its constituent atoms, i.e. atoms specifically determined which by their grouping formed the germ plasm. These germ-plasm atoms chemically combine with the atoms of the food constituents and thus produce cells and tissues[4]. This atomic contact is called ārambhaka-saṃyoga.

In the case of poly-bhautik or bi-bhautik compounds there is another kind of contact called upaṣṭambha. Thus in the case of such compounds as oils, fats, and fruit juices, the earth atoms cannot combine with one another unless they are surrounded by the water atoms which congregate round the former, and by the infra-atomic forces thus set up the earth atoms take peculiar qualities under the impact of heat corpuscles. Other compounds are also possible where the ap, tejas, or the vāyu atoms form the inner radicle and earth atoms dynamically surround them (e.g. gold, which is the tejas atom with the earth atoms as the surrounding upaṣṭambhaka). Solutions (of earth substances in ap) are regarded as physical mixtures.

Udayana points out that the solar heat is the source of all the stores of heat required for chemical change. But there are differences in the modes of the action of heat; and the kind of contact with heat-corpuscles, or the kind of heat with chemical action which transforms colours, is supposed to differ from what transforms flavour or taste.

Heat and light rays are supposed to consist of indefinitely small particles which dart forth or radiate in all directions rectilineally with inconceivable velocity. Heat may penetrate through the interatomic space as in the case of the conduction of heat, as when water boils in a pot put on the fire; in cases of transparency light rays penetrate through the inter-atomic spaces with pari-spanda of the nature of deflection or refraction (tiryag-gamafia). In other cases heat rays may impinge on the atoms and rebound back—which explains reflection. Lastly heat may strike the atoms in a peculiar way, so as to break up their grouping, transform the physico-chemical characters of the atoms, and again recombine them, all by means of continual impact with inconceivable velocity, an operation which explains all cases of chemical combination[5].

Govardhana a later Nyāya writer says that pāka means the combination of different kinds of heat. The heat that changes the colour of a fruit is different from that which generates or changes the taste. Even when the colour and taste remain the same a particular kind of heat may change the smell. When grass eaten by cows is broken up into atoms special kinds of heat-light rays change its old taste, colour, touch and smell into such forms as those that belong to milk[6].

In the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika system all action of matter on matter is thus resolved into motion. Conscious activity (prayatna) is distinguished from all forms of motion as against the Sāṃkhya doctrine which considered everything other than puruṣa (intelligence) to arise in the course of cosmic evolution and therefore to be subject to vibratory motion.

Footnotes and references:


Kadācit tribhirārabhyaie iti tryaṇukamityucyate, kadācit caturbhirārabhyate kadācit pañcabhiriti yatheṣṭaṃ kalpanā.

      Nyāyakandalī, p. 32.


Utpala’s commentary on Bṛhatsamhitā 1. 7.


See Dr B. N. Seal in P. C. Ray’s Hindu Chemistry , pp. 190-191, Nyāyamañjarī, p. 438, and Udyotakara’s Vārttika. There is very little indication in the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika sūtras that they had any of those differences indicated here. Though there are slight indications of these matters in the Vaiśeṣika sūtras (vii. 1), the Nyāya sūtras are almost silent upon the matter. A systematic development of the theory of creation and atomic combinations appear to have taken place after Vātsyāyana.


See Dr B. N. Seal’s Positive Sciences, pp. 104-108, and Nyāyakandalī , pp. 33-34,

Sarīrōrambhe paramānava eva kāratiam na śukra-śonilasatinipātaḥ kriyāvibhāgādinyāyena tayorvināśe sati utpannapākajaiḥ paramāṇubhirārambhāt, na ca śukraśonitaparamāṇūnāṃ kaścidviśeṣaḥ pārthivatvāviśeṣāt....Pituḥ. śukraṃ mātuḥ śonitaṃ tayos sannipātānantaraṃ jaṭharānalasambandhāt śukra-śonitārambhakeṣu paramāṇuṣu pūruarūpādivināśe samāṇaguṇāntarotpattau dvyaṇukādikrameṇa kalalaśarīrotpattiḥ tatrāntaḥkaraṇapraveśo...tatra māturāhāraraso mātrayā saṃkrāmate, adṛṣṭavaśāttatra punarjaṭharānalasambandhāt kalalārambhakaparamāṇuṣu kriyāvibhāgādinyāyena kalalaśarīre naṣṭe samutpannapākajaiḥ kalalārambhakaparamāṇubhiradṛṣṭavaśād upajātakriyairāhāraparamāṇubhiḥ saha sambhūya śarīrāntaramārabhyate .”


See Dr Seal’s Positive Sciences of the Hindus.



Govardhana’s Nyūyabodhinī on Tarkasaṃgraha, pp. 9, 10.