Semantic Atomism


Vaiśeṣika is one of the Six Systems of Vedic philosophy, and Vaiśeṣika Sūtra is the oldest and most authoritative text on this philosophy. This book translates and comments on this ancient text.

Vaiśeṣika describes all things in the world as Padārtha—pada denotes a symbol and artha denotes its meaning. These symbols of meaning are created by the combination of Samānya and Vaiśesa or universals and individuals. These Padārtha are connected to each other through a relationship of inherence called Samvāya, which we can call the whole-part relationship. Thus, one symbol represents the whole, and the other symbols connected to it through inherence constitute its parts. This whole-part relation between symbols of meaning is organized from whole to parts like an inverted tree in which the root is the whole, the branches are the parts of the root, the leaves are parts of the branches, etc.

The universals are of three types—guna (qualities), kriya (activities), and dravya (object). The activities and qualities inhere in the object, and they are manifest through interactions between symbols.

We can measure the effects of interactions via physical instruments and convert the semantic reality to physical reality, but we can never explain these effects based on the quantities. This description of atomism in Vaiśeṣika helps us understand why modern scientific atomism is incomplete—it tries to explain effects measured using physical instruments in terms of physical objects and their properties, when the objects, their properties, and their effects must all be described as concepts.

The Vaiśeṣika system of philosophy discusses the following topics:

  • It draws a distinction between six categories called object, activity, quality, universal, individual, and inherence. These six categories are variations of the three modes of nature used in Sāñkhya; the object is in sattva-guna, activity in rajo-guna, and quality in tamo-guna. Likewise, the universal is sattva-guna, the individual is tamo-guna, and inherence is rajo-guna. All these categories are called padārtha comprising two terms—pada (word) and artha (meaning). A detailed discussion of how these categories combine to produce ordinary objects that have qualities by which they are perceived, and activities by which they cause changes, follows.
  • The discussion now turns toward the nature of the four elements called Air, Fire, Water, and Earth which are also part of Sāñkhya. Commensurate with Sāñkhya, Vaiśeṣika attributes these elements the properties of touch, sight, taste, and smell respectively, with each element possessing the qualities of the previous elements. However, in addition, Vaiśeṣika also discusses additional properties such as the fluidity of Water, and the movement of Air, which are not discussed in Sāñkhya. We can distinguish between these as the effects of a single ‘atom’ of the element vs. the effects of a collection of atoms. The collection has additional properties, and these are effects are therefore ‘structural properties’ of a collection.
  • Vaiśeṣika attributes many properties of the mind to the material elements. Two such properties are ‘knowledge’ and ‘absence’. By the property of ‘knowledge’ each material element acquires a representation of the external reality within itself. And by the property of ‘absence’ each material element develops a purpose. We can explain this idea by the example of bodily immunity where the body recognizes the alien entities like bacteria and viruses. The original interaction with the world—which then leads to a representation—is due to an ‘absence’. Similarly, the comprehension of alien entity as a problem, which then necessitates a solution, is an ‘absence’. Thus, by knowing the external world, recognizing it as a problem, having the purpose to solve the problem, and then producing a solution, matter appears to act ‘automatically’—i.e., even without our conscious intervention. And yet, this material activity—while not conscious in the sense of having a self-awareness—is still cognitive and conative in the sense of having the attributes of the mind.
  • The material objects are described as potentials which are then manifest due to an ‘absence’. The doctrine of ‘absence’ is taken from Nyāya philosophy, where it represents a doubt, question, or problem. The absence is temporary, but the presence of the potential is eternal. Therefore, the potential manifests into a reality when the ‘absence’ appears—i.e., when it is recognized as a doubt, question, or problem. Vaiśeṣika doesn’t explain the origin of ‘absence’, but from the other descriptions about the nature of consciousness, we can discern that it appears due to consciousness. In short, matter acquires a purpose due to the presence of consciousness. The purpose is objectively present within matter, and yet, it is produced only if consciousness is present. Thus, for instance, a living body has a natural survival instinct, but the dead body does not. In these and other ways, the properties of consciousness are delegated into matter such that material objects act just like a conscious person without a conscious intervention, quite like a servant acquires the intentions of the master and does things on the master’s behalf without constant attention and supervision from the master.
  • Vaiśeṣika presents a description of the various objects, qualities, and activities as modifications of the original object, qualities, and activities such that some aspects of the original are hidden in each thing. Thus, even if something appears to be impure, it has purity hidden within it. Even when there is ignorance, there is knowledge hidden in it. Ultimately, impurity and ignorance have no fundamental basis; the basis is purity and knowledge; however, due to the category called ‘absence’ this purity and knowledge is gradually hidden. By this hiding, immense variety of imperfect and impure things are produced, but such impurity and imperfection have no reality other than its basis in the purity and the perfection.

Vaiśeṣika extensively uses the doctrine of Satkāryavāda and the ideas about the five elements from Sāñkhya. It also relies heavily on the ideas of ‘absence’ drawn from Nyāya. The doctrines about soul and God are extensively reused from Vedānta, and the doctrines of union and separation, whole and part, are common across all systems. They are called by various names such as abheda (non-separated), advaya (non-dualism), avyatireka (non-exclusive), etc.
Vaiśeṣika is generally considered the description of the material elements, which it is, although it is also much more. The principles of these elements are semantic, because they recognize the existence of universals and inherence, apart from the existence of individuals. Similarly, a distinction between objects, qualities, and activities, the inherence of qualities and activities in the objects, and their manifestation due to the appearance of ‘absence’ are all descriptions of an atomic reality quite different from how they are conceived presently.