This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

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8.4. Vaisheshika

Vaisheshika

The name of this darshana is a derivation from a word that means ‘distinctive character,’ and this is appropriate because Vaisheshika is concerned with knowledge of individual things in distinctive mode. It was mentioned above that the darshanas are listed in pairs due to certain affinities, and in this case the relationship is one of different points of emphasis within the same relationship. That is to say, while Nyaya treated of things in their relation to the understanding, Vaisheshika treats of them more directly, as they are in themselves. Due to the principle of identity between knower and known mentioned above, it should be clear that these are but two sides of the same coin.

Vaisheshika as cosmology

Since this darshana is concerned with manifested nature, it is much like the ‘natural philosophy’ of the Greeks, and could be called cosmology. A reservation when using this last term is necessary, however, since manifestation can be dealt with analytically or synthetically, the former being a matter of distinguishing between constituent elements of things, and the latter being an approach from principles and ‘downward’ into manifested nature. We take care to make this distinction because, as was said above, the first two darshanas are analytical in approach, while the remaining four are synthetic. Thus, while we say that Vaisheshika deals with cosmology, it is also true that Sankhya also deals with this domain, only through a synthetic approach. This will account for certain differences between the two, an example of which would be the order of priority given the five elements in each. Vaisheshika begins with the manifest, and so lists earth first and ends with ether, while Sankhya, on the other hand, deals with them in their order of production, and so begins with ether.

The six padarthas of Vaisheshika

Like Nyaya, Vaisheshika recognizes a number of padarthas, although it deals with them from its own point of view, and so the term should be taken in the special sense given to it by its context. This is why the six Vaisheshika padarthas could be included as subdivisions of the second Nyaya padartha, prameya, or objects of proof. The first of these is dravya. Dravya is ‘substance,’ taken in the relative sense according to Aristotle’s categories, which designates the function of the logical subject, and not in the more universal, metaphysical sense. The second padartha is guna or ‘quality.’ Again, however, this is quality in the relative sense, according to Aristotle’s ‘accidents,’ and the term guna will be met with again in Sankhya, taking on a different meaning as is appropriate to that point of view. As found in the present context, however, these qualities are the attributes of manifested beings considered in relation to the underlying substance which acts as a support for them; due to the strict limits of the point of view in question, we must not go any further than this and consider these accidents as constituents of ‘essence,’ as the principle of manifestation, since this order of things transcends nature as considered by Vaisheshika. Substance is itself never manifest, but is only manifested through its attributes, as its modalities, and these attributes only enjoy existence in and through substance. The third padartha is karma or action. Action is also considered in the notion of attributes, along with quality, despite the differences between the two. After all, action is but a ‘manner of being’ of substance. Action consists in movement, which is but a species of change, and is in this sense a transitory mode of being, whereas quality is relatively stable, but if considered purely in its consequences, the distinction between action and quality fades. The remaining three padarthas are less significant for the general knowledge we wish to present at this point, and can be addressed briefly. They each represent categories of relationships. The fourth is samanya, the association of qualities which give rise to gradation or ‘genera’; the fifth is vishesha, particularity or difference, meaning that which belongs exclusively to a particular substance and which distinguishes it from others; the sixth is samavaya, or aggregation, and it refers to the union between a substance and its attributes.

Existence and non-existence

In Vaisheshika, all of these six padarthas taken together, which are substances and all their attributes, go to form bhava, existence, which is opposed to abhava, non-existence. Abhava is equivalent to Aristotelian ‘privation’ and is often considered a seventh padartha, despite its being a purely negative conception.

Subdivisions of dravya

Like other padarthas, dravya consists of subdivisions, and these describe the modalities and general conditions of individual substances. If we mention these and not others, it is because these will come up again elsewhere in our discussion. For example, within these subdivisions are found the five bhutas or elements that make up corporeal things: prithvi (earth), ap (water), tejas (fire), vayu (air), and akasha (ether). The reader will recall what was said earlier, that these are listed in this order for a reason, due to the point of view we are dealing with, and that they will be reversed when we adopt the point of view of Sankhya. The five elements are manifest through the five sensible qualities, and these are found within the second category, guna. Additionally, dravya contains kala (time) and dish (space), which are general conditions of corporeal existence, and they represent in manifestation the activity of Shiva and Vishnu. The seven subdivisions of dravya which have been listed so far (the five elements, time, and space) pertain to corporeal manifestation only, but it is true that an individual being, if considered as a whole and beyond its bodily modality, elements belonging to another order, and these are represented by the final subdivisions of dravya: atma and manas. Manas is ‘mind,’ in the sense of the whole of the psychic faculties that belong to the individual. Of these it is reason that characterizes man. Atma, which should really not be translated as ‘soul,’ as is sometimes done, refers the principle of a more universal order to which the individuality is attached. It is here that the pure intellect is found. Atma can be distinguished from manas in the same way that personality is distinguished from individuality.

Naturalism and atomism

On account of its subject matter it is no surprise that Vaisheshika exhibits a tendency toward naturalism, and it is unfortunate that this has ended by producing support for the atomist conception, which is at odds the Veda itself. According to this theory, the anu or atom, due to an affinity with one or the other of the elements, groups with other atoms sharing this affinity, and out of these groupings all bodies are formed, under the influence of a ‘non-perceptible’ force called adrishta. The basic error of atomism consists in the supposition that simple elements can exist in the corporeal order, and this is why the points of view which restrict themselves to the corporeal order are susceptible to it. They search after simple elements, which are simply not found in the domain in which they find themselves. The result is the fiction of the atom. On the contrary, from a metaphysical point of view, all that is embodied is composite, and is therefore divisible. And being subject to the spatial condition, it is divisible, which refutes the verify definition of atom, which is ‘indivisible.’ In order to truly find anything simple, one must move outside space, which is to say, outside the special modality of corporeal existence. To say it another way, that which is not divisible must therefore have no extension, which is to say it has no area, and the sum of any quantity of these would never equal an area. Modern science, however, no longer holds this definition of the atom as indivisible, having finally proven it false to themselves, although they’ve simply adopted alternative imaginings to replace it. Or, to employ a refutation given by Shankaracharya in his Commentary on the Brahma-sutras: two things can come into contact either by a part of themselves or by the whole. Since atoms, if they are ‘simple elements,’ do not have parts, then it follows that they cannot come into contact in part. This leaves only the second hypothesis, which amounts to saying that two atoms together coincide completely, and therefore take up no more space than they did singly. Thus, while we must admit the impossibility of the atomist conception, the point of view of Vaisheshika remains, in essence, legitimate.