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An Ancient System of Metaphysics? Introduction to Vaisheshika Philosophy

In the previous #VEDA101 article, I explained what Nyaya Darshana was all about. We covered all of the factors regarding how the universe came into (and remains) in existence. Now in this article, we move on to the second of six Vedic philosophies- Vaisheshika Darshana.


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Introduction


Vaisheshika comes from the Sanskrit word “vishesha,” which is translated as “distinction,” “distinguishing feature,” “attribute,” “particularity,” “special,” and many other synonymous words.


As we also covered in the Nyaya Darshana article, the smallest, most indivisible and indestructible part of the world is an atom (anu). And everything in our physical existence, including ourselves, is different combinations of the atoms of earth, water, fire, and air, co-mingling in space (aka the five elements).

We can think of this like we are baking a cake and we only need four ingredients. These ingredients are earth, water, fire, and air. Depending on the type of cake we want to make, we add in different amounts of those four ingredients and we get different results.


Us humans, just like the cake, are made up of the same four elements, and what makes us unique is our differing recipes of them.


In efforts to identify, or even grow aware of, that uniqueness, Vaisheshika Darshana acts as a system of physics and metaphysics, classifying every object in existence according the following 7 laws or classifications:

  1. Dravya: substance

  2. Guna: quality

  3. Karma: action

  4. Samanya: generality

  5. Vishesha: particularity

  6. Samavaya: inherence

  7. Abhava: non-existence

Dravya


The first classification, dravya, is the actual object or substance being distinguished. A “dravya” can be described as eternal, independent, individual, and is not able to be produced or destroyed. For example, the phone or computer you are reading this on is not a dravya itself, but was produced from many dravyas. Vaisheshika Darshana states that there are only nine items in existence that can be classified as a dravya:

  • Panchamahabhuta aka the five elements:

    • ether

    • air, fire

    • water

    • earth

  • Time

  • Space

  • Mind

  • Spirit

These items combine to form who we are in this exact moment of our lives and that proportion can change in small amounts over the course of our lives. And this goes for anything, not just us humans- animals, insects, plants, and even inaminate objects consists of these nine dravyas.



Guna


The next law or classification described in Vaisheshika Darshana is guna. A guna is a quality, characteristic, or description given to a dravya (substance), and are described as static and permanent. Because of this, a guna cannot exist without a dravya. A description can only be made when there is something to describe. You would think that there would have to be an infinite amount of descriptions to include everything in the universe, but Vedic philosophy makes it more simple with only twenty gunas total. They are:

  • Heavy / Light

  • Slow / Fast

  • Cold / Hot

  • Unctuous / Dry

  • Smooth / Rough

  • Solid / Liquid

  • Soft / Hard

  • Stable / Moving

  • Small / Large

  • Slimy / Not Slimy

Look around your room, anything you see- living and nonliving- can be described with these gunas. Being able to classify what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell allows us to differentiate between one thing and the next.


Beyond that, in Ayurveda, a Guna enables us to recognize what is truly and uniquely good for our own health and happiness! In a future article, we will break down these twenty gunas in more detail.



Karma


Karma, the next factor of Vaisheshika Darshana, is an action that a dravya and guna carry. Like guna (quality), karma (action) cannot exist without dravya (substance). There are many karmas depending on what dravya or guna is being described.

For example, we can describe the Earth element as having heavy, cold, and solid gunas, or qualities. These gunas carry the karmas, or actions, of building, cooling, and stabilizing.


So, Earth too, carries the karma of building, cooling, and stabilizing.


Then, beyond that, Karma is also classified according the type of movement it is- upward, downward, contracting, dilating, circling, irregular, etc. So while a guna (quality) is static and permanent, a karma (action) is dynamic, and transient.



Samanya


The 4th of 7 factors of Vaisheshika, recognizes that there is a universal quality or characteristic that is similar among all of the different individuals or all the different objects within a particular class.


So for example, we will use dogs as an example. Let’s say we have a bunch of dogs in a room- some chihuahas, Labradors, and poodles. They are probably all furry (soft/dry), running around (fast/moving), playing, and barking. We can deduce that although they do not all look or act identical, they are all dogs because of their similar qualities aka their Samanya.


Deeper than that, Samanya holds the idea that similar qualities (gunas) will increase similar qualities (gunas) when they are introduced to each other- “like increases like.” Ayurveda helps us to determine the qualities within ourselves and around us in efforts to maintain our natural balance of the five elements.


For example: because we have all five elements within us, we will all have some proportion of water, which is described as cold, and some of us may have more cold than others. If we live in a cold environment and are always eating cold foods, then this will increase the “cold’ quality within us. Ayurveda recognizes this change as an aggravation or imbalance of the elements, resulting in ill-health over time.


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Vishesha


Vishesha, as we learned above is where Vaisheshika comes from. This category is the opposite of Samanya, helping to differentiate two apparently same atoms of the same substance from each other.


For example, going back to the room of dogs, we may notice that some are smaller or larger than the others, some may be slower or faster, more active or less active, fluffier/furrier, etc. That is the vishesha. That is what makes each single dog in the room stand out across from all the other dogs, despite them all having so many like qualities.


No two parts of a substance are going to be the same. There are no two humans that are the same. There are no two flowers, no two trees, no two dogs, not even two books that are the same. Even two things that come out of a manufacturing plant designed to create products that are exactly alike. No two atoms are the same and so, no two seemingly identical things are the same either. There will always be a Vishesha.



Samavaya

The the 6th of 7 pillars of Vaisheshika is Samavaya, or inherence. It describes that an object no longer exists if one of its gunas are missing.


For example, a cloth cannot exist without thread. If the thread is removed, there is no longer a cloth. Another example: A pot cannot exist without clay. If the clay is taken away or destroyed, then so is the pot.



Abhava


The final pillar, Abhava identifies the absence or non-existence of the substance. It is broken down further into four different categories to explain why it is absent:

  • Antecedent Non-Existence: It has not been created yet

  • Subsequent Non-Existence: It was destroyed

  • Mutual Non-Existence: It is not always possible, like lightning -or- it is always experienced, like gas

  • Absolute Non-Existence: It is not relevant or related, like a table and car -or- it cannot coexist by nature, like light and dark

Abhava, is considered a relative or negative thought process, while the others are considered absolute or positive. Therefore, some sources only choose to recognize the first six categories of Vaisheshika, eliminating Abhava completely.



Conclusion


To make it short and sweet, Vaisheshika Philosophy describes these 6-7 padarthas or pillars, limbs, categories to not just describe everything in the universe, but to differentiate between them on many levels. In the next article on Vedic philosophies, we will get into the one everyone has heard of at this point- Yoga Darshana.


“See” you there!

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