The Origin of Atomic Theory in India

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The bulk of what I write below is drawn from "Atomism in Ancient Greece and India" written by R.A. Horne, published in 1960 in the journal Ambix.

Atomism is as much a tradition of the East as it is of the West. However, according to Horne's analysis, the aim of each is different.

Greek atomism was a response to problems in Greek philosophy. One aspect had to do with the problem of change -- were we in a constant state of flux or was change illusory? How could one account for the seemingly endless multiplicity of Nature? Greek atomism was a means of answering philsophical difficulties and explaining the natural world.

India atomism was different, according to Horne. The legend has it that a group of disciples approached the sage Kanada and asked him how to gain release from mortality and attain self-realization. Kanada's answer was the Vaisesika-Sutra, which turns out to be a systematic world-view based on atomism. To quote Horne:

"Vaisesika philosophy . . . seeks to escape from the phenomenological world by wrapping the whole realm of external existence up into a neat explanatory parcel, atomism, so that the intellect need no longer trouble itself with such problems and is thus free to continue on to the higher spheres of thought which are its more appropriate concern." (p. 100)

Indian atomism, at its core, seeks to release man from his concern about nature whereas Greek atomism seeks to confront and explain the natural world.


Horne goes on to compare some of the anteceedents to Greek and Indian atomism.

About 100 years after Leucippus and Democritus was Aristotle, who was not an atomist. Aristotle was very thorough in his research of the writings of those before him and he credits Leucippus as the originator of the atom. He mentions no predecessors. Diogenes Laertius, writing centuries later, credits only Zeno as a master of Leucippus. Zeno was, as Horne writes "most emphatically not an atomist."

As little as is known about Leucippus, less is known about Kanada. However, Horne goes on to discuss the Samkhya-system, thought to be the oldest of the six fundamental interpretations of Ultimate Reality. This was given in the sixth century B.C. Horne writes:

"This philosophical system views the world in terms of manifestations of Spirit and Matter. It holds that there are five subtle particles corresponding to the five elements and derived by processes of differentiation and unequal aggregation from a super-subtile, homogeneous rudimentary matter."

Although Horne does not say, my feeling is that he wishes to place the Samkhya in relation to Kanada's atomism in the same manner Greek atomism is related to the problems which pre-dated it.

It appears to the writer, who is no expert on the matter, that atomism arose essentially simutaneously in the West and in the East. It is interesting that Greek atomism arose in the easternmost regions. I feel this is no argument for atomism starting in India and being transmitted to Greece. Rather that the intellectual climate in that part of the world about 2500 years ago was ripe for this particular idea.

As has happened so often in science, atomism was discovered at the same time in two locations.

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