The Vaisesika Darsana

The Vaisesika darsana is a system of ontology – it is concerned with ordering and classifying the universe into fundamental components and categories. It is therefore pluralistic and also realistic. The term Vaisesika means “particularist” and is based on the term visesa, meaning “particulars” (Raju 143). Visesa is one of the seven categories into which Vaisesika thinkers organize the universe and figures prominently into its composition. The darsana was founded by Kanada, who authored the Vaisesikasutras circa 400 B.C. (Raju 143).

The doctrine espouses seven categories of reality, called padarthas, which comprise all objects that can be perceived through any means logical or sensory (Hiriyanna 231). They are dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (motion or activity), samanya (generality or universality), visesa (particularity), samavaya (inherence) and abhava (negation) (Raju 143). Dravya, guna, and karma define the observable physical nature and capabilities of objects, while the existence samanya, visesa and samavaya is demonstrated by logical discrimination. They are also subdivided into further categories.

Dravya can be understood as “that in which qualities inhere” (Raju 143). Dravya is split into two classes of substance, the first of which comprise the nonmaterial world. Firstly there are dis (space), and kala (time), each of which is eternal, infinite and indestructible. There is the mind, manas, which is separate from consciousness and more accurately seen as the integration of the physical senses and the ability to focus on it or selective elements of it (Hiriyanna 231). It is believed to be atomic in scale as the elements are and also the sensory object responsible for emotion and some physical sensations (Raju 148). Finally, there is atman, variously translated as “Self” or “consciousness.” This is consciousness in the overarching sense that is separate and yet observant of the body, senses, mind and other constituent elements of a single person – for each individual, there is a unique atman (Raju 146). The atmans are regarded as infinite and not located in physical space.

The second class comprises the physical world. They are the elements (bhutas): prthivi (earth), apas (water), tejas (light/fire), and vayu (air), which are composed of infinitesimally minute particles called paramanu. Therefore, Vaisesika is also an atomic theory – it proposes the existence of indivisible, imperceptibly tiny component particles of all physical substances. Paramanu are too small to have mass. Accordingly, two combine into a dyad, three of which combine into a triad, which is the minimum observable particle with mass (Raju 145). In addition, each of the four types of paramanu have inherent qualities – prthivi corresponds to smell, apas to taste, tejas to colour and vayu to touch. These are explained as the universal phenomena that allow those senses to function – light, for instance, is seen as necessary to perceive colour. Akasa (aether) is also one of the elements, but is not atomic. It is singular, universal and indivisible like dis and kala. The first four are directly perceivable, but the fifth can only be inferred (Raju 144).

Gunas, or qualities, are traits inherent to dravyas. There are 24 in total: “[C]olor, taste, smell, touch, number, quantity, separateness, contact, disjoining, distance, nearness, knowledge, pleasure, pain, will, aversion and effort… heaviness, liquidity, oiliness, impression, fate [which includes merits as well as demerits, and therefore counts as two], and sound” (Bhattacharyya 143). The most significant are the dual qualities Bhattacharyya lumps together as “fate,” more accurately translated as merit (dharma) and demerit (adharma). These qualities are seen as inherent to substances, but it is possible to conceive of them separate of any object or substance. Colour can be conceived of formlessly, for example. As such, they are considered a distinct category of existence (Hiriyanna 232). Gunas may not have further gunas – there is a distinction made between a quality such as taste and a visesana (variance/mode), such as sweetness. Generally, the distinction is that things considered “qualities” that are attributed to gunas may be scaled – a taste may be sweet or sour, but sweetness and sourness cannot be conceived of without the category of taste – therefore they are subordinate to it (Raju 148).

Karma here refers to action, meaning types of movement. They are rising and falling motion, contraction, expansion and composite or combined motion (e.g. the motions of a human leg) (Raju 149). These are seen as properties of the dravyas as well, although dis, kala and akasa are said to lack motion as they are infinite (Hiriyanna 233).

Samanya translates as “generality” or “universality” and refers to the inherent identifying nature of things. That is, the generic nature of “dogness” that makes all dogs recognizable as such – the combination of dravyas, gunas and karmas unique to dogs (Kak 12). That combination is the same for all dogs – there is one samanya of dogs, which is distinct from the samanya of cows, and so on (Hiriyanna 233).

Visesa, particularity, is the quality that defines two otherwise indistinguishable objects as separate. It is not physically observable itself, but inferred from the fact that two identical things exist in the first place. This is not used lightly – it is only applied to truly indistinguishable objects, which are atomic in scale. While two physical objects can almost always be distinguished from one another by some variance in their gunas, this quality is what distinguishes one atom from the next (Hiriyanna 235). It is also how manases or minds are said to be distinct from one another, as they are also believed to be atomically tiny (Raju 152).

Samavaya proposes the relationships binding these other categories together in coherent manners. It means “inherence” and refers to definitional relationships between inseperable concepts. Substances have this relationship with qualities and with actions, as each (that is, the gunas and karmas) would cease to have value without the former. Likewise, for samanya to be distinct, there must also be visesa, so their relationship is inseparable and necessary (Hiriyanna 236).

The seventh category, abhava, is not an original component of Kanada’s Vaisesikasutras. The category of negation was added as a logical extension of the system. Essentially it addresses the absence of an expected phenomena, object or truth. For example, if an observer is seeking an object and finds that it is missing, the cognized absence of the object is considered a negation – the observer is conceiving of the absence of the object as a distinct phenomenon (Raju 153). Abhava outlines several distinct types of negation – pragabhava and dhvamsabhava refer to the conceptions of an object in the periods before it has been created (e.g. visualizing a home before it has been built) and after it has been destroyed (e.g. remembering a favourite childhood toy, or looking at the broken pieces of an object and recalling its former configuration) to name two (Hiriyanna 238).

The atomic explanation of the composition of the universe begs the question – how is the universe originated? What is the material cause of the paramanu themselves? Later Vaisesika proponents theorize the existence of a God, called Isvara, responsible for creating them – and therefore, the universe. God is conceived of with no identity in particular – it is not Siva, Brahma, etc. Rather, God is the product of logical inference – the universe itself must have a material cause, there appears to be physical order to it suggestive of a controlling “lawmaker,” and the apparent existence of moral order implies an entity dispensing justice (Hiriyanna 243). Kanada himself did not include God in the Vaisesikasutra, but later philosophers such as Sridhara and Udayana consider its existence necessary to explain origination (Hiriyanna 244).



Raju, P.T. (1971) The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Hiriyanna, M. (1932) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Bhattacharyya, S. (1961). “The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Doctrine of Qualities.” Philosophy East and      West, Vol. 11, No. 3: 143-151


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Article written by: Dan Phipps (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.