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Acharya Kanada: The Father of Atomic Theory

Acharya Kanada: The Father of Atomic Theory



Modern science credits the atomic theory to an English chemist and physicist named John Dalton (1766-1844).  However, not many people are aware that a theory of atoms was formulated approximately 2500 years before Dalton by an Indian sage and philosopher named Acharya Kanada.  

Acharya Kanada, originally known by the name of Kashyap, is believed to have been born either around 600 BC or 800 BC in Prabhas Kshetra near Dwaraka in present day Gujarat, India.   He was the son of a philosopher named Ulka.

Kashyap displayed a keen sense of detail since childhood and minute things attracted his attention.  As a young boy, he once accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Prayaga.  He noticed that thousands of pilgrims in the town were littering its roads with flowers and grains of rice which they offered at the temples by the shore of river Ganges. 

Fascinated by the tiny particles, Kashyap began collecting the grains of rice from the ground while everyone else was busy offering prayers or bathing in the Ganges.  Noticing this behaviour from a boy of a well-to-do family, an inquisitive crowd gathered around him and started wondering why he was acting in such a strange manner. 

When questioned about why he was collecting grains of rice that even a beggar wouldn’t touch, Kashyap replied that one grain in itself may seem worthless but a collection of some hundred grains make up a person’s meal.  The collection of many meals would feed an entire family and ultimately the entire mankind was made up of many families.  And for this reason alone, a single grain of rice was as important as all the riches in the world.  People started calling him Kanada after this incidence as ‘kan’ translates to the smallest particle in Sanskrit.

It was Kanada who first realized the idea that “anu” (atom) was an indestructible particle of matter. 

This theory occurred to him while he was walking with food in his hand.  As he nibbled at the food in his hand, throwing away the small particles one by one until he was unable to break it down anymore and it left a smell on his hands.  He realized that he could not divide the food into further parts and the realization of a matter which cannot be divided further came into existence.

He called this indivisible matter, “anu” which literally means atom. He founded the Vaisheshika School of philosophy where he taught his ideas and the nature of the universe.  He authored the text “Vaisesika Sutras” or Aphorisms, pioneering the atomic theory, describing dimension, motion and chemical reactions of atoms.

Acharya Kanada considered the atom minute objects invisible to the naked eye which come into being and vanished in an instant; they were indestructible and hence eternal. 

Adherents of this philosophy further held that atoms of same substance combined with each other to produce dvyanuka (bi-atomic molecules) and tryanuka (tri-atomic molecules). This devinuka has the properties similar to those of the two original paramanu. Kanada also put forward the idea that atoms could be combined in various ways to produce chemical changes in presence of other factors such as heat. He gave blackening of earthen pot and ripening of fruit as examples of this phenomenon.




His primary area of study was Rasavādam, considered to be a type of alchemy. He is said to have believed that all living beings are composed of five elements: water, fire, earth, air, ether. Vegetables have only water, insects have water and fire, birds have water, fire, earth and air, and Humans, the top of the creation, have ether—the sense of discrimination (time, space, mind) are one. He theorized that Gurutva (Hindi/Sanskrit for Gravity) was responsible for the falling of objects on the Earth.

Accordingly, the universe is the interplay of seven aspects or states of material things, namely:

  1. Dravyam (matter)
  2. Guna (Quality)
  3. Karma (Action)
  4. Samanya (Generic species)
  5. Vishesha (Unique trait)
  6. Samavaya (Inherence or integrated part of the whole), and
  7. Abhava (Non-existence)

Dravyam (matter) is again subdivided into nine aspects:

  1. Prithvi (Earth)
  2. Jala (Water)
  3. Teja (Light)
  4. Vaayu (Gas)
  5. Aakaasa (Ether)
  6. Dika (Direction / space dimension)
  7. Kaala (Time)
  8. Maanas (Mind)
  9. Atma (Soul)

Kanada defined ‘life’ as an organized form of atoms and molecules and ‘death’ as an unorganized form of those atoms and molecules. 

This Indian conception of the atom was developed independently and possibly prior (depending on which dates one accepts for the life of Kanada) to the development of the idea in the Greco-Roman world. Indian theories about the atom are abstract and enmeshed in philosophy as they were based on logic and not on personal experience or experimentation.

Thus the Indian theories lacked an empirical base, but in the words of A.L. Basham, the veteran Australian Indologist “they were brilliant imaginative explanations of the physical structure of the world, and in a large measure, agreed with the discoveries of modern physics.”

According to author Dilip M. Salwi, “if Kanada’s sutras are analysed, one would find that his atomic theory was far more advanced than those forwarded later by the Greek philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus.”

National Aeronautical Laboratory in Bangalore runs a science magazine in this great philosopher’s name called Kanada.

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14 Responses to "Acharya Kanada: The Father of Atomic Theory"

  1. S.SuchindranathAiyer  February 11, 2015 at 6:20 am

    The original atomic theory is embedded in the Rik Vedas that sees the Universe as comprised of fractals and that the tiniest (anima or atom) is no different from the Solar system or the Universe (Mahima). Kashyapa is a Gothra name and keeps cropping up (I am also Kashyapa) even at Dasharatha’s Court and Dhritharashtra’s Court giving rise to notion of the immortality of the sages. The original Kashyapa was on of the Seven Sages who received the Prathamo Upanishad from Brahma before the commencement of the Rik Vedic period which could be anywhere from 20,000 to 40, 000 years ago. (It was on the Central Asian Steppes well before the Druid Semites founded Ur is Medopotamia.

    Reply
  2. Abcmichigan  February 26, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    How can atma or soul be included as a component of ” matter”..
    Soul is universally accepted in all scriptures and now science too as spiritual. This might have been just a consequence of the challenge interpreting and translating the eternal language of samskrutha to the man made language of English. Dravyam would rather translate to “ingredients” rather than matter if you include atma..

    Reply
    • Manohar sharma  July 3, 2016 at 9:13 am

      You are right Atman is not the part of matter but is cosmic energy that creates ,moves and nurtures the body in which it is encapsulated. It’s the light that burns with equal cadence in all living beings and can be seen with concentration of mind n intellect ( चेतना)

      Reply
  3. Sidhu  March 5, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Kannada is the local dialect and one of the official languages in India. There are many newspapers/magazines running in the same name.

    Reply
    • Prabhakaran  October 18, 2016 at 4:33 am

      Kannada and Kanada are different.

      Reply
  4. seema  June 22, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    so many thanks for sharing this article . i m becoming a great lover of vedic science now reading ur articles .so easily explained .
    if u pl write the names in hindi also , it will be easy to pronounce n understand . like rishi KANADA – कणाद .
    Some people read it as – कन्नड , which is wrong .

    Reply
  5. Rama Seshu  July 20, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    Good info. The younger genaration need to know these kind of informations.

    Reply
  6. Debi  July 21, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Dalton and Kanad are irrelevant. Learn hard core quantum physics.

    Reply
  7. Rangaesh Gadasalli  October 3, 2015 at 5:14 am

    Very Informative. Some of my Kashmiri friends say Kashyap belonged to Kashmir and it was his native place. Time to publicize all the ancient secrets of Vedas and the greatness of our Rishis and others. Susruta, Aryabhata and others have got publicity. We have to find out who gave the laws of motion theory to Newton. As per some experts, the Jesuit priests in Kerala were responsible for taking all the ancient books to London.

    Reply
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  11. Maheshwar  May 26, 2016 at 10:27 am

    We have everything in Vedas. Only problem is we only declare it after 2500 years. Let experts read it and publish before someone gets the Nobel Prize.

    Reply
  12. K. Sadananda  May 26, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    I thought the anu theory is also by Jainism.

    Kanada is the author of Sankhya Philosophy which is criticized in the Brahma suutra 2nd Ch.

    Reply

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