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A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1/The Ayurvedic Period/Chapter 1

< A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1

The Ayurvedic Period

(From the pre-Buddhistic Era to circa 800 A. D.)


The Constitution and Properties of Matter: the Atomic Theory

It is not our purpose to discuss in the present volume the theories dominating Hindu medicine and, incidentally, chemistry. A concise preliminary summary of some of the salient features of the Sāmkhya and Vaiseshika systems of philosophy is, however, absolutely needed in order to follow with advantage the excerpts given in this book from the Charaka, the Susruta and other works. In connection with this, it would also be interesting to compare the indebtedness of Hippocrates to the doctrines of Parmenides, Empedocles and other philosophers of the same school.[1]

Kanāda, the founder of the Vaiseshika system, chiefly occupied himself with the study of the properties of matter. The atomic theory, as propounded by him, has many points in common with that of the Greek philosopher Democritus. His theory of the propagation of sound cannot fail to excite our wonder and admiration even at this distant date. No less remarkable is his statement that light and heat are only different forms of the same essential substance. But Kanāda is anticipated in many material points by Kapila, the reputed originator of the Sāmkhya philosophy. With the purely metaphysical aspects of these systems we are not concerned here. Their theories of matter and its constitution alone fall within the scope of our present enquiry. We shall now briefly refer to some of their doctrines.

The Sāmkhya, in common with other systems of Hindu philosophy, teaches that salvation in after-life is only attainable by perfect knowledge. According to Kapila, there are three sources of knowledge which consists in right discrimination of the perceptible and imperceptible principles of the material world from the immaterial soul. He enumerates these principles to be twenty-five in number. For our present purpose, however, a few of these only come within our purview. These we will present to our readers in the inimitable language of Colebrooke, whose masterly exposition of Hindu thought, though written nearly four scores of years ago, still retains its value and authoritative stamp[2]:—

Tanmātrās or Particles.

"Five subtile particles, rudiments, or atoms, denominated Tanmātras; perceptible to beings of a superior order, but unapprehended by the grosser senses of mankind: derived from the conscious principle, and themselves productive of the five grosser elements, earth, water, fire, air, and space.

Five Elements.

"Five elements, produced from the five elementary particles or rudiments. 1st. A diffused, ethereal fluid (ākāsa), occupying space: it has the property of audibleness, being the vehicle of sound, derived from the sonorous rudiment or ethereal atom. 2nd. Air, which is endowed with the properties of audibleness and tangibility, being sensible to hearing and touch; derived from the tangible rudiment or ærial atom. 3rd. Fire, which is invested with properties of audibleness, tangibility and colour; sensible to hearing, touch and sight: derived from the colouring rudiment or igneous atom. 4th. Water, which possesses the properties of audibleness, tangibility, colour and savour; being sensible to hearing, touch, sight and taste; derived from the savoury rudiment or aqueous atom. 5th. Earth, which unites the properties of audibleness, tangibility, colour, savour and odour; being sensible to hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell; derived from the odorous rudiment or terrene atom.

Animated Atom.

"The notion of an animated atom seems to be a compromise between the refined dogma of an immaterial soul and the difficulty which a gross understanding finds in grasping the comprehension of individual existence, unattached to matter.

Grosser Body.

"The grosser body, with which a soul clad in its subtile person is invested for the purpose of fruition, is composed of the five elements, or of four, excluding the ethereal, according to some authorities; or of one earth alone, according to others. That grosser body, propagated by generation, is perishable. The subtile person is more durable, transmigrating through successive bodies, which it assumes, as a mimic shifts his disguises to represent various characters."

We now come to the treatment of the subject by Kanāda in his famous Vaiseshika system. Here also we are indebted to Colebrooke for the following summary. Kanāda arranges the objects of sense in six categories, viz., substance, quality, action, community, difference and aggregation. According to him:—

"I. Substance is the intimate cause of an aggregate effect or product: it is the site of qualities and of action; or that in which qualities abide, and in which action takes place.

"Nine are enumerated, and no more are recognised. Darkness has been alleged by some philosophers; but it is no substance; nor is body a distinct one; nor gold which the Mīmāmsakas affirm to be a peculiar substance.

"Those specified by Kanāda are:


"1. Earth, which besides qualities common to most substances (as number, quantity, individuality, conjunction, disjunction, priority, posteriority, gravity, fluidity and faculty of velocity and of elasticity), has colour, savour, odour and feel or temperature. Its distinguishing quality is smell; and it is succinctly defined as a substance odorous. In some instances, as in gems, the smell is latent: but it becomes manifest by calcination.

"It is eternal, as atoms; or transient, as aggregates. In either, those characteristic qualities are transitory, and are maturative, as affected by light and heat: for by union with it, whether latent or manifest, form, colour, taste, smell and temperature are in earth of any sort annulled, and other colour etc. introduced.

"Aggregates or products are either organised bodies, or organs of perception, or unorganic masses.

"Organised earthly bodies are of five sorts. The organ of smell is terreous. Unorganic masses are stones, lumps of clay, etc. The union of integrant parts is hard, soft or cumulative as stones, flowers, cotton, etc.


"2. Water, which has the qualities of earth; excepting smell, and with the addition of viscidity. Odour, when observable in water is adscititious, arising from mixture of earthy particles.

"The distinguishing quality of water is coolness. It is accordingly defined as a substance cool to the feel.

"It it eternal, as atoms; transient, as aggregates. The qualities of the first are constant likewise; those of the latter inconstant.

"Organic aqueous bodies are beings abiding in the realm of Varuna. The organ of taste is aqueous: witness the saliva. Unorganic waters are rivers, seas, rain, snow, hail, etc.

"It is by some maintained, that hail is pure water rendered solid by the supervention of an unseen virtue: others imagine its solidity to be owing to mixture of earthly particles.


"3. Light is coloured, and illumines other substances; and to the feel is hot: which is its distinguishing quality. It is defined as a substance hot to the feel. [Heat, then, and light are identified as one substance.][3]

"It has the qualities of earth except smell, taste, and gravity. It is eternal, as atoms; not so, as aggregates.

"Organic luminous bodies are beings abiding in the solar realm. The visual ray, which is the organ of sight, is lucid. Unorganic light is reckoned fourfold: earthy, celestial, alvine and mineral. Another distinction concerns sight and feel; as light or heat may be either latent or manifest, in respect of both sight and feel, or differently in regard to either. Thus fire is both seen and felt; the heat of hot water is felt but not seen; moonshine is seen, but not felt; the visual ray is neither seen nor felt. Terrestrious light is that, of which the fuel is earthy, as fire. Celestial is that of which the fuel is watery, as lightning and meteors of various sorts. Alvine is that of which the fuel is both earthy and watery: it is intestinal, which digests food and drink. Mineral is that which is found in pits as gold. For some maintain that gold is solid light; or, at least that the chief ingredient is light, which is rendered solid by mixture with some particles of earth. Were it mere earth, it might be calclined by fire strongly urged. Its light is not latent, but overpowered by the colour of the earthy particles mixed with it. In the Mīmāmsā, however, it is reckoned as a distinct substance, as before observed."[4]

After giving an account of air and ether etc., Colebrooke proceeds with Kanāda's

Conception of the Simple, Binary, Tertiary, and Quaternary Atoms.

"Material substances are by Kanāda considered to be primarily atoms; and secondarily, aggegates. He maintains the eternity of atoms; and their existence and aggregation are explained as follows:

"The mote, which is seen in a sunbeam, is the smallest perceptible quantity. Being a substance and an effect, it must be composed of what is less than itself; and this likewise is a substance and an effect; for the component part of a substance that has magnitude must be an effect. This again must be composed of what is smaller; and that smaller thing is an atom. It is simple and uncomposed; else the series would be endless: and, were it pursued indefinitely, there would be no difference of magnitude between a mustard seed and a mountain, a gnat and an elephant, each alike containing an infinity of particles. The ultimate atom then is simple.

"The first compound consists of two atoms: for one does not enter into composition; and there is no argument to prove, that more than two must, for incohation, be united. The next consists of three double atoms; for, if only two were conjoined, magnitude would hardly ensue, since it must be produced either by size or a number of patircles: it cannot be their size and, therefore, it must be their number. Nor is there any reason for assuming the union of four double atoms, since three suffice to originate magnitude. The atom then is reckoned to be the sixth part of a mote visible in a sunbeam.

"Two earthly atoms, concurring by an unseen peculiar virtue, the creative will of God, or time, or other competent, cause, constitute a double atom of earth; and, by concourse of three binary atoms, a tertiary atom is produced; and by concourse of four triple atoms, a quaternary atom; and so on, to a gross, grosser, or grossest mass of earth: thus great earth is produced; and in like manner, great water from aqueous atoms; great light, from luminous; and great air, from ærial. The qualities that belong to the effect are those which appertained to the integrant part, or primary particle, as its material cause; and conversely, the qualities which belong to the cause are found in the effect.

"The dissolution of substances proceeds inversely. In the integrant parts of an aggregate substance resulting from composition, as in the potsherds of an earthen jar action is induced by pressure attended with velocity, or by simple pressure. Disjunction ensues; whereby the union, which was the cause of incohation of members, is annulled; and the integral substance, consisting of those members, is resolved into its parts, and is destroyed: for it ceases to subsist as a whole.

Quality of the Substance viz., Colour, Savour, etc.

"II. Quality is closely united with substance; not, however, as an intimate cause of it, nor consisting in motion; but common: not a genus, yet appertaining to one. It is independent of conjunction and disjunction; not the cause of them, not itself endued with qualities.

"Twenty-four are enumerated. Seventeen only are, indeed, specified in Kanāda's aphorisms; but the rest are understood.

"1. Colour. It is a peculiar quality to be apprehended only by sight; and abides in three substances; earth, water, and light. It is a characteristic quality of the last; and, in that, is white and resplended. In water it is white, but without lustre. In the primary atoms of both it is perpetual; in their products, not so. In earth it is variable; and seven colours are distinguished: viz. white, yellow, green, red, black, tawny (or orange) and variegated. The varieties of these seven colours are many, unenumerated. The six simple colours occur in the atoms of the earth; and the seven, including variegated, in its double atoms, and more complex forms. The colour of integrant parts is the cause of colour in the integral substance.

"2. Savour. It is a peculiar quality, to be apprehended only by the organ of taste; and abides in two substances, earth and water. It is a characteristic quality of the last; and in it is sweet. It is perpetual in atoms of water; not so in aqueous products. In earth it is variable, and six sorts are distinguished: sweet, bitter, pungent, astringent, acid, and saline.

"3. Odour. It is a peculiar quality, to be apprehended only by the organ of smell; and abides in earth alone, being its distinguishing quality. In water, odour is adscititious, being induced by union with earthy particles; as a clear crystal appears red by association with a hollyhock, or other flower of that hue. In air also it is adscititious: thus a breeze, which has blown over blossoms, musk, camphor, or other scented substances, wafts fragrant particles of the blossoms, etc. The flowers are not torn, nor the musk diminished; because the parts are replaced by a reproductive unseen virtue. However, camphor and other volatile substances do waste.



"12. Gravity is the peculiar cause of primary descent or falling.

"It affects earth and water. Gold is affected by this quality, by reason of earth contained in it.

"In the absence of a countervailing cause, as adhesion, velocity, or some act of volition, descent results from i this quality. Thus a cocoanut is withheld from falling by adhesion of the foot-stalk; but, this impediment ceasing on maturity of the fruit, it falls.

"According to Udayana Āchārya, gravity is imperceptible, but to be inferred from the act of falling. Vallabha maintains that it is perceived in the position of a thing descending to a lower situation.


"Levity is not a distinct quality, but the negation of gravity.


"13. Fluidity is the cause of original trickling.

"It affects earth, light and water. It is natural and essential in water; adscititious in earth and light; being induced by exhibition of fire in molten substances, as lac, gold etc.

"Fluidity is perceptible by external senses, sight and touch.

"In hail and ice, fluidity essentially subsists, but is obstructed by an impediment arising from an unseen virtue which renders the water solid.


14. "Viscidity is the quality of clamminess and cause of agglutination. It abides in water only. In oil, liquid butter, etc., it results from the watery part of those liquids.


"15. Sound is a peculiar quality of the ethereal element, and is to be apprehended by the hearing. It abides in that element exclusively and is its characteristic quality. Two sorts are distinguished: articulate and musical.

Theory of the Propagation of Sound.

"To account for sound originating in one place being heard in another, it is observed, that sound is propagated by undulation, wave after wave, radiating in every direction, from a centre, like the blossoms of a Nauclea. It is not the first, nor the intermediate wave, that is the sound heard: but the last that comes in contact with the organ of hearing: and therefore it is not quite correct to say, that a drum has been heard. Sound originates in conjunction, in disjunction, or in sound itself. The conjunction of cymbals, or that of a drum and stick, may serve to exemplify the first. It is the instrumental cause. The rustling of leaves is an instance of disjunction being the cause of sound. In some cases, sound becomes the cause of sound. In all, the conformity of wind or its calmness is a concomitant cause: for an adverse wind obstructs it. The material cause is in every case the ethereal fluid: and the conjunction of that with the sonorous subject is a concomitant cause."

It now only remains for us to furnish a précis of the atomic theory of Kanāda in the words of Max Müller:

Anus or Atoms.

"What is thought to be peculiar to Kanāda, nay the distinguishing feature of his philosophy, is the theory of Anus or Atoms. They take the place of the Tanmātrās in the Sāmkhya philosophy. Though the idea of an atom is not unknown in the Nyāya-philosophy (Nyāya Sūtras, IV. 2, 4-25), it is nowhere so fully worked out as in the Vaiseshika. Kanāda argued that there must be somewhere a smallest thing that excludes further analysis. Without this admission, we should have a regressus ad infinitum, a most objectionable process in the eyes of all Indian philosophers. A mountain, he says, would not be larger than a mustard seed. These smallest and invisible particles are held by Kanāda to be eternal in themselves, but non-eternal as aggregates. As aggregates again they may be organised organs, and inorganic. Thus the human body is earth organised, the power of smelling is the earthly organ, stones are inorganic.

"It is, no doubt, very tempting to ascribe a Greek origin to Kanāda's theory of atoms. But suppose that the atomic theory had really been borrowed from a Greek source, would it not be strange that Kanāda's atoms are supposed never to assume visible dimensions till there is a combination of three double atoms (Tryanuka), neither the simple nor the double atoms being supposed to be visible by themselves. I do not remember anything like this in Epicurean authors, and it seems to me to give quite an independent character to Kanāda's view of the nature of an atom.

"We are told that water, in its atomic state, is eternal, as an aggregate transient.. Beings in the realm of Varuna (god of the sea) are organised, taste is the watery organ, rivers are water inorganic."

"Light in its atomic state is eternal, as an aggregate transient. There are organic luminous bodies in the sun, sight or the visual ray is the luminous organ, burning fires are inorganic.

"Air, again, is both atomic and an aggregate. Beings of the air, spirits, etc., are organised air; touch in the skin is the ærial organ, wind is inorganic air. Here it would seem as if we had something not very unlike the doctrine of Empedocles.

* * * But though we may discover the same thought in the philosophies of Kanāda and Empedocles, the form which it takes in India is characteristically different from its Greek form."[5]

Dates of the Philosophical Sūtras—The Question of Priority.

As regards the dates of the philosophical sūtras, nothing definite is known; here, as in the subsequent portions of our history, we have to depend largely upon constructive chronology.

We quote below two short extracts from Professor Max Müller's "Indian Philosophy" which summarise all the information available at present on the subject:

"If we consider the state of philosophical thought in India such as it is represented to us in the Brāhmanas and Upanishads, and afterwards in the canonical books of the Buddhists, we cannot wonder that all attempts at fixing the dates of the six recognised systems of philosophy, nay even their mutual relationship, should hitherto have failed. It is true that Buddhism and Jainism were likewise but two philosophical systems out of many, and that it has been possible to fix their dates. But if in their case we know something about their dates and their historical development, this is chiefly due to the social and political importance which they acquired during the fifth, the fourth, and the third centuries B. C., and not simply to their philosophical tenets. We know also that there were many teachers, contemporaries of Buddha, but they. have left no traces in the literary history of India.


"We cannot be far wrong therefore if we assign the gradual formation of the six systems of philosophy to the period from Buddha (5th century) to Asoka (third century), though we have to admit, particularly in the cases of Vedānta, Sāmkhya and Yoga, a long previous development reaching back through Upanishads and Brāhmanas to the very hymns of the Rig Veda.

"It is equally difficult to fix the relative position of the great systems of philosophy, because, as I explained before, they quote each other mutually. With regard to the relation of Buddhism to the six orthodox systems it seems to me that all we can honestly say is that schools of philosophy handing down doctrines very similar to those of our six classical or orthodox systems are presupposed by the Buddhist Sūttas." (pp. 116—120)

As regards the question of priority, we shall also take the liberty to quote below from Prof. Macdonell's "History of Sanskrit Literature":

"Turning to Philosophical Literature, we find that the early Greek and Indian Philosophers have many points in common. Some of the leading doctrines of the Eleatics, that God and the universe are one, that everything existing in multiplicity has no reality, that thinking and being are identical, are all to be found in the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Vedānta system, which is its outcome. Again, the doctrine of Empedocles, that nothing can arise which has not existed before, and that nothing existing can be annihilated, has its exact parallel in the characteristic doctrine of the Sāmkhya system about the eternity and indestructibility of matter. According to Greek tradition, Thales, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Democritus, and others undertook journeys to Oriental countries in order to study philosophy. Hence there is at least the historical possibility of the Greeks having been influenced by Indian thought through Persia.

"Whatever may be the truth in the cases just mentioned, the dependence of Pythagoras on Indian philosophy and science certainly seems to have a high degree of probability. Almost all the doctrines ascribed to him, religious, philosophical, mathematical were known in India in the sixth century B. C. The coincidences are so numerous that their cumulative force becomes considerable. The transmigration theory, the assumption of five elements, the Pythagorean theorem in geometry, the prohibition as to eating beans, the religio-philosophical character of the Pythagorean fraternity and the mystical speculations of the Pythagorean school, all have their close parallels in ancient India. The doctrine of metempsychosis in the case of Pythagoras appears without any connection or explanatory background, and was regarded by the Greeks as of foreign origin. He could not have derived it from Egypt, as it was not known to the ancient Egyptians. In spite, however, of the later tradition, it seems impossible that Pythagoras should have made his way to India at so early a date, but he could quite well have met Indians in Persia."[6]


  1. (1) "Œuvres d' Hippocrate" by E. Littré, Paris, 1839, Tome I.Intro. pp. 13 et seq. In connection with this chapter the reader may also consult Gomperz' "Griechische Denker", vol. 1. ed. 1903, specially the articles: "Die Aerzte" pp. 221-254, and "Die Atomistischen Physiker", pp. 254-298.
  2. Trans. Royal As. Soc., Vol. 1 pp. 19-43 and pp. 92-118 The European student who wishes to pursue the subject further may consult Max Müller's "Six Systems of Indian Philosophy" in which an ample and exhaustive bibliography will be found.
  3. The sentence under bracket is Colebrooke's own.
  4. The term "element" was not generally used in the modern sense of a component of a compound; rather it connoted certain properties characteristic of matter, e.g., coldness, dryness, heaviness, fluidity etc., thus it referred to certain qualities in the abstract. The Greek philosophers also held similar, if not identical, views. Cf. "Empedokles und die moderne Chemie." pp. 185-86 of "Griechische Denker" by Gomperz vol. 1, ed. 1903. The following extract will also throw much light on the subject:
    "The four so-called "elements"—air, water, earth and fire—were regarded by that intellectually great philosopher, Empedocles of Agrigent (about 440 B.C.), as the basis of the world; but neither he himself nor Aristotle, who adopted these into his system of natural philosophy, looked upon them as different properties carried about by one original matter. Their chief qualities (the primæ qualitates of the later scbolastics) he held to be those apparent to the touch, viz., warm, cold, dry, and moist. Each of the four so-called elements is characterised by the possession of two of these properties, air being warm and moist, water moist and cold, earth cold and dry, and fire dry and warm. The differences in the material world were, therefore, to be ascribed to the properties inherent in matter.

    "Aristotle considered that his four elements were insufiicient in themselves to explain the phenomena of nature; he therefore assumed a fifth one, termed ou'vía, which he imagined to possess an ethereal or immaterial nature and to permeate the whole world. As the "quinta essentia" this played an immense rôle among the followers of the Aristotelian doctrine in the Middle Ages, and gave rise to endless confusion, from the endeavours of many (who, unlike Aristotle; supposed it to be material) to isolate it.
    "There seems to be a high degree of probability in the assumption that Empedocles and Aristotle did not themselves deduce their theory of the elements, but derived it from other sources; thus the oldest writings of India teach that the world consists of the four elements mentioned above, together with ether, which last is most likely related to Aristotle's o'uvía—Meyer's "Hist. of Chem". Eng. trans. ed. 1898. pp. 7-8.

  5. "Indian Philosophy", pp. 584-85.
  6. "History of Sanskrit Literature" pp. 421—22. Colebrooke himself sums up his views in these words:—"I should be disposed to conclude that the Indians were in this instance teachers than learners." "Trans. Roy. As. Soc.," Vol. I., p. 579. Prof H. H. Wilson observes:—"that the Hindus derived any of their philosophical ideas from the Greek seems very improbable, and if there is any borrowing in the case, the latter were most probably indebted to the former." Preface to the Sámkhya Káriká (1837) p. ix.