Maharshi Kanada - Indian Physicist Who First Discovered The Atom

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Who Was Maharshi Kanada

The ancient Indian philosopher, and physicist, Maharshi Kanada, founded the Vaisesika philosophical school. According to many experts, he lived somewhere from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE. He was significant in Indian philosophy. His name appears often in ancient Indian texts. Much of the time his appearance is with alternate names like Kananda, Kashyapa, Kanabhuk, and Uluka. Little is actually known for sure regarding his life. However, he is well known to be the man behind the atomic theory. His name Kanada literally means atom eater.

The atomic theory described chemical reactions, motion, the dimension of atoms. In addition, he is known for creating the Sanskrit text well know by 3 different names. The text is referred to as the Aphorisms of Kanada, Vaisesika Sutras, or Kanada Sutras. Vaisesika Sutras is a mixture of religionphilosophy, and science.  At the core of Sutras is the atomic theory of matter.

The Atom

The idea that an Anu or atom is an unbreakable particle of matter came from Kanada. There is a fascinating story regarding how the concept was created. He came up with the idea while he was walking one day. There was food in his hand that he was nibbling on as he walked. He tossed out the small bits that were left once he was done with it. This is when the light bulb turned on and he came up with the concept that matter can only be divided so far. At some point, the matter could not be divided further as his food that day on his walk.

He would call the last bit of matter that could not be divided an atom. In addition to he believed atoms have two states of motion and Absolute. Supporters of the philosophical school established by Maharshi regarded the atom as indestructible and thus everlasting.

Vaisheshika School Of Indian Philosophy

The Vaisheshika school of Indian Philosophy which he founded offered an atomistic framework that describes the development and life of the universe. It is one of the first known frameworks of realist ontology in world history which had logical and realistic implementation. Students at his school were taught that atoms were microscopic. Therefore not able to be seen by the naked eye only.

They also were taught atoms formed and disappear immediately. Furthermore, Vaiseshikas maintained that identical substantive atoms were combined to create Dvyanuka or atomic molecules and tryanuka or triatomic molecules. Devinuka has the same properties as the first two paramanu. Kanada had also proposed that in the presence of other influences, such as heat, atoms can be mixed in different ways to create chemical variations. As proof of this process, he used ripening fruit and an earthen pot that had been blackened. 

He defined Paramanus or atoms in multiple different ways. He believed that every paraman has a special attribute that is similar to the class of material that it is a member of. This particular property was known as vaisesika sutra. Maharshi believed atoms or Paramanus belong to multiple material groups which may merge together in a significant amount.  He believed all that is seen in the world is created because of the unique or unusual properties of Paramanus.

Rasavādam Ancient Indian Alchemy 

Rasavādam, considered to be a form of alchemy, was his main field of research. In Rasavādam all living things are made up of five elements consisting of fire, air, water, earth, and ether.  Vegetables have water alone.  Fire and water for insects.  Water earth, fire, and air for birds. Humans who were thought to be at the very pinnacle of creation were a bit different. He believed humans have ether which gave them a sense of discrimination. This discrimination provided humans with time, place, mind. He has theorized that Gurutva or gravity is what caused materials to fall on Earth.

The underlying cause of change is heat. Material is going to change if you heat it. Water boils because of the heat. The earthen pot turns black because of the heat. Mango ripens due to heat.  Kanada then believed heat was responsible for all change.

How Old Was The Atomic Theory By Kanada?

Many experts believe that Kanada's atomic theories are much more sophisticated than the Greek philosopher's versions. What makes this mos impressive is the Greek versions likely came after him. Depending on the dates you consider for Kanada's life. According to Riepe he lived until 300 CE. However after Riepe new Vaisheshika Sutras manuscript was found that had endured in various versions until the present period.

Between 1957 and 1961 they were found in various parts of India. The manuscripts reveal the theories were most likely much older than many had expected. These Vaisheshika Sutras refer to rival Indian philosophy schools like Samkhya and Mimamsa, but give no indication of Buddhism.  This prompted scholars to estimate the 6th century BCE with more recent studies as the new timeline for Maharshi.

Regardless of which date is correct, the Indian theory of the atom was formed outside of the Greco-roman world independently and possibly before the theory was established anywhere else. The idea of the Maharshi atom was undoubtedly independent of the related idea of the ancient Greeks due to the variations between the concepts. For instance, the Indian theory suggested that atoms are qualitatively and quantitatively different as a building block. The Greeks claimed that atoms solely varied quantitatively. Qualitatively they believed they were the same.

Impact Of The Theories Of Maharshi Kanada

His theories encompass many areas and have inspired not only philosophy but also academics in other ways, including Charaka who composed a medical text which still exists as a Charaka Samhita. India's atom theories are strong philosophical and interwoven with philosophy because they are based on reason and not practical experiments. Therefore there was no true scientific basis for the Indian concepts. That being said the concepts of Kanada were very creative in explaining the physical nature of the universe. One might even say genius due to the fact he was working with next to nothing and was able to come up with ideas that closely lined up with observations of contemporary science today.
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