Indian Philosophy – Kanada

Kanada VaisheshikaKanada, like the country up North but with a K, is the founder of the Vaisheshika school.  While there are subtle criticisms of the Vedas in the Vaisheshika Sutra, it is considered one of the orthodox Hindu schools of thought.  Kanada’s dates are debated.  Chinese scholars sometimes put his texts at 1000 BCE, while our scholars often put them at 200 BCE or even 100 CE.  This is quite political, because the Chinese tradition comes very much from India and the European tradition comes very much from Greece.  The publisher of this texts says it is safe to say that Kanada lived and taught by 600 BCE at the latest.

suspicious owlKanada’s name means One who eats grain, but it could also mean one who gathers particulars/particles.  He is also known as ‘The Owl’, or Uluka.  Legend has it that he was so ugly in appearance that he frightened young women, so he only ventured out at night, sneaking into granaries to eat corn and rice grains/particles.  Another story is Shiva taught him in the form of an owl.  Notice that there are many traditions and versions, some mixed with the stories of the Vedic gods and others not.

kanada atomistKanada began what is known as the Vaisheshika school, and thus his text is the Vaisheshika Sutra.  Vaisheshika means particular, but also particle, atom, particular, special, specific, and distinction.   Kanada may have been the first logician and first atomist in recorded human history.  Gotama’s Nyaya (Logic/Debate) school borrowed much from Kanada in forming rules and manuals of debate.  It is believed that Jainism and Buddhism took both of these systems and developed them in a skeptical and relativistic direction.  Thus, Kanada and Gotama are analytic logicians who are seeking fixed atomic truths (universal, necessary and certain), much like early British and American Positivists, and the Jains and Buddhists are skeptical logicians who criticize positivistic thinking with relativity and skepticism, much like German and French Existentialists and Postmodernists.  Once again, this is an excellent example of what Hegel saw as the back and forth between dogmatic absolute truth and skeptical relative truth.

Kanada set out his Vaisheshika system and its seven objects of knowledge to understand the cosmos, which involved debating well to arrive at the truth.  Gotama, who we will study next, was concerned primarily with debate and logical argument.

Brahman Cow with DewlapThe two schools of Kanada (Vaisheshika) and Gotama (Nyaya) focus on inherence, how  particular individuals are included as members of the general group, and inference, conclusions that can be drawn about a particular individual when one knows the general group.  For example, both schools used the example of cows having a dewlap, which I previously thought was the hump on the backs of Indian cows, but it turns out are the folds of skin beneath their necks.  Because many individual cows inhere in the group of all cows, and because, according to Kanada, all cows have dewlaps (as far as he knew in India), we can infer that if someone is a cow, then they have a dewlap.  Two types of inherence which allow us to make valid inferences include speciation (groups that have typical qualities, such as cows having dewlaps) and causation (events in time that lead from one to another, such as rain always being caused by clouds, an example Kanada also uses).

Kanada’s Seven Objects of Knowledge include:


1) Substance (dravya), nine in number: air, water, fire, earth, ether, time, space, self and mind.  These are composed of particles or atoms that are eternal and uncreated, and thus they can’t be created or destroyed.  Newton, like medieval alchemists before him but unlike modern physics and chemistry, believed in ether, the glue element that sticks the others together in combinations.

2) Attribute (guna): quality (color, texture, odor, taste) and quantity (number, measure, distinction, conjunction, disjunction).  Kanada argues in the text that attributes are not substances, but reside in substances and can cause substances, other attributes and actions.

3) Action (karma): Note that karma is the physical energy and motion that makes kicking someone cause pain and also gets the kicker reborn as a cockroach.  Kanada argues that substances and attributes can cause actions but actions themselves cannot produce other actions.  He also argues action belongs to one substance, not many.

bart simpson sound of one hand clappingIt is very possible that, in opposition to this theory, the Buddhist “sound of one hand clapping” is a counter example to this, and Gotama differs from Kanada on this also.  While the Zen koan certainly has deeper value as a contemplation device, it is also contemplating the impossibility of sound, an action, being produced exclusively by one thing, an example of the Buddhist doctrine of codependent arising, that things are always caused by complex situations and not single isolated things.  Buddhists certainly want us to be aware that if something is making you upset, it is not that thing alone, but you as well that is making you upset, two things creating an effect together much like two hands creating the sound of clapping together.

rain cloud4) General (samanya): the universal or group, such as the general group (speciation) of all cows or the general event (causation) of a rainstorm (in which clouds cause rain).

5) Particular (vishesha): the individual or specific, such as the individual cow or the individual event of a cloud causing rain.

6) Inherence  (samavaya): the particular being included and conforming to the general.  We can make inferences based on inherences.  If we know that the general group of cows have horns, then we know that this particular cow must have horns.  Likewise, if we know that generally rainclouds cause rain, then we can infer that this particular rain must have been caused by clouds.

7) Non-existence or Emptiness (abhava): non-being, nothingness and void.

camp fireKanada discusses fire as energy.  It is interesting that fire was the most common form of energy seen and used in the ancient world, whereas electricity is the most common form seen and used in the modern world.  Thus, the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Chinese thought of energy as fire whereas we think of energy as electricity.

Kanada argues that sound is caused and therefore it is impermanent.  Some have argued this seems to be a subtle critique of the earlier Vedic tradition (like arguing “paper is perishable” as a safe and subtle way of suggesting that the Bible must be temporary, not eternal).  Like Shamkara, Kanada may be saying, as we read in the Upanishads, that the oral tradition of the Vedas are the lower form, and his jnana yoga investigations of nature and the mind are a superior higher pursuit.

Smoke UpwardKanada argues that things move downward naturally, so things must have additional causes/forces to move sideways or upward (thus, smoke shows additional force or energy, namely that it has fire in it and fire moves upward.  He also argues thus that water moves upward by sun/fire in it, then comes downward in cycles.  Then, when the water collects in clouds, it causes the fire to be released as lightning.  He argues that the arrow flies first from cause and then from inherent tendency to remain in motion, similar if not identical to the modern concept of ‘inertia’.

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