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Vaisheshika (Skt. Vaiśeṣika; T. bye brag pa) is one of the six orthodox Hindu schools of ancient India. The Vaiśeṣika school was founded by Kaṇāda Kashyapa around the 6th to 2nd century BC.[1][2][3]

According to the Vaiśeṣika school, knowledge and liberation were achievable by a complete understanding of the world of experience.[4]


Six categories of phenomena

According to the Vaiśeṣika school, all phenomena can be divided into six categories.

In his commentary on the Madhyamakālaṃkāra, Jamgon Mipam states:

In the system of the master Kanada and his followers, otherwise known as Vaisheshikas, “Owlists,” or Logicians, phenomena are divided into six categories (padartha; tshig don). They speak of
(1) nine substances (dravya; rdzas), such as earth;
(2) twenty-four properties or qualities (guna; yon tan), such as form;
(3) five actions (karma; las), such as stretching and bending;
(4) universals (samanya; spyi), great and small, which pervade the previous three categories;
(5) individual cases or instantiations (vishesha; bye brag) of the universals; and
(6) inherence (samavaya; ’du ba), whether in terms of difference (such as the inclusion of horns on an animal’s head) or in terms of identity (as in the case of the whiteness or roundness of a conch).
All phenomena, so the Vaisheshikas believe, are included in these six categories.
It is said that once, when Kanada was practicing austerities and meditating on Ishvara, an owl came and perched on the stone lingam that he was using as the support of his concentration. Kanada took the owl to be a manifestation of Ishvara and asked it six questions (corresponding to the six categories): “Does substance exist?” and so on. At each question, the owl was seen to nod its head, after which it flew away. Thus Kanada believed that he had received confirmation of the six phenomenal categories of his system.
Kanada’s followers take Ishvara as their god and believe that he is possessed of five qualities (such as permanence) or else eight qualities (such as subtlety and lightness). They believe also that he resides in the dimension called Paranirmita-vashavarttina. They say furthermore that knowledge of and meditation upon the six categories of phenomena leads to liberation, a state in which the self abides beyond both existence and nonexistence. In accordance with their scriptures, the zhi ba’i rgyud and others, they hold that the self or atman is both inert and permanent.
The nine substances of which the Vaisheshikas speak are: five permanent substances (the self, time, direction, space, and the infinitesimal particle) and four impermanent substances (earth, air, fire, and water).
The twenty-four properties comprise the six properties common to all phenomena, which are number (enumeration), dimension (length and so on), contact, separation, difference, and nondifference; and the five properties that are the aspects of the various elements (sound as the property of space, touch as the property of air, form as the property of fire, taste as the property of water, and smell as the property of earth). They say that although sound dwells permanently in space, it is not constantly heard because it is enveloped in moist wind. For example, when a man utters the syllable Om, he expels air from his chest cavity and thus the sound is heard. But when the wind returns inside his chest, the sound becomes inaudible. In addition to the eleven properties just mentioned, there are the thirteen properties of the self. These are the five sense perceptions such as sight, together with joy, sorrow, desire, hatred, virtue, and vice, to which are added the property of effort and the compounding faculty. All these are the properties of the self, and the fact that they are available to observation is proof of the self’s existence.
The five actions of which the Vaisheshikas speak apply to all physical phenomena. They are: extension, contraction, lifting, motion, and the transportation of objects from place to place.
Whereas the bases of both properties and actions are material substances, these are pervaded by universals, which group individual things together by name and concept according to their kind. Individual things are the instances of the universals that pervade them. Universals and instances are mutually connected by means of inherence or inclusion.[5]

Later Vaiśeṣikas (Śrīdhara and Udayana and Śivāditya) added one more category abhava (non-existence).[6]

These six or seven categories were adopted by the Nyaya school and other realist schools such as the Mīmāṃsā school.[7]


Jamgon Mipam states:

The Vaisheshikas and others believe that universals (spyi) are concomitant with their particular instances (rang gis gsal ba), that is, a multiplicity of particular things (bye brag). They pervade them; they are permanent and invisible realities and are what join together all the particular instances (of a single class), like a rope used to tie a herd of cows together. The Vaisheshikas believe that great universals such as “existence” pervade all phenomena, while lesser ones correspond to more restricted universals (spyi nyi tshe ba) such as "cowness."[5]

The Padmakara Translation Group states:

The Nyaya-Vaisheshika school advocates a realistic theory of universals similar to, though perhaps not as extreme as, the Platonic theory of forms. For the Nyaya-Vaisheshikas, universals are real entities distinct from the multiple phenomena that instantiate them. In being unitary and indivisible, timeless and indestructible, these universals are obviously much more real than their evanescent instances and would continue to exist even if the latter were all destroyed and were to vanish from the world. See Matilal, Perception, pp. 382–86, and Dreyfus, Recognizing Reality, pp. 52–59.[8]


  1. Jeaneane D. Fowler 2002, pp. 98-99.
  2. Oliver Leaman (1999), Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy. Routledge, ISBN 978-0415173629, page 269
  3. J Ganeri (2012), The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199652365
  4. Oliver Leaman, Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy. Routledge, ISBN 978-0415173629, 1999, page 269.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Shantarakshita 2005, The Commentary.
  6. Radhakrishnan 2006, pp. 183–86.
  7. Dreyfus 1997, p. 58.
  8. Shantarakshita 2005, Notes, 401.


  • Chattopadhyaya, D. (1986), Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, ISBN 81-7007-023-6 .
  • Dasgupta, Surendranath (1975), A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, ISBN 978-81-208-0412-8 .
  • Book icoline.svg Dreyfus, Georges B.J (1997), Recognizing Reality: Dharmakīrti's Philosophy and its Tibetan Interpretations, Albany: State University of New York Press 
  • Radhakrishnan, S. (2006), Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, ISBN 0-19-563820-4 .
  • Shantarakshita (author); Mipham (commentator); Padmakara Translation Group (translators)(2005). The Adornment of the Middle Way: Shantarakshita's Madhyamakalankara with commentary by Jamgön Mipham. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-59030-241-9

Further reading

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