The Vaishesika Theory of Nonexistence


by Jayaram V

What is nonexistence? Is it the absence or dissolution of something? What do we mean by absence? Does it mean the physical absence or the perceptual absence or the absolute absence of something we can never know or imagine? Does it arise before anything comes into existence or after it is destroyed? Whether nonexistence precedes or follows existences and whether it coexists with it? Is existence a continuation of nonexistence, and vice versa? Does it arise in relation to the existence of something? Whether the mere disappearance of something or the physical invisibility of something can be construed as nonexistence?

These and many other questions were speculated by numerous scholars and philosophers in ancient India. They were interested in knowing how reality manifested or things came into existence, and whether nonexistence was a condition or a cause that preceded existence. If it was so, whether there was any relationship or continuity between them. Prominent among them were Vaishesikas, who represented a school of philosophy which is now considered one of the six main philosophical schools (Darshanas) of Hinduism.

The Vaishesikas’ view of distinctive realities

The Vaishesikas were materialists who speculated upon the distinction (visesa) of various things which made up the perceptible and cognizable reality. They were pluralists, pure realists and pragmatists, who relied upon direct experience and inference to arrive at their conclusions, discarding all metaphysical notions found in the scriptures which could not be proved otherwise.

Their philosophy is well documented in the Vaishesika Sutras by Kanada (also known as Aulukva and Kasyapa) who probably lived in the fourth century BCE in northern India near the present-day Allahabad. Just as Samkhya and Yoga which have a historical affinity, Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools are usually mentioned together because of their close similarities as if they represent one system of thought. The school also attracted the attention of many Buddhist scholars in ancient times, due to its emphasis upon empirical evidence and logical thinking.

The Vaishesikas (and Jains) were probably the first in the world to perceive atoms and propose an atomic theory. The school believed that all material things were made up of the minutest atoms (paramanu), which were indivisible, eternal and indestructible. The permutations and combination of these atoms created the material diversity of things and objects. They divided the known, cognizable and identifiable reality formed by those atoms into seven categories or material divisions (padarthas).

In a general sense, padartha means any object or material. For example, food, water, air, earth, etc., are but padarthas only. In the Vaisheshika philosophy it refers to a category or division of Nature, or of perceptible and cognizable reality. The Samkhyas identified 23 such divisions or parts (tattvas). The Vaishesikas divided them into seven, with further subdivisions within each. The seven categories are dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (activity), samanya (generality), vishesa (particularity), samavaya (concomitance), and abhava (nonexistence).

Types of nonexistence

In Hinduism sat and asat, existence and nonexistence, are two fundamental states of the absolute reality known as Brahman. They are like the one and zero of the computer programming world. In this essay, we will discuss the last one, abhava or nonexistence of the Vaishesikas. This category was not originally included by the school in the list of categories, but was added later. The Vaishesika Sutras (9.1) identifies four types of nonexistence or four conditions in which nonexistence is perceived or cognized. They are described below.

  1. Prag-abhava: This is antecedent nonexistence or the nonexistence of an effect or a thing prior to its production. It is not produced by any prior action, quality or concomitant condition. Hence, it has no beginning, but an end, which arises when the thing or the effect comes into existence. For example, a pot was placed upon a table. The pot was nonexistent before it was placed. The nonexistence of that pot had no beginning, but ended when the pot was placed.
  2. Pradhvamsa-abhava: This is consequent nonexistence which arises consequent to the destruction of a thing. Since, it arises after the destruction of a thing or effect, it has a beginning, but no end. Also, the destruction breaks the continuity of existence since the existent thing does not continue as nonexistent thing. They are different realities. For example, when the pot on the table was destroyed, it becomes nonexistent upon its destruction. The nonexistence of that pot begins with destruction, and it will eternally continue since the same pot can never be brought back into existence.
  3. Anonya-abhava: This is reciprocal nonexistence or nonexistence of relatable identity. It arises in relation to another thing, and is the opposite of anonya-bhava or the existence of one thing in relation to another.  For example, when we say a cow is not a horse, we are referring to the reciprocal nonexistence of both the cow and the horse in relation to each other. This type of nonexistence is eternal because the fact that a cow is not a horse remains forever. The reciprocal nonexistence makes the distinction (visesa) of each thing in relation to others an indisputable, particular and fundamental reality.
  4. Atyanta-abhava: This is absolute nonexistence which is neither antecedent nor consequential nor reciprocal. It is also without a beginning and without an end and is not conditioned by any limiting factor as in case of the other three. Hence, it is absolute and eternal.

Critical evaluation

The Vaishesika theory of nonexistence has several limitations. The proponents of it spoke mainly of perceptual or physical nonexistence since they relied upon direct experience (pratyaksha) and inference to draw their conclusions. For example, an object such as a pot may physically become nonexistent upon its destruction, but the idea or the mental image of that object or pot may continues even after its nonexistence. If a person leaves in our presence, it does not mean that the person has become nonexistent or that the nonexistence of that person will be eternal.

Further, the parts or the elements which make up that object still remain in a broken condition. The pot as such is gone, but its residue survives and continues in another form. Its  name and form disappear but the material which make it continue. An object may also become nonexistent when it undergoes transformation and becomes something else as in case of a seed becoming a plant upon germination. The seed itself must have arisen from another plant before it existed as seed. In such situations it is difficult to say that antecedent nonexistence has no beginning or consequential nonexistence has no end.

It is also difficult to establish absolute nonexistence. How can we ever prove the absolute nonexistence of anything when we have no knowledge of it and no means to ascertain it? The Vaishesikas also largely ignored the role played by impermanence in the existence and nonexistence of things. Things are constantly in a state of decay. They undergo momentary changes. They are never the same.

In an impermanent phenomenal world, things constantly become nonexistent, moment by moment, and new things with slight modification emerge from them. You are not the same person which you were a few moments ago. Although those minute and momentary changes may not be visible or perceptible to the naked eye, they do happen constantly when we look at them at the microscopic, atomic or quantum levels.

For example, take the human body or a flowing river. They undergo constant changes moment by moment, which means they are never the same. The water in the river flows constantly. They body undergoes numerous changes at the cellular level. As these changes take place, they become nonexistent each moment and are replaced by a new version of them. How can we account for these types of changes, or ignore the reality that existence and nonexistence may have a much closer affinity and role in the manifestation of things, and neither is continuous, independent or absolute? It is even possible that nonexistence may be a state of existence only, which we cannot perceive or make sense of. The black holes and the dark material of the universe may some of the phenomena where we may come to know more about existence and nonexistence and their relationship.

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