Hinduism Vaiśeṣika
ShashiPrabha Kumar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0176


Vaiśeṣika is one of the six major schools of Hindu philosophy. The system is unique in the sense that it is more focused on the individual identity or viśeṣa of each entity in this universe rather than the underlying unity; that is why it is designated as “Vaiśeṣika.” Propounded by sage Kaṇāda (atom-eater) in small statements (sutras) numbering to 370 approximately, classical Vaiśeṣika enumerates six categories, namely, substance (dravya), attribute (guṇa), activity (karma), universal (sāmānya), particularity (viśeṣa), and inherence (samavāya); and proclaims that a proper understanding of these categories will lead to the attainment of twin objectives: all-around worldly achievement (abhyudaya) and ultimate spiritual fulfillment (niḥśreyasa). Later on, a seventh category called negation or nonbeing (abhāva) was added to the list and it was argued that the acceptance of negation (abhāva) was already inherent in the Vaiśeṣikasūtras of Kaṇāda. The approximate period of Kaṇāda is held to be 600 BCE. After a long gap of more than one millennium, this oldest source of the Vaiśeṣika school found a renewed interpretation at the hands of Praśastapāda (400 or 500 CE), who wrote a compendium on categories and their attributes, i.e., Padārthadharmasaṅgraha (also known as Praśastapādabhāṣya). Thereupon, numerous commentaries were written in Sanskrit by several scholars. Out of these, three Sanskrit commentaries—namely, Vyomavatī by Vyomaśiva (850 CE), Nyāyakandalī by Śrīdhara (991 CE), and Kiraṇāvalī by Udayana (984 CE)—are prominent. These commentaries not only carried forward the legacy of Kaṇāda but also brought forth many fresh insights till such time that the school of Vaiśeṣika was amalgamated with Nyāya, its sister school, for various historical factors. The most important factor for this was the long-running debates between Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Buddhist schools regarding the nature of substantive reality on the one hand and regarding the non-eternity/eternity of sound (śabdānityatva/śabda-nityatva) between Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and Mīmāṁsā systems on the other hand. The basic theme of Vaiśeṣika philosophy, according to Kaṇāda himself, is said to be dharma, which is very wide and comprehensive in its scope but can be taken to connote the ultimate goal as well as means for actualizing the same. It is worth mentioning here that unlike most other schools of Hindu philosophy, Vaiśeṣika is primarily concerned with the physical aspect of the visible world, although a discussion regarding mental as well as spiritual aspects of the same is also available herein. The fact is clearly stated by Kaṇāda in the very second sūtra of his discourse. According to him, dharma is the means to material progress (abhyudaya) as well as spiritual fulfillment (niḥśreyasa). Significantly, the delineation of categories according to Vaiśeṣika incorporates in itself the objects, methods, means, agent, abode, and faculties as well as instrument of knowing, besides the final aim of life, which is held to be the summum bonum of all philosophical schools in India.

General Overviews

These can be divided in two types as follows. First, a number of works on Vaiśeṣika have come out which discuss different domains of Vaiśeṣika in a general way. Works like Dasgupta 2009, Chaterjee and Datta 1939, King 1999, and Ganeri 2001 are worth mentioning in this regard; they either devote a separate chapter or have several sections on Vaiśeṣika, and they are helpful for beginners. Second, there are other, more specific works, like Faddegon 1969 and Potter 1977, which are single volume or multivolume in nature but devote one or more than one volume to the chronological and comprehensive presentation of Vaiśeṣika. Faddegon 1969 is the earliest in this category while Potter 1977 is very extensive from this point of view. Keith 1921 provides an introductory description of the literature, epistemology, and metaphysics of both the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika systems and is useful for beginners.

  • Chaterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1939.

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    Dated and simplified introduction to the school. Helpful for beginners.

  • Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    A separate section on Vaiśeṣika embedded in much more detailed treatments of Nyāya. Useful for those who want to acquaint themselves with different schools of Indian philosophy. Originally published in 1922.

  • Faddegon, B. The Vaiśeṣika-System, Described with the Help of the Oldest Texts. Wiesbaden, Germany: Dr. Martin Sandig OHG, 1969.

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    A comprehensive description of the Vaiśeṣika system. Links with other schools of Indian philosophy and Western thought discussed. Also includes translations of fragments of Śrīdhara’s Nyāyakandalī, which is a commentary on Praśastapāda’s Padārthadharmasaṅgraha, including passages pertaining to atomic theory. Useful material for reference with bibliographical lists. Originally published in 1918.

  • Ganeri, Jonardon. Philosophy in Classical India. London: Routledge, 2001.

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    Several sections on Vaiśeṣika with a slant toward symbolic logic and analytic philosophy. Interesting through very technical.

  • Keith, Arthur Berriedale. Indian Logic and Atomism. Oxford: n.p., 1921.

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    An introductory description of the literature, epistemology, and metaphysics of both the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika systems, useful for beginners.

  • King, Richard. Indian Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

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    Handy and readable chapter on ontology with Vaiśeṣika as the focus. Links with other schools and dialogues in Indian philosophy.

  • Potter, Karl H. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol. 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977.

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    The second volume of the multivolume Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies introduces the theories of classical Vaiśeṣika in a lucid manner. Contains translations of selections from texts of Vaiśeṣika. Very useful for the researchers of Vaiśeṣika.

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