Seven Categories of the Objects of the Universe | Vaisesika Philosophy

Read this article to learn about the categories of reality according to Vaisesika philosophy!

Just as the Nyaya philosophy is devoted to the almost exclusive study of the sources of valid knowledge, Vaisesika philosophy devotes itself to metaphysical reflections.

According to it, all the objects of the universe can be divided into seven categories or padarthas, the latter term denoting those objects which can be named.

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These seven categories are: (1) Dravya or substance, (2) Guna or quality, (3) Karma or action, (4) Samanya or generality, (5) Vishesa or particularity, (6) Samavaya, and (7) Abhava or non-existence. In these seven categories there are two distinctions—(1)Bhava padartha, and (2) Abhavapadartha.

The first distinc­tion denotes those categories which have an existence, or those which are present. It relates to being. The second distinction, of non-being, is an addition to the Vaisesika philosophy by later commentators and is not found to have been discussed originally. The above categories, with the exception of abhava, are all existent and are included in being.

1. Dravya or Substance:

According to the Vaisesika view, dravya or substance is the substratum of action and qualities, and the material or constitutive cause of composite things produced from it. Even though different from quality and action, substance is their substratum; without it, quality and action can have no existence. Substances arc of nine kind—(i) prithvi or earth, (ii) jal or water, (iii) tej or fire, (iv) vayu or air, (v) a kasha or ether, (vi) kala or time, (vii) dik or space, (viii) atma or self (ix) mantis or mind.

The five elements:

Among-the above mentioned substances, the first five are called ‘panchabhuta’. In each of these, there is one such specific quality that may be perceived by one of the external sense organs. Earth has the quality of smell, water that of taste, fire of colour, air of touch and ether that of sound. These qualities are perceived by the nose, tongue, eyes, skin and ears respectively.


These sense organs are also believed to have originated in earth, water, fire, air and ether. With the exception of ether, the other four physical elements are eternal, or nitya, in the form of cause, and non-eternal, or anitya, in the form of effect. Accordingly, the atoms of earth, water, fire and air are beginning less and consequently are eternal, because they are not composite.

But all the substances formed by the conjunction of these atoms, which, therefore, are effects, are not external because their con­stituent atoms may be separated or even destroyed. The fifth substance—ether is the basis of sound. The ether is not perceived because it does not satisfy the conditions of external perception, since it is possessed neither of any perceptible dimension nor of any colour.

It is inferred from the perception of sound. Every quality must have a distinct substratum, and none of the others like earth, air, water or fire can, therefore, be its bearer. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, the qualities of these substances—smell, taste, form and touch—are not heard, whereas sounds or words are heard and audibly perceived. In the second place, sound is created even where these elements are absent.

Sound cannot be the quality of space, time, mind and soul because they continue to exist even when there is no sound. It is thus clear that ether is the basis of sound. Being partless, ether is one and eternal. It is cosmic, all-pervading and infinite because its quality—sound—is perceived in all directions.

Space and Time:


Like ether, space and time are also not perceptible. They are one, eternal and all pervading. Space is inferred by the knowledge of concepts such as here, there, near, far, etc. Time is inferred on the basis of concepts such as past, future, present, old and ancient. In this way, then, the earth, space and time are actually identical but they appear to be distinct because their qualities differ, and even their parts appear to be different.

Soul or atman:

The opinion of the Vaisesika philosophers is the same as that of the Naiyayikas on the subject of soul. The soul is the basis of the phenomenon of consciousness, and it is eternal and all-pervading. It is perceived by the mind and is thus known. The souls in different bodies are also different. Thus there are many souls. Besides the soul of human beings called the jivatma, the other form of the soul is the paramatma which is one and the creator of the universe.

Mind or manas:

The existence of the mind can be inferred from the following two factors:—

(1) As in the case of external substance of the universe, for the perception of which external sense organs are required, there is an internal sense organ required to perceive the internal categories composed of knowledge, desire, pain, pleasure, etc., and this internal sense is the mind.

(2) In spite of there being contact between the object and the external sense organs, knowledge does not occur without a mind. And even when all the five senses come into contact with their respective qualities in different objects simultaneously, there is knowledge of only one at any one particular moment. This not only proves the existence of the mind but also that the mind is atomic and partless.

Had the mind not been an infinitesimal and atomic entity, it would have been possible for its various parts to come into contact with different sense organs simultaneously and (hereby for many percep­tions to manifest themselves at the same lime. But we find, in practice, that this does not happen. Hence it follows that the mind is a partless or atomic form and is the internal sense of perception. The soul receives its knowledge of the objects through the medium of the mind.

2. Quality:

According to Vaisesika philosophy, quality is that category which subsists in substance but in which no other quality or action can inhere. Qualities cannot exist without substance and hence they are said to be other-dependent. As has been stated before only substance can be the material or constitutive cause of action.

It is of secondary importance in the action. In view of the fact that all qualities are dependent upon substance, there cannot be any quality of quality. Quality also lacks action or motion. It resides inactively in its substratum, the substance. In this way, it differs from both substance and action.

Types of quality:

There are twenty-four qualities—(1) rupa or colour, (2) rasa or taste, (3) gandha or smell, (4) sparsa or touch, (5) sabda or sound, (6) sankhya or number, (7) parimana or magnitude, (8) prthakatva or distinctness, (9) samyog or conjunction. (10) vibhaga or disjunction, (11) paratva or remoteness, (12) aparatva or nearness (13) buddhi or cognition, (14) sukh or pleasure, (15) dukkh or pain, (16) icchha or desire, (17) dvesa or aversion, (18) prayatna or effort, (19) gurutva or heaviness, (20) dravatva or fluidity, (21) sneha or viscidity, (22) samskara or predisposition, (23)dharma or merit, (24) adharma or demerit. These qualities have been further sub divided. For example colours are subdivided into white, black, red, yellow, blue, green tastes into sweet, sour, saline, bitter, etc.; sounds into the articulate and the inarticulate; magnitude into very small, medium and very big; number into one too many.


Conjunction is the name given to the relation of meeting of two substances which are capable of existing apart, e.g., the relation of the hand to the pen which it holds. The causal relation is not a conjuctive relation because the separate existence of the cause or the effect is not possible. In Vaisesika philosophy, three kinds of conjuctions are accepted: (1) Anyatar karmaj. Where one substance comes and meets or conjoins with another. (2) Ubhaya karmaj. Where the conjuction takes place as a result of activity on the part of both the substances, such as when two wrestlers meet. (3) Samyogaj. Where the conjunction takes place through the medium of another conjunction e.g., the conjunction of hand and paper takes place when the hand touches the pen, and the pen touches the paper. This is called samyogaj samyog.


Disjunction is the name of the ending of conjunction or of separating the two substances, such as happens when the pen tails from the hand. Disjunction has been sub-divided into three kinds, on the same basis as conjunction, viz., (1) Anyatar karmaj—Where the action of one of the substances leads to disjunction, as when the leaf falls from the tree; (2) Ubhaya karmaj—Where the disjunction of the two takes place through the activity in both the substances, as when two wrestlers break apart; and (3) Vibliagaj—Where one disjunction leads to another, as when the conjuction between the hand and the paper is ended when the pen, which is the link between the two, is put down.

Remoteness and Nearness:

Remoteness and nearness also have the distinc­tion—spatial and temporal. Temporal remoteness implies oldness while nearness indicates modernity. In the same way, spatial remoteness is indicative of great distance while spatial nearness denotes proximity.

Congnition and Effort:

Cognition (knowledge) has been treated in detail in the preceding discussion on Nyaya philosophy, and everybody familiar with pleasure, pain, desire and aversion. Effort has three distinctions—(1) Pravritti is the effort for possessing some object. (2) Nivriiti is the effort to get rid of something. (3) Jivanyoni is the activity of procreation.

Fluidity and viscidity:

The cause of the flow of liquid substance is their fluidity, such as is possessed by water. Similarly substances like butter have the tendency to conjoin and form lumps, the tendency being named viscidity or sneha.


Samskara or predisposition also has three distinctions—(1) Vega or velocity—by virtue of which an object possesses motion. (2) Bhavana or feeling—due to which there is memory or recognition of some subject, (3) Sthitisthapakatya or oscillation—by means of which a substance, such as a rubberball, returns from a long distance to its original position.

Merit and demerit:

Merit is a virtue which leads to proper activity and results in pleasure. Demerit is a sin which leads to improper activity and causes pain.

If all the distinctions of the various qualities were to be counted, their total number would be very large, but the above- mentioned twenty-four qualities include all the basic ones. The other qualities are only the distinctions of these and arc thus their derivatives. The twenty-four qualities are fundamental and it is by their conjunction that the other compound qualities are formed.

3. Karma or action:

Karma or action is the commonly used name for the fundamental dynamic qualities of substance. The inactive manifestation of substance is quality and its active manifestation is action or mobility. Substances combine and separate be­cause of action. Action has no quality. Quality is dependent upon substance. Action cannot subsist in all pervading substances because in them there is no change of position. Hence, the basis of actions can only be material substances like earth, water, air, fire and mind.

Distinctions of karma:

There are five distinctions of karma— Utksepana or throwing upwards, in which, due to action, the conjunction takes place with the higher plane. (2) Avaksepana or throwing downwards in which action leads to conjunction with the lower plane. (3) Akunchana or contraction, which activity is designed to create conjunction in an ever nearer sphere, such as twisting the hand. (4) Prasarana or expansion, (5) Gamana or locomotion in which actions other than the first four are comprehended. The activity of substances such as earth, water, and fire, is percep­tible but the activity of an imperceptible entity like the mind cannot be known by perception.

4. Samanya or generality:

Generality is that category by virtue of which different individual beings are grouped together and called by a common name, indicating a class, e.g., man, horse, cow, etc. The members of such groups have some general or common qualities which are to be found in the entire class and constitute its characteristics. Objects or individuals possess similarity because of this general quality.

While considering the general quality, the Indian philosophers have subscribed to one or the other of the following three views—

(i) Nominalism:

According to this school of thought, generality is not an essential quality but merely a name which lends similarity to the beings belonging to its class and distinguishes it from other classes only by virtue of this name. The general has no individual or separate existence. Among the Indian philosophical systems, it is the Buddhist philosophy which has accepted this view.

(ii) Conceptual ism:

The second view concerning generality is conceptualism. According to this view, the general quality has no existence apart from the individuals nor does it come from outside and enter into the individual. The individual and the general cannot be separated from each other. It is the essential quality or the internal form of the individuals in general which is apprehended by our mind or intellect. This opinion is to be found in the Jaina and the Advaita Vedanta systems of Indian philosophy.

(iii) Realism:

The third view of generality is realism. According to it, the general is neither a mental thought or concept nor merely a name, but has its own individual existence. The general categories are eternal in nature, and, although separate from, the individual, still pervade them, in this way, the general is included or mixed in the individuals. It is only because of the general that there is any similarity between different individuals. It subsists in substance, quality and action. It is because of the general that they are called by the same name or said to belong to the same class. This view is propounded by the Nyaya Vaisesika among the systems of Indian philosophy.

Distinction of generality:

From the point of view of pervasion, generality is of three kinds—para, apara and parapara. ‘Para’ is the most comprehensive, such as existence. ‘Apara’ is the name given to the least comprehensive, such as potness. The third distinction, ‘parapara’ is between para and apara, one example of it being fluidity. With relation to existence, it is apara and with relation to potness it is para.

5. Vishesa or particularity:

Vishesa is the very opposite of general. Vishesa is the term indicating the unique or specific particularity or individuality of eternal substances which have no parts. These substances are space, time, ether, mind, soul and the atoms of these elements. It is because of particularity that individuals are distinguished from each other and the atoms of the same substance considered separately. Particulars arc those forms of substances by means of which they are known to be distinct from each other.

Particulars are needed to distinguish between composite and non-eter­nal objects, which are effects, such as a chair, and a table, etc. The particular is in partless and eternal substances which are innumerable. Hence, the particulars are also eternal, partless and innumerable. They are themselves recognizable. There can be no perceptual cognition of them, because, like the atom, they too are invisible.

6. Samavaya or inherence:

According to Prasastapada, inherence is that relation which exists in objects which are invariably conjoined, and between which there is the relation of the subsisting and substratum elements. It is the middle term of the concept that this is in them. In this way, objects connected by inherence are so conjoined that they are inseparable. The following are conjunctions of inherence—quality and substratum, action and the actor, individual and class, temporal and eternal, element and substance, part and whole. On this analogy, there is cloth in cotton fibres, smell in the flower, motion in water, humanity in human beings, and all these are due to samavaya.

In order to understand inherence, it is necessary to distinguish it from conjunc­tion. These two differ from each other in the following respects—

(i) Conjunction is momentary and non-eternal, while inherence is an eternal relationship.

(ii) Conjunction is the relationship which results from the connection of two substances. Inherence does not result from the connection of substances but is inherent in them.

(iii) Conjunction results from the activity of two elements or two objects. Inherence is always present in substances. The relation of conjoined substances is mutual.

(iv) Conjunction is an external relation whereas inherence is an internal relationship. Conjoined substances are capable of existing apart. But substances related by inherence cannot exist separated. The part and the whole cannot remain apart.

7. Abhava or non-existence:

Kanada has accepted only the above six categories, but in the Vaishesika Sutra, non-existence is also mentioned in prameya form. Being entirely different front the foregoing six categories, non-existence is regarded as the seventh category. This category has been dealt with al length in the authoritative text of the Vaisesika philosophy, — Prasastpada bhasya. Non-existence is the absence of object. For example, nobody can deny the absence of object. For example, nobody can deny the absence of the moon on dark nights. Hence, it is necessary to include non-existence.

Distinctions of Abhava:

There are two main distinctions of non-existence:

1. Sansargabhava or the absence of one entity in another, such as the absence of heat in the moon,

2. Anyonyabhava or one object not being another just as the moon is not the sun.

Sansargabhava also has three distinctions—

1. Pragabhava:

Pragabhava, or antecedent non-existence, means the absence of the substance which is the effect, before it is created, like the absence of the pot in the clay before the clay is made into a pot. Antecedent non-existence has no beginning but it has an end. There was always the absence of the pot in the clay but with the construction to it, beginningless non-existence comes to an end.

2. Dhvansabhava:

Dhvansabhava or non-existence is due to the destruction of the substance which is on effect, just as the absence of the pot in its pieces after the pot has been destroyed. Dhvansabhava has a beginning but it has no end. When a pot breaks, dhavansabhava has a beginning in time but the pot can never come back or be recreated. Thus, this non-existence can have no end.

3. Atyantabhava:

Atyantabhava or absolute non-existence means that non­existence between two objects which extends over the entire temporal expanse, past, present, and future, such as the absence of coolness in fire. The absolute non-existence has neither a beginning nor an end. It is always there. The absence of coolness in fire will continue for all time. In this way, absolute non-existence is neither born nor destroyed.

Sansargabhava and anyonyabhava differ from each other in the following respects—

(1) Sansargabhava is the absence of relation between two objects. The latter is the absence of something in some other objects.

(2) Sansargabhava is the absence of relation whereas anyonyabhava is the absence of identity. A rabbit does not have any horns. In this example there is absence of relation between the rabbit and the horns it is an example of sansarga bhava. The donkey is not a horse. In this relation there is the non-existence of identity, and it is an example of anyonyabhava.

Criticism of the categories:

The following objections have been levelled at the Vaisesika concept of categories:

(1) Vaishesika philosophy has mentioned seven categories but substance appears to be the only category. Quality and action are dependent upon substance. Non-existence is relative to existence, and hence none of the others can be said to be a category. And in the absence of these qualities and relationship, even the nature of the substance cannot be determined.

(2) Substances have been stated as being nine in number. Of these, ether is the basis of sound, space and time are based on experience and mind is the internal sense organ. In this way, actually, the only substances are the atoms of the four elements and the souls.

(3) Vaisesika’s acceptance of the soul as ‘unconscious’ and ‘many’ does not appear to be logical.

(4) According the Vaisesika, qualities cannot exist without substance and composite objects cannot exist without parts. If so, how can substance exist without quality and without general and particular trait’s?

(5) The Vaisesika philosophers postulate that there is a particular in every atom and in every soul but they do not describe this particular.

(6) The Vaisesika philosophers believe that if there is existence there must be non-existence, but even they do not synthesize the two. Actually, they are not prepared to adopt the cosmological viewpoint in their consideration of the category although this view is above the ordinary viewpoint. From the point of view of scientific analysis, their concept of the category, which, in effect, is their metaphysic, is very important. But they have failed to adjust among these different categories. In this respect the Samkhya and the Vedanta Systems are far more successful.

Samkara’s objections to samavaya:

Vaisesika philosophy looks upon inherence as a category. Against it, Samkara has raised the following fundamental objections:

(1) It is incorrect to speak of conjuctions and inherence as qualities, because even though one is yutasiddha and the other ayutasiddha, they are interrelated.

(2) Inherence is other than the objects to which it relates. Hence it will need another relation of inherence to relate it to the objects, a further relation of inherence to relate this relation of inherence and so on, so that there is no end to this chain.

(3) If inherence is separated from both the objects to which it relates, then it is not known where it exists. If it is in the first object, then it cannot relate it to the first, and one inherence cannot remain in both because it is indivisible. Hence, inherence is impossible.

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