Greek & Jains : On Atoms

Posted: 21.03.2006
Updated on: 02.07.2015

The Resemblances Between Greek Philosophy And Jain Theories Are Many. This Paper Is An Attempt To The Observe The Atoms Of The Atomists Of Greece And The Anu Of The Jains And Comment On Their Resemblances.

The term anu corresponds with atoms of the atomists in Greece. The elaborator of the atomic theory, Democritus said 'atoms and void (alone) exist in reality' (Fragment 9).Jains believed that pudgala meant matter. Matter was known as astikaya since it occupies space. The smallest indivisible particle of matter was anu. On a similar footing Democritus observed that if matter was divided far enough invisible units which are called atoms arise come into being.

Atoms were solid, impenetrable and indivisible. There are an infinite number of atoms in space. (Theophrastus, Physics, 8; Simplicius Physics, 28. 9). Epicurus, a follower of Democritus (Plutarch, Against Colotes, 3) notes that all atoms are small but Democritus says that atoms could be large as well (Eusebius, XIV. 23.2). Atoms differ in.

  1. Shape - like A differs from N
  2. Arrangement - like AN differs from NA
  3. Position - like Z differs from N
    (Aristotle, Metaphysics A4 98564)

Anu of Jains have no size. They are eternal. They have smell, touch, taste and colour.


All becoming is explained by the mixing and unmixing of atoms. Atoms neither come into being nor pass away. They are in constant motion in the void or empty space. Atoms correspond to the being and the void to the non-being of the Eleatics, says Melissus. Things are created and pass out of existence by the random collision of atoms. As a result various atoms were separated or attached.

Democritus said -

  1. Atoms moved in every direction in empty space.
    (Aristotle, de caelo, 2. 30068)
  2. Atoms collide with each other.
    (Aristotle on Democritus: Simplicius, de caelo, 295.9)
  3. Motion of atoms is called vibration
    (Aetius, 1, 23, 3)
    Epicurus adds to the above that -
  4. The reason for collision is weight. The properties of atoms according to Democritus are size and shape while Epicurus added weight
    (Aetius, 1, 33, 18, Dk 68A 47)
  5. Atoms fall in parallel straight lines with equal velocities towards a fixed place at an infinite distance.
    The Jains maintain that -
  6. Material things are produced by the combination of anu.
  7. This production is done by different geometrical, spherical and cubical modes of combinations of anu.
  8. Combination of anu occurs both by mutual contact at two points and by being attracted by like to like.
    Democrats and Jains, then, believe that like goes to the like. Hook shaped atoms collide with the hook shaped (Aetius, II, 7.2). Collision of like atoms make smaller atoms go to the periphery while the heavier atoms to the middle.
  9. Matter has two forms -
    Atomic and Skandha
    Two atoms form a Skandha or a compound. Skandha can be seen felt touched smelt and tasted Skandha combines with other Skandha and form gross substances. Gross things are subject to change or parinama. Parinama makes qualities or guna decrease and increase. The accession of new qualities is done by kala, time. The gross remains in a samanya state for some time even when new gunas are acquired. This state of sameness of qualities is known as urdhvasamanya.
  10. Atoms are both eternal and subject to change. Eternal if they looked at from the viewpoint as substance or dravya. Substances never change. They are subject to change if looked at them from the viewpoint of accession of new gunas. This is the decisive change between Democritus and Jains. For Democritus atoms form the basis of all matter but not so for the Jains.
  11. The other form of matter is the atomic. It corresponds with the subtle. Karmic matter which enters the soul belong to this form.


Karma particles exist in the void. karmas are infra - atomic particles of matter, or karma vargana. Karma particles enter the soul. This is asrava. Jains believe in two types of asrava.

  1. Bhavasrava or thought that enters the soul.
  2. Karmasrava or actual entrance of karma matter to the soul.
    (Nemichandra's commentary on dravyasamgraha 29)

Karma can be both good and bad. Of karma particles entering the soul Gunarthna writes as follows:
'The influx of karma means the contact of the particles of karma matter in accordance with the particular kind of karma, with the soul, just like the sticking of dust on the body of person besmeaned with oil. In all parts of the soul there being infinite number of karma atoms at becomes so completely covered with them that in some sense when looked at from that point of view the soul is sometimes regarded as a material body during its samara stage.' (Dasgupta, p. 194)
Karma particles could be destroyed in a two - fold manner.

  1. Bhavanirjara or purifying the soul by virtue so that karma particles are destroyed.
  2. Dravyairjara or destruction of karma particles by undergoing them to the fullest.


Nirjara aims at soul purification. The Jain aspirant whose soul is purified attains moksa resides in lokakasa free from all bondage or bandha. He how possesses anata darsana, (infinite preemption) ananta jnana,(infinite knowledge), anantasukha, (infinite bliss) and ananta virya (infinite power). Lokakasa exists in akasa or mere empty space. Hitherto there was collision of anu in empty space but there is no movement in the region beyond lokakasa. The jain principle of motion is dharma. Dharma or the moving principle does not exist in lokakasa. (Dravyasamgrahavitti, 17-20, in Dasgupta, p. 197). Therefore, those liberated souls or the mukthi jiva are at rest. Jivas and matter cannot move without dharma. They could not rest without adharma. Motion is inherent in jivas. Jiva, pudgala, dharma and adharna are all subside in aloka, the transcendent region where the mukthi jivas reside. The Jain dharma then is slightly close to the vortex - like movement of atoms.


Democritus says 'soul is the dwelling place of ones good or evil genius' (Fr. 171). Philosophy, to Epicurus, is a means of happiness. It relives men from fears of gods and punishment in the after - life. It soothes the soul by eradicating passion. This is why Epicurus gives prominence to the materialistic theory of atoms in his explanation of the origin of the universe. It is the soul that the karmic matter of Jain teachings impose upon. Karma contaminates the soul, creates chaos causes, bandha and prolong moksa. For the Jains theories of karma and soul have a move genuinely religious significance.
Jains, Democritus and Epicurus accept that soul, too, is made of atoms and that it is the only immaterial thing in the void.
Soul according to the Greeks is,

  1. Made of finest and roundest of atoms
  2. Mobile.

The only atom that can not be collided with any other is of course the soul. Aristotle calls this atom fiery and spherical (De Anima A2 405 a ii). But it is not really soul, to Democritus but a spherical atom which is the most mobile.

The Jains say of the soul in particular that apart from being immortal that -

  1. Good or bad karma comes into contact with the soul and gets coloured-golden, lotus-pink,white and black,blue & grey.
  2. Soul is the channel through which karma particles enter the soul.
  3. The soul passes 14 stages or gunasthanas before being emancipated.
  4. Nirjara helps to purify the soul from karma particles.
  5. The perfect soul rises over the urdhavaloka to lokakasa.
  6. It resides motionless there.
  7. Souls that are not littered are scattered in the universe. They occupy space. They have a size and are atomic.


As a result of the collision of atoms innumerable worlds come into being. (Aetius II, 7.2). Some of these worlds are large, small, decreasing and increasing. Some are devoid of sun, moon, stars, living beings and moisture (Hippolytus, Refutations I, 13, 2 Dk 68A 40). Worlds, just like atoms differ in shape and size. The Jains maintain that the universe is ful of nigodas or minute beings. They are groups of infinite number of souls in small groups. New souls are supplied by nigodas to soul to occupy the space made vacant by souls that acquire moksa.
This Jain view resembles the innumerable worlds of Democritus. These worlds are in various stages of development are just as the Jain substances as well which are in accession of new qualities, utpada and the loss of old qualities, vyaya.


The atomic theory, according to Democritus can only be apprehended by reflection but not by sensation. ' There are two sorts of knowledges, one bastard (or obscure.) To the latter belong all the following: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The real is "seperated from this. When the bastard can do no more neither see more minutely, nor hear nor smell, nor taste, nor bear, nor smell, nor taste, nor perceive by touch - and a finer investigation is needed then the genuine comes in as having a tool for distinguishing more finely; (Democritus, The Canon, Fr - 11. Also in Sextus Empriricus, Advanced Mathematics VII, 139 Dk 68B 11)

The Jain pratyaksa which removes the veil of ignorance caused by karma resembles the genuine knowledge of Democritus while paroksa gives a less clearer knowledge like the obscure knowledge. But for Epicurus unlike for Democritus, the theory of' knowledge depended on sensation. (Cicero, De Fnibus, 1. 64). Democritus rejects sensation as inherently illusionary. Epicurus maintains that it is the criteria of reality. Nevertheless Democritus observes that qualities of colour, sound smell, taste can be felt only from sensation caused by contact of atoms. He realized like other national philosophers of Greece 'all perception as being by touch' (Aristotle de sensu, 4. 442a 29). But since atoms and the void cannot be apprehended by senses, he does not look for the support of senses.


Epicurus does not stick only to the atomic by hypothesis on which the origin of the world could be explained. There could be a plurality of views. Each individual, according to Democritius has a number of atoms - big, small, sweet, bitter which cause diverese sensations.
'Bitter taste is caused by small smooth, rounded atoms whose circumference is actually sinuous; therefore it is both sticky and viscious. Salt taste is caused by large, not rounded atoms but in some cases jagged ones' (Theophrastus, de sensu, 66, DK 68 135)

Also, 'Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention; (Democritus fr. 9; Also Sextus Empiricus Advanced Mathematics, VII, 135)

The Jain theory relative pluralism, or anekanthavada corresponds with the Greek theory of sensation. Accordingly then can be no absolute affirmation of anything. All affirmation could be true depending on the atoms of each individual. Gold is a substance or dravya. It is a combination of atoms-earth atoms, iron atoms, metal atoms and water atoms etc. It is dravya and not dravya at the same time. The substance will not change. But it can assume different appearances - jug, pot, bowl, cup, etc. also necklace bracelet, ring, anklet etc.

Many qualities or anantadharmatmakam vastu correspond with different sensations perceived by different individuals (Tattvarthadhigama sutra, Dasgupta p. 176). This Jains View corresponds with the Democritean. 'We know nothing accurately in reality but (Only) as it changes according to the bodily condition and the constitution of those things that flow upon (the body) and impinge upon it'. (Fr. 9)


Diels, H. and Kranz, W. -
Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker
6th edition 1954

Kirk G.S and Raven J.E-
The Pre-Socratic Philosopheres, U.K.

Dasgupta S. - A History of Indian Philosophy, Motilas Banarsidas
Publishers, Delhi, 1975

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