According to what we learn in school these days, English chemist and physicist John Dalton - who was born in late 18th century - is the man credited by modern science with the development of the atomic theory. However, it might be surprising for many people today to know that the concept of atoms was actually formulated by an Indian sage and philosopher nearly 600 years prior to the birth of Christ or 2,500 years before Dalton achieved this scientific breakthrough during his time.
This Indian sage and philosopher was known as Acharya Kanad, and some consider him as the “actual” father of Atomic theory.
Background on Acharya Kanad
Acharya Kanad was born around 600 BC or 800 BC in Prabhas Kshetra which is located near Dwaraka in present day Gujarat, India. His real name was actually Kashyap and was the son of a philosopher named Ulka.
Since childhood, Kashyap displayed a very keen sense of detail and was fascinated by the most minute things. When he was only a young boy, he once accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Prayaga. He noticed thousands of pilgrims in the town were littering the roads with the flowers and grains of rice they offered at the temples by the shore of the river Ganges.
The tiny particles attracted Kashyap’s attention and he began to collect the grains of rice from the ground while everybody else busied themselves with offering prayers or bathing in the Ganges. The crowd eventually noticed his peculiar behavior and wondered why he was so fascinated with the grains of rice.
When they asked him about it, Kashyap replied that though a single grain of rice may seem worthless on its own, a collection of hundreds of them could make up a person’s meal. This meant a collection of meals could feed a family and ultimately, mankind. For this reason alone, he believed that a single grain of rice was just as important as all the riches in the world.
After this incident, people started calling him “Kanad,” as “Kan” in Sanskrit means “the smallest particle.”
Kanad pursued his interest with the unseen world and dedicated his life to conceptualizing the idea of the smallest particle. He wrote down his views and eventually passed on his knowledge to others. People began to call him “Acharya” or “the teacher,” hence the name Acharya Kanad - which means “the teacher of small particles.”
Kanad’s Conception of the “Anu” (Atom)
Acharya Kanad is believed by many to be the first to have realized the idea of an indestructible particle of matter.
The theory occurred to Kanad while he was walking with food in his hand and he was breaking it into small pieces. He nibbled at the food in his hand until he was no longer able to break it down into smaller pieces. It was then that he realized that he could not divide the food into further parts and conceptualized the idea of a particle that could not be divided any further. He called that indivisible particle “Parmanu,” or “Anu,” which literally means atom.
Acharya Kanad thought of the atom as minute objects that are invisible to the naked eye, and considered it indestructible and hence, eternal. He also theorized that a Parmanu has an inherent urge to combine with another Parmanu. He also explained that combining two Anu belonging to the same class would create a “Dwinuka” or a binary molecule. This binary molecule would contain similar properties to the two original Parmanu it was made of.
Kanad suggested further that it was the different combinations of Parmanu which produced various types of substances. He also brought forth the idea that atoms could be combined in a variety of ways to produce chemical changes while in the presence of other factors such as heat. He used the blackening of earthen pot as well as the ripening of fruit as examples of this phenomenon.
To teach his ideas about the atom and the nature of the universe, Acharya Kanad founded the Vaisheshika school of philosophy. He also wrote a book called “Vaisheshik Darshan,” which presented all of his research.
Acharya Kanad As the “Father of Atomic Theory”
Several members of the academic community - particularly in India - recognize Acharya Kanad as among the sages of ancient times who made significant contributions to modern science. Some of them have even taken steps to have his name included in mainstream education.
However, recognition of Kanad’s “Anu” theory as the first plausible atomic theory over Dalton’s scientific approach remains controversial. While many recognize Kanad’s perspective on the physical structure of the universe as an impressive metaphysical philosophy, some vehemently maintain that it does not qualify as a scientific theory because it is not at all empirical.
Acharya Kanad’s idea of the atom was not attempting to rationally explain an empirical law. It did not carry an explanatory burden and was just a speculative thesis. Hence, many argue that it would be outrageous to place it in the same league with existing modern scientific theories about atoms.
Though the widely-accepted atomic theory today is substantially different from the one Dalton posited, Dalton’s theory is still considered to be the first scientific theory of atoms because it was attempting to rationally explain an empirical law.
The atomic theory of Acharya Kanad may not be considered empirical, and while its official place in the field of modern science is still heavily debated, its philosophical and cultural merits cannot be disputed. Though his theory of the atom was abstract and leaned towards philosophy and logic than personal experience or experimentation, it is praised even in modern times as a brilliant and imaginative explanation of the physical structure of the world and for largely agreeing with the discoveries of modern physics.