The concept that material objects such as cars and chairs are composed of many small units called atoms is not new, in fact the ancient Indian philosophers Gautama and Kanada taught this.
It is significant that this concept of the atom was present in India thousands of years before it appeared in the West — its first appearance in the West is generally attributed to Democritus of ancient Greece. Unfortunately modern historians, who do not generally give credit to ancient India for any significant achievements, now teach that Democritus was the first to put forward the idea of the atom. It is, however, important to realize just how poorly substantiated the modern historians’ picture of ancient history really is.
Modern historians tend to give the impression that they know quite well what went on in ancient times, but the actual fact is that most ancient records have been lost so their picture of ancient history is based on fragmentary evidence and guesswork. One of the main reasons for this lack of information is the frequent warfare which occurred between the ancient nations.
Often when a new regime came into power it destroyed the literature and culture of the old regime. This is particularly true for cases in which the new regime had a religion or basic philosophy which was quite different from that of the old. There are many examples of this kind of destruction, but several cases come to mind which are particularly important.
The first is the repeated destruction of the library of Alexandria in Egypt, which was one of the largest libraries of the ancient world. Around 50 B.C. it was first destroyed by fire, then after being rebuilt at the temple of Serapis it was again destroyed by Christians around the fourth century A.D. Thereafter it was again rebuilt, but unfortunately this latest version was also finally destroyed, this time by the Arabs under the Khalif Omar.
Other notable examples of destruction are the Germanic barbarians’ invasion of the Roman empire, the destruction of material by the Christians, and the anihilation of records by the Arabs. Although the Arabs preserved a small amount of the ancient Greek writings, they were very enthusiastic about wiping out the ancient Vedic literatures. This criminal activity on the part of the Moslem rulers succeeded in eliminating a large number of the ancient Vedic works.
The whole point of this discussion is that the picture of ancient life we are taught today by modern historians is based on fragmentary evidence and speculation — therefore what actually occured may have been quite different from what is taught.
There was extensive knowledge of atoms in the ancient Vedic literatures, especially in the teachings of such philosophers as Kanada, however the Srimad Bhagavatam touches only briefly on the atom. There are several reasons for this: First, as far as analyzing the basic structure of matter is concerned, there are several approaches — one describes matter in terms of atoms or other fundamental particles and another describes matter in terms of fundamental elements such as earth, water, fire, air, ether, etc.
The Bhagavatam prefers the later approach, and we will describe it in detail in section II.C.1. It is not true that a description of matter as being made up of fundamental particles is better than or worse than a description of matter as being composed of fundamental elements. Each approach describes different aspects of the material nature and hence has some merit.
We should also note that both of these descriptions were present in the Vedic philosophy. Second, the Bhagavatam deals mostly with devotional service and spiritual knowledge — hence it is not really concerned with the atomic description of matter. That being the case, we will now explore what the Bhagavatam has to say about atoms.
In the third canto of the Bhagavatam Maitreya Rishi informed Vidura that matter can be described as consisting of many small indivisible subunits called atoms. It is also stated that one such atom is invisible, but that a combination of six atoms, called a “hexatom”, is “visible in the sunshine which enters through the holes of a window screen”.
It is not at all clear, however, that we would be able to see these hexatoms with our limited human senses. In this connection we should realize that there are many aspects of reality which we cannot see with our present senses. We will provide a more complete discussion of this and many more examples in later sections.
At this point we note that there is a possibility that the ancient Greeks got their ideas on atoms (and other subjects) from Vedic sources. Srila Prabhupada has stated in his purports to the first canto of Srimad Bhagavatam that the ancient Greeks were originally members of the Vedic civilization who left India. In addition to Srila Prabhupada’s statements there are other references in this regard; for example, Latin professor J. S. Phillimore (1912, p.lxxiii) stated that the famous Greek philosopher Pythagoras had learned from brahmanas.
One should be careful to note that the ancient Vedic and Greek definition of the atom was that it was the smallest building block of matter, the fundamental particle, and as such it could not be broken down into any subunits. This idea was also present in ancient Rome — absent during the dark ages in Europe — and once again present in Western thinking during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. What is called an “atom” in modern physics, however, is different from the term “atom” in the Vedic conception.
From Gurukula Science Project 1985