As I discuss in this question, by far the most popular school of Hindu philosophy is the Vedanta school. But there are five other Astika or orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy: Purva Mimamsa, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika. My question is about the Nyaya school and the Vaishesika school. In contrast to the Purva Mimamsa school, which believed just as modern science does that sound is a vibration of air, the Nyaya school and the Vaishesika schools believed that sound was a phenomenon of Akasha or space, not a phenomenon of air. Here's what B.N. Seal says in this excerpt from the book "The Positive Background of Hindu Sociology"

The early Nyaya writers hold that the sound wave has its substrate in Akasha and not Vayu. Later writers add that sound itself is a phenomenon not to be conceived as a mode of motion, for Akasha, the substrate is, in the Nyaya view, incapable of motion. At the same time, the propagation of sound must be conceived on the analogy of waves in water Udyotakara in the Vartika, Vachaspati in the Tatparyyatika, and Jayanta in the Nyaya-Manjari controvert the three views current in the Mimansa school,— (1) that Nada, the physical basis of audible sound, is a specific quality of Vayu (air), (2) that sound in its physical aspect, is constituted by a series of air movements of the nature of a current, and (3) that it is not air currents but air waves, series of conjunctions and disjunctions of the air particles or molecules, that constitute the Nada, the sound physical, to which, in the case of significant sounds, the Mimansakas assign the function of manifesting the sphota, 'transcendental ' or 'intelligible' sound. — Against these views, the early Nyaya Doctors maintain that sound is a specific quality of Akasha (ether) and not of Vayu (air). At the same time, they admit that the impact which originates the sound phenomenon in Akasha does so by setting up a vibration in the molecules of the object struck, and that these vibrating molecules impinge against the air molecules in contacts. In other words, though Akasha is the substrate, the efficient cause of sound is to be found in the mechanical impact of vibrating molecules of sonorous bodies against contiguous molecules of air. As to the propagation of sound, the early Nyaya-Vaishesika writers content themselves with stating that the first sound thus produced in the substrate Akasha by the impact of the vibrating molecules against the contiguous molecules of air, produces a second sound in the contiguous Akasha, and the second sound, a third, and so on, in the same way as waves are generated in water, until the last sound sets up a vibration in the ear-drum. Of course, this propagation of sound-wave in Akasha is effected by means of the air-wave as its vehicle. This is the Nyaya-Vaiseshika hypothesis of an independent sound-wave.

My question is, what are the arguments of the Nyaya and Vausheshika schools for sound being a phenomenon of Akasha rather than air? I would check the three Nyaya works mentioned, namely Udyotakara's Nyaya Vartika, Vachaspati Mishra's Tatparya Tika, and Jayanta Bhatta's Nyaya Manjari, but so far as I can tell none of those works have been translated into English.

Note that I'm not looking for scientific speculation, I'm just interested in what arguments are given in Nyaya and Vaisheshika works.

  • Although the other schools are astika, they are not Hindu in the modern sense of the term. ALL modern day Hindus are followers of Vyasa and are Vedantists. You are stretching the term Hindu and your question is not about Hindu philosophy. Oct 16, 2017 at 4:26
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    @SwamiVishwananda We just disagree on the meaning of the word Hindu. I think Astika, and not Vedantin, is the proper translation of the word Hindu, both now and in the past. Many Shaiva Siddhantins, Lingayats, Kashmiri Shaivites, followers of Sri Vidya, etc. reject the Vedanta school, yet they are still Hindus because they accept the authority of the Vedas. So while it is true that the vast majority of Hindus living today belong to the Vedanta school, it would wrong to say Hindu = Vedantin. Oct 16, 2017 at 4:51
  • It doesn't seem like they are against the idea that sound is a vibration of air. They seem to say that air is the vehicle of sound, but that this vehicle travels through Akasha. "...though Akasha is the substrate, the efficient cause of sound is to be found in the mechanical impact of vibrating molecules of sonorous bodies against contiguous molecules of air." and "Of course, this propagation of sound-waves in Akasha is effected by means of the air-wave as its vehicle." Also, doesn't Vedanta also say that Akasha is the gross element and that Sound is it's subtle element?
    – Ikshvaku
    Oct 16, 2017 at 13:57
  • I think this means that sound waves would not be able to propagate if there was no space (Akasha).
    – Ikshvaku
    Oct 16, 2017 at 14:13

1 Answer 1


I found one argument from the Vaisheshika school. It occurs in this excerpt Prashastapada's Padartha Dharma Sangraha, the second-oldest work of the Vaisheshika school. Prashastapada doesn't just try to show that sound is a phenomenon of Akasha, he tries to prove the existence of Akasha using the existence of sound. He argues that sound cannot be a phenomenon of any substance which can be perceived by touch, and air can be perceived by touch, so there must exist some other substance called Akasha which is the cause of sound:

Sound cannot be the property of those substances that can be touched: -

  1. because being perceptible, its production is not preceded by any quality in the material cause of the substance (to which it belongs);
  2. because it does not pervade over, and is not coeval with, the substance to which it belongs;
  3. because it is perceived elsewhere than in the substratum wherein it is produced

For more details see this excerpt from Sridhara's commentary on the Padartha Dharma Sangraha.

In any case, I assume this argument is fallacious, since I think there can be little doubt that sound is a phenomenon of air. But I haven't examined the argument (as elaborated by Sridhara) sufficiently closely to pinpoint the flaw. Also, I'm not sure whether there are other Nyaya and Vaisheshika arguments on this subject.

  • I asked similar question here. Later I learned Sankhya's 24 tattvas say that Sound (tanmatra) is the source for Akasha (bhuta), not other way round. Similarly Touch is source for Vayu.. so on. Still no explanation for why we cannot hear sound in outer-space.
    – ram
    Aug 24, 2017 at 22:33
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    @ram Yeah, the Samkhya school says that the Tanmatras are the cause of gross elements. But the Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools say that Akasha and the other gross elements are eternal substances. They think Akasha atoms are neither created nor destroyed. Aug 25, 2017 at 3:07
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    @ram Also, related to your question, the Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools make a distinction between Akasha and Dik. We can translate Akasha as ether and Dik as space, or to use the terminology of your question we can say Akasha is space and Dik is vacuum. Dik is the thing that has properties like nearness and farness, North and South, etc., whereas Akasha has the property of sound. The Samkhya school doesn't make a distinction between Akasha and Dik though. Aug 25, 2017 at 3:11

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