The dual identity of Kaṇāda

Hello! I am Ge Ge, a PhD student at the University of Vienna. My dissertation topic is about the traditional conceptualisations of the origin of the Vaiśeṣika tradition and the beginning of the Vaiśeṣikasūtra. Many thanks to Elisa for giving me this chance to share my thoughts with you! It brings me great pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute as a guest writer here at the end of the summer. Besides working on my dissertation, I am interested in the intellectual debates between different traditions on various topics, especially epistemology. My first post is a summary of the dual identity of the founder of Vaiśeṣika, Kaṇāda. I would greatly appreciate any comments.

Little is known about the mythical founder of the Vaiśeṣika tradition. Nevertheless, we can still catch a glimpse of the sage’s personality through his various names, such as Kaṇāda, Ulūka, and several others. In this process, a dichotomy emerges. The name Kaṇāda indicates that the sage eats grains, a habit associated with the pigeon-like mode of living described by Śrīdhara in his commentary on the Padārthadharmasaṃgraha. On the other hand, the name Ulūka associates him with the owl. It is interesting to observe the integration of these two distinct bird images into a single person. Moreover, these different interpretations of the Vaiśeṣika founder also improve our understanding of how people perceive the tradition’s origin differently.

To begin, Kaṇāda, Kaṇabhakṣa and Kaṇabhuj all indicate that the sage consumes grains. Śrīdhara states that the sage follows a pigeon-like way of living, gathering grains from the main road day by day. Grains are commonly known as the food of pigeons. For instance, the tale of the pigeon king Citragrīva in the Hitopadeśa (ed. Johnson 1840, 7–8) illustrates how pigeons are lured by grains scattered on the ground. Furthermore, according to the Baudhāyanadharmasūtra (3.2.12), this pigeon-like mode of living indicates that those who adopt it should grasp grains one at a time with two fingers, like pigeons peck at grains with their beaks. In this way, the image of Kaṇāda reconstructed from Śrīdhara’s description portrays the sage as a frugal eater. This feature is also affirmed in Durvekamiśra’s Dharmottarapradīpa (ed. Malvania 1971, 228), where the author explains that the sage eats frugally because he is void of desire.

The name Ulūka, however, shows different aspects of the sage. The image of an owl contrasts with that of a pigeon. Owls, as birds of prey, are deemed aggressive and even inauspicious. But the name Ulūka is known to the Buddhists and has been preserved in their writings, such as Jizang’s Bailun shu and Kuiji’s Cheng weishi lun shuji. There, the founder of the Vaiśeṣika tradition is referred to as the owl sage, primarily because the sage wanders at night like an owl. 

Then, how do these two different images converge within the same person? For the Buddhists, we see that Kuiji bridges the gap between the owl image of the sage and his eating habit in another work Yinming ru zhengli lunshu. He says that Ulūka frightened and harmed pregnant women while wandering at night. Consequently, he gathered and consumed grains and obtained the name Kaṇabhuj. For the Vaiśeṣikas, Bhaṭṭa Vādīndra states that the Great Lord in the guise of an owl conveyed the knowledge to the sage in his commentary on the Vaiśeṣikasūtra. In this way, the owl image documented by the Buddhists becomes associated with the higher teacher of the tradition, the Great Lord.

Why not just include the name Ulūka in the list of the sage’s names? Firstly, the owl’s image shares similarities with that of the Great Lord (i.e., Śiva) as a night rover.  It would be rational to correlate the owl image with the Lord, who also serves as the founder of Vaiśeṣika. Secondly, the name Ulūka and the owl imagery can carry pejorative connotations, particularly given that opponents have depicted the sage as someone frightening and isolated. Therefore, owl is associated with the Lord rather than the sage in the eyes of the Vaiśeṣikas.

Unfortunately, the loss of the early Vaiśeṣika literature brings about uncertainties when attempting to trace the origin of the tradition. Our understanding of the founder of the Vaiśeṣika tradition remains limited. But the association with birds gives a vibrant portrayal of this elusive sage.

4 Replies to “The dual identity of Kaṇāda”

  1. Instead of literal meaning, it would be profitable to understand and apply the symbolic interpretation of various terms like the owl as unveiled by Sri Aurobindo in his The Secret of the Veda. Wishing you all the best in your intellectual journey.

  2. Yes, I am also of the opinion of Mr. Mohapatra, that the symbolic interpretation of the terms. Linking the features of the pigeon and owl with the available Vaiśeṣika literature may generate a better interpretation of the tradition.

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