Phusis, Physics, and Dharma

Etymological origin of the word physics is the Greek word phusis. The first usage of phusis can be traced back to Heraclitus who used it in his aphorism “what is born tends to disappear.” When this aphorism was cited in the Greek literature for the first time after five centuries it acquired a new meaning: “Nature loves to hide.” This is because the meaning of the word phusis evolved considerably in those centuries. Phusis had many meanings in Heraclitus’ time but it did not mean nature as a whole. In Heraclitus’ time phusis had two meanings: 1) proper constitution of each thing 2) genesis, appearance, growth. [1]

In the following centuries other Greek philosophers contributed to the evolution of the phusis concept. Empedocles spoke of the nature (phusis) of things. Parmenides spoke of the birth (phusis) of ether. The word phusis in Hippocrates’ medical documents referred to the physical constitution of patients or what results from their birth, or what is congenital. [1]

To Plato phusis meant the essence of things. Plato also used it in the phrase “phusis apeirou” to mean “the infinite”. He talked about phusis as the “divine art” within things. He believed, however, that this “divine art” or the “secrets of nature” were inaccessible to humans. [1]

Aristotle defined nature (phusis) as a principle of inner motion inside each thing. The stoics defined phusis as an artistic fire that engenders all things. [1]

The Sanskrit word dharma, in its original usage, meant the inner constitution of a thing which governs its growth or inherent characteristics. Please note the similarity between dharma and phusis in their original meanings, especially the emphasis on the concept of growth. Later, phusis evolved into physics and dharma came to mean dogmatic religion which is a gross distortion of its original meaning. Shrii Shrii Anandamurti reminds us that

“The topic of discussion is dharma sádhaná. What is dharma? What is sádhaná? Dharma means “nature”. Sádhaná means “to complete the journey”. Each and every being which has been created in this universe has to complete its journey. Every [ion], every cell, every being which is born will have to complete its journey, because there is an ever-increasing attraction between the unit and the Cosmic, between the jiiva and God. This continuous journey has been going on since the creation of this universe. Whether you like it or not, still you have to continue the journey. To continue this journey is known as dharma sádhaná.”

(Ánanda Vacanámrtam Part 31)

“Dharma does not mean any particular religion; it means the quintessence of one’s very existence. As human beings have come in human form, they will have to live and grow, they will have to establish themselves in human life and die a glorious death, for this is their human dharma. They cannot afford simply out of the instincts of self-preservation and reproduction, to degrade themselves to the level of non-human beings.

(Namah Shiváya Shántáya, 129)

[1] Pierre Hadot, “The Veil of Isis”, Harvard University Press (2006), ISBN 978-0-674-02316-1

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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