Thermodynamics in Philosophical Light

  • By KPK Palat
  • December 15, 2013
  • This article takes the three laws of thermodynamics and gives a corresponding  Indian philosophical view.

Thermodynamics is an important branch of physics and it deals with heat and its relationship with other forms of energy. The principles of thermodynamics are enunciated through four laws, including the zeroth law. A few aspects of the Hindu philosophy may be slipped in to find out the conjunction between the seemingly unbridgeable systems of knowledge.


Basically, the first law of thermodynamics is from the law of conservation of energy and it states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed even though it may change from one form to another. Hinduism holds that God is neither created nor is subject to any destruction.


Prajnanam Brahma—Consciousness is Brahman— declares the Aitareya Upanishad. Brahman or the formless God as Pure Consciousness is the basis of all types of energy and it is the Pure Consciousness that has taken on the appearance of the universe with its varied and numberless forms. The words of Frank Close, a professor of physics at Oxford University, assume significance in this context: “Pure energy, that concept beloved of scientists when auditing the accounts of natural processes, also is non-substance; it can change from one form to another, such as electrical, chemical, or motion, and it can transubstantiate into matter and antimatter.” 


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


Entropy is a word that pops up every now and then in the second law of thermodynamics. Some of the important features of the second law are: Even though the quantity of energy remains the same, its quality tends to depreciate. In the work-processes, there is always some loss of energy and therefore the energy that can be made use of for work will be gradually decreasing. Conversely, the unusable energy will be increasing by the same quantum. Entropy is a measure of this unusable energy. Hence, when we talk about universal entropy it denotes the universal disorder that ensues from the decrease in the energy available for work.


Heat may be defined as energy in transit or the flow of energy. Normally, heat has its flow from high temperature to low temperature and it thereby gives the impression of getting away from its source. Now, what sort of connection can there be between the second law and theistic philosophy? The divine energy has a remarkably high quality or purity and it may be termed the ‘bliss’ of Brahman to signify its limitlessness and power. But its brilliance has to depreciate when it gets mixed up in the creational process. It has to distend itself to lower its energy so that its materialisation can take place.


When the lower energy gets ‘packed’ or ‘stored’ in innumerable organic systems, it will give the appearance of having distanced itself from its source—the higher energy called the Soul or Pure Consciousness. The lower energy’s entropy increases when it is used for production, growth, repair and any other kind of functions. And as time passes by, the entropy will increase to such an extent that everything in the universe will revert to its potential state, having lost its usefulness for all movements or work.


Such a phase on a universal scale is known as Pralaya or Cosmic Dissolution. At the level of human beings, as old age catches up, the entropy of the energy within them will go on increasing until all their biological and chemical processes cease in what is known as death. In a way, it is this entropy that reveals itself in the Shakespearean words that have likened the world to a stage. And what is the final scene on that stage?


“———-Last scene of all 

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” 


We are now on the threshold of the third law of thermodynamics. All movements of energy will stop as temperature reaches the zero level. It is the lowest point on the Kelvin scale of temperature, corresponding to minus 273.15 degree Celsius. Then, there is nothing but ‘mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ But at the same time, the law talks about the non-attainability of absolute zero because some energy will have to remain to keep the system slightly above absolute zero. 


The Hindu theory about the Brahmanda or the Cosmos is that it has not a beginning in time. Its appearance, state of being, and disappearance are the result of a cyclical process which has been going on eternally and even when it does the disappearing act, it is only to lie in a causal state for due manifestation in the next cycle. In such a non-manifested state, there has to be some energy to make vibration possible for the re-emergence of the universe.


What has come to be known as the zeroth law of thermodynamics speaks about the equilibrium between systems. A system in thermodynamics connotes anything that is the focus of attention. A system can be a quantity of matter or even a small part of it. The essence of the zeroth law is that when two systems, having thermal sameness with each other, are found to be in thermal balance with another system, then all the three systems are said to be in thermal equilibrium with one another.


So, when systems are in a state of equilibrium, there will not be any thermal motion and consequently, no happenings.


According to the Hindu philosophy, when the three strands of subtle tendencies called Satwa, Rajas and Tamas are in a state of equilibrium with one another, there will not be the occurrence of the material universe.


For the universe to appear there has to be a movement of energy.


Such a motion will be possible only when the equilibrium between the three tendencies is lost, and in such an eventuality, a ‘sphota’ or sound starts the vibratory motions, trumpeting the arrival of the visible universe. 


It is worth noting that Hindu philosophy starts with the equilibrium of the three forces before it ventures to explain Shristi, Sthithi and Pralaya, that is, Creation, Maintenance and Dissolution. In thermodynamics, the zeroth law could have been made the first law, but then it was too late to do so, the reason being explained in the words of Peter Atkins, a Fellow of Lincoln College, University of Oxford: “The zeroth law is an afterthought. Although it had long been known that such a law was essential to the logical structure of thermodynamics, it was not dignified with a name and number until early twentieth century. By then, the first and second laws had become so firmly established that there was no hope of going back and renumbering them.” 


The ancient Hindu seers had no such difficulty. Their mystic vision enabled them to base their thoughts on the equilibrium and disequilibrium of the three forces for explaining the continuity of Brahmanda.


The Sanskrit word ‘Tejas’ means heat and light. In popular parlance it is known as Agni or Fire. Tejas is one of the Pancha Maha Bhutas or Five Grand Elements from which the entire cosmos has been made up. Sun is a symbol of Tejas. Without Tejas life will come to a standstill. That is why Hinduism has deified Agni. The first hymn in the first Mandala or Book of the Rig Veda is dedicated to Agni:


“To thee, dispeller of the night, O 

Agni, day by day with prayer

Bringing thee reverence, we come.

Ruler of sacrifices, guard of law

eternal, radiant One,

Increasing in thine own abode.

Be to us easy of approach, even as

a father to his son:

Agni, be with us for our weal.” 


The word Tapas opens itself for discussion under the rubric of thermodynamics. English words like penance or austerities cannot capture the etymology of tapas. Derived from a Sanskrit root, ‘tap’, it signifies heat, warmth, blaze or glow. By doing tapas, one seeks to add more heat to one’s cellular system. Consequently, the useful energy in the system tends to increase because of the enhanced efficiency of the body’s thermal power. A corollary is the slowing down of the progression of entropy.


It is not the gross body alone that gets energised by tapas, but the fine bodies like the mind and the intellect also take on the blaze of tapas. Theosophically, tapas is a means to become aglow with the realisation of the Divine. There are references to many hermits who had acquired mystical powers by dint of tapas. They used to have very long lives, prodigious memories and unbelievable psychic powers. By tapas, they achieved the integration of body, mind and spirit so as to experience in their systems the exuberance of divine energy, the basis of every facet of life.


There is no doubt that as long as man has the fire of consciousness in him he is ‘Sivam’, but the moment that fire goes out of him, he becomes ‘savam’ or corpse.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 1 December, 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


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