Abstract

In the writings of H. P. Blavatsky (HPB), and in Theosophical literature in general, we find the use of a term “svabhavat” (given here without diacritics, but used in theosophical literature with varying diacritic placements), whereas outside of Theosophical literature we find no such term, but solely the common Sanskrit “svabhāva” in its various declensions. The key differences between the theosophical term and the common Sanskrit term is the usage of the final “t” and the diacritic placements. In modern theosophical literature (i.e. post-HPB) the two spellings—svabhāva & “svabhavat”—are sometimes viewed as distinct terms with distinct definitions, though outside of theosophical literature no such distinction is to be found in known Sanskrit works.

This paper traces the use of the term “svabhavat” in the writings of HPB and attempts to determine whether the term she uses is meant to be a distinct term from the commonly known term svabhāva. We have divided HPB’s writings into three phases, each of which marks a notably different stage in the usage and spelling of this term in her published works and private correspondence.

Our research provides ample evidence supporting the conclusion that the term HPB uses—regardless of variant spellings and diacritic use—is in every instance the same as the well-known Sanskrit term svabhāva. Three main points demonstrate the reason for this conclusion:

1. The first is HPB’s quite consistent use of the ablative case of svabhāva (i.e. svabhāvāt) in both printed and handwritten examples in Phase 1, and in the handwritten markups in the MS. of The Secret Doctrine Dialogues (SDD) in phase 2.

2. The second is the undeclined use of svabhāva in The Secret Doctrine (SD), 1:571, “Svabhâva”—verified in the referenced source (Telang, The Bhagavadgita, p. 387fn), to indeed be svabhāva—with a definition (“Prakriti, or plastic nature”) which matches the definition given in the majority of instances of the spelling “Svâbhâvat” in SD (see SD 1:46, “self-existent plastic Essence”; SD 1:61 “Plastic Essence . . . Mulaprakriti”; SD 1:98 “plastic root of physical Nature” and SD 1:98fn “Universal plastic matter”).

3. The third is in the phrasing used both in The Theosophical Glossary (TG) definition and in SD 1:98fn, where HPB says the following (underline added for emphasis):

“Svabhâvat (Sk.). Explained by the Orientalists as “plastic substance” (TG p. 314)

and

“As for Svâbhâvat, the Orientalists explain the term as meaning the Universal plastic matter diffused through Space, with, perhaps, half an eye to the Ether of Science.” (SD 1:98fn)

If the term HPB had in mind was explained by the Orientalists, it can only be svabhāva, as that is the only term the Orientalists were dealing with in the Sanskrit texts. It could not have been a different term than svabhāva, as no such term is known in Sanskrit texts, and certainly not in texts which were available to the Orientalists of the 19th century. The Orientalists were explaining the term svabhāva and HPB is clear that the term she is using is the very same term.

The above ought to be enough to clearly demonstrate the identity of the various spellings and diacritic uses found in Theosophical literature as being one and the same term, and that this term is, indeed, the well known Sanskrit term svabhāva.


Suggestion for Future Usage among Theosophists

It is therefore suggested that when writing this term, Theosophists use either the undeclined form svabhāva or the ablative case svabhāvāt, and abandon the use of faulty spellings and diactritics.



Initial References:

http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/svabhavat-svabhavat-and-svabhava/

https://prajnaquest.fr/blog/why-the-form-svabhavat-in-theosophical-writings/

http://prajnaquest.fr/blog/the-meaning-of-svabhava/

http://blavatskyarchives.com/reigle01.html

https://theosophy.wiki/en/Svabhavat



Phase 1: 1877-1888

Isis Unveiled

HPB’s use of the term appears to have begun by drawing from Max Müller’s Chips from a German Workshop, Vol. I., p. 281, where he uses the term “svabhāva” in the ablative case, which in IAST transliteration is “svabhāvāt”.

Here is the full declension table for the term svabhāva with the ablative case highlighted in bold:

Declension Table for svabhāva

Masculine

Singular

Dual

Plural

Nominative

svabhāvaḥ

svabhāvau

svabhāvāḥ

Vocative

svabhāva

svabhāvau

svabhāvāḥ

Accusative

svabhāvam

svabhāvau

svabhāvān

Instrumental

svabhāvena

svabhāvābhyām

svabhāvaiḥ

Dative

svabhāvāya

svabhāvābhyām

svabhāvebhyaḥ

Ablative

svabhāvāt1

svabhāvābhyām

svabhāvebhyaḥ

Genitive

svabhāvasya

svabhāvayoḥ

svabhāvānām

Locative

svabhāve

svabhāvayoḥ

svabhāveṣu


Here is Müller’s use of the term:

“There is the school of the Svâbhâvikas, which still exists in Nepal. The Svâbhâvikas maintain that nothing exists but nature, or rather substance, and that this substance exists by itself (svabhâvât), without a Creator or a Ruler. It exists, however, under two forms: in the state of Pravritti, as active, or in the state of Nirvritti, as passive. Human beings, who, like everything else, exist svabhâvât, ‘by themselves,’ are supposed to be capable of arriving at Nirvritti, or passiveness, which is nearly synonymous with Nirvâna. But here the Svâbhâvikas branch off into two sects. . . .”

As we see here, Müller uses the term twice, in both cases he is using the ablative case so as to carry the meaning “by itself” or “by themselves,” as one of the frequent uses of the ablative case is the meaning “due to.” Müller is here understanding the declined term as meaning “due to its own nature,” i.e., by itself, without any external cause.

HPB appears to have drawn directly from this paragraph of Müller in what is likely the first instance of her use of the term, in Isis Unveiled (IU) II:264, published Sept. 29, 1877, where the same diacritic placement is used (“Svabhâvât”):

“The Svâbhâvikas, or philosophers of the oldest school of Buddhism (which still exists in Nepaul), speculate but upon the active condition of this ‘essence,’ which they call Svabhâvât, and deem it foolish to theorize upon the abstract and “unknowable” power in its passive condition.”

The term is also used, with the same declension, in Vol. 2, p. 266 of the same work:

“Both ‘This’ and En-Soph, in their first manifestation of Light, emerging from within Darkness, may be summarized in the Svabhâvât, the Eternal and the uncreated Self-existing Substance which produces all; while everything which is of its essence produces itself out of its own nature.”

and in Vol. 1, p. 292:

“To accuse Buddhistical philosophy of rejecting a Supreme Being—God, and the soul’s immortality, of atheism, in short, on the ground that according to their doctrines, Nirvana means annihilation, and Svabhâvât is not a person, but nothing, is simply absurd. The En (or Ayîn) of the Jewish En-Soph, also means nihil or nothing, that which is not (quo ad nos); but no one has ever ventured to twit the Jews with atheism.”

We see that all three instances in Isis Unveiled use the ablative case of “svabhāva,” just as Müller does.


In Letters & Articles

It is worth noting two further uses of the related term “svābhāvika” in two letters written by HPB around this time. Shortly after the publication of Isis Unveiled, HPB sent a letter to N. de Fadeyev2 where she uses the term in relation to her “Master,” referred to here as “Sahib”:

“Sahib has been known to me more than twenty-five years . . . He is a Buddhist, but not of the dogmatic Church, but belongs to the Svabhavikas, the so-called Nepal Atheists (?!!).”

This letter provides us with the first extant example of this related term in HPB’s original handwriting:

Here HPB’s diacritic use is correct for this term, though she includes an “h”, thus giving “Shwâbhâvika.”

The above statement is repeated in regards to herself in a letter sent to W. H. Burr:3

“Let us settle, once for all if you please, as to the word ‘Spiritualist.’ I am not one—not at least in the modern and American sense of the word. I am a Shwabhavika, a Buddhist Pantheist, if anything at all.”

Unfortunately, the original handwritten letter is not extant in this case. However, the spelling given by Burr in his reproduction of the letter matches the spelling HPB used in her letter to N. de Fadeyev. Given the proximity of the writing of these two letters, it is likely that the spelling in the both originals was the same and was not altered by Burr, though he gives it without diacritics (in the 19th and early 20th century this is often due simply to limitations of printers).

HPB’s next published use of the term “svabhavat” was shortly after the publication of Isis Unveiled in an article titled “Elementaries4 where it was printed without diacritics (again quite likely due to limitations of the magazine’s printers). In this article, HPB echoes her approach from Isis Unveiled:

“Some higher and still more subtle metaphysical schools of Nepal even go so far as to affirm—on very reasonable grounds too—that this pre-existing and self-existent substance or matter (Svabhavat) is itself without any other creator or ruler; when in the state of activity it is Pravritti, a universal creating principle; when latent and passive, they call this force Nivritti. As for something eternal and infinite, for that which had neither beginning nor end, there can be neither past nor future, but everything that was and will be, is, therefore there never was an action or even thought, however simple, that is not impressed in imperishable records on this substance called by the Buddhists Svabhavat, by the Kabalists astral light.”

HPB expands on the above-mentioned article in another letter, this one sent to a family member in Dec., 1877, written in Russian and translated for posthumous publication in The Theosophical Quarterly (Vol. 5, p. 239-246) by HPB’s niece, Vera Johnston:

“. . . And this is why the Svabhavikas, a school of the highest Buddhistic philosophy in Nepal, claim, that nothing exists in Nature but Nature itself, or the Substance, and that this substance (to use the right Russian word) has its existence in itself, is Svabhavat, without any Creator or Ruler; for which the Svabhavikas are called, very unjustly, Pantheists, and even Atheists. This injustice I also proved in my article.

“This self-existing Matter (perhaps better, Substance) or Svabhavat, they teach, exists in eternity, and from all eternity, in two forms: in the state of Pravritti, or activity, and in the state of Nirvritti (Nirvana), or passivity. When it is in the state of activity, it is the ever-busy, ever-transforming Nature, or the Spirit of God itself, which animates every atom, and is crystallized in it. And so, though at first sight it may seem absurd, or even blasphemous, in my understanding it is the highest conception of the reflection of the Godhead, which is everpresent everywhere.

“And when this Svabhavat is in its passive state (N. B. in the human sense of the term), or in Nirvritti, it does not exist for man, because the latter will never be able to define, or to understand, what God is.

“The Buddhists of all schools believe in Nirvana; they believe in God; but they will never consent to belittle this Something unimaginable by lowering it to the level of human ideas. That is all.”

The above article and letter, while providing context for the intended meaning HPB has in mind when using the term, also further reinforces the connection with the above quote by Max Müller. Unfortunately, each instance of the term was printed, in both the above article and letter, without diacritics, and the original letter in HPB’s handwriting does not appear to be extant.

The next instance in which HPB used the term is in a correspondence article under the heading “Madame Blavatsky on the Views of the Theosophists,”5 where it is again given as svabhāva in its ablative case (“Svabhâvât”).

“. . . the animus . . . is constituted of ethereal substance, which pervades the whole universe, and is derived wholly from the soul of the world—anima mundi or the Buddhist—Svabhâvât—which is not spirit; though intangible and impalpable, it is yet by comparison with spirit or pure abstraction—objective matter.”

In her opening article for The Theosophist, Oct., 1879, titled “What is Theosophy?” HPB again uses the term under the same context as in Isis Unveiled and Müller, and again gives svabhāva in its ablative case (“Svabhâvât”).

“‘Who, then, can comprehend It since It is formless, and Non-existent?’—or . . . [who] accepts the Vedantic conception of Brahma, who in the Upanishads is represented as “without life, without mind, pure,” unconscious, for—Brahma is “Absolute Consciousness”; or, even finally, siding with the Svabhâvikas of Nepaul, maintains that nothing exists but “Svabhâvât” (substance or nature) which exists by itself without any creator; any one of the above conceptions can lead but to pure and absolute Theosophy—that Theosophy which prompted such men as Hegel, Fichte and Spinoza to take up the labors of the old Grecian philosophers and speculate upon the One Substance—the Deity, the Divine All proceeding from the Divine Wisdom—incomprehensible, unknown and unnamed—by any ancient or modern religious philosophy . . .”

Three years later, in a footnote to T. Subba Row’s article “The Aryan-Arhat Esoteric Tenets on the Sevenfold Principles in Man,” The Theosophist, Jan., 1882, she again uses svabhāva in its ablative case (“Swabhǎvǎt”).

“It is ordinarily stated that Prakriti or Akasa is the Kshátram or the basis which corresponds to water in the example we have taken; Brahman the germ, and Sakti the power or energy that comes into existence at their union or contact.*”

“* Or, in other words, “Prakriti, Swabhǎvǎt or Akâsa is—Space as the Tibetans have it; Space filled with whatsoever substance or no substance at all; i.e., with substance so imponderable as to be only metaphysically conceivable.”

So far we see a continued and consistent usage of the ablative case of “svabhāva.”

Around this same time, in Jan., 1882, HPB wrote a letter (as yet unpublished) to an unknown recipient, in which she makes the following statement:

“(3.) The adepts of Tibet do not belong to the Nepâl Agnostics—if so you call them, though I fancied that their belief in Swabavât and its potentialities & knowledge of its actual possibilities would hardly merit that name. Our Brothers are Spiritualists in the nobler sense of the word; they are occultists or Lha-pa (believers in invisible beings) and teach a philosophy which approximates Vedantism, but is superior to it in not personifying that Eternal Principle whose alternate conditions of activity & passivity are indicated in the successive evolution & dispersion of the objective universe.”

In this instance we have a case where we can verify HPB’s handwritten form:

Here we see the only diacritic accent placed by HPB is above the final “a,” as one would expect to see in the ablative case of “svabhāva,” and yet the second “a” is left without a diacritic.

In August of 1882, HPB again made reference to the term “Svabhavika” in a footnote to an article titled “A Learned Bramhan Spirit!,” The Theosophist, August, 1882. In this case, she spelled the term “Swabhâvikas,” which is missing the diacritic over the first “a.”


Usage by Mahatmas and Early Theosophists

Over the next few years—i.e. between the above use of the term in Jan., 1882, and the publication of The Secret Doctrine in 1888—no other instances of the term appeared in HPB’s published writings, and we have found none in her extant letters from that period.

However, during 1882 the term was used three times in letters written to A. P. Sinnett by Mahatma K.H., published in The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, as Letters 11, 15 and 22. The handwritten copies of these letters available today are copies made of the original letters in Mr. Sinnett’s handwriting; thus we do not have an example of the Mahatma’s handwriting of the term in these letters or elsewhere. In the printed edition of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, all three instances appear as “Swabhavat,” with no diacritics. In Sinnett’s handwritten copies, however, the term is written as follows:

In Mahatma Letter No. 11 (or 65), [June 30, 1882] the spelling in Sinnett’s handwriting is “Swabâvat.” (scan: https://theosophy.wiki/ML/65-3.jpg)

In Mahatma Letter No. 15 (or 67), [July 10, 1882] the spelling in Sinnett’s handwriting is “Swabhâvat.” (scan: https://theosophy.wiki/ML/67-6.jpg)

In Mahatma Letter No. 22 (or 90), [October 1882] the spelling in Sinnett’s handwritings is “Swabbhavikas” and “Swabbhavat,” both without diacritics. (scan: https://theosophy.wiki/ML/90-11_6325.jpg)

We will also highlight two uses of the term, both of which relate to HPB’s magazine The Theosophist, of which she was editor at the time. Both of these show a relation to the spellings used in the three Mahatma letters mentioned above.

The first is in an article titled “What is Matter and What is Force?” The Theosophist, Sept., 1882 (p. 324). HPB states, in a letter, that this article was authored by Mahatma K.H. It may perhaps have been written out by herself, or perhaps by another, and was published under her editorship. In this article, the term is given as “Swabhâvat.”

“Purush and Prakriti are in short the two poles of the one eternal element, and are synonymous and convertible terms. . . . whether it is called Force or Matter, it will ever remain the Omnipresent Proteus of the Universe, the one element—Life:—Spirit or Force at its negative, Mattter—at its positive pole; the former the Materio-Spiritual, the latter, the Materio-Physical Universe—Nature, Swabhâvat or Indestructible matter.”

The second instance occurred in Five Years of Theosophy, a book compiled in 1885 by Mohini M. Chatterji6 from articles published in The Theosophist during HPB’s tenure as its editor. Here the term is given in an appending glossary (p. 567), and is spelled “Svabhâvat,” with the following concise definition:

“Svabhâvat, Akasa; undifferentiated primary matter; Prakriti.”

Note: We have not yet searched through the remainder of the early volumes of The Theosophist for further uses of the term.


Summary of Uses in Phase 1

If we analyze the use of the term “svabhavat” in this first stage (1877-1888), we find the following:

HPB’s usage:

3 times in Isis Unveiled (ablative case of “svabhāva”)

1 time in “Elementaries” (no diacritics)

3 times in letter to family (no diacritics in published translation)

1 time in “Madame Blavatsky on the Views of the Theosophists” (ablative case of “svabhāva”)

1 time in footnote to Subba Row article (ablative case of “svabhāva”)

1 time in unpublished letter (diacritic accent over final “a” only)

Totals:

5 times in ablative case of “svabhāva”

4 times published with no diacritics

1 time (handwritten) with diacritic accent over final “a” only.


Mahatma’s usage:

3 times in letters (copies by A.P. Sinnett): twice with diacritic accent on second “a” only; once with no diacritics; three variant spellings.

1 time in “What is Matter and What is Force?”, with diacritic accent on second “a” only.

Totals:

3 times with diacritic accent over second “a” only

1 time with no diacritics.


Chatterji’s usage:

1 time in Five Years of Theosophy, with diacritic accent on second “a” only.


Thus, from HPB herself we have a quite consistent use of the ablative case of the term “svabhāva” when diacritics are present, as per Müller, while from the Mahatmas and Chatterji we find a quite consistent use of a diacritic accent over the second “a” only, which we might perhaps interpret as the undeclined “svabhāva” with a final “t” appended, but which we must recognize is not a proper declension of any known Sanskrit term. We mention the latter here since such a spelling becomes relevant in the post-HPB period.



Phase 2: 1888-1891

The Secret Doctrine

In 1888, when it came time to quote the earlier passage from Isis Unveiled (II:264) in The Secret Doctrine (1:3), we find that the spelling of the earlier instance was maintained, but the diacritic placement was changed, with the result being “Svâbhâvat” instead of the original “Svabhâvât.” This altered diacritic placement was then carried throughout the whole of The Secret Doctrine. Whether this change in diacritic placement was a printer’s or editor’s decision, resulting in a mistaken spelling (of which there are many other examples in The Secret Doctrine’s original printing) or whether it was a decision by HPB herself, is unknown, though the former seems by far the most likely, given HPB’s earlier consistent use of the ablative case of “svabhāva,” and given another handwritten example from this phase, which we will deal with in a moment.

In any case, the spelling in The Secret Doctrine thus deviated from HPB’s previous use of the ablative case of “svabhāva,” but kept the use of the final “t” at the end of the term, resulting in a seemingly unique term not found in Sanskrit dictionaries. In order for such a term as svābhāvat to be formed under the rules of Sanskrit grammar, it would need to be viewed as composed of at least two parts: sva + abhāvat. These when combined together would produce the first long “ā” (the final “a” of sva and the initial “a” of abhāvat would combine to form “ā” as per Sanskrit’s sandhi rules). Such a term (if it did exist) would entirely change the meaning as compared with svabhāva, as “abhāva(t)” would signify “a-bhāva(t),” as in “not bhāva(t).” Instead of a definition of svabhāva as “self-nature,” one would have “self-non-nature,” or some such thing, which would present a serious problem philosophically or metaphysically, and, more importantly in the present case, would oppose the definitions offered of the term in The Secret Doctrine itself.

While the term “svabhavat” is used only sparsely in theosophical literature, it plays an important role in The Secret Doctrine, as it appears seven times in the Stanzas of Dzyan, which form the foundation of the book (Stanzas 2:1, 2:5, 3:10, 3:12, and 4:5 of Volume 1).

The instances of the term in The Secret Doctrine are as follows, with page number and number of instances per page in brackets:

Svâbhâvat: 1: 3(1), 28(3), 29(1), 30(1), 31(2), 46(1), 52(1), 53(1), 60(2), 61(3), 85(1), 98(4), 635(2); 2: 115(1). Total instances: 24.
Swâbhâvat: 1: 83(1), 84(1), 671(1). Total instances: 3.
Svabhâva: 1: 571(1). Total instances: 1.

Ignoring the alternate use of “w” and “v” we find that the term is used 27 of 28 times with a consistent diacritic placement and a final “t.”

The instances of the term in the Stanzas of Dzyan, are as follows:

“[Stanza II.] 1. . . . Where were the builders, the luminous sons of Manvantaric dawn? . . . In the unknown darkness in their Ah-hi Paranishpanna. The producers of form from no-form—the root of the world—the Devamatri and Svâbhâvat, rested in the bliss of non-being.”

“[Stanza II.] 5. The seven sons were not yet born from the web of light. Darkness alone was father-mother, Svâbhâvat; and Svâbhâvat was in darkness.”

“[Stanza III.] 10. Father-Mother spin a web whose upper end is fastened to spirit—the light of the one darkness—and the lower one to its shadowy end, matter; and this web is the universe spun out of the two substances made in one, which is Svâbhâvat.”

“[Stanza III.] 12. Then Svâbhâvat sends Fohat to harden the atoms. Each is a part of the web. Reflecting the ‘Self-Existent Lord’ like a mirror, each becomes in turn a world.”

“[Stanza IV.] 5. ‘Darkness’ the boundless, or the no-number, Adi-Nidana Svâbhâvat:—

I. The Adi-Sanat, the number, for he is one.
II. The voice of the Lord Svâbhâvat, the numbers, for he is one and nine.
III. The ‘formless square.’ . . .”

The instances in The Secret Doctrine, in which some description of the meaning is given are as follows:

“The Svabhâvikas, or philosophers of the oldest school of Buddhism (which still exists in Nepaul), speculate only upon the active condition of this ‘Essence,’ which they call Svâbhâvat, and deem it foolish to theorise upon the abstract and ‘unknowable’ power in its passive condition.” (1:3)

“The tendency of modern thought is to recur to the archaic idea of a homogeneous basis for apparently widely different things—heterogeneity developed from homogeneity. . . . The Secret Doctrine carries this idea into the region of metaphysics and postulates a ‘One Form of Existence’ as the basis and source of all things. But perhaps the phrase, the ‘One Form of Existence,’ is not altogether correct. The Sanskrit word is Prabhavapyaya, ‘the place, or rather plane, whence emerges the origination, and into which is the resolution of all things,’ says a commentator. It is not the ‘Mother of the World,’ as translated by Wilson (see Book I., Vishnu Purana); for Jagad Yoni (as shown by FitzEdward Hall) is scarcely so much ‘the Mother of the World’ or ‘the Womb of the World’ as the ‘Material Cause of the Universe.’ The Purânic Commentators explain it by Karana—‘Cause’—but the Esoteric philosophy, by the ideal spirit of that cause. It is, in its secondary stage, the Svâbhâvat of the Buddhist philosopher, the eternal cause and effect, omnipresent yet abstract, the self-existent plastic Essence and the root of all things, viewed in the same dual light as the Vedantin views his Parabrahm and Mulaprakriti, the one under two aspects.” (1:46)

“The “Concealed Lord” (Sangbai Dag-po [gsang ba’i bdag po]), “the one merged with the absolute,” can have no parents since he is Self-existent, and one with the Universal Spirit (Svayambhu), the Svâbhâvat in the highest aspect.” (1:52)

“Svâbhâvat, the ‘Plastic Essence’ that fills the Universe, is the root of all things. Svâbhâvat is, so to say, the Buddhistic concrete aspect of the abstraction called in Hindu philosophy Mulaprakriti. It is the body of the Soul, and that which Ether would be to Akasa, the latter being the informing principle of the former. Chinese mystics have made of it the synonym of ‘being.’ In the Ekasloka-Shastra of Nagârjuna (the Lung-shu of China) called by the Chinese the Yih-shu-lu-kia-lun, it is said that the original word of Yeu is ‘Being’ or ‘Subhâva,’ ‘the Substance giving substance to itself,’ also explained by him as meaning ‘without action and with action,’ ‘the nature which has no nature of its own.’ Subhâva, from which Svâbhâvat, is composed of two words: Su ‘fair,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘good;’ Sva, ‘self;’ and bhava, ‘being’ or ‘states of being.’” (1:61)7

“The expanding and contracting of the Web—i.e., the world stuff or atoms—expresses here the pulsatory movement; for it is the regular contraction and expansion of the infinite and shoreless Ocean of that which we may call the noumenon of matter emanated by Swâbhâvat, which causes the universal vibration of atoms.” (1:84)

“Svâbhâvat is the mystic Essence, the plastic root of physical Nature—‘Numbers’ when manifested; the Number, in its Unity of Substance, on the highest plane. The name is of Buddhist use and a synonym for the four-fold Anima Mundi, the Kabalistic ‘Archetypal World,’ from whence proceed the ‘Creative, Formative, and the Material Worlds’; the Scintillæ or Sparks,—the various other worlds contained in the last three.” (1:98-99)

“As for Svâbhâvat, the Orientalists explain the term as meaning the Universal plastic matter diffused through Space, with, perhaps, half an eye to the Ether of Science. But the Occultists identify it with “father-mother” on the mystic plane.” (1:98fn)

“Thus, a passage is found in Anugîtâ, which, read esoterically, shows plainly, though under another imagery, the same idea and system. It says: ‘Whatever entities there are in this world, moveable or immoveable, they are the very first to be dissolved (at pralaya); and next the developments produced from the elements (from which the visible Universe is fashioned); and, after these developments (evolved entities), all the elements. Such is the upperward gradation among entities. Gods, Men, Gandharvas, Pisâchas, Asuras, Râkshasas, all have been created by Svabhâva (Prakriti, or plastic nature), not by actions, nor by a cause”—i.e., not by any physical cause.” (1:571)

“Throughout the first two Parts, it was shown that, at the first flutter of renascent life, Svâbhâvat, ‘the mutable radiance of the Immutable Darkness unconscious in Eternity,’ passes, at every new rebirth of Kosmos, from an inactive state into one of intense activity; that it differentiates, and then begins its work through that differentiation. This work is Karma.” (1:634-35)

“The true Buddhist, recognising no ‘personal god,’ nor any ‘Father’ and ‘Creator of Heaven and Earth,’ still believes in an absolute consciousness, ‘Adi-Buddhi’; . . . Thus regarding a personal God ‘as only a gigantic shadow thrown upon the void of space by the imagination of ignorant men,’ they teach that only ‘two things are (objectively) eternal, namely Akâsa and Nirvana; and that these are one in reality, and but a maya when divided. ‘Buddhists deny creation and cannot conceive of a Creator.’ ‘Everything has come out of Akâsa (or Svâbhâvat on our earth) in obedience to a law of motion inherent in it, and after a certain existence passes away. Nothing ever came out of nothing.’ (Buddhist Catechism.)” (1:635-36)

“How little is known of the material universe, indeed, has now been suspected for years, on the very admissions of these men of science themselves. And now there are some materialists who would even make away with Ether—or whatever Science calls the infinite Substance, the noumenon of which the Buddhists call Swâbhâvat—as well as with atoms, too dangerous both on account of their ancient philosophical and their present Christian and theological associations. ” (1:671)

“Berosus obtained his information, he tells us, from Ea, the male-female deity of Wisdom. While the gods were generated in its androgynous bosom (Svâbhâvat, Mother-space) its (the Wisdom’s) reflections became on Earth the woman Omoroka, who is the Chaldean Thavatth, or the Greek Thalassa, the Deep or the Sea, which esoterically and even exoterically is the Moon.” (2:115)

The above, along with earlier instances, ought to give a somewhat clear picture of the context and meaning in which HPB uses the term.

Of particular importance in the above, is the single instance in which the correct undeclined form of the common Sanskrit term “svabhāva” is used (1:571, “Svabhâva”). In this instance HPB is quoting from The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita, tr. Kashinath Trimbak Telang (Sacred Books of the East, Vol. VIII), p. 387, where the original term in Telang’s footnote is indeed “svabhāva.” Thus we have a case where we can verify without doubt that the term HPB is using is meant to be the known Sanskrit term “svabhāva.” This is the only use of the undeclined form of “svabhāva” in the entirety of the known writings of HPB. It is thus critically important to note that the instance of this spelling (1:571) is given with the same meaning (“Prakriti, or plastic nature”)8 as in the majority of instances of the spelling “Svâbhâvat” where a definition is offered (see SD 1:46, “self-existent plastic Essence”; SD 1:61 “Plastic Essence . . . Mulaprakriti”; SD 1:98 “plastic root of physical Nature” and SD 1:98fn “Universal plastic matter”). This would seem to quite clearly indicate that the two—“Svabhâva” and “Svâbhâvat”—are meant to be one and the same term in The Secret Doctrine, rather than a purposeful use of two distinct terms.

Multiple similar instances occur with other Sanskrit terms in The Secret Doctrine, likely due to the lack of knowledge of Sanskrit among proof-readers, editors, and even HPB herself.9 For example, the Sanskrit term “parabrahman” is given variously as “parabrahm,” “parabrahman,” and “parabrahmam,” though these are understood to be one and the same term with the same meaning (see, for instance, SD 1:451, where the term appears twice in the same paragraph, once as “parabrahman” and once as “parabrahmam”). Two other examples are the terms “jñāna” and “dhyāna,” which are given with various spellings in HPB’s published books, and which have similarly led to confusion as to intended use and meaning in various instances. As with many languages, standardizations in the transliteration of Sanskrit were largely developed in the 20th century, while earlier texts are full of various spellings, often based on regional phonetics. In short, it was common in early theosophical literature (and 19th century literature in general) to find Sanskrit terms spelled in several ways without the intention of distinct meaning for each spelling. HPB, in drawing from various sources and quoting from various authors often simply copies the spelling from said source, thus resulting in different spellings of the same term even in the same book. This appears to be the case in The Secret Doctrine with the two spellings—“Svabhâva” and “Svâbhâvat”—despite these being taken in some later theosophical literature as two distinct terms with two distinct meanings.


In Articles & Later Writings

After the publication of The Secret Doctrine, the term is used only occasionally by HPB. Her first use of the term after 1888 is in an 1889 French article titled “Le Cycle Nouveau” [“The New Cycle”],10 where it is given as “Swabhavat,” with no diacritics:11

“Tout le monde sait que le Bouddhisme ne reconnaît ni un dieu ni des dieux. Et cependant l’Arhat, pour qui chaque atome de poussière est aussi plein de Swabhavat (substance plastique, éternelle et intelligente, quoique impersonnelle) qu’il l’est lui-même, et qui tâche d’assimiler ce Swabhavat en s’identifiant avec le Tout pour arriver au Nirvana . . .”

“The whole world knows that Buddhism recognizes neither a God nor Gods. And yet the Arhat, for whom each atom of dust is as full of Swabhavat (plastic substance, eternal and intelligent, though impersonal) as he is himself, and who tries to assimilate this Swabhavat by identifying himself with the All in order to reach Nirvana . . .”

The term does not appear in HPB’s The Key to Theosophy or The Voice of the Silence, both published in 1889.

In 1890 and 1891 HPB answered questions from students in the Blavatsky Lodge. These sessions were recorded stenographically. Handwritten copies were then made from those stenographic records (these appear in the handwriting of several different people). The first portions of those handwritten pages were then marked up by HPB, correcting terms, changing phrasing, adding explanations, etc. These handwritten pages, with HPB’s markups, are extant today. During HPB’s lifetime a portion of these were formatted and published as the Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. In 2014 the original handwritten pages were used to produce The Secret Doctrine Dialogues (SDD).

In the Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, the term appears in Vol. 1, pp. 5, 45 and Vol. 2, p. 46, where it is published with the same spelling as in The Secret Doctrine (“Svâbhâvat”), and in Vol. 2, pp. 30, 44 where it is given without diacritics (“Svabhavat”).

In the SDD the term appears on pp. 3, 110, 301, and 324.

The instances are as follows, beginning with the most important instance for our study:

Mme. Blavatsky: Well it is just this androgynous something; the Svabhavat of the Buddhists. It is non-differentiated, hence—an abstraction. It is the Mulaprakriti of the Vedantins. If you proceed to make it correspond with the human principles it will be Buddhi; Atma corresponding to Parabrahm. Then comes Mahat which corresponds to Manas. (SDD, p. 3)

Q. What aspect of Space, or the unknown erity, called in the Vedas “That,” which is mentioned further on, is here called “Eternal Parent”? A. It is the Vedantic Mulaprakriti, and the Svâbhâvat of the Buddhists, or that androgynous something of which we have been speaking, which is both differentiated and undifferentiated. . . .” (Transactions, p. 5)

This first instance is of key importance, as it is the only time we find the term written in HPB’s handwriting in the Manuscripts. This is how it appears there:

It is important to note that the term here was not part of the record of what was spoken aloud in the meeting, but something HPB added later in her markups. This can be seen more fully here:

As we see here, HPB’s spelling includes diacritics above the second and third “a”; this is, as per her earliest writings, the ablative case of the term “svabhāva,” thus: “svabhâvât.” This key example shows a difference between the diacritic placement given in HPB’s handwritten markup and the diacritic placement in the printed edition. This is of great importance, as the only instance in which we have a handwritten MS. available to see what appears to be an editor’s decision to alter HPB’s own diacritic placement in the production of a printed book. The placement that occurs in the Transactions is made to match the placement found in The Secret Doctrine, but neither of these match HPB’s own handwritten diacritic placement. As said, her diacritic placement is a correct form of “svabhāva” (the ablative case), whereas the diacritic placement in the printed edition is not a correct form of any known Sanskrit term. As with The Secret Doctrine (e.g. when quoting from Isis Unveiled), how and why the decision was made to alter the diacritic placement is unknown, and who was involved in making that decision is also unknown. The handwritten evidence in the current case suggests that it was not HPB herself who was responsible for that decision, but that she had continued her use of the ablative case of svabhāva in her handwritten MSS.

In the MS. of the meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge, the other instances of the term are in the handwriting of other people with no markup by HPB (only the first few meetings are marked up). The spelling of the term varies in those handwritten samples, as follows:

In SDD p. 324 the term appears once. In the MS. it is spelled “Svabavahat,” with the “a” crossed out by some proof-reader, and without diacritics; in the printed edition it is given as “Svabhavat” without diacritics:

“That which we call the Primordial Seven and the Second Seven are called by Simon Magus, for instance, the Æons. The Valentinians call them the Æons, and many others, the primeval—the second and the third series of Syzygies, I think it is—it is a Greek name. They are raduated emanations ever descending lower and lower into matter from that primordial principle that is called fire. Simon Magus calls it fire and we call it Svabhavat . . .”

This instance is included in Transactions Vol. 2, p. 46:

“That which we call the “Primordial Seven” and the “Second Seven” are called by Simon Magus the Æons, the primeval, the second and the third series of Syzygies. They are the graduated emanations, ever descending lower and lower into matter, from that primordial principle which he calls Fire, and we, Svâbhâvat.”

We see here again that the diacritic placement in Transactions was made to match the diacritic placement in The Secret Doctrine.

In SDD p. 301 the term appears four times. In the MS. it is spelled three times as “Svabhavat,” and once as “Svabhavat” (with the “b” inserted by some proof-reader), each without diacritics; in the printed edition it is given as “Svabhavat” without diacritics. This instance is not included in the Transactions.

Three more instances occur in the SDD and Transactions, each of which being part of one of the Stanzas of Dzyan.

In SDD p. 110 the term is given as part of Stanza 2 (Sloka 1) and is spelled “Svabhavat” without diacritics in both the printed edition and in the handwritten MS. This is included in Transactions, Vol. 1, p. 45, and is again made to match the stanza in The Secret Doctrine, thus: “Svâbhâvat.”

In Transactions, Vol. 2, p. 30 it appears in Stanza 3, Sloka 10 (see The Secret Doctrine, 1:29 and 1:83), but is given here without diacritics.

In Vol. 2, p. 44 it appears in Stanza IV, Sloka 5 (see The Secret Doctrine, 1:31 and 1:98), but is given here without diacritics.


In HPB’s Esoteric Instructions the term appears only once, in Instructions II, p. 2 (original printing, 1890), and is given as “Swabhavat,” again with no diacritics. Handwritten MSS. of these Instructions does not seem to be extant.

“If these discrete or distributive degrees of being be conceived as symbolized and comprehended in all the Eastern religions in one Ovum, or Egg, the name of that Egg will be Swabhavat, or the All-Being on the manifested plane.”

In the 1891 revised edition of Instructions II, the term is given as “Swâbhâvat.” Thus again we see an example of changing the diacritic placement to conform with The Secret Doctrine. Though this edition was produced very close to HPB’s death, one cannot be sure if she was involved in these types of changes, but given the above handwritten example from the SDD this seems unlikely.

No other instances of the term appeared in published works by HPB before her death in May of 1891.

We’ve been able to locate only a single instance of the term in Lucifer magazine during the years HPB was an editor, this being in an article published under a pseudonym titled “Notes on the Seven Mystery Names,” Lucifer, Vol. 4, June, 1889, p. 408. The term is there spelled “Svabhavat,” with no diacritics.


From all of the above, we can see that the term was generally given in two ways during two distinct periods of HPB’s life:

1. before The Secret Doctrine (pre-1888), quite consistently as the ablative case of “svabhāva,” and

2. within and after The Secret Doctrine (post 1888), where it is given in a new form with a modified diacritic placement.

The Handwritten MS. of the SDD suggests that HPB continued with her use of the ablative case of svabhāva even after 1888, but the diacritic placement was altered in printed editions.

These are the first two stages of the use of the term. The third occurs posthumously.



Phase 3: 1891- (posthumous writings)

The Theosophical Glossary

The term is included in the largely posthumous publication The Theosophical Glossary, 1892, p. 310, 314, where it is given as “Svabhâvat,” and p. 77, 264, 269, 320 where it is given as “Swabhâvat.” Ignoring the alternate use of “v” or “w”, this appears to be a form that merely appends a final “t” to the correct undeclined form of “svabhāva.” This, we will remember, is how the diacritics were placed by the Mahatmas and Mohini Chatterji (see Phase 1). Additionally, in the Theosophical Glossary’s entry for “Svâbhâvika” we find that the correct undeclined form of Svabhāva is used, and this in the same context in which HPB first used the term in Isis Unveiled, and as per Müller, where the term was then given in the ablative case. The two entries from this glossary are as follows:

Svabhâvat (Sk.). Explained by the Orientalists as “plastic substance”, which is an inadequate definition. Svabhâvat is the world-substance and stuff, or rather that which is behind it—the spirit and essence of substance. The name comes from Subhâva and is composed of three words—su, good, perfect, fair, handsome; sva, self; and bhâva, being, or state of being. From it all nature proceeds and into it all returns at the end of the life-cycles. In Esotericism it is called “Father-Mother”. It is the plastic essence of matter.

Svâbhâvika (Sk.). The oldest existing school of Buddhism. They assigned the manifestation of the universe and physical phenomena to Svabhâva or respective nature of things. According to Wilson the Svabhâvas of things are “the inherent properties of the qualities by which they act, as soothing, terrific or stupefying, and the forms Swarûpas are the distinction of biped, quadruped, brute, fish, animal and the like”.

It is important to note that the Theosophical Glossary is compiled largely from existing works of that time period, so the definitions are most often not penned solely by HPB herself, but are often pieced together from existing definitions—sometimes copied, sometimes paraphrased—often with her own explanations to supplement or clarify meanings. Further to this, G.R.S. Mead, the editor of the Glossary, says in his preface that “the author [HPB] only saw the first thirty-two pages in proof.” Therefore, the definitions given above were not proofed by HPB prior to their publication.


See Appendix B for an exploration of the definitions related to Svabhāva in The Theosophical Glossary.



In Other Posthumously Published Works

Following the publication of The Theosophical Glossary, its editor G.R.S. Mead carried the same spelling, “Svabhâvat,” over to his article “Notes on the Gospel According to John,” (Lucifer, Feb., 1893), which draws from his notes of meetings with HPB in the Blavatsky Lodge.

In the “3rd Revised Edition” of The Secret Doctrine, published in 1893, also edited by Mead, we find that the term has been updated throughout to the spelling “Svabhâvat,” including the instance (1:3) which is quoted from Isis Unveiled and originally from Müller. The single instance of “Svabhâva” (1888, p. 1:571; 1893, p. 1:624) was left as is.

In The Secret Doctrine, Vol., 3, 1897, the term appears twice (p. 223 and p. 456), and in both cases the term was also given as “Svabhâvat.” G.R.S. Mead was also involved in the production of this volume, and it is thus unsurprising that the diacritic use is mostly consistent between these posthumous publications.

It is also worth noting that in the Adyar edition of HPB’s Esoteric Instructions II, the term was also posthumously changed to “Svabhâvat,” though we are unsure of when and by whom this change was made.

The diacritic placement in these instances may perhaps indicate a correct understanding of the Sanskrit spelling of svabhāva in its undeclined form, but with a continued use of the final “t,” as had become commonplace among theosophists (in both speech and writing). This may perhaps be comparable to the use of the term antaḥkarana among theosophists, who have tended to both write and pronounce it as “antaskarana”—this pronunciation and spelling being unique to theosophists, though not constituting a different word, but rather a mistaken spelling (based on a lack of implementing the proper sandhi rules in compound Sanskrit terms).



Phases 1-3 Conclusions

As we’ve seen, the three phases generally show three distinct diacritic placements, thus:

Phase 1: svabhāvāt

Phase 2: svābhāvat

Phase 3: svabhāvat

Of these three, only the first is a correct rendering of a Sanskrit term based on the rules of Sanskrit grammar.


The Identity of “Svabhavat” with Svabhāva

There are three quite clear reasons to conclude that the term HPB uses—regardless of variant spellings and diacritic use—is in every instance one and the same as the well-known Sanskrit term svabhāva.

1. The first is HPB’s quite consistent use of the ablative case of svabhāva (i.e. svabhāvāt) in both printed and handwritten examples in Phase 1, and in the handwritten markups in the MS. of The Secret Doctrine Dialogues (SDD) in phase 2.

2. The second is the undeclined use of svabhāva in The Secret Doctrine (SD), 1:571, “Svabhâva”—verified in the referenced source (Telang, The Bhagavadgita, p. 387fn), to indeed be svabhāva—with a definition (“Prakriti, or plastic nature”) which matches the definition given in the majority of instances of the spelling “Svâbhâvat” in SD (see SD 1:46, “self-existent plastic Essence”; SD 1:61 “Plastic Essence . . . Mulaprakriti”; SD 1:98 “plastic root of physical Nature” and SD 1:98fn “Universal plastic matter”).

3. The third is in the phrasing used both in The Theosophical Glossary (TG) definition given above and in SD 1:98fn, where HPB says the following (underline added for emphasis):

“Svabhâvat (Sk.). Explained by the Orientalists as “plastic substance” (TG p. 314)

and

“As for Svâbhâvat, the Orientalists explain the term as meaning the Universal plastic matter diffused through Space, with, perhaps, half an eye to the Ether of Science.” (SD 1:98fn)

If the term HPB had in mind was explained by the Orientalists, it can only be svabhāva, as that is the only term the Orientalists were dealing with in the Sanskrit texts. It could not have been a different term than svabhāva, as no such term is known in Sanskrit texts, and certainly not in texts which were available to the Orientalists of the 19th century. The Orientalists were explaining the term svabhāva and HPB is clear that the term she is using is the very same term.

The above ought to be enough to clearly demonstrate the identity of the various spellings and diacritic uses found in Theosophical literature as being one and the same term, and that this term is, indeed, the well known Sanskrit term svabhāva.


Suggestion for Future Usage among Theosophists

It is therefore suggested that when writing this term, Theosophists use either the undeclined form svabhāva or the ablative case svabhāvāt, and abandon the use of faulty spellings and diactritics.



Appendix A: Usage Amongst post-HPB Theosophists

The first instance of a seeming distinction being made between two forms—“Svabhava” and “Svabhavat” (irregardless of diacritic placement; the difference being focused on the final “t”)—appears to be in A Working Glossary for the Use of Students of Theosophical Literature, 1892, p. 38 and Appendix p. 60. The two definitions are given as follows:

Svabhava, the real nature of a thing; concrete aspect of mula-prakriti, the one substance.

Svabhavat, the “world stuff” or substance with energy. The Spirit within substance. That which is the basis of all manifested things. The “create uncreate.”

It is important to note that these two spellings do not occur one after another in the book, but that one appears in the original Glossary and the other in an Appendix. It is also important to note that in the second definition “svabhavat” is explained as “the spirit within substance,” a definition given by HPB in The Theosophical Glossary to subhava not svabhāva (thus suggesting that the author of these definitions perceived the Glossary definition of subhava to be an error).

This glossary was put together by William Q. Judge (WQJ), then co-head of the Esoteric Section and one widely held to have been knowledgeable in regards to the doctrines of theosophy. It is important to note, however, that the term, regardless of spelling, does not appear a single time in the entirety of the published writings of WQJ, including all known posthumously published articles, letters, and esoteric writings. We have also been unable to find a single instance of the term in the periodicals of which WQJ was editor, including The Path, The Oriental Department Papers, and The Theosophical Forum.

The above distinct definitions were maintained and expanded upon by G. de Purucker, successor to Katherine Tingley in the Theosophical Society with its headquarters then at Point Loma. The following are examples of his use of the distinction.

G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, ch. 34:

“. . . and this god was swabhavat, Father-Mother; not swabhava, which is an entirely different thing . . .”

G. de Purucker, Occult Glossary, “Swabhavat”:

“The difference in meaning between svabhavat and svabhava is very great and is not generally understood; the two words often have been confused. Svabhava is the characteristic nature, the type-essence, the individuality, of svabhavat—of any svabhavat, each such svabhavat having its own svabhava. . . .”

G. de Pucuker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, Ch. 10:

“Another such fundamental principle or doctrine . . . is that which flows forth from the philosophical conceptions behind the word swabhava, meaning, generally, the essential characteristic of anything. . . . The word swabhava (a noun) itself is derived from the Sanskrit root bhu, meaning ‘to become,’ or ‘to be,’ and the prefix sva (or swa) is also Sanskrit and means ‘self.’ The word thus translated means ‘self-becomingness,’ a technical term, a key word, in which philosophical conceptions of immense and wide-reaching import inhere. . . . In the quotation from the stanzas which we have read this evening, you will have noticed the word swabhavat, from the same elements as is swabhava, from the same Sanskrit root. Swabhavat is the present participle of the verb bhu, meaning ‘that which becomes itself,’ . . .”

The present participle of bhu is, indeed, “bhavat,” yet this is without the long “ā” after “bh.” This long “a” is one of the constants among varying spellings of the term in the writings of HPB and the Mahatmas, i.e. whether “Svabhâvât,” “Svabhâvat,” “Svâbhâvat” or “Svabhâva,” the “a” following “bh” is always long, as it ought to be in the common term svabhāva. Though coming from the same root, this form, “bhavat,” is not interchangeable in the Sanskrit with forms that appear in the term svabhāva and its various declensions, and there is no evidence that HPB meant to use the present participle when writing this term, as her earliest and quite consistent spelling is clearly given as the ablative case of the noun “svabhāva,” and all later versions (within and after The Secret Doctrine) maintain the long “a” after “bh.” Further to this, although such a present participle term “svabhavat” is not impossible gramatically, no such form has been found in Sanskrit texts available today, which comprises a vast collection of texts. Moreover, there is no precedent, no parallel form of any such present participle with the preceding “sva” that we are aware of. It is important to note in this regard, that “sva” is not a standard upasarga prefix, like the “su” in “subhava” for instance.

G. de Purucker’s use of two separate terms culminates in the Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary, of which he was the Editor-in-Chief, where two spellings of the term are given with two distinct definitions.

We may perhaps see the distinction given by G. de Purucker as valid philosophically, even if it is not strictly so linguistically, and the use of such a distinction—whether or not one uses these specific terms to represent the ideas involved in the distinction, or whether one uses terms from other traditions—may be quite helpful to students of Theosophy. Yet, even if students of Theosophy see utility in such a usage and continue in such a usage, we must recognize that within the writings of HPB no such distinction can be found. Further, the rationale de Purucker uses for the Sanskrit spelling of the term is somewhat problematic with regards to the rules and common practices of Sanskrit grammar and is without support from any known Sanskrit texts, glossaries, dictionaries, etc. Again, this is not enough to dismiss the philosophical distinction de Purucker was exploring by the use of these two spellings, and it is up to each individual to decide for themselves how to view these ideas, and which terms they prefer to use to represent those ideas.


As of yet, we have found very little use of “svabhavat” or svabhāva among later theosophical authors (aside from frequent references to HPB’s usage) in a way that would suggest an approach of two distinct terms.



Appendix B: Definitions & Etymology in The Theosophical Glossary

It is worthwhile for us to include here an exploration of the definitions and etymologies used in The Theosophical Glossary. In order to do this, we must begin with the definition given therein for “subhava,” and another for “yeu,” for reasons which will become apparent shortly.


Subhava & Svabhāva

From The Theosophical Glossary:

“Subhâva (Sk.). Being; the self-forming substance, or that ‘substance which gives substance to itself’. (See the Ekasloha Shâstra of Nâgârjuna.) Explained paradoxically, as ‘the nature which has no nature of its own’, and again as that which is with, and without, action. (See ‘Svabhâvat’.) This is the Spirit within Substance, the ideal cause of the potencies acting on the work of formative evolution (not “creation” in the sense usually attached to the word); which potencies become in turn the real causes. In the words used in the Vedânta and Vyâya Philosophies: nimitta, the efficient, and upâdâna, the material, causes are contained in Subhava co-eternally. Says a Sanskrit Sloka: ‘Worthiest of ascetics, through its potency [that of the ‘efficient’ cause] every created thing comes by its proper nature.”

Yeu (Chin.). “Being”, a synonym of Subhâva; or “the Substance giving substance to itself”.

Before proceeding, we must deconstruct the above definition and provide its sources.

The above definition of “subhava” is taken from two sources: 1. Joseph Edkins’ Chinese Buddhism, 1880, p. 308, via The Secret Doctrine, 1:61; and The Vishṇu Purāṇa, tr. Wilson, ed. Hall, 1864-77, Vol. 1, p. 66fn. It is HPB who connects the etymology and definition of “subhava” from Edkins with the definitions of “nimitta” and “upadāna” from Wilson, and this connection is peculiar to the above definition. It is also worthwhile to note that in this case (Viṣṇu Purāṇa, 1:4:52) the term translated as “its proper nature” is actually “svaśakti,” not “svabhāva.”

Let us deconstruct the above definitions.

Firstly, the original Sanskrit text of the “eka-śloka śāstra,” of Nāgārjuna is not extant. It is from the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit text by Gautama Prajñāruci that Edkins’ translates into English. Furthermore, the verse Edkins translates, to which his etymology of “subhava” is given as a footnote, is not from the original Sanskrit “eka-śloka śāstra,” but is rather from a note appended to the end of the text of the Chinese translation. Edkins’ translation of the final verse of the śāstra, along with the appended note and his footnote on the etymology of “subhava” is as follows:

“All kinds of action (or existence), such as body, nature, ‘act’ (doctrine), thing, matter, ‘existence’ (yeu), are different in name, but the same in meaning. Whichever of these we speak of, the only difference between them is in the word yeu, ‘to be.’

“This word yeu is, in the original language, subhava.* It is translated in several ways, as ‘the substance which gives substance to itself’ (tsï t’i t’i), or as ‘without action and with action’ (wu-fa-yeu-fa), or as ‘the nature which has no nature of its own’ (wu-tsï-sing-sing).”

“* This word [subhava] is a compound of su, ‘good,’ and bháva, one of the twelve causes of ‘being’.”

The footnote here gives a correct etymology of “subhava,” as modern Sanskrit dictionaries show. However, there is more to this story.

Let us look at a more modern translation of the same verse and appended note and compare it with Edkins.

The following is a translation by H. R. Rangaswamy Iyengar, whose translation of the “eka-śloka śāstra” is overall clearer than Edkins’. Note that Iyengar attempted to translate the text “by using Sanskrit technical terms as far as possible.”

“Every dharma has different names bhāva, svabhāva, dharma, dravya, vastu, sat; but the meaning is the same. Accordingly whether you say bhāva, svabhāva, dharma, vastu or dravya there is no difference. Each is only a variety of bhāva.

The right word (sound) Sz-po-po (Svabhāva), says a Buddhist dictionary, can be translated either as svabhāva-bhāva; or as adharma-dharma, or as abhāva-bhāva.

As we see here, “subhava” is not mentioned. Edkins’ translation “this word yeu is, in the original language, subhava is given by Iyengar as “the right word (sound) Sz-po-po (Svabhāva).” As shown in Iyengar’s translation, the Chinese note gives a phonetic rendering of a term, which he transliterates as “Sz-po-po.” This is presumably the Chinese translator appending a note to clarify one of Nāgārjuna’s Sanskrit terms phonetically. In the Chinese (see here and here), this phonetic rendering is , “sī-pó-pó” in Hanyu Pinyin, pronounced close to “soo-po-po” in modern Chinese, but closer to “soo-ba-ba” in middle and old Chinese.

This is the crux of the problem: Edkins presumes the phonetic rendering of the first syllable 私 to be the Sanskrit prefix “su-,” hence phonetically “su-bha-va” or subhava, while Iyengar presumes the phonetic rendering to be the Sanskrit term “sva,” hence phonetically “sva-bha-va” or svabhāva. If we take Iyengar as correct, we need not involve “subhava” in our definitions.12 If we take Edkins as correct, we then must account for both terms in our definitions. The sound of the syllable 私 would seem to favor Edkins, as the pronunciation is indeed “soo” rather than “sva,” but without access to the original Sanskrit of Nāgārjuna’s text, we are left without a sure solution.

We may note here that the Chinese term for “svabhāva,” 自性, “zìxìng” in Hanyu Pinyin, is included in the Chinese translation of the “eka-śloka śāstra” seven times, including once in the note appended to the end of the text by the Chinese translator. In the latter case the Chinese is 無自性性, “wú zì xìng xìng” which Iyengar gives as “svabhāva-bhāva” and which Edkins translates as “‘the nature which has no nature of its own’ (wu-tsï-sing-sing)”. The only instance of a phonetic rendering is the above noted case.

What we find in The Theosophical Glossary is a definition of “subhava” based on Edkins’ presumption of 私婆婆“sī-pó-pó” as “subhava.” Therefore, in HPB’s definitions it is “subhava” which may be explained as “the substance giving substance to itself” etc. If we follow Iyengar, it would be “svabhāva” which may be thus defined. Both The Secret Doctrine (1:61) and The Theosophical Glossary, follow Edkins’ approach philosophically (apart from any etymological concerns). Thus in The Secret Doctrine (1:61), HPB paraphrases from Edkins:

“Chinese mystics have made of it the synonym of ‘being.’ In the Ekasloka-Shastra of Nagârjuna (the Lung-shu of China) called by the Chinese the Yih-shu-lu-kia-lun, it is said that the original word of Yeu is ‘Being’ or ‘Subhâva,’ ‘the Substance giving substance to itself,’ also explained by him as meaning ‘without action and with action,’ ‘the nature which has no nature of its own.’”

This is what was later incorporated into the definition given in The Theosophical Glossary for “Subhâva.” What this would imply, philosophically, is that there is something called “subhava” which, stands behind, so to speak, “svabhāva.” This may perhaps align with what we find in the Theosophical Glossary, where HPB refers to “subhava” as “the Spirit within Substance,” and where she links it with “nimitta” and “upadāna” (drawn from The Vishṇu Purāṇa, tr. Wilson, ed. Hall, 1864-77, Vol. 1, p. 66fn):

This [subhava] is the Spirit within Substance, the ideal cause of the potencies acting on the work of formative evolution (not “creation” in the sense usually attached to the word); which potencies become in turn the real causes. In the words used in the Vedânta and Vyâya Philosophies: nimitta, the efficient, and upâdâna, the material, causes are contained in Subhava co-eternally. Says a Sanskrit Sloka: ‘Worthiest of ascetics, through its potency [that of the ‘efficient’ cause] every created thing comes by its proper nature.”

As noted above, the term translated as “its proper nature” is actually “svaśakti.”

While HPB draws her definition from Wilson and Edkins, the connection made between “subhava” and “nimitta/upadāna” is unique to her definition. HPB’s use of “subhava,” in The Secret Doctrine and in the posthumous Theosophical Glossary is therefore a unique usage of the term, based upon Edkins, but expanded upon. What results is a conceptual layout where every created thing comes by its “proper nature” (“svaśakti,” though often interpreted as “svabhāva”) through causes contained co-eternally within “subhava.” The validity of this conceptual layout needs to be explored in further depth, which may itself shed light on the “subhava” vs. “svabhāva” discrepency between Edkins and Iyengar, but this is outside of the ability of the author of the present essay.

In addition to the above, the term yeu, which Edkins’ connects with the Sanskrit “subhava” is given, in the Chinese of Nāgārjuna’s text, in the list of names which may be applied to a “dharma,” which Edkins’ there translates “‘existence’ (yeu),” and which Iyengar connects with the Sanskrit term “sat.” The Chinese term here is , or yǒu in Chinese Hanyu Pinyin, and indeed means “to be” or “to exist.” This word is given again by Edkins in the sentence “the only difference between them [the names used of dharmas] is in the word yeu, ‘to be’,” which sentence is given by Iyengar as “each [of the names used of dharmas] is only a variety of bhāva.” It is in the following sentence where we find the deviation, with Edkins connecting yeu with “subhava” and Iyengar with “svabhāva.”

There is subtle web of interpretation here, with both translators making a connection between the Chinese 有 (yǒu) and the Sanskrit “sat,” but also with the Sanskrit “bhāva/bhava,” whether with the “su” prefix or “sva” or without either. Thus, as the reader will see, analysis of these verses and their interpretations, whether by Edkins, Iyengar or HPB, lands us in a field of subtle metaphysical distinctions.

In The Theosophical Glossary, the definition of “sat” is given as follows:

“Sat (Sk.). The one ever-present Reality in the infinite world; the divine essence which is, but cannot be said to exist, as it is Absoluteness, Be-ness itself.”

HPB’s definition of “subhava” would seem to connect with her approach to the Sanskrit “sat”: with “subhava” as the “spirit within substance,” a reality that is but does not exist,13 in which are to be found the causes (both spiritual or efficient, and material) from which svaśakti (or svabhāva?) is derived (or comes to be). If this is her intended meaning, it would appear to be one that is somewhat unique to the theosophical philosophy.

Further study of these ideas, especially in the light of known Buddhist teachings, is beyond the present author’s capability, but the solution to whether there is validity to Edkins’ and thus HPB’s use of subhava rests as much or more on philosophical than on etymological considerations.


The Etymology of Subhava & Svabhāva

Let us now explore an issue in the etymological approach found in theosophical literature. Following the above quote given from The Secret Doctrine (1:61), HPB then provides an awkwardly combined etymology, thus:

“Subhâva, from which Svâbhâvat, is composed of two words: Su ‘fair,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘good;’ Sva, ‘self;’ and bhava, ‘being’ or ‘states of being.’”

This awkwardly worded sentence, which leaves itself open to interpretations, is again given in The Theosophical Glossary, but with a slight yet very problematic re-phrasing, resulting in a clear and undeniable etymological error:

“The name [Svabhâvat] comes from Subhâva and is composed of three words—su, good, perfect, fair, handsome; sva, self; and bhâva, being, or state of being.”

This is simply incorrect. Svabhāva (or Svabhâvat, or any other version of diacritic placement), does not come etymologically from “subhâva” (which has itself an incorrect diacritic placement here; it ought to be “subhava”), nor is it composed of three words, but rather from two: “sva” and “bhāva.” This etymology can be found, for instance, in the Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 1832, p. 962, where it is given as “स्व [sva] own, and भाव [bhāva] property”; the same etymology will be found in modern Sanskrit dictionaries and other texts. It is undeniably the correct etymology.

However, we may be able to clear up part of the above etymological problem, if we re-phrase HPB’s sentence (SD 1:61), with the above exploration of “subhava” in mind. Based on HPB’s definition of “subhava,” it is not “svabhāva” the term that comes etymologically from “subhava,” but that “svabhāva” the “self-nature,” or “own-being,” arises, philosophically or metaphysically speaking, from causes within “subhava.” HPB’s phrasing on SD 1:61 “from which Svâbhâvatwas taken by someone (whether herself or posthumous editors) as a purely etymological statement, and this found its way into The Theosophical Glossary, when it may perhaps be a combined philosophical and etymological statement.

In this light, perhaps SD 1:61 could be rephrased to something like the following:

“Subhâva, from which Svâbhâvat arises, is composed of two words: Su ‘fair,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘good;’ Sva, ‘self;’ and bhava, ‘being’ or ‘states of being.’”

Paraphrased using the meanings HPB attaches to subhava and svabhāva, we might say: “from Subhava, the Spirit within Substance, arises the Plastic Nature, Svabhāva, Prakṛti, etc.” This would make the philosophical concept clearer, and correct the etymological confusion, assuming this philosophical meaning is what was intended by HPB (which is confessedly a large assumption). For a purely etymological statement involving both terms, dropping any philosophical or metaphysical element, we would need to re-phrase to something like the following:

“Subhava and Svabhāva are each composed of two words: the former from su ‘fair,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘good’, the latter from sva, ‘self’; and bhava/bhāva, ‘being’ or ‘states of being.’”

Now, it must be noted that the above philosophical conception is not one that will be readily found in modern exoteric or esoteric Buddhism, nor in known schools of Indian philosophy, using the terms subhava and svabhāva. In schools where “svabhāva” plays a role somewhat similar to the theosophical approach, the term “subhava” will not be found in anything approximating the above context. In schools where the efficient and material causes are said to be co-eternal, the terms “subhava” and “svabhāva” will not be found in the above context. But this alone is not enough to dismiss the possibility that such a philosophical conception existed in the ancient Wisdom Tradition spoken of by HPB. HPB notes in several places that the real terminology used in that tradition cannot be given out publicly. Thus she borrows terms from available systems in order to illustrate the concepts of her school. It may thus be that she uses these terms for lack of better ones, even though her usage of them ends up deviating from what we will find in Buddhism, Vedanta, etc.

From the above etymological error, we have a good illustration of how clear mistakes have sometimes crept into theosophical literature, little by little, but we may also, from the above philosophical exploration, see how complex the issue of definitions may become, and thus illustrate that one must be careful not to either dismiss or accept such definitions hastily. We provide the above exploration without a final conclusion as to the correctness or incorrectness of the philosophical or metaphysical ideas involved in the definitions offered in The Secret Doctrine and The Theosophical Glossary, but simply to give more knowledgeable students than ourselves as much information as possible in which to begin their investigations.

For further explorations of the above subjects, in relation to “svabhāva” in Theosophy and Buddhism, see: “The Svabhāva Teaching Not to Be Attributed to Buddhism Today,” and “A Svābhāvika School of Buddhism?” (Part 1, 2 & 3), both by David Reigle.



1. Note that in modern IAST transliteration of Sanskrit, the diacritic sign is a horizontal line over the letter, thus “ā,” whereas in the 19th century (and thus throughout the writings of HPB) the same was given as a “hat” over the letter, thus “â.” These are not two different diacritics, but simply an older and more modern glyph for the same long vowel.

2. Dated October 28-29, 1877. See The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, Vol. 1, p. 353, “Letter 92”; and Cooper, The Letters of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Vol. 1, p. 317, “Letter 110.”

3. Dated November 19, 1877. See Madame Blavatsky, by W. H. Burr, 1892, p. 4.

6. It is particularly worth noting how M. Chatterji spelled the term in Five Years of Theosophy given the following two statements by HPB, the first occurring in a letter to A.P. Sinnett around April, 1884:

“Most assuredly ‘he [Mohini] did not come from India to copy letters’ for me; but one of the reasons he has come for is to help me on the Sanskrit portion of The Secret Doctrine” (The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, Letter No. 36);

the second occurring in a letter to A. P. Sinnett in Feb. of 1886:

“I have absolute need of Mohini for S. D. [The Secret Doctrine] and the glossary of Sanskrit words and other things unless he comes, or copies, all such words from MSS that I will send to you” (The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, Letter No. 70).

7. Note: for analysis on this instance (1:61), see Appendix B.

8. See again the definition given in the glossary in Five Years of Theosophy, “Svabhâvat, Akasa; undifferentiated primary matter; Prakriti.”

9. HPB was self-confessedly not knowledgeable in Sanskrit. For instance, in a letter written to her sister, likely around the time she was beginning to write Isis Unveiled, she says: “When I try to assure them that I have never been in Mongolia, that I do not know either Sanskrit or Hebrew or ancient European languages, they do not believe me.” (printed in The Path, Dec., 1894, p. 268). See also, her expressed need for Mohini Chatterji to help her with the Sanskrit in The Secret Doctrine.

10La Revue Théosophique, Vol. I, No. 1, March 21, 1889, p. 7.

11. The copy of the French text used in The Collected Writings of H. P. Blavatsky, Vol. 11, p. 113-114 faithfully reproduces the term as it is found in the original, “swabhavat” with no diacritics.

12. On this subject, see “The Svabhāva Teaching Not to Be Attributed to Buddhism Today,” by David Reigle. In his closing paragraphs, he quotes the passage from The Secret Doctrine, 1:61, then states the following: “The word given by Edkins, subhava, is wrong, and should be svabhāva, as HPB perceived. But the etymology of subhava, copied by HPB, is erroneous for svabhāva.”

13. See The Secret Doctrine, 1:54: “The idea that things can cease to exist and still be, is a fundamental one in Eastern psychology. Under this apparent contradiction in terms, there rests a fact of Nature to realise which in the mind, rather than to argue about words, is the important thing.”