The following is an examination of various ways of viewing the nature of Man, in which we attempt to gradually unfold the Theosophical approach as explained by H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers.

Note that by Man we do not mean the male of our species. In Theosophy the term Man designates any being that has evolved to the condition in which the principle of Manas or Mind is or can be fully operative.

Man as Body Only

This is the view held by materialistic science, i.e. that Man is nothing more than a physical organism, and that his consciousness, including his sense of self, morality, etc. are nothing but the result of physical processes in the body and brain. This view is denied by Theosophy.

Man as a Duad (twofold)

This is the doctrine taught exoterically (outwardly) by the Abrahamic religions and their denominations, i.e. that Man is composed of Body and Soul or Spirit (the latter two terms being used as synonyms), thus:

1. Body
2. Soul or Spirit

One of the most important early points insisted upon by H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers is the distinction between Spirit and Soul.

It was at the very beginning of a new cycle, in days when neither Christians nor Spiritualists ever thought of, let alone mentioned, more than two principles in man—body and Soul, which they called Spirit. If you had time to refer to the spiritualistic literature of that day, you would find that with the phenomenalists as with the Christians, Soul and Spirit were synonymous. It was H.P.B., who . . . was the first to explain . . . the difference there was between psyche and nous, nefesh and ruach—Soul and Spirit. She had to bring the whole arsenal of proofs with her, quotations from Paul and Plato, from Plutarch and James, etc. before the Spiritualists admitted that the theosophists were right.”—Mahatma K.H. to A.P. Sinnett in 1882 (see Mahatma Letter No. 81).

For the work of Blavatsky on this front, see Isis Unveiled, “Before the Veil,” etc.; and the articles “Madame Blavatsky on the Views of the Theosophists,” “Madame Blavatsky on Indian Metaphysics,” and “Erroneous Ideas Concerning the Doctrines of the Theosophists.” See also The Key to Theosophy, p. 93.

Blavatsky’s early insistence on Man as a trinity of Spirit, Soul and Body, was a key element in addressing shortcomings in western views (in particular Abrahamic religious beliefs on after-death states), and it paved the way for the later introduction of the theosophical view of Man as a sevenfold being (which simply expands on the threefold approach).

Man as a Trinity (threefold)

“The Christian teaching, supported by St. Paul . . . is that man is composed of body, soul, and spirit. This is the threefold constitution of man, believed by the theologians but kept in the background because its examination might result in the readoption of views once orthodox but now heretical. For when we thus place soul between spirit and body, we come very close to the necessity for looking into the question of the soul’s responsibility—since mere body can have no responsibility. And in order to make the soul responsible for the acts performed, we must assume that it has powers and functions. From this it is easy to take the position that the soul may be rational or irrational, as the Greeks sometimes thought, and then there is but a step to further Theosophical propositions. This threefold scheme of the nature of man contains, in fact, the Theosophical teaching of his sevenfold constitution, because the four other divisions missing from the category can be found in the powers and functions of body and soul . . . This conviction that man is a septenary and not merely a duad, was held long ago and very plainly taught to every one with accompanying demonstrations, but like other philosophical tenets it disappeared from sight, because gradually withdrawn at the time when in the east of Europe morals were degenerating and before materialism had gained full sway in company with scepticism, its twin. Upon its withdrawal the present dogma of body, soul, spirit, was left to Christendom.”— William Quan Judge, The Ocean of Theosophy

Thus, we have:

1. Body
2. Soul
3. Spirit

Divisions of Soul

Theosophy divides the Soul into three parts, or rather, explains that the Soul has three aspects.

“Soul being a generic term, there are in men three aspects of Soul—the terrestrial, or animal; the Human Soul; and the Spiritual Soul; these, strictly speaking, are one Soul in its three aspects.”—H. P. Blavatsky, Key to Theosophy

Thus, we have:

1. Body
2. Soul a) Animal Soul
b) Human Soul
c) Spiritual Soul
3. Spirit

The approach of dividing “soul” into three parts is found, with varying details, in both the Qabbalistic system (with its Neshamah, Ruach and Nephesh) and the Platonic system (with its triple Psyche), or the Pythagorean system (with its Nous, Phren and Thumos). For more on the Greek approach in relation to the Theosophical, see The Key to Theosophy, p. 90 etc.

In Theosophy the three aspects of Soul are known also under Sanskrit terms: Animal Soul is called Kama or Kama-rupa (the vehicle of Passions and Desires and of Will, lit. “desire-form”); Human Soul is called Manas (Mind, seat of the Ego); Spiritual Soul is called Buddhi (the vehicle of Spirit).

In the Theosophical approach, the Human Soul, Manas or Mind, is viewed as operating in a twofold manner, i.e. a higher and a lower aspect of Mind. This is not to say that there are two Human Souls or two Minds, but rather that Mind stands in the middle, bridging the gulf between the spiritual and the material, and therefore it can gravitate either towards the higher or towards the lower principles. It is in the relation of Mind to either Kama below or Buddhi above that the distinction exists between the Higher, Reincarnating Ego (the individuality that continues from life to life) and the lower, personal ego (the personal sense of self of one lifetime). In Theosophy, the “bridge” between the higher and lower is often referred to as Antaḥkaraṇa.

If we bring together these division of Soul, placed alongside Greek divisions, we can illustrate the above roughly thus:

Theosophical Division Platonic System
1. Body Soma (Body)
2. Soul a) Animal Soul (Kama) Psyche a) Epithu­metikon (“Appetitive
b) Human Soul (Manas) Lower Mind b) Thumoeides (“Spirited
Higher Mind c) Logistikon (“Reasoning
c) Spiritual Soul (Buddhi) Nous
3. Spirit Agathon

Divisions of “Body”

The “body,” i.e. all that which makes up the living form of Man, can itself be viewed as constituted of parts. The Theosophical approach is to name two distinct “bodies,” i.e. the Physical Body and the Astral Body. The Astral Body is said to be the model on which the physical body is molded. In addition to these, a third principle is named, which is the Life Principle or Life-Energy which enlivens both of those bodies.

In Theosophy, these three are also known under Sanskrit terms: the Physical Body is called Rupa (lit. “form”); the Astral Body is called Linga-Sarira (the “double” or prototypal body, lit. “body of characteristic marks”); the Life Principle is called Prana or Prana-Jiva (lit. “breath” or “life-breath”).

Thus we can expand our vision of Man to the following:

1. Body a) Physical Body (Rupa)
b) Astral Body (Linga Sarira)
c) Life Energy (Prana)
2. Soul a) Animal Soul (Kama)
b) Human Soul (Manas) Lower Mind
Higher Mind
c) Spiritual Soul (Buddhi)
3. Spirit

In the Platonic system, the two “bodies”—physical and astral—are called Soma and Eidolon respectively. In the Qabbalistic system, the body is simply called “Guf,” and no further detail is gone into. The Theosophical teachings on the nature of the Body (rupa or sarira) and the Astral Body (linga sarira) are aligned closely with the teachings of the nature of Man found in the Sankhya tradition. See, for instance, the Sankhya Karika.

Theosophical writers have a great deal to say about these three lower principles. The following is a good overview to start with:

“The body is considered by the Masters of Wisdom to be the most transitory, impermanent, and illusionary of the whole series of constituents in man. Not for a moment is it the same. Ever changing, in motion in every part, it is in fact never complete or finished though tangible. . . . And yet it presents the same general appearance from maturity until death; and it is a human form from birth to maturity. . . .

“Life is not the result of the operation of the organs, nor is it gone when the body dissolves. It is a universally pervasive principle. It is the ocean in which the earth floats; it permeates the globe and every being and object on it. It works unceasingly on and around us, pulsating against and through us forever. When we occupy a body we merely use a more specialized instrument than any other for dealing with both Prana and Jiva. Strictly speaking, Prana is breath; and as breath is necessary for continuance of life in the human machine, that is the better word. Jiva means ‘life,’ and also is applied to the living soul, for the life in general is derived from the Supreme Life itself. Jiva is therefore capable of general application, whereas Prana is more particular. It cannot be said that one has a definite amount of this Life Energy which will fly back to its source should the body be burned, but rather that it works with whatever be the mass of matter in it. We, as it were, secrete or use it as we live. For whether we are alive or dead, life-energy is still there; in life among our organs sustaining them, in death among the innumerable creatures that arise from our destruction. We can no more do away with this life than we can erase the air in which the bird floats, and like the air it fills all the spaces on the planet, so that nowhere can we lose the benefit of it nor escape its final crushing power. But in working upon the physical body this life—Prana—needs a vehicle, means, or guide, and this vehicle is the astral body. . . .

“The astral body is made of matter of very fine texture as compared with the visible body, and has a great tensile strength, so that it changes but little during a lifetime, while the physical alters every moment. And not only has it this immense strength, but at the same time possesses an elasticity permitting its extension to a considerable distance. It is flexible, plastic, extensible, and strong. The matter of which it is composed is electrical and magnetic in its essence, and is just what the whole world was composed of in the dim past when the processes of evolution had not yet arrived at the point of producing the material body for man. But it is not raw or crude matter. Having been through a vast period of evolution and undergone purifying processes of an incalculable number, its nature has been refined to a degree far beyond the gross physical elements we see and touch with the physical eye and hand. The astral body is the guiding model for the physical one . . .”

—W. Q. Judge, The Ocean of Theosophy

Man as a Quaternary (fourfold)

The most common Hindu approach—taught in Yoga and Vedanta systems and drawing from Sankhya doctrines—is fourfold, in which Atma (Spirit or Self) is viewed as inhabiting three Upadhis (vehicles).

In this system (the “three bodies doctrine”) the term Atma is used for “Spirit.” The same term is adopted by Theosophy to explain the same principle, though the Yoga systems along with the Vedanta may differ slightly in their interpretation of the nature of Atma as compared to the Theosophical approach. These differences are, however, relatively minor.

Some definitions of Atma:

Ātmā (or Atman). The Universal Spirit, the divine Monad, the 7th Principle, so-called, in the septenary constitution of man.—Theosophical Glossary

Atma; Spirit; One with the Absolute, as its radiation. . . . We include Atma among the human “principles” in order not to create additional confusion. In reality it is no “human” but the universal absolute principle of which Buddhi, the Soul-Spirit, is the carrier.—The Key to Theosophy

What is Atma, the Self? That which stands in contrast with the physical body, the subtle body, the causal body; who transcends the five sheaths; who is witness of the three realms of consciousness; being, in his own nature, Being, Consciousness, Bliss: this is Atma, the Self.—Sankaracharya, Tattva Bodha

The Three Upadhis are explained well by Sankaracharya in several of his writings, for instance the following from his Atma Bodha:

Through the power of differing vestures, family and name and state of life are overlaid on the one Spirit [atma], as flavours and colours may be given to pure water.

The physical body is formed of the five elements compounded [panchikrita mahabhuta], and is built up by deeds done in the past; it is called the dwelling in which pleasure and pain are experienced.

The subtle form is made of the five elements not compounded [a-panchikrita mahabhuta, i.e. tanmatras], and is endowed with the five vital breaths [pranas], the emotional mind [manas], the intelligence [buddhi] and the ten powers of perception and action [five jnana-indriyas and five karma-indriyas]; it is the instrument through which experience is gained.

The causal vesture is said to rest on the primal, indefinable illusion of separate existence. Let the disciple apprehend the Spirit [atma] as other than this triad of vestures.

This system, as compared to the Theosophical, can be shown roughly as follows:

Theosophical Division Three Upadhis System
1. Body a) Physical Body (Rupa) 1. “Gross Body” (Sthula-Sarira)
b) Astral Body (Linga Sarira)
c) Life Energy (Prana)
2. Soul a) Animal Soul (Kama) 2. “Subtle Body” (Sukshma-Sarira)
b) Human Soul (Manas) Lower Mind
Higher Mind
c) Spiritual Soul (Buddhi) 3. “Causal Body” (Karana-Sarira)
3. Spirit (Atma) Spirit (Atma)

Note that the “Causal Body” (Karana-Sarira) is, more accurately speaking, associated with Buddhi in combination with Higher Manas, rather than solely with Buddhi.

In regards to this system, T. Subba Row explained:

“We may also here point out to our readers that the classification mentioned in the last column is, for all practical purposes, connected with Raja Yoga, the best and simplest. Though there are seven principles in man, there are but three distinct Upadhis (bases), in each of which his Atma may work independently of the rest. These three Upadhis can be separated by an Adept without killing himself. He cannot separate the seven principles from each other without destroying his constitution.”

Man as Spirit enclosed in Five Sheaths (sixfold)

In addition to the above Three Upadhis doctrine, the Vedanta system teaches a doctrine of Five Sheaths (Koshas). This teaching is well outlined in Sankaracharya’s Atmanatmaviveka:

Q. What are the five sheaths?

A. Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vjjnanamaya, and Anandamaya.

Annamaya is related to anna (food), Pranamaya of prana (life), Manomaya of manas (mind), Vijnanamaya of vijnana (finite perception), Anandamaya of ananda (illusive bliss).

Q. What is the Annamaya sheath?

A. The gross body. . . .

Q. What is the next sheath [Pranamaya]?

A. The combination of the five organs of action [karma-indriyas], and the five vital airs [pranas] form the Pranamaya sheath. . . .

Q. What is the third sheath [Manomaya]?

A. It is the five (subtle) organs of sense [jnana-indriyas] and manas. . . .

Q. What is the Vijnanamaya sheath?

A. [The essence of] the five organs of sense form this sheath in combination with buddhi.

Q. Why is this sheath called the jiva (Ego), which by reason of its thinking itself the actor, enjoyer, etc., goes to the other loka and comes back to this [i.e. reincarnates]?

A. It wraps up and shows the spirit which never acts as the actor, which never cognises as conscious, which has no concept of certainty as being certain, which is never evil or inanimate as being both.

Q. What is the Anandamaya sheath?

A. It is the antahkarana [manas (mind) + buddhi (intellect) + citta (mind-stuff, rel. to memory) + ahankara (egoism)], wherein ignorance predominates, and which produces gratification, enjoyment, etc. . . .

As one will see in studying these descriptions, the above approach is not in conflict with the system of Upadhis. In essence it merely divides the “body” into two sheaths and the “subtle body” into two sheaths, with some variance in detail as to how the Sheaths are understood verses the Upadhis. For instance, if we follow T. Subba Row’s statement above, we can clearly understand that the “Food Sheath” and the “Vital Sheath” cannot be separated without destroying the “Body” as a living entity, as both Life Energy and Form are required for it to be sustained. Similarly, the “Mind Sheath” and the “Intelligence Sheath” cannot be separated without destroying the complete constitution and its proper functionality (these can be separated, but doing so results in a severing of the link between the Spirit and its lower Sheaths, thus the man ceases to function as a complete Man).

This system of Sheaths can thus be shown roughly as follows:

Theosophical Division Vedanta System
1. Body a) Physical Body (Rupa) 1. “Food Sheath” (Annamaya-kosa)
b) Astral Body (Linga Sarira) 2. “Vital Sheath” (Pranamaya-kosa)
c) Life Energy (Prana)
2. Soul a) Animal Soul (Kama) 3. “Mind Sheath” (Manomaya-kosa)
b) Human Soul (Manas) Lower Mind
Higher Mind 4. “Intelligence Sheath” (Vijnanamaya-kosa)
c) Spiritual Soul (Buddhi) 5. “Bliss Sheath” (Anandamaya-kosa)
3. Spirit (Atma) Spirit (Atma)

Blavatsky also connects these five sheaths with the sevenfold approach, firstly by viewing the Spirit (Atma) listed therein as including both Atma and Buddhi as the “Dual Monad,” and secondly by associating the Anandamaya sheath with Buddhi-Manas (as is also the case with the “Causal Body” or Karana-Sarira). Thus one may count the 5 sheaths plus the 2 principles of the “dual monad” (Atma+Buddhi) to equal seven. (see “The Septenary Principle in Esotericism.”)

See also: [Septenary Division in Different Indian Systems] by T. Subba Row

Man as a Septenary (sevenfold)

The Theosophical approach puts all the above considerations together into a logical whole, which addresses the varying vehicles, conditions and states of man with greater detail and flexibility than most others systems do on their own.

The Theosophical approach also marks an important division between the higher and lower principles in Man:

“We find, first of all, two distinct beings in man; the spiritual and the physical, the man who thinks, and the man who records as much of these thoughts as he is able to assimilate. Therefore we divide him into two distinct natures; the upper or the spiritual being, composed of three ‘principles’ or aspects; and the lower or the physical quaternary, composed of four—in all seven.”—H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy

“Considering these constituents in another manner, we would say that the lower man is a composite being, but in his real nature is a unity, or immortal being, comprising a trinity of Spirit, Discernment, and Mind which requires four lower mortal instruments or vehicles through which to work in matter and obtain experience from Nature. This trinity is that called Atma-Buddhi-Manas in Sanskrit, difficult terms to render in English. Atma is Spirit, Buddhi is the highest power of intellection, that which discerns and judges, and Manas is Mind. This threefold collection is the real man . . . The four lower instruments or vehicles [or] four lower material constituents are transitory and subject to disintegration in themselves as well as to separation from each other. When the hour arrives for their separation to begin, the combination can no longer be kept up, the physical body dies, the atoms of which each of the four is composed begin to separate from each other, and the whole collection being disjointed is no longer fit for one as an instrument for the real man. This is what is called ‘death’ among us mortals, but it is not death for the real man because he is deathless, persistent, immortal. He is therefore called the Triad, or indestructible trinity, while they are known as the Quaternary or mortal four.”—W. Q. Judge, The Ocean of Theosophy

The Theosophical Division can be given thus:

Theosophical Septenary Constitution
Lower Quaternary Body 1. Physical Body (Rupa)
2. Astral Body (Linga Sarira)
3. Life Energy (Prana or Prana-Jiva)
Soul 4. Animal Soul (Kama or Kama-rupa)
Higher Triad 5. Human Soul (Manas) Lower Mind
Higher Mind
6. Spiritual Soul (Buddhi)
Spirit 7. Spirit (Atma)

While the above table and the preceding comparisons to other systems may seem to show a relatively static view of the nature of Man, it is extremely important to understand that these lists of principles have within them a great deal of flexibility. One will find much said about the Constitution of Man in theosophical literature, and quite a number of different approaches taken to the above terminology. The outline given above is meant simply as a starting point for new students, after which one may begin to explore the whole system in more detail. See the writings listed below for continued study.

The following is meant as a rough guide to some of the terminology used in theosophical writings and several major traditions.

Classifications of the Principles of Man (printable version)

Selected Writings on The Constitution of Man