Prehistoric Svabhāvavāda, part 2

By David Reigle on February 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm

As is well known, the philosophical teaching of The Secret Doctrine is a non-dualism or monism. For this reason, outside observers have more often associated Theosophy with Hinduism than with Buddhism. The Hindu Upaniṣads teach an absolute brahman, described as “one alone, without a second” (ekam eva advitīyam, Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.2.1), and brahman is understood fully non-dualistically in the Advaita Vedānta school. Since this fundamental teaching in Theosophy is crucial for trying to understand the svabhāva teaching of the Book of Dzyan, it will be worthwhile to review a few statements on it.

“Thus, then, the first fundamental axiom of the Secret Doctrine is the metaphysical ONE ABSOLUTE—BE-NESS . . . .” (SD 1.14)

“The radical unity of the ultimate essence of each constituent part of compounds in Nature—from Star to mineral Atom, from the highest Dhyani-Chohan to the smallest infusoria, in the fullest acceptation of the term, and whether applied to the spiritual, intellectual, or physical worlds—this is the one fundamental law in Occult Science.” (SD 1.120)

“The FUNDAMENTAL UNITY OF ALL EXISTENCE. This unity is a thing altogether different from the common notion of unity—as when we say that a nation or an army is united; or that this planet is united to that by lines of magnetic force or the like. The teaching is not that. It is that existence is ONE THING, not any collection of things linked together. Fundamentally there is ONE BEING.” (notes on how to study The Secret Doctrine given by HPB to Robert Bowen)

This fundamental Theosophical teaching, then, is directly comparable to the Hindu teaching of the one brahman as understood non-dualistically in Advaita Vedānta.

Near the beginning of the 1900s a hitherto secret Sanskrit book, the Praṇava-vāda by Gārgyāyaṇa, was dictated from memory by a blind pandit named Dhanaraj to Bhagavan Das and a few others. According to Bhagavan Das, who prepared a summarized English translation of it, its language is very archaic. Highly significantly for our inquiry, this book says that prapañca, manifestation, is the svabhāva or inherent nature of brahman, the one (English translation, vol. 3, p. 75). This is also what the Book of Dzyan says about svabhāva, that it brings about manifestation. Since “the one” cannot act, svabhāva is there shown as bringing about manifestation. The Praṇava-vāda specifically tells us that this is the svabhāva of the one brahman. In the Book of Dzyan we are not specifically told what the svabhāva it speaks of is the inherent nature of. We can only infer that it is the inherent nature of “the one.”

In stanza 1.5, prior to manifestation, “the one” is termed “darkness”: “Darkness alone filled the boundless all.” In stanza 2.1, still prior to actual manifestation, svabhāva is first mentioned, where svabhāva “rested in the bliss of non-being.” In stanza 2.5 svabhāva is identified with darkness: “Darkness alone was father-mother, Svābhāvat; and Svābhāvat was in darkness.” In stanza 3, actual manifestation occurs, with the phrase, “Darkness radiates light.” Later in The Secret Doctrine we see that this refers to svabhāva, where svabhāva is described as “the mutable radiance of the Immutable Darkness unconscious in Eternity” (SD 1.635), and this is confirmed in stanzas 3.10 and 3.12. So while The Secret Doctrine does not explicitly say that the svabhāva or inherent nature it speaks of is the svabhāva of “the one,” it would be quite incongruous in a non-dualistic system to understand it as being the svabhāva of anything else. The exact parallel with the Praṇava-vāda, where svabhāva is also manifestation (prapañca) and this is explicitly said to be the svabhāva of the one brahman, makes this practically certain. Here are a few quotations from that book (for fuller information, see especially vol. 3, pp. 74-80):

“. . . this prapañcha is verily Self-established by Its own nature, the Sva-bhāva, the Self-being, of Absolute Brahman, . . .” (Praṇava-vāda, vol. 3, p. 75)

“. . . sva-bhāva which is declared everywhere to be the cause of the world, having no cause of its own.” (vol. 3, p. 77)

“There is no duality, no unity, no manyness—All is Sva-bhāva and Sva-bhāva only.” (vol. 2, p. 329)

“All ‘becoming’ whatsoever, every event in the World-process, tiniest or most enormous, is brought about by the Universal Necessity of the Absolute Nature, Sva-bhāva.” (vol. 2, p. 31)

At this point, we have references from one hitherto secret book, the Praṇava-vāda, helping to explain the svabhāva teaching of another hitherto secret book, the Book of Dzyan. Both of these books are said to be from a time that predates known history; they are prehistoric. Can we trace this teaching to any known text? Yes, the same teaching is briefly given by Gauḍapāda in his Māṇḍūkya-kārikā. It was soon interpreted away, but it is there. Like in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, Gauḍapāda reviews various proposed causes of the world. Here are his verses 1.6-9 (translated by Vidhushekhara Bhattacharya):

“6. The settled opinion of sages is that all things have their origin. (Some hold that) the Breath, the Puruṣa (self), creates all—the rays of the mind, differently.

7. Other theorisers about creation assert dogmatically that the creation (of the world) is (his) expansion, while others imagine that creation is of the nature of dream and magic.

8. Those who are assured about creation say that creation is the mere volition of the Lord, and those who theorise about Time consider the creation of beings to be from Time.

9. Some (say) that the creation is for the sake of (his) enjoyment, while others (are of opinion) that it is for the sake of his sport. It is, however, the nature of the Shining One, for how can desire be in one for whom every object of desire is (already) secured.”

In the latter half of the last verse Gauḍapāda gives his own position, that creation (sṛṣṭi) or manifestation is the nature (svabhāva) of the Shining One (deva). In the next verse he tells us that the shining one (deva) is the turya, the fourth of the four conditions taught in the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. This is ātman or brahman.

“10. The Turya ‘fourth one’ is said to be all-pervading, efficient in removing all miseries, the shining one, changeless, and of all things without a second.”

It is the one without a second. Lest there be any doubt, he again equates the shining one (deva) with ātman in 2.12 and 2.19. So Gauḍapāda’s position is exactly the same as what was said in the Praṇava-vāda, that creation or manifestation is the svabhāva or inherent nature of the one, ātman or brahman. We have already seen the direct parallel of what was said in the Praṇava-vāda to what the Book of Dzyan says about svabhāva, that it brings about manifestation. So in addition to the direct parallel to the hitherto secret Praṇava-vāda, we now have historical evidence, in the form of a direct parallel to a known text (Gauḍapāda’s), that the svabhāva spoken of in the Book of Dzyan is the svabhāva or inherent nature of “the one.” This is a very different kind of svabhāva teaching or svabhāvavāda than that which is historically known, so I have called it prehistoric svabhāvavāda.

Category: Svabhavat | 6 comments

  • David Reigle says:

    Regarding Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita, I do not think that “law” is his translation of svabhāva. In his sentence, “Dharma, says the Gita elsewhere, is action governed by the swabhava, the essential law of one’s nature,” I think that “one’s nature” is his translation of svabhāva, while “law” refers to “dharma.” In his chapter titled “Swabhava and Swadharma,” he similarly defines svabhāva: “That is our Swabhava, our own real nature” (p. 476 in the 1966 ed.). In the following sentence he relates this svabhāva to “law,” dharma, “our right law,” svadharma: “The law of action determined by this Swabhava is our right law of self-shaping, function, working, our Swadharma.” In the material on svabhāva that Jacques quoted from this book, we did not see the word “law.” As I mentioned, I have collected hundreds of references to svabhāva from Hindu, Jaina, and Buddhist books. Various translators use: nature, own nature, one’s own nature, self-nature, inherent nature, intrinsic nature, proper nature, essential nature, innate nature, one’s own inborn nature, original nature, natural-born, natural, naturally, natural expression, natural development, self-being, own-being, and in a Buddhist context: inherent existence, self-existence, intrinsic reality, essence, individual essence. I have not seen anyone translate it as law.

  • David Reigle says:

    You raise important philosophical questions, Capt. Anand, the kind that were discussed by the great Rishis of old India. From their writings, as far as I understand them, I will try to reply.

    “1. If we equate Absolute Abstract Space to Brahman, and consider motion as its svabhava, would it not be akin to assigning a quality (Guna) to something which is otherwise described as attribute-less?”

    The old writings describe svabhāva as something that is innate and unchanging, unlike qualities (guṇa) such as color, size, etc., which do change. Fire can be orange or blue, large or small, but it always has heat. So heat is regarded as the svabhāva or inherent nature of fire, and not as a quality of fire, philosophically speaking. The inherent nature of the one element can be its innate motion (its life), which never ceases. This would not be regarded as a quality of it, philosophically speaking.

    “2. What would be the correct order of progression: Space > Motion > Energy > Life > Physical Matter or Space > Motion > Life > Energy > Physical Matter.”

    In my understanding, motion and life in regard to the one element are synonymous. Therefore the order as I understand it would be: Space and its inherent Motion/Life > Energy > Physical Matter.

  • Nicholas Weeks says:

    You are being too fussy a translator David. Sri Aurobindo had no problem with rendering swabhava as Law. Throughout his Essays on the Gita, (275) for example:

    “Dharma in the spiritual sense is not morality or ethics. Dharma, says the Gita elsewhere, is action governed by the swabhava, the essential law of one’s nature. And this swabhava is at its core the pure quality of the spirit in its inherent power of conscious will and in its characteristic force of action. The desire meant here is therefore the purposeful will of the Divine in us searching for and discovering not the pleasure of the lower Prakriti, but the Ananda of its own play and self-fulfilling; it is the desire of the divine Delight of existence unrolling its own conscious force of action in accordance with the law of the swabhava.”

  • Capt. Anand Kumar says:

    Thank you David for answering my questions on Svabhava by e-mail. Your summary, “svabhava of absolute abstract space or ultimate substance is its motion, which is its life.” is truly enlightening. However, two other questions then arose in mind:

    1. If we equate Absolute Abstract Space to Brahman, and consider motion as its svabhava, would it not be akin to assigning a quality (Guna) to something which is otherwise described as attribute-less?
    2. What would be the correct order of progression: Space > Motion > Energy > Life > Physical Matter or Space > Motion > Life > Energy > Physical Matter. Or none of the two?

  • David Reigle says:

    Svabhāva does sound like it is closely related to “law.” When we say that “heat is the ‘inherent nature’ of fire,” we could also say it is a law that fire has heat. When translating from Sanskrit, however, we cannot give “heat is the ‘law’ of fire.” Law is not the meaning of the word svabhāva. In the sentence you quoted from SD 1.4, “. . . an expansion of this Divine essence from without inwardly and from within outwardly, occurs in obedience to eternal and immutable law . . . ,” it is quite unlikely that “law” translates svabhāva, even loosely. A similar sentence from SD 1.635-636 gives svabhāva separately from law: “Everything has come out of Akasa (or Svabhavat on our earth) in obedience to a law of motion inherent in it, . . .” Svabhāva, “inherent nature,” must be the inherent nature of something. Here it is being associated with an “essence,” the “Divine essence” in the sentence you quoted, or “the one infinite and unknown Essence” in another sentence at the beginning of that paragraph (SD 1.3), or the “unknown essence” near the end of that paragraph: “To use a Metaphor from the Secret Books, which will convey the idea still more clearly, an outbreathing of the ‘unknown essence’ produces the world; and an inhalation causes it to disappear.”

    Once we speak of an “essence,” something that ultimately IS, even if this is quite beyond the duality of existence and non-existence, it by definition has a svabhāva, an inherent nature. In Hinduism, it has never been doubted that brahman has a svabhāva. The discussion there is what this svabhāva is; e.g., sṛṣṭi, avidyā, māyā, etc. The Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist denial of any svabhāva anywhere in the universe is because of their denial of any ultimate essence anywhere in the universe. Once an ultimate essence is posited, as it is in the Secret Doctrine, it necessarily has svabhāva, an inherent nature. When it is said that this essence regularly expands and contracts, or outbreathes and inbreathes, in obedience to law, it would be the motion or breath, rather than the law, that is its inherent nature. They are, of course, closely intertwined. But I do not think that svabhāva can be understood as law, because it cannot stand alone. Svabhāva has to be the inherent nature of something.

  • Nicholas Weeks says:

    Sounds like svabhava is just ‘Law’; as on page 4 of SD 1:

    “Upon inaugurating an active period, says the Secret Doctrine, an expansion of this Divine essence from without inwardly and from within outwardly, occurs in obedience to eternal and immutable law, and the phenomenal or visible universe is the ultimate result of the long chain of cosmical forces thus progressively set in motion.”


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