Svābhāvat, svabhāvāt, and svabhāva

By David Reigle on February 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm

After standing for more than 120 years, the problem of the word svābhāvat was solved by Daniel Caldwell, and he did this without knowing Sanskrit. Ironically, it had entered The Secret Doctrine because of HPB not knowing Sanskrit. As Daniel found (on Oct. 13, 2009), HPB had copied svābhāvat from F. Max Muller, who had used it as declined in the ablative case: svabhāvāt. The word itself, undeclined, is svabhāva. This is obviously what HPB intended, especially in its seven occurrences in the stanzas that she published from the Book of Dzyan.

The word svabhāva means “inherent nature.” In its everyday use, it refers to things such as heat being the inherent nature of fire. But it has come to be used as a technical term in Indian philosophy, for something that does not change.

So there remained the problem of why this word would be used in the Book of Dzyan, since the idea of svabhāva as an unchanging essence has long been rejected in Buddhism. Yet the Mahatma K.H. recommended to A. O. Hume that he study the doctrines of the Nepalese Svābhāvikas. This school turned out not to exist. But the Mahatma’s reference to it, as “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India,” could well refer to the once dominant Sarvāstivāda school. In recent years accurate information about this long defunct school has emerged, thanks above all to the researches of K. L. Dhammajoti. His book, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, may well provide a satisfactory answer to this problem.

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