The Meaning of Svabhāva

By David Reigle on February 22, 2012 at 4:18 am

The meaning of svabhāva given in The Secret Doctrine, drawing from the compilation prepared by Jacques, is the “essence,” the “self-existent plastic essence and the root of all things,” the “‘plastic essence’ that fills the universe,” the “root of all things,” the “mystic essence,” and the “plastic root of physical nature.” In referring to svabhāva as an “essence,” HPB was apparently following the writers of her time, such as Samuel Beal. But she was well aware of the inadequacy of this term. In the “Summing Up” section of the SD, her third statement, referring to the “Substance-Principle” spoken of in her second statement, says:

“(3.) The Universe is the periodical manifestation of this unknown Absolute Essence. To call it “essence,” however, is to sin against the very spirit of the philosophy. For though the noun may be derived in this case from the verb esse, “to be,” yet It cannot be identified with a being of any kind, that can be conceived by human intellect.” (SD 1.273)

Although this refers to the “Substance-Principle,” the same idea applies to its first remove or secondary stage, svabhāva. We may now refine the meaning of svabhāva. If you try to find or search for svabhāva under the translation “essence” in books published in the last hundred years, you will not likely have much success. The meaning “essence” is not found for svabhāva in the standard Sanskrit-English dictionaries (Monier Monier-Williams and Vaman Shivaram Apte), or in the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary (Franklin Edgerton). I see that it is given in Wikipedia, but it is there likely copied from an online Theosophical glossary.

As literally as normal English allows, svabhāva means “self-nature.” Some translators use the literal “own-being,” but this is not normal English. Another very close, but somewhat more idiomatic translation is “inherent nature,” or “intrinsic nature.” Of these two synonymous phrases, I have adopted “inherent nature” over “intrinsic nature” because of its verbal similarity to “inherent existence.” Inherent existence is another translation of svabhāva that is widely used in the Madhyamaka Buddhist context of the denial of svabhāva; e.g., the “emptiness of inherent existence” (svabhāva-śūnyatā). A thing’s “inherent nature” is something that always remains the same; so in this philosophical context it has come to mean something’s “inherent existence.” The basic meaning of svabhāva is shown in the often-used example that heat is the “inherent nature” of fire.

As may be seen, svabhāva is the inherent nature of something, whatever that something may be. In Buddhism, it is normally the inherent nature of the dharmas, the factors of existence that make up the world. It is not a stand-alone essence. One can call it the essence of something, but one would not normally call it an essence per se. Of course, if it is the inherent nature of something that is itself an essence, then as being indistinguishable from that essence, svabhāva, too, could be called an essence. This appears to be what is happening in the Theosophical writings. Although as HPB noted above, it is philosophically incorrect to refer to the one “Substance-Principle” as an essence, it is nonetheless done for expedience. When doing so, one can then also expediently use essence for svabhāva. Even if this is adopted from other writers where it is incorrect in relation to Buddhism (because Buddhism does not teach an essence), it would not in this way be incorrect for Theosophy. It would refer to the inherent nature of something that can loosely be called an essence.

A careful study of the Theosophical references will show that the term svabhāva is used in two different ways. It is used more loosely and more precisely. It is loosely referred to as an essence, while more precisely it is called force or motion or radiance. This latter fits in well with the basic meaning of svabhāva, inherent nature. The inherent nature of the one Substance-Principle is force or motion or radiance. Put another way, motion is the inherent nature of the one element, the dhātu. It always remains, fitting the definition of svabhāva as something that is unchanging, because unceasing motion is the imperishable life of eternal, living, superphysical substance, the one Substance-Principle (see Cosmological Notes and Mahatma Letter #10).

Svabhāva is force or motion:

“Study the laws and doctrines of the Nepaulese Swabhavikas, the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India, and you will find them the most learned as the most scientifically logical wranglers in the world. Their plastic, invisible, eternal, omnipresent and unconscious Swabhavat is Force or Motion ever generating its electricity which is life.” (Mahatma Letter #22)

Svabhāva is radiance:

“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.” (SD 1.635)

This also fits in well with how svabhāva is used in the Book of Dzyan. The meaning of svabhāva in the Book of Dzyan is indicated by its usage, where svabhāva:

  1. is the root of the world (stanza 2.1)
  2. is father-mother (stanza 2.5)
  3. was in darkness (prior to manifestation) (stanza 2.5)
  4. is the two substances (spirit and matter) made in one (stanza 3.10)
  5. sends fohat to harden the atoms (at the time of manifestation) (stanza 3.12)
  6. is the ādi-nidāna (first cause) (stanza 4.5)
  7. is the voice of the word (not lord, as misprinted on p. 31) (stanza 4.5) (this is the voice that emanates the word; see The Secret Doctrine Commentaries, p. 341)

The meaning of svabhāva in the Book of Dzyan appears to be the inherent nature of the dhātu, the one element, and this inherent nature is its life or motion. This motion is what brings about the manifestation of a cosmos. So the cosmogenesis teaching of the Book of Dzyan can accurately be called svabhāva-vāda. No known system teaches this any longer, but it is referred to as an ancient teaching in all three of the religions of old India, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. From these writings, we see that there is more than one kind of svabhāva-vāda. These will be the subject of further research here.

Category: Svabhavat | 2 comments

  • David Reigle says:

    Thanks, Nicholas, for calling attention to this relevant reference. The SD sentence, “But the ‘Breath of the One Existence’ does not, all the same, apply to the One Causeless Cause or the ‘All Be-ness’…” perhaps relates to the “Principle” of the one “Substance-Principle.” Then, the “Breath of the One Existence” would apply to the “Substance” of the “Substance-Principle.” This receives support from HPB’s statement in the next paragraph on that page: “If, in the Vedanta and Nyaya, nimitta is the efficient cause, as contrasted with upadana, the material cause, . . . in the Esoteric philosophy, . . . none but the upadana can be speculated upon; . . .”

    Regarding “Here it seems Space is the eternal element, with motion, matter & duration co-existent. When Space is called “dimensionless in every sense” and the other 3 are co-existent with it, that suggests all 4 are lacking any svabhava.” Whatever this suggests, until we have an original text of the Book of Dzyan, we can only work with what HPB gave us from it. Stanza 2.5 as we have it says: “Darkness alone was father-mother, Svabhavat; and Svabhavat was in Darkness.” I understand from this that Darkness has svabhava. The other six references to svabhava in the stanzas from the Book of Dzyan as we have them support this. I do not know what else these stanzas would be saying about svabhava.

  • Nicholas Weeks says:

    On page 55 of SD 1 is:

    b) The “Breath” of the One Existence is used in its application only to the spiritual aspect of Cosmogony by Archaic esotericism; otherwise, it is replaced by its equivalent in the material plane — Motion. The One Eternal Element, or element-containing Vehicle, is Space, dimensionless in every sense; co-existent with which are — endless duration, primordial (hence indestructible) matter, and motion — absolute “perpetual motion” which is the “breath” of the “One” Element. This breath, as seen, can never cease, not even during the Pralayic eternities. (See “Chaos, Theos, Kosmos,” in Part II.)

    But the “Breath of the One Existence” does not, all the same, apply to the One Causeless Cause or the “All Be-ness”…

    Here it seems Space is the eternal element, with motion, matter & duration co-existent. When Space is called “dimensionless in every sense” and the other 3 are co-existent with it, that suggests all 4 are lacking any svabhava. Excepting the non-standard use of the “svabhava of no-svabhava”, which is found in some places in the Mahayana scriptures.


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