Q. What are the Skandhas spoken of in Theosophical teachings? I’ve recently started studying the process of reincarnation from the books of H.P. Blavatsky but I don’t really understand what’s meant by this term.
A. The philosophical concept of the Skandhas originates in Buddhism but what Theosophy has to say about the Skandhas is in some respects quite different from the teachings of general exoteric Buddhism.
The word “Skandhas” literally means “aggregates” or “bundles of attributes.”
According to Theosophy, the Skandhas are the karmic ingredients which constitute our personal self in each lifetime that we have. They relate to finite, manifested existence only and thus not to our true Spiritual Self, which is literally one and the same in essence and identity as Brahman, the Absolute.
The Master K.H. defines the Skandhas as “the elements of limited existence.” He also writes, when referring to Karma and reincarnation that –
“The “old being” is the sole parent – father and mother at once – of the “new being.” It is the former who is the creator and fashioner, of the latter, in reality; and far more so in plain truth, than any father in flesh. And once that you have well mastered the meaning of Skandhas you will see what I mean. It is the group of Skandhas, that form and constitute the physical and mental individuality we call man (or any being). This group consists (in the exoteric teaching) of five Skandhas, namely:
“Rupa – the material properties or attributes;
“Vedana – sensations;
“Sanna – abstract ideas;
“Sankhara – tendencies both physical and mental; and
“Vinnana – mental powers, an amplification of the fourth – meaning the mental, physical and moral predispositions. We add to them two more, the nature and names of which you may learn hereafter.”
Since everything in this universe is sevenfold in its nature, there are in fact seven Skandhas, as the Master states here, but the exact name and nature of those other two is never actually disclosed in the Theosophical teachings. The five Skandhas – or “Pancha Skandhas” in Sanskrit – are as described above, although those are the Pali names, the Sanskrit names being generally written as Rupa, Vedana, Samjna, Samskara, and Vijnana.
So every human being on this Earth is composed of the five Skandhas. They are what constitute our “present personality,” our persona in each incarnation. And these bundles of aggregates or groups of attributes are re-formed for each new lifetime out of the Skandhas of the previous lifetime.
Of course, the Skandhas of one lifetime are not literally exactly the same as those of the former since, for example, we know perfectly well that we discard our Rupa (the body and physical form) at the close of each lifetime, never to use or inhabit it again, whereupon its inevitable process of decay and destruction begins. But the new set of Skandhas in each new lifetime is derived from the essence of the old ones.
The Master K.H. also wrote that “the Skandhas represent not only a material but also a set of mental and moral qualities” and that even as we live this present life “they are ever and ceaselessly at work in preparing the abstract mould, the “privation” of the future new being.”
In the chapter titled “Kama Loka” in “The Ocean of Theosophy” by William Q. Judge, he similarly explains about the Skandhas that “they are being made from day to day.” We are informed that every single thought we think and action we perform has a definite and potent effect in gradually shaping and altering the nature of our Skandhas and this transformation – which may be for good or bad, depending on the nature of our thoughts and actions – will have an inescapable effect on us in the subsequent lifetime, if not in the current one.
Thought is more powerful than we may realise. No wonder Buddha emphasised that “With our thoughts we make the world.” With our every thought we are making our world and the world.
In H.P. Blavatsky’s “The Key to Theosophy” we read that “No deed, not even a sinful thought, will go unpunished; the latter more severely than the former, as a thought is far more potential in creating evil results than even a deed. We believe in an unerring law of Retribution, called KARMA, which asserts itself in a natural concatenation of causes and their unavoidable results.”
But we are not punished for our misdeeds…we are punished by them. Each action contains within itself the seed of its corresponding re-action. Whatever we sow is what we will reap and whatever we are reaping is what we have at some point previously sown. This is the Law of Karma explained in a few words. It is simply the inherent and immutable law of the universe, the way and the means whereby the universe maintains its harmony, balance, and equilibrium by ensuring that no cause is ever set in motion without eventually having its corresponding and correlative effect, which comes back to the cause maker.
In the article Death and the Afterlife we summarised what happens to the soul after the occurrence of physical death and explained about the perfectly blissful nature of Devachan, the Heaven of the individual’s own making, created unwittingly out of their own consciousness and providing them with the exact afterlife experience that they had hoped for and believed in while still alive on Earth.
HPB says that when the transition which we in our ignorance call “death” occurs, the Skandhas from that lifetime “are destroyed as the working stock in hand of the personality; they remain as Karmic effects, as germs [i.e. seeds], hanging in the atmosphere of the terrestrial plane, ready to come to life, as so many avenging fiends, to attach themselves to the new personality of the Ego when it reincarnates.”
Elsewhere in “The Key to Theosophy” she expresses it like this: “After allowing the Soul, escaped from the pangs of personal life, a sufficient, aye, a hundredfold compensation, Karma, with its army of Skandhas, waits at the threshold of Devachan, whence the Ego re-emerges to assume a new incarnation. It is at this moment that the future destiny of the now-rested Ego trembles in the scales of just Retribution, as it now falls once again under the sway of active Karmic law.”
Mr Judge describes the same thing by reminding students of the Esoteric Philosophy that the Skandhas “can no more be done away with than we can blot out the universe. Hence they are said to remain until the being comes out of devachan, and then at once by the law of attraction they are drawn to the being, who from them as germ or basis builds up a new set of skandhas for the new life.”
Let us now refresh our memory, in simple terms, with what these five Skandhas actually are:
* Our physical form
* Our qualities of perception
* Our faculty of consciousness and its nature
* Our tendencies/inclinations/habitual actions
* Our existing knowledge and potential to acquire further knowledge
So we can see that the Skandhas are very important things and that they really are – as we said at the start – the karmic ingredients which constitute our personal self in each lifetime that we have.
The solution to the mystery of why we are the way we are can readily be found in the timeless truths of Karma and reincarnation, including the ancient teaching about the Skandhas. When the soul (which is the Manas principle) begins a new lifetime on Earth, complete with its new set of Skandhas derived from the essence of the former ones, it is continuing on with various facets and qualities from the previous incarnation.
Or as Robert Crosbie put it in “Answers to Questions on The Ocean of Theosophy” when answering queries about the Skandhas, “When earth-life is resumed, the being will naturally act along the lines he did in previous lives.”
To sum up: Our “present personality,” i.e. our persona in each incarnation, is comprised of these five Skandhas of Rupa, Vedana, Samjna, Samskara, and Vijnana, which are carried over in essence or seed form from the previous incarnation and reunite at the new one, after the Ego’s (“ego” and “soul” are synonymous terms in Theosophical terminology) period of rest in Devachan. We have the ability to gradually alter and transform our Skandhas – our inherent personal attributes and tendencies of character – for future lifetimes, by the way we think, act, and live…for these are areas where we always have the power to change and improve.
~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~
SOME RELATED ARTICLES: A Right Understanding of Karma, Questions about Karma, A Right Understanding of Reincarnation, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, Death and the Afterlife, When We Die, Is Karma Merciful and Compassionate?, and Karma – Solution to the Mysteries of Everyday Life.