What is Swabhava?

Swabhava is the Sanskrit word for “self-becoming.” Swa means “self” and bhava means “becoming.” Swabhava can also be defined as “the nature of a thing” or “self-nature.” Everything possesses a dominant characteristic, quality or attribute. The beauty of this definition is that it brings the idea of “self-becoming” full circle. In order for something to possess a particular “self-nature,” it must have evolved from within itself that dominant attribute over time. Likewise, this implies that “the nature of a thing” will be transformed from its current state once a new characteristic or quality rises to prominence. Thus, the doctrine of swabhava is  a doctrine of the One and the Many; the forces of life pour through a homogeneous starting point, or a laya center, and differentiate into an endless array of planes and beings all advancing through a series of bodies and states of awareness.


Can you explain swabhava using the sacred Hindu texts?

I will use the Satapatha Brahmanas, pre-sixth century Hindu texts, to develop the doctrine of swabhava. Prajapti, or the “Progenitor,” dismembers himself to give birth to everything in the universe from the gods in the celestial heavens to the birds in the air and the worm in the soil down to the most inert form of matter. As Prajapti dismembers himself, Agni, residing in each part and infusing the divine fire of Prajapti’s life into it, divides himself into the triple worlds of sky, ether, and earth. Hence, Agni is integrated into all beings of the triple worlds, his own lattice between higher and lower serving as the framework for Prajapti’s creation. Aditi, or cosmic space, emerges into being as well as her children, the Adityas or solar/planetary gods, who, filled with her substance, are the sublimation of herself in a more useful form for the well-being of the hosts of life—human, animal, plant, and mineral—unfolding from her children. Thus, the swabhava of each of these hosts of lives is both their current state of unfoldment  and, more importantly, it is the entire ladder of swabhavas stretching up from the solar/planetary gods to Aditi, Agni in his most primeval form, and, ultimately, Prajapti or the divine swabhava, the inmost self for every being in existence.

Since Prajapti dismembered himself as a sacrifice for all layers of life to come into existence, it is the natural order for the beings in these layers to reflect that sacrifice, struggling to raise their current “self-nature” by destroying it through a process of “self-becoming” to reunite the dispersed portions of Prajapti. Mineral struggles to raise itself to plant, plant to animal, animal to human and human to non-human. At each step a new swabhava comes into play. For the human, Indra is representative of this achievement for the crossing over of swabhavas. The individual who becomes identified with Indra puts away his humanity, rules over the animals, and becomes “he who I really am” or the fulfillment of the human mind, or manas, with the divine, or atma.  His “self-nature” is now the solar god, or the outer sun, life-giver to the highest as well as the lowest because, without him, the inner sun would have nowhere to pour its rays and the planets, dependent on him for their vitality, would cease to exist, snuffing out the lives sustained by them. This is a reflection of Indra on a cosmic scale where he is spoken of as being “all the gods” because the gods, in their highest level as the primeval Agni, have to work through cosmic Mahat, or cosmic mind, to step down their energies into the lowest of the triple worlds. On whatever level, soma, the sacred drink, is the means by which Indra links himself to the gods just as the wine is the means by which Christians link themselves with their Jesus; soma is Prajapti just as the wine is Christ.

The doctrine of swabhava is built into this entire Hindu philosophy. At our center-most, our swabhava is Prajapti. At each level outwards from Prajapti a new swabhava, fueled by the fires of Agni as he divides himself through the triple worlds, comes into play: Aditi, the Adityas, the human, the animal and so forth. Indra is the connecting link between these swabhavas, the driving force of “self-becoming” that allows the shift in consciousness from one swabhava to the next.


Is the concept of Swabhava found in other polytheistic religions?

Certainly. The Avesta, the main religious text of the Zoroastrians composed orally in the pre-Christian centuries and transcribed into written form in the early post-Christian era, is an example. Embedded in the Avesta is a rigorous dualism between two swabhavas, the Good Mind and the Evil Mind. The ultimate Lord, Ahura-Mazda, implants the Good Mind within the human soul, but the fiendish deva, Angra-Mainyu, subverts its influence by stirring evil desires, the Evil Mind, within the human heart. The individual has the choice to work through one swabhava or the other. If he chooses the swabhava of the Good Mind, his own soul becomes identified with the minor swabhavas of the six-fold Amesha-Spentas, the Persian form of the Indian Adityas or solar/planetary gods. The star god Tistrya rules high among them. Further still he becomes identified with Ahura-Mazda, the seventh central point of the seven-fold “swift-horsed” Sun. The aspirant engages in “self-becoming” to assume the “self-nature” of these exalted beings, following in the footsteps of Mithra and Zarathustra to become the Incarnate Word, a reflection of the highest swabhavas mirrored in the human soul. Each soul can evolve forth these godlike qualities because it is they, these solar and planetary gods, who poured us into existence. The stars have in them the seeds of the earth and, even lower still, the seeds of the plants. Once poured forth, the human wave of life, beginning with Yima the first man, marches  through a series of races corresponding to the minor swabhavas of the respective Amesha-Spentas until Zarathrustra’s son, Sraosha, assumes the mantle of the Incarnate Word in a future race, freeing mankind from bondage to the swabhava of Angra-Mainyu, or evil desire. Thus, there are cosmic swabhavas, racial swabhavas, and individual swabhavas all functioning within the broader dualism of the Good Mind and the Evil Mind.


Is the concept of Swabhava found in monotheistic religions?

Yes. In answer to this question, I will explain how the concept of swabhava is deeply engrained in the Quran and Islamic philosophy. The Quran is a work of poetry that points to the mystery of becoming the Perfect Man. The whole of human evolution is delivered in six sections of Surah 71 (13-18):

“What is the matter with you that you hope not for greatness from Allah? And indeed He has created you by various stages. See you not how Allah has created the seven heavens alike. And made the moon therein a light and made the sun a lamp? And Allah has caused you to grow out of the earth as a growth, Then He returns you to it, then will He bring you forth a new bringing forth.”

These various stages can be enumerated according to different systems of expression. For example, the stages can be divided into a three-fold categorization: the ammarah or the animal stage, the lawwamah or the human stage, and the mutma‘innah or the heavenly stage of the Perfect Man. Each stage possesses a swabhava; it has a “self-nature” and a “self-becoming” into something greater. The average human being has already unfolded the ammarah and lawwamah states of himself; he has yet to unwrap from within himself the mutma‘innah state of the Perfect Man.

Writing of these states, the great thirteenth-century Islamic mystic Jalaladdin Rumi declared, “You are not a single you.” Indeed. Man’s multiple swabhavas, stretching from his interior to his exterior, are reflections of the divine. The tenth-century martyr Mansur al-Hallaj drew a distinction between haqq as the exterior aspect of God and haqiqa as the interior life of God. Just as the divine interior nourishes the divine exterior, Allah, as “Lord of the Worlds” in the famous opening of Surah 1 or the al-Fatihah, nourishes and fosters the objects of his creation so that they can reach their goal of completion. The Arabic word Rabb, or “Lord,” implies an evolutionary process of completing or accomplishing. This process was so well-accomplished in al-Hallaj’s case that he could exclaim, “Ana al-Haqq” or “I am God, the divine truth!” Haqiqa and haqq, through the evolutionary process of rabb, poured through the human swabhava, pulling the man Al-Hallaj out of the exterior lawwamah state into his own interior mutma‘innah state.

Another system of expression for the concept of swabhava was laid down by Nasr al-Farabi in the tenth century. The First Cause issues life into the cosmos through a series of descending stages until prime matter is reached. Advancing upwards from the state of prime matter, the elements emerge, then the minerals, then the plants, then the animals without speech, and then the animals with speech, or mankind. Each class in this ascending series possesses its own swabhava; the beings within each class ascend through minor swabhavas until they reach the ultimate perfection for that class. Seventeenth-century philosopher Mulla Sadra developed this theme, delineating the advancement of the elemental into the mineral, the vegetal, the human and, finally, Fully Active Intellect, a state clearly corresponding to the Hindu cosmic Mahat or cosmic mind linked with buddhi, the Tistrya of the Persians. These were the Angels described by Ibn al-Arabi, a contemporary of Rumi, whose powers were hidden in the faculties and organs of man. Rumi captured this series of swabhavas the most simply and beautifully, “The spirit sees astounding beings, turtles turned to men, men turned to angels.”


Can you provide an example of Swabhava in theosophical literature?

While I won’t point to a specific page and reference in theosophical literature, I will provide a general outline of the process of swabhava drawn from theosophical literature as I understand it. Imagine an upright cylinder filled with a spiritual substance. Underneath the surface invisible to viewing is a rotating blade, perpendicular to the circular base and top, which stirs the spiritual substance. The cylinder is representative of the self-contained universe, the blade is representative of the force of life, and the spiritual substance is atma. At closer look, the spiritual substance is seven-fold. While blended throughout, the sediment of particular matter, or sthula (not necessarily dense but matter nevertheless), can be discerned floating in its lowest layer, creating a distinct seventh layer. Thus, at the starting point, there are two main swabhavas: the overarching swabhava of atma and the class swabhava of sthula composed of lives swimming in that spiritual fluid.

The rotating blade stirs, sweeping the spiritual substance from underneath, transforming the atmic fluid into buddhi. The sthula lives now subsist in a slightly different substance, but they themselves have also been transformed. Sthula has now resolved into linga, a more ethereal model-form of sthula. The overarching buddhi swabhava and the class linga swabhava now dominate the self-contained universe.

The stirring continues, reconstituting buddhi into manas and resolving linga into prana (still ethereal life-atoms). The blade whirls on, thickening the overarching manasic fluid into kama and compressing the prana in its upward rise into kama. The cylindrical soup has a completely different consistency now. It is dense, compressed, and heavy with its overlapping kamic swabhavas. The life forms in that soup, both ascending and descending, struggle to make their way through the compacted material.

The blade pauses, reverses direction, and both kamic swabhavas are spun into an ascent out of the thick soupy substance. The overarching swabhava etherealizes into prana and the class swabhava etherealizes into manas. The climb continues. Prana resolves itself into linga and manas resolves into buddhi. Finally, the overarching swabhava emerges as sthula and the class swabhava emerges as atma. The blade stops whirling . . . the overarching and the class swabhavas have switched places.

 This dual process of swabhavic evolution explains why religious myths can depict the same gods at different levels of evolution and yet not bat an eye at the apparent contradiction. It is why Aditi can both be the earth goddess, or Gaia, and cosmic space. It is why the Greek Zeus can be both atma and manas in the same story—both above and below the Titan Prometheus, or buddhi.

The human being is caught up in these whirlings of descent and ascent, his internal and external swabhavas coming into play guided by the role of the blade.


Would you provide some closing words on Swabhava?

I would be happy to do so. First, you must accept that each swabhava within you has its appropriate place. The animal swabhava cannot yet be human; it cannot yet meet human standards. Don’t get frustrated because of this; don’t expect it to be human. The animal swabhava has its place. Its ability to react to life’s outer situations is immediate and instinctive. We need this ability. Without it, you don’t get across the railroad tracks in time and the train hits you. For basketball fans, you need that animal monad to perform that magical slam dunk with such instinctive grace. Without it, you miss the instinctive grace behind the beauty of the moment of pairing with another human being. Don’t hate it; it is doing what comes naturally to it. Inside, it wants to grow up too. It wants to contribute to the Good Mind. Gently guide it so that its own “self-nature” falls into harmony with your human swabhava.

 As for the human swabhava, you can develop it and produce beautiful, inspired creations whether in mathematics, literature or art. But don’t hold too tightly to your creations. You have to be able to let go. If the human swabhava becomes too mechanical and grasping of its creations, it begins to limit rather than expand the soul’s horizons. The human swabhava, with all its accoutrements and all its creations, must dissolve into the real, which is the god swabhava. When the human does touch the transcendent, it can bring no understanding with it, no clever explanations, no mathematical figures, no Sanskrit terms, no religious texts, no Quran, no Bible, no Vedas, no images, no icons, no symbols, no combination of thoughts, no hearing, no seeing, no feeling, no sensing, no smelling. There is nothing heard—no Sarasvati, no Vach, no Kwan-Yin, no Logos, no sacred Verbum, no Word—none of these sons and daughters of speech have yet spoken. There is not even a voice in the silence. This is your inner god; this is your god swabhava. Go to a quiet place or go somewhere noisy. It matters not. Your inner self will sing out its “majestic majesty” regardless of its “instruments of materiality.”




 Further Readings:


Al-Farabi, Abu Nasr. On the Perfect State. Trans. Richard Walzer. Chicago: Great Books of the

     Islamic World, Inc., 1985.


Muller, F.Max, ed. The Satapatha Brahmana in The Sacred Books of the East. Delhi: Motilal

     Banarsidass Publishers, 1993-1994.


Muller, F. Max, ed. The Zend-Avesta in The Sacred Books of the East. Delhi: Motilal 

     Banarsidass Publishers, 2005-2007.


Purucker, Gottfried de. Fountain-Source of Occultism. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press,  



Sadra, Mulla. The Elixir of the Gnostics. Trans. William C Chittick. Provo: Bringham Young

     University Press, 2003.