After exploring Sacred Texts at large, we will now proceed to take up some of the common themes found throughout various texts. We begin with perhaps the central theme: The Self.

A few questions to get us started:

1. Throughout various texts, how is the idea of the Self presented?

2. How do these presentations differ from one another?

3. How are they similar?

4. Why is the concept of the Self important?

5. How does our exposure to the concept of the Self in Sacred Texts effect the way we live our lives, how we relate to others, etc.?

To aid in our study, we've put together quotations drawn from a selection of texts which treat of the subject of the Self. This can be found here:

Please bring into our discussion additional quotes from any of these or other sources, and let us expand this collection.

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When I think of Self, a few descriptive words come to mind: identity, essence, "one", absolute, continuous, immutable, same. In fact, regarding the last word in the list, I read recently that in the French language, one word is used to express both "same" and "self". Perhaps someone who speaks French can verify. I think the presentation of this topic is timely, in that it really overlaps some of the discussion in the Secret Doctrine group. As Peter pointed out in that discussion, the "Principle" described in the First Fundamental is the same as the principle of "Turiya" found in the Mandukya Upanishad; and Turiya is the non-dual Atman. And it is my understanding that Atman is translated as Self. I say all this because I think it's important to define just what we are talking about.

Answering the fourth question, the concept of the Self is of supreme importance because it is the First Principle of the Cosmos and of ourselves. It is this idea that I find most amazing. That my Self is the same Self of All is an intoxicating thought! Can it be true?

I'd like to add a question: What is the relationship between the psychological ego and the Self?

Jimmy, I think the way you’ve put it is very sound:  Atman is ‘The Self’ of all, it is Universal. While we call it the seventh principle in the sevenfold constitution of the human being, strictly speaking it is not a human principle at all.  So, in truth we can’t really refer to it as my Self or your Self.  The unconditioned consciousness  (Atman, The Great Breath) is the ultimate source of the consciousness that wells up in all beings - from the minutest spec of life to the greatest Dhyani Buddha.  How that consciousness manifests itself depends on the upadhi (vehicle of matter/substance) in which it is reflected.  This is the basis of the three states (waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep) of Advaita Vedanta and their relation to Turiya (Atman).  Thus, when the Upanishad states ‘Thou art That’ (Tat twam asi) it doesn’t mean that John Smith or Jill Jones (both personal egos) is Brahman, it means that the ultimate source of the consciousness that wells up in a vehicle of mind and matter which we call the person John or Jill is none other than that unconditioned consciousness which is Brahman. 

I don’t think I’ve said that very well. Never mind. Would you say a bit more as to what you’re thinking of in your question, “What is the relationship between the psychological ego and the Self?”   I don’t want to go off on a tangent or simply say what you already know very well.


In WQJ's rendition of the Yoga Aphorisms he's careful to point out that the term he translates as 'soul' is not Atma (see Book 1, verse 3).

At one point he uses the term Ishwara as so:

I’s’wara is a spirit, untouched by troubles, works, fruits of works, or desires. InI’s’wara becomes infinite that omniscience which in man exists but as a germ.I’s’wara is the preceptor of all, even of the earliest of created beings, for He is not limited by time. His name is OM.

And we see the term Soul used as such:

The soul is the Perceiver; is assuredly vision itself pure and simple; unmodified; and looks directly upon ideas.
For the sake of the soul alone, the Universe exists.

My questions are:

1. What is meant by Ishwara, and what is it's relation to Self?

2. What is the difference here between Ishvara and soul, or furthermore between Atman and what is referred to here as soul?

3. What is the difference between Isvara and Brahman, and how do these relate to Self?

I thought it was very well said! I get your point about not being able to say "My Self or your Self", since Atman is a universal principle and not a human principle. I think this really just depends on what one means by 'my' and 'your'. If it's the divine principle that's being referred to, and not the various sheaths that constitute what we call human, then I see no problem with claiming ownership of that principle as the root and substance of one's being. While it is true that I am not the Absolute, my "I", as I understand this, is a reflection of the Absolute. Just as a the Sun is reflected in a thousand droplets of water, so is the Absolute, or the Self, or Atman, reflected in us. As long as the droplet doesn't think that it IS the Sun, it should be ok to say my Self. After all, the reflection really is identical to the Sun in it's essence, through the ray.

"Psychological ego" probably wasn't the greatest term to use. I'm not sure what the theosophical term is, but I mean the ego that persists despite changes to the body or personality. My "I" as a child is the same "I" that I have now as an adult. Since I was a child, the atoms of my body have been replaced several times, my personality has changed, my beliefs and opinions change, tastes and preferences change. In fact, I've changed a little since yesterday. But the one thing that has persisted is "I". It's hard to describe exactly what I'm talking about; the words REAL IDENTITY might convey the right impression.

When I think of Self, a few descriptive words come to mind: identity, essence, "one", absolute, continuous, immutable, same.

I think this is a wonderful way to approach the subject! We really do need to ask ourselves just what we really mean, just what is it to be "Self". To me, identity is a wonderful place to start. I mean, we can ask ourselves a series of fundamental questions, like: what is identity? What does it mean to identify as "I"? And how does this relate to or differ from our identification as Jon Fergus, or as Jimmy? Does anything in our daily lives give us experiential insight into what it is to be identified as Self? Do we get glimpses of this in our waking lives?

More philosophically, is "identity" a fundamental trait of Self? Or is it something that arises conditionally?

Can we draw on any sacred texts for insights into these questions...?

"what does it mean to identify as "I"?" I believe there are levels of identification. For many people, their "I" is their body. For others, "I" may be their career, e.g. "I" am a plumber, doctor, teacher, painter etc. The things that people (we) may associate with "I" are endless. Throughout the course of a day, my ego identifies with a whole range of things, body, career, social caste, family, nation, beliefs and all. It's usually only in the quietness of meditation, or contemplation, that I'm able to disconnect from the unreal identities and get closer to the "real". I believe that the real "I" is what some call the Witness. It's the absolute subject, incapable of witnessing itself, but witnessing all else that falls within it's field of awareness. In fact, it is consciousness. The same can be said about the word "identity", though identity carries with it a sense of individuality - "I am me and no one else". Real Identity also means immutableness and persistence. Real Identity is always the same.

There's a wonderful line in the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom that your explanation here reminds me of.

"There is a certain selfhood wherein the sense of “I” forever rests; who witnesses the three modes of being, who is other than the five veils; who is the only knower in waking, dreaming, dreamlessness; of all the activities of the knowing soul, whether good or bad–this is the “I”."

I had never heard of the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom until I read the quotations from the Universal Theosophy site. I'll have to find a copy somewhere. I was inspired by every word!

It's a wonderful work!

We put together a nice, readable PDF if you read using a device.


It has been said that the concept of the Self took over where the concept of Soul left off because it had lost its luster in modern times.  In ancient times the concept of Soul was similar to the current concept of the Self. Modern religions say man has a soul.  Theosophy says man is a soul..... The Self.


This, of course raises an essential question: is what we mean by soul actually the same as what we mean by self or are there distinctions to be made?

For instance, in both the Voice of the Silence and the Bhagavad Gita we have verses in which multiple 'selves' are indicated (i.e. self, Self and SELF). Is this different than saying soul, Soul and SOUL? And if so, how?

If we look at WQJ's renditions of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Aphorisms, we'll see that in the Gita he uses the term Self throughout, while in the Aphorisms find the term Soul throughout. Is there purpose to this distinction?

See here for versus related to these questions:


I suppose that within a 7fold system, as theosophy proposes, we have to maintain some degree of fluidity with terms like Soul and Self.  This is probably true even within religious systems like Buddhist and Hindu traditions, for the reasons you state above.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on December 18, 2012 at 3:58pm

It does seem to me that in many (perhaps all?) traditions we can find reference to multiple selves. We always have the little personal self, then the higher or more universal Self, and some go further to an absolute or ultimate SELF. So, the important question may actually be: what is selfhood?

And perhaps then one can begin to explore that selfhood in its various representations...

Permalink Reply by Peter on December 18, 2012 at 4:26pm

Interestingly, by the time HPB wrote the Key To Theosophy - one of her last works - she was concerned that not having definite terms for the various principles was creating a great deal of confusion among students of Theosophy.  She had the following to say in The Key:

"To avoid henceforth such misapprehensions, I propose to translate literally from the Occult Eastern terms their equivalents in English, and offer these for future use. 

The remaining "Principle" "Prana," or "Life," is, strictly speaking, the radiating force or Energy of Atma -- as the Universal Life and the ONE SELF, -- ITS lower or rather (in its effects) more physical, because manifesting, aspect. Prana or Life permeates the whole being of the objective Universe; and is called a "principle" only because it is an indispensable factor and the deus ex machina of the living man."

(The Key to Theosophy, pp 175-176)

When we look at the terms Spirit, Self, Soul, Ego etc in spiritual and religious texts from various traditions it might be useful to relate them to the Principles as defined above to see where they do or do not match.  Often misunderstanding arises through assuming that because two traditions both talk about the Self, for example, they must mean the same thing, when it's quite likely they don't.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on December 20, 2012 at 4:56pm

Do you think there is a lot of overlapping of meanings between the various traditions?

In other words a term might mean part by not all of what it means in a different sacred text.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on December 19, 2012 at 10:44am

This verse from the Voice of the Silence presents the terms 'self' and 'soul' in an interesting way. Anyone have any thoughts on the meaning here?

"Beware, lest in the care of Self thy Soul should lose her foothold on the soil of Deva-knowledge.
Beware, lest in forgetting SELF, thy Soul lose o’er its trembling mind control, and forfeit thus the due fruition of its conquests."

Permalink Reply by barbaram on December 22, 2012 at 11:51am

Terms are often used interchangeably but, because theosophy identifies the principles beneath the surface, it gives us the tool to go beyond the words.  Using the four categories of the Self described by HPB- Higher Self, Spiritual Ego, Inner Ego, and lower Ego, the word “Soul” here is referring to the Inner ego or manas, the fifth principle.

My interpretation of the above phrases would be if the mind is focused on the lower personality, then one loses the ability to gain soul wisdom.  If one’s mind forgets the Higher Self, then one loses the ability to focus on the higher planes and relinquish the results of overcoming the lower self.

Permalink Reply by Peter on December 21, 2012 at 9:05am

Jon - in response to your question on Isvara.  

As I’m sure you know, Isvara has a different meaning according to which tradition we are exploring.  Here’s a summary of some of those meanings which, due to its brevity, will not be completely accurate, but hopefully will suffice as rough guide.

Generally speaking in Vedanta, Isvara means the controller, the lord, the supreme power.   Its most common use is to mean the Personal God and/or Creator, however, even that is perceived differently depending on the particular tradition.

In Advaita Vedanta (Advaita meaning non-dual) Isvara is 'Brahman + Maya'.  In other words it is the creative power of Brahman as perceived by sentient beings during manifestation.  While it is a supreme power  - omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent - in the manifested universe and one with it, it is only relatively real as an appearance of Brahman, there being as many Isvaras as there are universes. 

In Dwaita Vedanta Isvara is the Personal God, the creator and controller of all beings and things in the universe while at the same time existing independently of its creation (hence the term ‘Dwaita’, or dual).  While not completely identical to Christianity there are many similarities between the two.  There is no difference between Isvara and Brahman in this perspective as it does not accept an Absolute which is without attributes (nirguna).

Vishistadvaita Vedanta (qualified non-dualism) has elements of both Advaita and Dwaita.  Isvara (in the form of Vishnu) is the supreme power, parabrahm, and is both transcendent and immanent.  Isvara rules the universe through his Maya (sakti).  Unlike Advaita which claims Atman is Brahman, Vishistadvaita claims that individual Jivas (jivatman) alway remain distinct from Isvara even when liberated (moksha).  

In Theosophy Isvara is the Logos, usually but not always the manifested Logos i.e. Mahat. There is no personal god admitted in Theosophy.  Isvara is the collective aggregate consciousness of the Dhyan Chohans. 

‘They are the framers, shapers, and ultimately the creators of all the manifested Universe, in the only sense in which the name " Creator" is intelligible; they inform and guide it; they are the intelligent Beings who adjust and control evolution, embodying in themselves those manifestations of the ONE LAW, which we know as "The Laws of Nature.”’  (SD I 22)

The Samkhya philosophy upon which Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Aphorisms is largely based does not admit the existence of a personal god.  It is a dualistic system asserting two fundamental realities - Purusha and Prakriti (Spirit and Matter).  From a theosophical perspective we might say that Samkhya starts from the basis of Cosmic Ideation and Cosmic root-Substance.  While he rejected a personal god (Isvara) perhaps Kapila, said to be one of its founders, did not wish to speculate on the Absolute?  Key to the yoga system of Samkhya is the discrimination between self (purusha) and not-self (prakriti).   

Isvara (God) is not accepted in original Samkhya, rather it proposes an infinite number of individual Purushas each of which is eternal, unchanging, omniscient & so on. There is a similarity here with the monads of Theosophy and its rejection of a personal god. It’s said that later samkhya yoga introduced a theistic element into its philosophy - this may be the reason for the inclusion of Isvara in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  However, from a Theosophical standpoint we might consider another, though not your usual, explanation for the meaning of Isvara in the Yoga Sutras.

To be continued..

Permalink Reply by Peter on December 21, 2012 at 9:15am

Isvara Part 2.

Isvara in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Verse 23 book 1 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras states that samadhi may be achieved by “Devotion to Isvara.”   

Verse 24 gives a hint as to the nature of the Lord, Isvara.  There are a number of variations in the way this verse is translated, but the one important thing in common to almost all of them all is that Isvara is described as ‘a special kind of purusha’.  This seems to be in line with the earlier Samkhya viewpoint which rejects the notion of personal God or Cosmic Purusha proposing instead a plurality of purushas. A typical translation is as follows:

“Isvara is a special kind of Purusha, untouched by misery, karma, the fruits of karma, and desires.”  I:24

Verses 25 and 26 state that the germ of omniscience latent in all beings is fully developed in this Lord (Isvara) and that He, being beyond time, is the Teacher of the Ancient Sages.

There are a couple of passages found in HPB’s Collected Writings that are worth reflecting upon as they may throw some light on this ‘special purusha’.

What is the Father? Is it the absolute Cause of all? —the fathomless Eternal?  No; most decidedly. It is Karanatman,* the “Causal Soul” which, in its general sense, is called by the Hindus Isvara, the Lord, and by Christians, “God,” the One and Only. From the standpoint of unity it is so; but then the lowest of the Elementals could equally be viewed in such case as the “One and Only.” Each human being has, moreover, his own divine Spirit or personal God. That divine Entity or Flame from which Buddhi emanates stands in the same relation to man, though on a lower plane, as the Dhyāni-Buddha to his human Buddha.

CW XIV 373

It would be fair to say that the Dhyani Buddhas are special kinds of purushas. They are those Monads which have passed through the human stage in previous manvantaras and from which group come the Divine Instructors of early humanity. Each of us, as a spiritual pilgrim (buddhi) is a potential Dhyani Buddha (see SD I 17).  It is through or from such a Dhyani-Buddhic source that all the Avatars, Divine Instructors, have come.

To continue with HPB’s proposition that each of us has his own Divine Spirit or personal God,

‘. . every one of us has his Bodhisattva — the middle principle, if we hold for a moment to the trinitarian division* of the septenary group — and his Dhyani-Buddha, or Chohan, the “Father of the Son.” Our connecting link with the higher Hierarchy of Celestial Beings lies here in a nutshell, only we are too sinful to assimilate them.’

CW XIV 395

In the Secret Doctrine, this Dhyani Buddha is referred to as our Star Angel:

The star under which a human Entity is born, says the Occult teaching, will remain for ever its star, throughout the whole cycle of its incarnations in one Manvantara. But this is not his astrological star. The latter is concerned and connected with the personality, the former with the INDIVIDUALITY. The "Angel" of that Star, or the Dhyani-Buddha will be either the guiding or simply the presiding "Angel," so to say, in every new rebirth of the monad, which is part of his own essence, though his vehicle, man, may remain for ever ignorant of this fact. The adepts have each their Dhyani-Buddha, their elder "twin Soul," and they know it, calling it "Father-Soul," and "Father-Fire." It is only at the last and supreme initiation, however, that they learn it when placed face to face with the bright "Image.

SD I 573-574

Whether this Star Angel (this special purusha) within or ‘above’ us merely presides or guides will depend entirely upon ourselves. The more we devote ourselves towards the supreme wisdom  within us in the service of humanity perhaps the more likely we are to find that guidance can be found, here and there, upon the path. 

The above is one possible interpretation of what is meant by Isvara being 'a special kind of purusha'  in v24 bk 1 of Patanjali.  It’s tentatively offered, open to correction and improvement.

(*Note: for more on Karanatman (Causal Soul) and the trinitarian division of the seven principles see SD I 157 where the table there can be viewed as the microcosm or macrocosm.  See also the table in these posts: