What is Memory According to Theosophical Teaching?    

In this first part HPB responds to the criticism that if reincarnation were a fact then we would remember our past lives, but we don’t - therefore reincarnation is just a fancy of some people.  HPB also points out that psychologists are still unable to explain the nature of ‘mind’ and are ignorant of its potentialities and higher states.  This is still largely true today.  HPB continues by exploring three types of memory:

THEOSOPHIST. . . . there is a great difference between the three accepted forms of memory. Besides memory in general you have Remembrance, Recollection and Reminiscence, have you not? Have you ever thought over the difference? Memory, remember, is a generic name.

ENQUIRER. Yet, all these are only synonyms.

THEOSOPHIST. Indeed, they are not — not in philosophy, at all events. Memory is simply an innate power in thinking beings, and even in animals, of reproducing past impressions by an association of ideas principally suggested by objective things or by some action on our external sensory organs. Memory is a faculty depending entirely on the more or less healthy and normal functioning of our physical brain; andremembrance and recollection are the attributes and handmaidens of that memory. But reminiscence is an entirely different thing. “Reminiscence” is defined by the modern psychologist as something intermediate between remembrance and recollection, or “a conscious process of recalling past occurrences, but without that full and varied reference to particular things which characterises recollection.” Locke, speaking of recollection and remembrance, says: “When an idea again recurs without the operation of the like object on the external sensory, it is remembrance; if it be sought after by the mind, and with pain and endeavour found and brought again into view, it is recollection.” But even Locke leaves reminiscence without any clear definition, because it is no faculty or attribute of our physical memory, but an intuitional perception apart from and outside our physical brain; a perception which, covering as it does (being called into action by the ever-present knowledge of our spiritual Ego) all those visions in man which are regarded as abnormal — from the pictures suggested by genius to the ravings of fever and even madness — are classed by science as having no existence outside of our fancy. Occultism and Theosophy, however, regard reminiscence in an entirely different light. For us, while memory is physical and evanescent and depends on the physiological conditions of the brain — a fundamental proposition with all teachers of mnemonics, who have the researches of modern scientific psychologists to back them — we call reminiscence the memory of the soul. And it is this memory which gives the assurance to almost every human being, whether he understands it or not, of his having lived before and having to live again. Indeed, as Wordsworth has it:

   "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,

        The soul that rises with us, our life's star,

    Hath elsewhere had its setting,

         And cometh from afar."

ENQUIRER. If it is on this kind of memory — poetry and abnormal fancies, on your own confession — that you base your doctrine, then you will convince very few, I am afraid.

THEOSOPHIST. I did not “confess” it was a fancy. I simply said that physiologists and scientists in general regard such reminiscences as hallucinations and fancy, to which learned conclusion they are welcome. We do not deny that such visions of the past and glimpses far back into the corridors of time, are not abnormal, as contrasted with our normal daily life experience and physical memory. But we do maintain with Professor W. Knight, that “the absence of memory of any action done in a previous state cannot be a conclusive argument against our having lived through it.” And every fair-minded opponent must agree with what is said in Butler's Lectures on Platonic Philosophy — “that the feeling of extravagance with which it (pre-existence) affects us has its secret source in materialistic or semi-materialistic prejudices.” Besides which we maintain that memory, as Olympiodorus called it, is simply phantasy, and the most unreliable thing in us.* Ammonius Saccas asserted that the only faculty in man directly opposed to prognostication, or looking into futurity, ismemory. Furthermore, remember that memory is one thing and mind or thought is another; one is a recording machine, a register which very easily gets out of order; the other (thoughts) are eternal and imperishable. Would you refuse to believe in the existence of certain things or men only because your physical eyes have not seen them? Would not the collective testimony of past generations who have seen him be a sufficient guarantee that Julius Caesar once lived? Why should not the same testimony of the psychic senses of the masses be taken into consideration?

ENQUIRER. But don't you think that these are too fine distinctions to be accepted by the majority of mortals?

THEOSOPHIST. Say rather by the majority of materialists. And to them we say, behold: even in the short span of ordinary existence, memory is too weak to register all the events of a lifetime. How frequently do even most important events lie dormant in our memory until awakened by some association of ideas, or aroused to function and activity by some other link. This is especially the case with people of advanced age, who are always found suffering from feebleness of recollection. When, therefore, we remember that which we know about the physical and the spiritual principles in man, it is not the fact that our memory has failed to record our precedent life and lives that ought to surprise us, but the contrary, were it to happen.

From The Key to Theosophy pp123-127 (Original Edition)

You can read this section on line at:  http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/key/key-8.htm


Comments and questions welcome.

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A couple of questions come to mind on reading the above:

a)  what, exactly, is reminiscence or soul memory?

b)  HPB says that  "it is this memory [reminiscence] which gives the assurance to almost every human being, whether he understands it or not, of his having lived before and having to live again."   The say "every human being" is to make a large claim here.  What might HPB mean by this?  

c)  Are there other spiritual traditions that speak about the importance of soul memory?

d) "Furthermore, remember that memory is one thing and mind or thought is another; one is a recording machine, a register which very easily gets out of order; the other (thoughts) are eternal and imperishable."  What kind of "thought' is HPB referring to when she states that mind or thoughts are eternal and imperishable?

Please share any questions of your own.


b) it seems to me that there is in each of us a kind of "unconscious" or "subconscious" recognition that we are more than just this one personality in this one life, and I think—especially in our youth (before the personality has a chance to really gain full dominance)—this may manifest as a subtle feeling of immortality. We take all kinds of risks without a fully conscious feeling that death might end us. A child has no innate understanding that death is even a thing; it has to learn that death is a thing. And until it learns it, there's no real conception that one day "I" will be no more.

At a certain point we do learn about death, but even then there's something else within us that doesn't allow us to really comprehend or grasp what death is: i.e. we can't possibly imagine ourselves not-existing. It seems impossible, to me, to actually imagine ourselves not being. But, we seem to have an innate, subtle sense that we are, and will always be. It's a "sense" or "feeling" or "intuition" that goes beyond the rational mind and all it thinks it knows about life and death conceptually.


That would certainly fit in with Wordsworth's view, Jon, giving that he named the poem from which HPB quotes, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."

However Wordsworth believed we lose sight of those intimations as we reach adulthood; as he writes further on:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!  
Shades of the prison-house begin to close  
        Upon the growing Boy,  
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,  
        He sees it in his joy;  
The Youth, who daily farther from the east  
    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,  
      And by the vision splendid  
      Is on his way attended;  
At length the Man perceives it die away,  
And fade into the light of common day.


a) I think "memory" is commonly understood to be some kind of manual storage of information, that we are continuously gathering everything up and keeping it somewhere, though this might prove to be a rather flawed idea. But without going too deep on why this idea might be limiting, it might help to see a certain distinction when we consider theosophical teachings about the nature of Man: that is, we might distinguish between "individual" storage, so to speak, and "personal" storage. A "higher memory" and a "lower memory", corresponding with our lower personal self and our higher impersonal Ego.

I suspect, overall, that "memory" may be simply the result of the power of perception inherent in us, when that power is used in a certain way, directed in a certain way (HPB says: "Memory is simply an innate power in thinking beings"). We never remember in the past: we remember the past, but the act of remembering is in the present: thus, we are exhibiting some kind of present power directed upon some present "thing" and are yielding some kind of information from that thing (the "innate power ... of reproducing past impressions"). I imagine that we're directing our power of perception at some object/idea and perceiving some past state of that object/idea.

So, when we are remembering from our personal life, we're probably directing our power of perception towards some object/idea (or collection of objects/ideas) that we have been personally involved with in this life and are "looking", so to speak, at a past state of that object/idea as it relates to our personal experience; thus sort of "reproducing that past impression" or "re-experiencing" that impression in our imagination.

Soul memory, then, may simply be the directing of this power of perception towards objects/ideas that we haven't necessarily been involved with personally in this life, but that we (our Ego) was involved with in some past life.

Main idea, to me, is that memory is the exhibiting of a present power upon a present thing: i.e. it is not an actual "reaching into the past", so to speak. Which might mean that the object/ideas themselves contain the information of their past (as opposed to that information being stored within each of us personally (i.e. in our brains or minds)).

I'd be interested in other's thoughts on these ideas...


Very interesting indeed, Jon - thank you.

We often talk about events - physical, psychological or spiritual - as being impressedupon memory and afterwards they are triggered by something or other, or consciously recalled - perhaps by that power you mentioned. 

With regards to the first part of the process - the impressing - this may occur in relation to the three areas of the physical brain, the mental and the spiritual nature - all as types of substance.  HPB talks about tablets of memory.  So there might be a clue to the distinction between ordinary  recall memory and reminiscence in the following, from ‘Transactions of Blavatsky Lodge’:

Q. What relation have the Astral Light and Akasa to memory?

A. The former is the "tablet of the memory" of the animal man, the latter of the spiritual Ego. The "dreams" of the Ego, as much as the acts of the physical man, are all recorded, since both are actions based on causes and producing results. Our "dreams," being simply the waking state and actions of the true Self, must be, of course, recorded somewhere.

(Appendix on Dreams, p64)


It is interesting that before death, we see our entire life flash before us. This tells us that nothing is ever lost. It is a matter if we have the ability to tune into this state of consciousness.

"NOTHING that takes place, no manifestation however rapid or weak, can ever be lost from the Skandhic record of a man's life. Not the smallest sensation, the most trifling action, impulse, thought, impression, or deed, can fade or go out from, or in the Universe. We may think it unregistered by our memory, unperceived by our consciousness, yet it will still be recorded on the tablets of the astral light. Personal memory is a fiction of the physiologist. There are cells in our brain that receive and convey sensations and impressions, but this once done, their mission is accomplished. These cells of the supposed "organ of memory" are the receivers and conveyors of all the pictures and impressions of the past, not their retainers. Under various conditions and stimuli, they can receive instantaneously the reflection of these astral images back again, and this is called memory, recollection, remembrance; but they do not preserve them. When it is said that one has lost his memory, or that it is weakened, it is only afacon de parler; it is our memory-cells alone that are enfeebled or destroyed. The window glass allows us to see the sun, moon, stars, and all the objects outside clearly; crack the pane and all these outside images will be seen in a distorted way; break the windowpane altogether and replace it with a board, or draw the blind down, and the images will be shut out altogether from your sight. But can you say because of this, that all these images-sun, moon, and stars-have disappeared, or that by repairing the window with a new pane, the same will not be reflected again into your room? There are cases on record of long months and years of insanity, of long days of fever when almost everything done or said, was done and said unconsciously. Yet when the patients recovered they remembered occasionally their words and deeds and very fully. Unconscious cerebration is a phenomenon on this plane and may hold good so far as the personal mind is concerned. But the Universal Memory preserves every motion, the slightest wave and feeling that ripples the waves of differentiated nature, of man or of the Universe. "

Lucifer, October, 1891




Thanks for this wonderful passage, barb!

"...they can receive instantaneously the reflection of these astral images back again, and this is called memory, recollection, remembrance; but they do not preserve them..."

So, my question is: where and what is the storage? What is a "tablet of the astral light"?


"Where and what is the storage?", Jon asks.

I suspect this is a very deep subject indeed. We are told there is the memory of all things in this world preserved in the astral light; then there are the spiritual actions preserved in the Akasha (of which the astral light is the lower portion).  Where are the impressions of a previous maha-manvantara retained and which come to life once again after the maya-pralaya?  This must also be linked to karmic records and some of the highest intelligences in Kosmos - the Lipika.  This is all the stuff of a Secret Doctrine group study at some point.


That's very helpful, Nicholas. Thanks.  

Just to add a further piece of information - In Advaita, all the latent tendencies are said to be stored in the Karana-sarira between incarnations.  The same at the cosmic level when at rest, where, by correspondence, the Causal body is Isvara  (see link below).



Great passage, Barbara, and very relevant to our current study.  

b)  HPB says that  "it is this memory [reminiscence] which gives the assurance to almost every human being, whether he understands it or not, of his having lived before and having to live again."   The say "every human being" is to make a large claim here.  What might HPB mean by this?  

I've come across this term very often... Human Being. Though, it would seem, that there is a wide variation of such "beings". Perhaps a Human Being is something rare, something freed from the lesser desires, a being of peace and love.

c)  Are there other spiritual traditions that speak about the importance of soul memory?

Every tradition that speaks of reincarnation.

d) "Furthermore, remember that memory is one thing and mind or thought is another; one is a recording machine, a register which very easily gets out of order; the other (thoughts) are eternal and imperishable."  What kind of "thought' is HPB referring to when she states that mind or thoughts are eternal and imperishable?

This rises the question, do we Create thoughts and memories? Or are we merely following the grooves of infinite possibility, illuminating a path that was already etched by its own potential to exist?

Perhaps we are looking at the concept of memory from an inappropriate angle?

When we recollect an experience or information, there may be an illusion occurring. Are we "re-membering" an experience or information as it was first experienced or formed as idea? Or are we re-configuring?



"When we recollect an experience or information, there may be an illusion occurring. Are we "re-membering" an experience or information as it was first experienced or formed as idea? Or are we re-configuring?"


That's a very good point, Grimm.  I'm sure a great deal of our memory involves an element of re-configuring. In many ways we re-invent the past depending on our predilections in the present. So, it can end up a mixture of fact and phantasy.  That said, I suspect that when HPB refers to "tablets of memory" (see above) she believes there are records of events in the subtle planes which exist independent of our power or accuracy or recall.

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Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on November 22, 2013 at 2:31pm

I think that's a good point, Peter. It may be the case that the "records" are entirely and completely accurate, but we "color" our recollection of the record with our own imaginings, likely taking up a "memory" and recalling it in such a way not so much to alter the memory itself (per se) but to alter our imagining of the memory. After all, it must be something like our power of imagination (of "image making") that brings to our mind the "picture" of the memory when we "re-experience it" in a daydream or actual dream.

I notice this when I think back to childhood events; I'm clearly remembering those events as an adult, from an adult perspective and coloring, and it is a real strain to try to recall the event from the perspective of the child who was experiencing it, to see it again from their perspective (which seems almost impossible). But, of course, the experience of the event was as a child, and thus the memory per se must, in a sense, be the memory of a child.

The question arises then: is there a subjective element to the memory per se? I.e. can the memory itself be "detached" from the subjective experience of the original event? Is there an actual impartial or "objective" record of the event, or does that record involve the subjective experience of all who were involved in the event?

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 21, 2013 at 11:28am

In discussions about reincarnation with many people outside of eastern thought an objection to the idea is the notion that it sounds crazy to them to be reborn as a butterfly or an insect or an animal. Outside of theosophical literature, is there support for the idea that "once human always human" in the traditions of the East?  I am looking for support for the "always human" idea without having to resort to our own literature.

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 21, 2013 at 12:59pm

Transmigration appears to be part of Hinduism and Buddhism. We even find it in Platonism (see 'The Myth of Er' in Plato's "The Republic"), although in Platonism the soul appears to freely choose its next birth rather than compelled into a certain type of birth by Karma.

Do members of those traditions really believe we can be reborn as animals, insects etc?  It seems to depend on who you talk to.  I studied with a Tibetan Lama from the Kagyu tradition who saw no problem at all in the idea of being born as a slug in the next life.  Of course, one can see the metaphor of being born as a slug made to apply to someone who leads a totally slothful life and generating corresponding karmic results as a result.  However, my question as to how the actual consciousness in a slug could then generate the kind of karmic causes that would lead to that stream of consciousness being reborn again in the human realm went unanswered. 

I studied with a Gelugpa Lama who felt we needed to be careful not to take these kind of teachings literally and that the essential practice with regards karma and rebirth is really to understand the importance of the 12 Nidannas and thereby free ourselves of attachment, develop compassion and understand the nature of emptiness. 

I don't think these two lamas necessarily either represent or misrepresent their traditions but were simply expressing their own understanding.

I expect it is the same in, say, the Advaita tradition.  An Advaitee is probably more likely to ask whether reincarnation is something that is real or just a maya for those beings who believe they are jivas.  The human v/s animal question being of minor importance, in that respect.   But see, for example, Swami Abhedananda's book "Vedanta Philosophy: Five Lectures on Reincarnation" in which he states his view is that only uneducated Hindus believe that human beings can be reborn as animals. In other words, he clearly believes Advaita teaches there is no going backwards to animal incarnations once human stage is achieved.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 22, 2013 at 11:38am

Thank you for all this.  Everyone's response to my question has been amazing.  Thanks Peter and others.

Footnote:  I don't think Plato is saying that the Ego chooses the next life in the conventional sense of sitting down with a set of options and making a decision.  It is symbolical only I believe as is befitting of it being an allegory. The "choice" is made through thousands of little choices made in previous lives.  In that sense it is a singular choice and corresponds with Secret Doctrine teachings.

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 22, 2013 at 2:40pm

I'm sure the Myth of Er is full of allegory, Gerry.  Yet, it does emphasise a conscious choice made by the Soul just prior to its new incarnation, a choice which distinguishes his writings from those found in Hinduism and Buddhism.  For example:

"When Er and the spirits arrived, their duty was to go at once to Lachesis; but first of all there came a prophet who arranged them in order; then he took from the knees of Lachesis lots and samples of lives, and having mounted a high pulpit, spoke as follows: 'Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be allotted to you, but you choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny." (617:d)

However, the Myth portrays each soul making a choice based on their previous lived experience.  Therefore some regret their choice.  However, all completely forget their choice on their way to their new incarnation when they stop at the Plain of Lethe and drink the waters of forgetfulness drawn from the river that passes through the plain.

It may well be that among other things which the analogy of the myth may reveal, Plato wishes to draw the student's attention to a moment of clear consciousness which the Soul has just prior to leaving the after death states.  Theosophy refers to this too, of course, but in a more explicit way.  Much is veiled in Plato's work isn't it.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 22, 2013 at 3:34pm

What we do know through HPB is that Plato was an Initiate.  She has pretty high praise for his standing in the world of Spiritual Teachers. (Fifth Rounder) The Myth is fascinating, a favorite for many, and all I was saying was we need to guard against the tendency to look at any of this literally.  After all these are profound mysteries to those of us locked into mortal consciousness.  I think what the Myth points to, reading between the lines,  is not so much one single moment of choice but rather what might be called theosophically "the line of life's meditation".  What is the predominant themes of that individual's over all mental and moral condition and direction.  All the little choices determine one large choice so to speak, which is the specific conditions, limitations and possibilities of the next life.

This is such a fascinating subject and excellent discussion.

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 25, 2013 at 6:13am

You're quite right, Gerry, we must guard against literalism when studying the works of the Initiates - especially so in Plato's case where in the Myth itself we find Orpheus choosing in his next life to be born as a Swan while Ajax chooses to be the soul of a Lion and so on.  At the same time we need to be cautious in our approach so as not to impose a meaning on such texts which may not fit with what the allegory presented therein.

For those not familiar with the Myth of Er - at this point in the Myth we find the Soul about to enter its new life, having just emerged from its after death journey either 'down' through the chasms below the earth or upwards through the heavens depending on the goodness or badness of the life just lived.  (See the Key to Theosophy relating to Kama Loka and Devachan.)

The Soul then meets with Lachesis, the maiden daughter of Necessity (which we call Karma).  The Soul chooses from among the lots (and patterns) of life that Lachesis castes before it.  Thus, it doesn't have a totally free choice in the tale and the choice that most souls make among these lots and patterns are based on the habits of its former lives.  From a theosophical point of view we would regard such habits as the skandhas and from this we might suggest that the above scene in the Myth appears to fit with HPB's description of this stage:

"Karma,with its army of Skandhas, waits at the threshold of Devachan, whence the Ego reemerges 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." (Key to Theosophy, 141)

What Socrates - who retells the tale - points out here is that it is we, in this life, and not the Gods or any other beings who determine what our futures will be in the future.  It is the choice towards a "just life" and "goodness" that we make here that really lies behind the choice that the Soul makes in its meeting with Lachesis - when the momentum of the next life is set in motion once again.

In the Myth some Souls are shown to regret the choices they make when they see how those choices will unfold.  The principle teaching here may not be about making right or wrong choices prior to being reborn but, more importantly, that prior to the new birth the Soul sees in its entiretythe life that is before it.  We find a similar teaching in Theosophy:

"As the man at the moment of death has a retrospective insight into the life he has led, so, at the moment he is reborn on to earth, the Ego, awaking from the state of Devachan, has a prospective vision of the life which awaits him, and realizes all the causes that have led to it. He realises them and sees futurity, because it is between Devachan and re-birth that the Ego regains his full manasic consciousness, and rebecomes for a short time the god he was, before, in compliance with Karmic law, he first descended into matter and incarnated in the first man of flesh."

In the Myth of Er the soul loses sight of this vision after pausing to drink from the River Lethe - the waters of forgetfulness -on its way back into mortal life.  However, Plato and Socrates both taught that all true knowledge is merely a remembering of what the Soul already knows but had just 'forgotten' and … that this can be reawakened in us.  This brings us back to our theme of memory of past lives in our present study.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 25, 2013 at 10:52am

Peter thanks for this retelling and your insights on the Myth.  It is a wonderful part of Platonic thought and immensely thought provoking.  Looking at allegories from a variety of points of view is always a good thing.  I find these things take on new meanings when looked at from different periods of one's life and through the eyes of others.

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 25, 2013 at 10:58am

Rather 'thank you', Gerry - for it was out of your pressing us not to take it too literally that prompted me to say more and attempt to link it more specifically with our current theme.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on November 25, 2013 at 10:58am

Just a couple of thoughts that arise from this discussion:

I suspect that in the mystery language of the initiates, each animal has a specific symbolic significance, likely relating to inner powers. I notice that the cow seems quite often related to the senses; the horse (as in the "horse sacrifice", etc.) certainly has a symbolic meaning; the lion as well, as do dogs and monkeys and so on. I suspect the Egyptian imagery of half man, half animals is a representation of much of this kind of symbolism, representing certain characteristics or powers attained by the initiate.

In this way, I imagine also that references to being "re-born" as a certain animal may have to do with the re-awakening of certain powers or functions in the "born again" initiate.

I also think it's important not to be too literal with the idea of "choice" when speaking of the Ego, and in regards to its reincarnation. I suspect that, since we're not dealing with an entity that views itself as a separate personality, the idea of "choice" from the perspective of the Ego is likely different than the idea of "choice" from the perspective of a personality. The latter would likely have much more of a sense of separate personalized Will than the former, which wouldn't see itself as separate from Law (i.e. for the Ego, "choice" may very well be indistinguishable from "obeying law", since every "choice" of the Ego (devoid of limiting separate personality) would be an expression of "divine law" (from our perspective).

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 25, 2013 at 12:02pm

Orpheus is connected with the Great Mysteries.  HPB states that Enoch, Thoth, Hermes and Orpheus are all different names for the primordial Instructors.  In other places Orpheus is described as a great Adept.

The Voice of the Silence might offer us a clue as to the meaning of Orpheus' choice to be born as the soul of a swan; to paraphrase:

He who has reached 'the knowledge of that SELF' and has given up 'Self to Non-Self, Being to Non-Being . . . canst repose between the wings of the GREAT BIRD.  Aye, sweet is rest between the wings of that which is not born, nor dies, but is the AUM throughout the eternal ages."  (VOS; p5)

In the glossary notes HPB explains the Great Bird is Kala-Hamsa, and quoting the Nada-Bindu Upanishad she informs us that "The syllable A is considered to its (the bird Hamsa's) right wing, U, its left, M, its tail, and the Ardha-matra (half metre) is said to be the head."

Yes, it would make sense that the EGO referred to which has regained its full consciousness just prior to the new birth and which has the prospective vision of all that lies ahead in the next life is the reincarnating ego (Buddhi-Manas).  So, the notion of "choice" would have a deeper meaning than we usually attach to it.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on November 21, 2013 at 3:30pm

I've been studying the Upanishads lately, and from what I can see in the 10 Principle Upanishads, there is no indication of the idea of reincarnating in anything but human forms. Reincarnation is always spoken of in terms of coming back as a human into human situations. There is the idea of coming back into "better" or "worse" situations, but they are still human ones. The idea of returning in animal form doesn't seem to be argued against, which leads me to suppose that whenever these Upanishads were written this was probably not even a question, or perhaps the knowledge that "once a man, always a man" might've simply been taken for granted and universally understood. As the Upanishads are the fountain-source for all Vedanta, and can also be seen as the fountain-source of Buddha's teachings (though some would argue against that, of course), we might suppose that the initial or original teachings on reincarnation didn't include anything about returning as an animal. It seems to me that the latter idea is just an outgrowth of a later misunderstanding of what transmigration means.

I haven't come across any texts from eastern traditions that outright argue against returning as animals, but I suspect this was because there was no need to argue against an idea that was either non-existent at the time or only believed in by the most ignorant.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 21, 2013 at 4:56pm

The Kaushitaki Upanishad is considered one of the Principle Upanishads when they are numbered as thirteen.  It has the following:

"Here he becomes a worm or an insect or a fish, or a bird, or a lion, or a boar, or a snake or a tiger or a person or some other in this or that condition according to his deeds (karma) and knowledge."

Kaushitaki Upanishad 1:2

Permalink Reply by Ryan Hauck on November 22, 2013 at 7:51am

I think the idea that we cannot return as an animal once we have taken human form is a logical conclusion.

If an animal is a 10oz cup of water, and a human a 20oz cup of coffee.... then what we gain in experience and wisdom as a human will not fit in the animal vehicle.


Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 25, 2013 at 10:28am

What would it mean to make reincarnation a vital truth in one's personal life?

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on November 26, 2013 at 2:28pm

One approach might be to treat each day as a new incarnation, a new start, a chance to set things right, and move in a new direction.  To be hopeful.

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 27, 2013 at 7:07am

Great question, Gerry, and I rather like Tamiko's optimistic answer of treating each day as a new incarnation and thereby making a new start each time .

I imagine that we might only make reincarnation a "vital truth" in our lives when we reflect upon it alongside the Law of Karma.   Perhaps as a result we might begin to comprehend that the circumstances of our current life and our abilities/attributes are largely the outcome of causes set in motion in previous lives and that, even now, our actions are creating the effects that will visit us in future incarnations - for good or ill.  

Of course, the implications of the law of cause and effect (Karma) will only be properly appreciated as  we gain an understanding of the different kinds of effects that are generated by our moral actions, or lack of them.  Reflecting upon The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha along with a study of the Twelve Nidanas may well wake us up to the consequences of our thoughts and deeds along with the effects these have, not just on ourselves but on humanity as a whole.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 27, 2013 at 9:06am

Yes, very good points here Peter.  Bringing in Karma and trying to make it a vital truth in our lives rounds out the equation.  HPB paired these ideas again and again in her writings.  And Mr. Judge was equally emphatic about putting them together.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 27, 2013 at 9:10am

To address my own question:  One thing I have heard about making reincarnation a vital truth in our lives is to treat each human being we meet as an immortal soul, with an immense past and an endless future.  To recollect that this person we are encountering has been in seemingly countless sets of circumstances and has visited all the various stations of life.  This helps us to think past the externals and the appearances that we all know are misleading and temporary.

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 27, 2013 at 10:24am

That's a lovely ideal, Gerry.  From my own experience, reflecting upon reincarnation and karma has helped me to be a little bit more compassionate towards other beings - something I hadn't expected to happen when I first started studying the subject.  It's strange to find oneself hearing about the dreadful things one person can do to another and then feeling a concern, even sadness, for the karma that person is generating for him/her self.  There go us all, in one way or another.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 27, 2013 at 12:02pm

To use your words, you could say that trying to see each person as an immortal soul is a "practice". Certainly if we gain traction with this practice it makes it more difficult to justify harming another human being.

Permalink Reply by Tamiko Yamada on November 27, 2013 at 2:40pm

Another approach is to see every human failure as a limitation, an effect set in motion by a cause and every human success as a liberation, spirit released.  And to empathize with both.

Permalink Reply by Ryan Hauck on November 27, 2013 at 3:28pm

Here's a thought...

Everyone is living out their Karma from past lives. Moving in this world, consciously, affords us the opportunity to assist in "healing" others Karma, through compassion, generosity, love, and kindness. Does this, in turn, harmonize our own karma? 

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 27, 2013 at 3:45pm

We may not be able to change the Karma that we and others have already created for ourselves by our past actions.  But if we can live up to the ideals that you describe we would no doubt be creating better futures for humanity as a whole.

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Permalink Reply by Peter on November 27, 2013 at 3:39pm

Beautifully put, Tamiko.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on November 29, 2013 at 10:45am

Hi Jon,

Sorry for the late reply.  It was difficult for me to get online during the week.  Below are some passages related to the topic we have been discussing.  It is interesting for me to learn the deep connection between the Lipikas and the Astral Light, and the vital role of skandhas in memory. 


[The Lipikas] are the Recorders or Annalists who impress on the (to us) invisible tablets of the Astral Light,  "the great picture-gallery of eternity" - a faithful record of every act, and even thought, of man; of all that was, is , or ever will be, in the phenomenal universe.....this divine and unseen canvas is the Book of Life."  (S.D I, 104)


Skandhas are the germs of life on all the seven planes of Being, and make up the totality of the subjective and objective  man. Every vibration we have made is a Skandhas.  The Skandhas are closely united to the pictures in the Astral Light, which is the medium of impressions, and the Skandhas, or vibration, connected with subjective or objective man, are the links which attract the Reincarnation Ego, the germs left behind when it went into Devachan which have to be picked up again and exhausted by a new personality.  The exoteric Skandhas have to do with the physical atoms and vibrations, or objective man;  the Esoteric with the internal and subjective man."  (S.D. V. 560)

The Occultists  are consistent with their doctrine of Spirit and Soul when speaking of memory in every atom, of will and sensation."  (S.D. II 672)

Why Do We Not Remember Our Past Lives?    

This is a very long section which I have edited to make it fit here. In this sub-section the enquirer begins by asking, if we have seven principles how is it that we have a complete loss of any recollection of having lived before?  HPB explains that the physical principles ( physical body, prana, kama rupa, and linga sarira) are disintegrated after death which naturally includes with it the memory along with its brain.  In the next incarnation the Reincarnating Ego is furnished with a new body, a new brain and a new memory. The new memory can’t be expected to recall things it never knew.   HPB goes on to say that circumstantial evidence might help in our belief in reincarnation but the only way to form a true conviction in reincarnation is to “put oneself in rapport with one’s permanent Ego, not one’s evanescent memory.”  (p128)

ENQUIRER. What is, finally, this mysterious eternal principle? Can you explain its nature so as to make it comprehensible to all?

THEOSOPHIST. The EGO which re-incarnates, the individual and immortal―not personal― “I”; the vehicle, in short, of the Atma-Buddhic MONAD, that which is rewarded in Devachan and punished on earth, and that, finally, to which the reflection only of the Skandhas, or attributes, of every incarnation attaches itself.

ENQUIRER. What do you mean by Skandhas?

THEOSOPHIST. Just what I said: “attributes,” among which is memory, all of which perish like a flower, leaving behind them only a feeble perfume. Here is another paragraph from H. S. Olcott's “Buddhist Catechism” which bears directly upon the subject. It deals with the question as follows:― “The aged man remembers the incidents of his youth, despite his being physically and mentally changed. Why, then, is not the recollection of past lives brought over by us from our last birth into the present birth? Because memory is included within the Skandhas, and the Skandhas having changed with the new existence, a memory, the record of that particular existence, develops. Yet the record or reflection of all the past lives must survive, for when Prince Siddhartha became Buddha, the full sequence of His previous births were seen by Him. . . . and any one who attains to the state of Jhana can thus retrospectively trace the line of his lives.” This proves to you that while the undying qualities of the personality― such as love, goodness, charity, etc.― attach themselves to the immortal Ego, photographing on it, so to speak, a permanent image of the divine aspect of the man who was, his material Skandhas (those which generate the most marked Karmic effects) are as evanescent as a flash of lightning, and cannot impress the new brain of the new personality; yet their failing to do so impairs in no way the identity of the re-incarnating Ego.

ENQUIRER. Do you mean to infer that that which survives is only the Soul memory, as you call it, that Soul or Ego being one and the same, while nothing of the personality remains?

THEOSOPHIST. Not quite; something of each personality, unless the latter was an absolute materialist with not even a chink in his nature for a spiritual ray to pass through, must survive, as it leaves its eternal impress on the incarnating permanent Self or Spiritual Ego.* (See On post mortem and post natalConsciousness.) The personality with its Skandhas is ever changing with every new birth. It is, as said before, only the part played by the actor (the true Ego) for one night. This is why we preserve no memory on the physical plane of our past lives, though the real “Ego” has lived them over and knows them all.

ENQUIRER. Then how does it happen that the real or Spiritual man does not impress his new personal “I” with this knowledge?

THEOSOPHIST. How is it that the servant-girls in a poor farm-house could speak Hebrew and play the violin in their trance or somnambulic state, and knew neither when in their normal condition? Because, as every genuine psychologist of the old, not your modern, school, will tell you, the Spiritual Ego can act only when the personal Ego is paralysed. The Spiritual “I” in man is omniscient and has every knowledge innate in it; while the personal self is the creature of its environment and the slave of the physical memory. Could the former manifest itself uninterruptedly, and without impediment, there would be no longer men on earth, but we should all be gods.

ENQUIRER. Still there ought to be exceptions, and some ought to remember.

THEOSOPHIST. And so there are. But who believes in their report? .  .  .  .  Can you remember what you were or did when a baby? Have you preserved the smallest recollection of your life, thoughts, or deeds, or that you lived at all during the first eighteen months or two years of your existence? Then why not deny that you have ever lived as a babe, on the same principle? When to all this we add that the reincarnating Ego, or individuality, retains during the Devachanic period merely the essence of the experience of its past earth-life or personality, the whole physical experience involving into a state of in potentia, or being, so to speak, translated into spiritual formulae; when we remember further that the term between two rebirths is said to extend from ten to fifteen centuries, during which time the physical consciousness is totally and absolutely inactive, having no organs to act through, and therefore no existence, the reason for the absence of all remembrance in the purely physical memory is apparent.

ENQUIRER. You just said that the SPIRITUAL EGO was omniscient. Where, then, is that vaunted omniscience during his Devachanic life, as you call it?

THEOSOPHIST. During that time it is latent and potential, because, first of all, the Spiritual Ego (the compound of Buddhi-Manas) is not the HIGHER SELF, which being one with the Universal Soul or Mind is alone omniscient; and, secondly, because Devachan is the idealized continuation of the terrestrial life just left behind, a period of retributive adjustment, and a reward for unmerited wrongs and sufferings undergone in that special life. It is omniscient only potentially in Devachan, and de facto exclusively in Nirvana, when the Ego is merged in the Universal Mind-Soul. Yet it rebecomes quasi omniscient during those hours on earth when certain abnormal conditions and physiological changes in the body make the Ego free from the trammels of matter. Thus the examples cited above of somnambulists, a poor servant speaking Hebrew, and another playing the violin, give you an illustration of the case in point. This does not mean that the explanations of these two facts offered us by medical science have no truth in them, for one girl had, years before, heard her master, a clergyman, read Hebrew works aloud, and the other had heard an artist playing a violin at their farm. But neither could have done so as perfectly as they did had they not been ensouled by THAT which, owing to the sameness of its nature with the Universal Mind, is omniscient. Here the higher principle acted on the Skandhas and moved them; in the other, the personality being paralysed, the individuality manifested itself. Pray do not confuse the two.

(edited from The Key to Theosophy pp 127 132, Original Edition)


I have put some questions in one of the first few posts below.  Your comments and questions very welcome.

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This has been a question of mine for a long time. I've attempted, in meditation, to recollect memories of past lives numerous times, with no success. I have, however, had very lucid experiences of Dejavu, but upon reflection, I would say that the sense of "familiarity" had to do with a subtle feeling rather then a local/specific memory. As if I had either been in a similar emotional/mental frame of mind before, or I experience a deep sense of comfort and am reminded of a state of "being home". 

To ensure I understand this right, HPB is saying that we do not remember our past lives like we remember events of our current life, because a majority of these past lives were spent in materialism, or were not spiritually relevant enough to be remembered? 


HPB informs us that we normally don’t remember our past lives mainly because the memory linked to the brain and body of this personality pertains solely to this incarnation and the experiences of this personality in this current lifetime.

Each incarnation brings with it a new body and a ‘new’ personality.  The ‘new’ personality is shaped, however, by the skandhas (personal attributes) developed in the previous life and by the Karma which has been developed over many lives, of which only a portion manifests in any one life time.  So there is a continuity of personal characteristics but not a continuity for the personal ego.

While our personalities are evanescent, the reincarnating Ego (Buddhi-Manas) is the permanent principle in us, the real Individuality.   It is this which garners or assimilates the experiences of each personality that are worthy enough of attaching themselves to the immortal Ego, normally through the process called the devachanic experience.  Therefore if we (the personality) could bring our consciousness in rapport with our higher nature, the Reincarnating Ego, then we would be in a position to recall with certainty our past lives.  However, what each of us is capable of discerning - should we be able to bring ourselves en rapport with the Higher Ego - must vary person to person.   One of the Mahatama’s used a phrase to describe something similar to this along the lines of ‘we may all get in the water, but not everyone can swim once there.’  So, we might catch barely a glimpse or a more comprehensive vision depending on our ‘ability’ or depending on what the Higher Ego impresses upon the lower mind having been given the chance to do so.

It appears that all our actions - spiritual, mental and physical - leave an impression on the inner planes in general and on the auric envelope in particular, and it’s likely that because of this that an adept can achieve a very clear detail of his/her previous lives and those of other beings.  I would think that the difficult for most of us, even if we had this inner sight, is the way in which our personal consciousness tends to colour our perceptions and make sense of the unknown in terms of its own limited knowledge and experience.

Grimm, I've aimed at giving a general reply based on my understanding, but if this doesn't quite answer your question please say.


Before diving into the discussion, I wanted to share a little theosophical booklet I found fascinating in regards to the idea of the remembrance of past lives.

Memory of Past Births


Here are a few questions to reflect upon:

a)  what are the skandhas that HPB refers to?

b)  why is it said that the material skandhas 'generate the most marked karmic effects'?

c)  HPB states,  "The Spiritual “I” in man is omniscient and has every knowledge innate in it; while the personal self is the creature of its environment and the slave of the physical memory."  Does this mean there is really nothing 'new' developed or evolved over time or through time?

d)  It's stated that physical memory with its brain of the previous life is destroyed and that "the reincarnating Ego, or individuality, retains during the Devachanic period merely the essence of the experience of its past earth-life or personality, the whole physical experience involving into a state of in potentia..."  does this mean the average person can only recall the 'spiritual' aspects of their past lives?  How would we account for those reported memories that seem to fall far short of this definition?

e)  The Theosophical teaching is that the time interval between births is, on average, from 1000 to 1500 years.  What are the implications of this in terms of reported experiences which are often a great deal shorter?

f)   What might HPB mean by "unmerited wrongs and sufferings" in the following passage?  "Devachan is the idealized continuation of the terrestrial life just left behind, a period of retributive adjustment, and a reward for unmerited wrongs and sufferings undergone in that special life."

g)  Given the length of time humanity is said to have existed on the planet, according to Theosophy, the Reincarnating Ego must have had more incarnations than there have been days in this current life. Is there any real value in trying to recall our particular past lives?  Will this knowledge be any more helpful to us than, for example, trying to remember what we did on a certain day some years ago?

Any questions of your own?


Hi Peter,

Let me try to answer the questions you posted along with my own questions.

a)  "what are the skandhas that HPB refers to?"

Skandhas are groups of attributes, the elements carried from previous life which make up our personality.   It is interesting to note there are seven planes of skandhas.  I wonder what is the relationship between the atoms in our being and skandhas?  Are individual skandhas colored by the tattvas?  It would seem that the skandhas have a strong connection to karma since we carry it from one life to the next.  I would assume it is impossible to be devoid of skandhas?

b)  "why is it said that the material skandhas 'generate the most marked karmic effects'

This does not make much sense since the material plane is merely an expression of the inner forces.  In other words, what we see on the physical plane are  skandhas from the subtle planes expressing itself on the outer planes.  

c)  "HPB states,  "The Spiritual “I” in man is omniscient and has every knowledge innate in it; while the personal self is the creature of its environment and the slave of the physical memory."  Does this mean there is really nothing 'new' developed or evolved over time or through time?"

I think it is the personal self that is developing and evolving over time. 

d).  ".....does this mean the average person can only recall the 'spiritual' aspects of their past lives?  How would we account for those reported memories that seem to fall far short of this definition?"

But we are also told that nothing is ever lost;  every thought and act are all recorded in the astral light.  The Spiritual "I" is omniscient and would be able to recall all the previous lives.

e)  "The Theosophical teaching is that the time interval between births is, on average, from 1000 to 1500 years.  What are the implications of this in terms of reported experiences which are often a great deal shorter?"

Is it set in stone?  It would seem time interval is a subjective thing.  Also, I believe the teachings said those who committed suicide or died in accidents come back sooner.

g) "Is there any real value in trying to recall our particular past lives?  Will this knowledge be any more helpful to us than, for example, trying to remember what we did on a certain day some years ago?"

I can not speak for others, but for myself, after listening to several psychics decades ago telling me who I was in my past lives, it did not do anything for me other than they gave me an ego boost. The stories impressed certain ideas in my mind that may or may not be true and I felt the suggestions blocked my intuition. I stopped going to any readings after realizing my motive and the effects.  More than anything else, It does not seem very interesting to me.  But, for some people, it may be of value. 




Just to add a bit more on the skandhas.  The traditional and general buddhist view is as follows, but which differs slightly across the traditions:

Rupa - is form or body and includes the sense organs.

Vedana -  feeling or sensation in terms of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

Sanna -  perception, registration or recognition of sensual or mental stimuli

Sankhara - mental formations, e.g., volition, habit, tendencies, thoughts, opinions, discrimination and comparison of ideas & so on.

Vinnana -  moment to moment ongoing and ever changing stream of consciousness of sensual and mental objects; mental powers relating to Sankhara in terms of moral or immoral disposition etc.

HPB provides a footnote to name the skandhas on p129 of 'The Key..' (original edition).  The same definition is found in one of the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett but with a mention of a further two, so i have given that passage here instead of HPB's.  These differ slightly from the traditional definitions:

"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. Suffice for the present to let you know that they are connected with, and productive of Sakkayaditthi,  the “heresy or delusion of individuality” and of Attavada  “the doctrine of Self,” both of which (in the case of the fifth principle the soul) lead to the maya  of heresy and belief in the efficacy of vain rites and ceremonies; in prayers and intercession."

(Mahatma Letters to A.P.Sinnett, no16, p111 of Barker Edition)


It is the skandhas (see above post) - the ever changing bundle of attributes - that effectively constitute the personality, which according to both buddhism and theosophy does not contain an independent and substantial self.  

Karma is a moral law and it is because of this that the skandhas play such a large part in the formation of the future karma which shapes our future incarnations.   Our mental intentions and actions today are the causes of the karmic effects which catch up with us in one life or another.

The attributes that form the make up of the personality in the next life will be based on the skandhas in existence in this life.  The skandhas, therefore, are intimately connected with both the law of karma, which will shape the type of incarnation we are born into (i.e. its circumstances, events, people who may act favourably or not towards us)  and the type of personality we will have in the next life. 


Barbara,  many thanks for your replies and good thoughts.  With regards the interval between incarnations said to be between 1000 and 1500 years – I'm sure it's not set in stone as this figure is given as an "average".  So we must assume there are some far longer and far shorter.  It may also be a figure that applies to humanity in this fifth root race and not to all the root races.

Suicides and those who die in accidents do not come back sooner, as far as I understand it.  The suicide remains in kama loka until the time arrives that would have been its natural death if the person had lived on, in other words until the life force which formed the original impulse for that particular life has exhausted itself.  There is said to be potentially very bad karma for those  suicides that are drawn back into the circle of the living (through mediums) or through their own desires.  The case is said to be similar for those who die by accident, depending on whether they are a good, average or 'sinful'  person i.e. if the aura on death is full of dense passion and desire.  The good or average person may simply continue his/her unworldly existence in a kind of unconscious-sleep state until the end of what would have been the natural life time after which it wakes up to the struggle between the higher and lower principles, the former seeking to separate from the latter and from there to go into the gestation state prior to Devachan.

Infant or child deaths are said to lead to a new incarnation very quickly - one reason for this being that there is so little experience to process in what would normally have been the after death states in kama-loka, of gestation and devachan of someone who had lived a full life as determined by their karma.


Barbara, in regards to your letter C: comments.  (You went deep into the alphabet here my friend).  I think you are onto something here.  Ordinarily we talk about the spiritual journey and walking the path and evolving etc. Could it be that what we are really seeing here is the evolution, purification and refinement of the vestures and the Self stands apart separate, like Krishna says in the Gita, "I created this entire universe with a single portion of myself and remain separate."

I think the expression of the Self through a particular set of vestures creates unique expressions in space and time.  But it the same One Self.  And like great music the uniqueness is ironically an indication of its authenticity. No two snow flakes are alike sort of thing but all are beautiful.

I have always loved the children's theosophy school chant where it says, "To live for and as the SELF of all creatures."  There is profound wisdom in that admonition I believe.


Of all the objections to the reincarnation that we hear is this the main one,not being able to remember past lives? 

What are the other main objections?


Gerry, I suspect one of the major of objections to reincarnation in this day and age has more to do with the belief that we are merely bodies and that consciousness does not exist independently of the brain. Therefore there is nothing independent of the body which lasts after death, let alone a soul that goes on to another birth. 

Another objection would be from those religions where the belief is that God creates a new soul for every birth, and at the end of that life the soul goes to heaven or some other place for punishment depending on God's judgement about the life the mortal person lead.

HPB has already dealt with some of the views relating to the above earlier in 'The Key'.   I think in this section HPB is seeking to get us to understand our sevenfold constitution from the more dynamic perspective of reincarnation and the reasons why we don't recall past lives etc.

On Individuality and Personality    

ENQUIRER. But what is the difference between the two? I confess that I am still in the dark. Indeed it is just that difference, then, that you cannot impress too much on our minds.

THEOSOPHIST. I try to; but alas, it is harder with some than to make them feel a reverence for childish impossibilities, only because they are orthodox, and because orthodoxy is respectable. To understand the idea well, you have to first study the dual sets of “principles”: the spiritual, or those which belong to the imperishable Ego; and the material, or those principles which make up the ever-changing bodies or the series of personalities of that Ego. Let us fix permanent names to these, and say that:―

       I. Atma, the “Higher Self,” is neither your Spirit nor mine, but like sunlight shines on all. It is the universally diffused “divine principle,” and is inseparable from its one and absolute Meta-Spirit, as the sunbeam is inseparable from sunlight.

       II. Buddhi (the spiritual soul) is only its vehicle. Neither each separately, nor the two collectively, are of any more use to the body of man, than sunlight and its beams are for a mass of granite buried in the earth, unless the divine Duad is assimilated by, and reflected in, some consciousness. Neither Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma, because the former is the highest aspect of Karma, its working agent of ITSELF in one aspect, and the other is unconscious on this plane. This consciousness or mind is,

       III. Manas,* the derivation or product in a reflected form of Ahamkara, “the conception of I,” or EGO-SHIP. It is, therefore, when inseparably united to the first two, called the SPIRITUAL EGO, and Taijasi (the radiant). This is the real Individuality, or the divine man. It is this Ego which―having originally incarnated in the senseless human form animated by, but unconscious (since it had no consciousness) of, the presence in itself of the dual monad―made of that humanlike form a real man. It is that Ego, that “Causal Body,” which overshadows every personality Karma forces it to incarnate into; and this Ego which is held responsible for all the sins committed through, and in, every new body or personality―the evanescent masks which hide the true Individual through the long series of rebirths.

ENQUIRER. But is this just? Why should this Ego receive punishment as the result of deeds which it has forgotten?

THEOSOPHIST. It has not forgotten them; it knows and remembers its misdeeds as well as you remember what you have done yesterday. Is it because the memory of that bundle of physical compounds called “body” does not recollect what its predecessor (the personality that was) did, that you imagine that the real Ego has forgotten them? As well say it is unjust that the new boots on the feet of a boy, who is flogged for stealing apples, should be punished for that which they know nothing of.

ENQUIRER. But are there no modes of communication between the Spiritual and human consciousness or memory?

THEOSOPHIST. Of course there are; but they have never been recognised by your scientific modern psychologists. To what do you attribute intuition, the “voice of the conscience,” premonitions, vague undefined reminiscences, etc., etc., if not to such communications? Would that the majority of educated men, at least, had the fine spiritual perceptions of Coleridge, who shows how intuitional he is in some of his comments. Hear what he says with respect to the probability that “all thoughts are in themselves imperishable.” “If the intelligent faculty (sudden 'revivals' of memory) should be rendered more comprehensive, it would require only a different and appropriate organization, the body celestial instead of the body terrestrial, to bring before every human soul the collective experience of its whole past existence(existences, rather).” And this body celestial is our Manasic EGO.

The Key to Theosophy pp135-137 (Original Edition)

You can read this section on line at:  http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/key/key-8.htm


Comments, reflections and questions welcome.

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This paragraph is very hard to understand -

" III. Manas,* the derivation or product in a reflected form of Ahamkara, “the conception of I,” or EGO-SHIP."

Our sense of "separated self" or Ahamkara is a reflection of the SPIRITUAL EGO? 

" It is, therefore, when inseparably united to the first two, called the SPIRITUAL EGO, andTaijasi (the radiant)." 

SPIRITUAL EGO is Atma + Buddhi + Manas?  I assume "it" refers to manas and "first two" refers to Atma, Buddhi.

"It is that Ego, that “Causal Body,” which overshadows every personality Karma forces it to incarnate into; and this Ego which is held responsible for all the sins committed through, and in, every new body or personality―the evanescent masks which hide the true Individual through the long series of rebirths."

What is the causal body?



Perhaps she uses this term to indicate the source of our consciousness, the source of our life energy.


Thinking of it as "the source" is good thought, Tamiko. 

Would anybody else like to offer some thoughts on "What is the causal body?"


Hi Barbara, I agree with you - it is a difficult passage to unravel.  The terminology seems to reflect, in part, that of the Sankya philosophy in which all things evolve out of the one primordial element, Avyakta (we call it Mulaprakriti), which produces Intellect (Buddhi or Mahat), which produces in its turn Ahamkara (Ego or sense of ‘I am-ness’), from which comes Mind, the senses, and the subtle elements (tanmatras).

The interesting thing here is that it is Mind or Manas which is said to be derived from Ahamkara (self-consciousness ) and not the reverse.  HPB confirms this In the Secret Doctrine where we find that  “Manas…springs from Ahamkara or (Universal) Self-Consciousness, as Manas in the microcosm springs from Mahat, or Maha-Buddhi (Buddhi, in man).” (SD I 334)

I would venture to suggest that this ‘Universal Self-Consciousness’ refers to the Manasa-putras, those divine intelligences that awakened mind in humanity in our third root race.  For although it is written that Manas springs from Buddhi, HPB makes a point of explaining elsewhere that ‘“Buddhi” per se can have neither self-consciousness nor mind..’  (CW V 581)   She states clearly that Ahamkara and Manas are derived from Mahat (Universal Intelligence or Soul), namely the collective intelligences or which the manasa-putras are a part or aspect.

In the Secret Doctrine we find Ahamkara has at least two aspects.  HPB refers to the “pure” Ahamkara, which is the ‘first shadowy outline of Self-hood’ or “I-am-ness”, and the ‘modified form of Ahamkara, the conception of “I”.’  The latter is said to be related to the passions.  (See SD I 453).  This would appear to relate Ahamkara (to Manas in its two aspect of Higher and Lower.  For it is during incarnation that the personal self-consciousness is developed as a result of the interaction or coupling of the lower manas with kama (passion or desire).  This is the form of ahamkara or egoship which sees itself as a self separate from all other selves. This personal ahamkara is both necessary and something that we have to overcome.  As HPB writes:

“… the two higher principles can have no individuality on Earth, cannot be man, unless there is (a) the Mind, the Manas-Ego, to cognize itself, and (b) the terrestrial falsepersonality, or the body of egotistical desires and personal Will, to cement the whole, as if round a pivot (which it is, truly), to the physical form of man.”  (SD II 241)

The two higher principles refer of course to Atma-Buddhi (the Monad), and in (a) and (b) above we see the two forms of Ahamkara - the impersonal and personal.  The task and aim of Manas is to both use and overcome the personal form of Ahamkara through striving to link the personal consciousness to the universal and the higher principles.  As we’ve stated many times in our previous study sections the spiritual aspirations of the personal ego are able to attach themselves to the higher principles (Atma-Buddhi) and go into devachan during the after death states (the Initiate does this while yet on earth).  For while Buddhi per se, can have neither self-consciousness or mind…

“…the sixth principle in man can preserve an essence of personal self-consciousness or “personal individuality”…by absorbing within itself its own waters, which have run through that finite faculty”  (CW V 581)

It is just such an assimilation of the spiritualised personal ego (manas) that when united with Buddhi makes of it the Spiritual Ego, and when fully developed - Spiritual Self-Consciousness.  We are told that when an Adept reaches the stage of being able to transfer and merge the ‘personal’ consciousness completely into the higher (Atma-Buddhi) then He destroys the personal ahamkara once and for all, never for it to return. 

It appears that the Manasa-putras had already reached this stage of Spiritual Self-Consciousness in a previous cycle (manvantara), hence they were able to awaken it in humanity in our third root race.  At the end of our Great Cycle, this current humanity will carry out a similar role for the life wave following up behind our own.

I hope that all makes some sense.  As always, this is just my understanding so improvements and corrections are welcome.


Hi Peter,

This is very interesting.  I never realized there are two facets to Ahamkara, the personal and impersonal.  The term "(Universal) Self-Consciousness" sounds like an oxymoron.  Does Ahamkara also need to attach to Atma- Buddhi to overcome egoism? Sometimes, I read Manas springs from Buddhi, at other times from Mahat, now it is derived from Ahamkara.  Can you explain this? 

We know Manas is dual,  the lower manas does not belong to the imperishable, but the answer above did not specify this, as it lists out Atma, Buddhi, and Manas as the permanent principles.


In a variety of ways and places  HPB refers to the Monad as a "ray" of universal consciousness or a  breath of Absolute".(i p.247) These are thought provoking expressions. It suggests the analogy of light.  Atman, in this analogy, might be the Sun.  A single ray beading it way through an opening in the clouds, is representative of the entire sun. The individuality, in some ways, appears to follow this analogy.


Hi Barbara - yes, there must be two aspects of Ahamkara if we take it to mean 'self-consciousness'.   The two aspects of the latter are spiritual self-consciousness and personal self-consciousness - relating to Higher and Lower Manas, respectively.  When joined with kama, manas constitutes the personal self-consciousness or ego and when in union with Buddhi it makes of the latterthe Spiritual Ego or spiritual self-consciousness, without which it (i.e. Buddhi) isonly the vehicle of Atma (see p176 of ‘The Key).

I know what you mean about ‘universal self consciousness’ seeming like an oxymoron, however it’s not quite so strange if we consider those moments of mystical experience where ‘self-awareness’ is lifted above the sense of personal separateness, bringing with it a direct realisation or consciousness that we are and always have been One with all Life.  If we can have those glimpses how much grander must be the vision of the Seer who is fully conscious that his/her true nature is that of the Whole and yet, out of compassion continues to work for the benefit of all beings who have yet to have that realisation?

There seems to be a puzzle in that on the one hand we are told that self consciousness and Manas comes from Buddhi and on the other hand we are told that Buddhi, per se, can have neither self-consciousness nor mind.  The latter state of Buddhi is linked to why ‘Man’ was deemed to be incomplete - in the evolutionary sense - prior to our Third Root Race.  For at that stage ‘Man’ consisted of but the Monad (Atma-Buddhi) and the body (astral double, prana and physical form).  Mind or Manas was absent and it could not come about in ‘Man’ by the natural process of evolution -  hence the term in the SD that nature unaided fails’. 

Manas was “produced”  in our humanity as a result of the ‘intervention’ of those spiritual entities who had already achieved Spiritual Self-Consciousness, i.e. the union of  Buddhi-Manas, in previous Manvantaras, and who were led by Karma to incarnate in our Third Race.  These are the Manasa-putras referred to in the Secret Doctrine and ‘The Key’ as the Sons of Mahat (or Universal Mind).   So, it is in the latter sense, perhaps, that we can say that ’self consciousness’  (Ahamkara) and Manas comes from Mahat and Buddhi without it seeming a contradiction.

The footnote to Manas in our study section says the following:

“MAHAT or the “Universal Mind” is the source of Manas. The latter is Mahat, i.e., mind, in man. Manas is also called Kshetrajna, “embodied Spirit,” because it is, according to our philosophy, the Manasa-putras, or “Sons of the Universal Mind,” who created, or rather produced, the thinking man, “manu,” by incarnating in the third Race mankind in our Round. It is Manas, therefore, which is the real incarnating and permanent Spiritual Ego, the INDIVIDUALITY, and our various and numberless personalities only its external masks.”  (P135)

It is Manas that provides the sense of Individuality to our two highest and universal principles (Atma and Buddhi) and makes of Buddhi the Spiritual Ego. It is Buddhi-Manas, therefore, which is the Causal Body - causal in the sense that it is the noumenon behind the phenomena of our numberless, evanescent personalities.


Thank you, Peter, your answers are very clear.   There is much food for thought. 


"We are told that when an Adept reaches the stage of being able to transfer and merge the ‘personal’ consciousness completely into the higher (Atma-Buddhi) then He destroys the personal ahamkara once and for all, never for it to return. "

Does the lower manas get destroyed, like the personal ahamkara?  If not,  then only half of the manas belongs to the imperishable principle and the other half the perishable?   


"Does the lower manas get destroyed, like the personal ahamkara?  If not,  then only half of the manas belongs to the imperishable principle and the other half the perishable?"


I think I see what you’re getting at Barbara.  This is merely my understanding, but perhaps one way to look at it is that for the Adept the illusory belief in a “separate self” is destroyed for good and at the same time the lower manas has been so purified of its previous coupling with Kama that it is able to merge in full consciousness with its source.   

Manas is one only but has two aspects during incarnation, when it projects a ray of itself into matter.    The ‘ray’ projected by the Manas into its vehicle of incarnation becomes a kind of ‘detached essence’ once it is clothed in the finest astral matter of the phenomenal planes, and to all intents and purposes is said to be 'shut off' from its source.  At this point we can talk of Higher and Lower Manas.  At the end of the reincarnation the ray is withdrawn.  A new ray with different spiritual attributes (to the extent it can manifest them) is projected by Manas at each new incarnation.  Perhaps the Mahatma KH had something like this in mind when he wrote the following to Sinnett:

‘Suffice for you, for the present to know, that a man, an Ego like yours or mine, may be immortal from one to the other Round. Let us say I begin my immortality at the present fourth Round, i.e., having become a full adept (which unhappily I am not) I arrest the hand of Death at will, and when finally obliged to submit to it, my knowledge of the secrets of nature puts me in a position to retain my consciousness and distinct perception of Self as an object to my own reflective consciousness and cognition; and thus avoiding all such dismemberments of principles, that as a rule take place after the physical death of average humanity, I remain as Koothoomi in my Ego throughout the whole series of births and lives across the seven worlds and Arupa-lokas until finally I land again on this earth among the fifth race men of the full fifth Round beings. I would have been, in such a case – “immortal” for an inconceivable (to you) long period, embracing many milliards of years. And yet am “I” truly immortal for all that? Unless I make the same efforts as I do now, to secure for myself another such furlough from Nature's Law, Koothoomi will vanish and may become a Mr. Smith or an innocent Babu, when his leave expires. There are men who become such mighty beings, there are men among us who may become immortal during the remainder of the Rounds, and then take their appointed place among the highest Chohans, the Planetary conscious “Ego-Spirits.”’

(Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett no. 20c;  Barker Edition)

So, it may well be that the personal ahamkara (self consciousness) even when purified of the lower passions is only completely destroyed when the Adept becomes a “Full Adept” - i.e. has become one of the highest Chohans,  Planetary consciousness “Ego-Spirit”. This definition would also fit that of the Nirmanakaya.   Perhaps there is a clue to this in the following from HPB:  

‘After the death of man, when its most ethereal particles have drawn into themselves the spiritual principles of Buddhi and the Upper Manas, and are illuminated with the radiance of Atman, the Auric Body remains either in the Devachanic state of consciousness or, in the case of a full Adept, prefers the state of a Nirmanakaya––that is, one who has so purified his whole system that he is above even the divine illusion of a Devachan…. Such an Adept remains in the astral (invisible) plane connected with our earth, and henceforth moves and lives in the possession of all his principles except the Kama-Rupa and Physical Body.’ 

(CW XII 527)

Interestingly, we see our theme of ahamkara, ‘self consciousness’ or Ego contains many developments and progressions.

Anyway - just some thoughts and reflections.


Thanks, Peter, this is very illuminating.  I see now that even when the dew-drop slips back into the shining sea, one still retains the sense of "Self".  Does this sense ever get obliterated?