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Skandhas and gatis – esoterically

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Skandhas and Gatis


Skandhas are bundles, groups of various attributes forming the compound constitution of the human being. They are the manifested qualities and attributes forming the human being on all six planes of Being, beneath the spiritual monad or ātma-buddhi, making up the totality of the subjective and objective person. They have to do with everything that is finite in the human being, and are therefore inapplicable to the relatively eternal and absolute. Every vibration of whatever kind, mental, emotional, or physical, that an individual has undergone or made, is derivative of and from one of the skandhas composing his constitution. Skandhas are the elements of limited existence. The five skandhas of every human being are: rūpa (form), the material properties or attributes; vedanā (sensations, perceptions); sanjña (consciousness, abstract ideas); saskara (action), tendencies both physical and mental; vijñāna (knowledge), mental and moral predispositions. Two further, unnamed skandhas “are connected with, and productive of Sakkayadiṭṭhi, the ‘heresy or delusion of individuality’ and of Attavāda  ‘the doctrine of Self,’ both of which (in the case of the fifth principle the soul) lead to the māyā of heresy and belief in the efficacy of vain rites and ceremonies; in prayers and intercession”; “The ‘old being’ is the sole parent — father and mother at once — of the ‘new being.’ It is the former who is the creator and fashioner, of the latter, in reality; and far more so in plain truth, than any father in flesh. And once that you have well mastered the meaning of Skandhas you will see what I mean” (Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett 111). The human skandhas are the causal activities which by their action and interaction attract the reincarnating ego back to earth-life. The exoteric skandhas have to do with objective man; the esoteric with inner and subjective man.

At death the seeds of causes sown which have not yet been realized remain latent in our inner principles as “psychological impulse-seeds” awaiting expression in future lives. The skandhas “unite at the birth of man and constitute his personality. After the death of the body the skandhas are separated and so remain until the Reincarnating Ego on its downward path into physical incarnation gathers them together again around itself, and thus reforms the human constitution considered as a unity” (G. de Purucker: Occult Glossary 158).

Similarly with suns and planets: at pralaya, the lower principles of such a cosmic body exist latent in space in a laya-condition while its spiritual principles are active in higher realms. “When a laya-center is fired into action by the touch of wills and consciousnesses on their downward way, becoming the imbodying life of a solar system, or of a planet of a solar system, the center manifests first on its highest plane, and later on its lower plane. The Skandhas are awakened into life one after another: first the highest ones, next the intermediate ones, and lastly the inferior ones, cosmically and qualitatively speaking” (ibid.).

The skandhas are likewise closely connected with the karmic pictures in the astral light, which also is the medium as well as the register of impressions.


In exoteric Buddhism the cycle of life and death or saṁsāra refers to the personal cycle of continuous death and rebirth. It is often depicted in the form of a diagram called the bhavacakra, the wheel of existence. In the esoteric interpretation the teaching refers to the entire cycle of evolutionary existence of all beings concerned with the earth.

Because the cycle of existence, both personal and cosmic, is intimately connected with the chain of twelve links of cause and effects which follow each other in sequential dependence, called Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent arising).

The general idea is that each human being remains, through his ignorance, and energized by his passions and hatred, eternally bound to this cycle of being drawn to rebirth, followed by death learnt much, only to be reborn again. He is the victim of the claws without having of Yama, the god of death or time. So he will be continuously reborn in one of the usually six states of being (gatis) (as a human, a god, a demigod, a hungry ghost, an animal or a hell-being), until the moment he realizes that liberation from this cycle of suffering is possible and purposely chooses to enter that path that leads to liberation. Liberation can only be sought from the human stage. If one is reborn in one of the other stages, one has to wait until human birth is acquired. Even the gods can not reach liberation. They represent stages of consciousness which are so delightful that no progress is made. Nevertheless this stage is illusionary and temporary, part of the saṁsāric cycle, and is unavoidably followed by the other stages of existence which are less pleasant. Real liberation (nirvāṇa) means the liberation from all illusions, including those of the highest pleasure. The stages of the cycle can be taken literally as may be done by the Tibetan people, but they really represent psychological states of consciousness, during earth-life as well as after death. In each of the stages we find a depiction of the mahā-bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the great bodhisattva of universal compassion. The six realms of existence hold a great teaching about psychology as well as about the experiences of consciousness after death, in relation to attitudes of the soul when embodied on earth. In their exoteric meaning they can be briefly described as follows (the esoteric explanation follows below), starting at the top of the picture, PICTURE TOEVOEGEN moving clockwise:

The gatis are those of their inhabitants:


1 devas (“gods”) – beings in heaven

2 men – on Earth

3 asuras (“demons”) [sometimes: demigods], the gati which was added later – in hell

4 men in hell, naraka or rather in one of the purgatories.

5 pretas, “hungry ghosts, with very small mouths and very big bellies, signifying insatiability,” “devouring demons on earth” (H.J. Spierenburg: Inner Group Teachings p. 81)

6 animals

Some of these modes of existence are pleasant, some unpleasant, some of shorter, some of very long duration (gods and demigods), but even the gods – that is those humans who were born in heaven but have not reached liberation from the cycle of existence yet – are said to envy humans, because the human state is the only state from which liberation of the saṁsāric cycle can be accomplished. The popular belief is that any human being can for karmic reasons be reborn in any of these gatis, so a man can be born as animal next time. Therefore human existence is very precious, and this idea is often used to encourage people to practice the Buddhist dharma [doctrine], because the opportunity is very rare. But this is not logical, because the next birth is determined by the human skandhas left behind last time, to which one is again attracted.

Esoterically the gatis do not refer literally to the heavens and hells, but to various classes of beings who run through the cycles of existence and play their role.

Esoteric: (Inner Group Teachings p. 81):

1 higher gods [dhyāni chohans]

2 devas or pitṛs

3 nirmāṇakāyas

4 bodhisattvas

5 men in Myalba (our earth)

6 kāma-rūpic existences, whether of man or animals, in kāma-loka

7 elementals (subjective existences).

1 Dhyāni chohans, lit. ‘lords of meditation’ are spiritual beings who were men in former world periods [manvantaras] (OG 39). Dhyāni chohan is a general term for those divinities of many different classes, each with its own department of Nature to supervise kāmadhātu, the lowest of the three, and to inspire (Tyberg Sanskrit Keys to the Wisdom Religion 28-9), in subsequent hierarchical levels of existence which have been humans in the past in a relatively “recent” (in terms of many billions of years) or more remote period of cyclic existence. They are the “Architects” of the spiritual arc of evolution (Tyberg SK 29).

2 Devas are “shining beings,” a general term. Pitṛs are the “Fathers” of mankind, or the progenitors of the various parts, higher as well as lower, of which the human constitution is composed. The higher have been humans in former manvantaras.

3 Nirmāṇakāya means “forming” or “creating” body. It is the third of the trikāya, “the three glorious vestures.” It is the body “chosen by a bodhisattva who becomes a Buddha of Compassion . . . [and] gives up the unspeakable bliss of nirvāṇa in order to live a ‘Secret Life’ of service to humanity.” (Tyberg SK 50) This vesture alone makes it possible to be aware of worldly matters and thus stretch out a helping hand. In theosophical literature the term is also used for those who choose this vesture. A nirmāṇakāya is a complete man possessing all the principles of his constitution except the liṅga-śarīra [the model body of subtler matter], and its accompanying physical body. Of course he has no lower desires and mentalities. He is one who lives on the plane of being next superior to the physical plane, and his purpose in so doing is to save humans from themselves by being with them, and by continuously instilling thoughts of self-sacrifice, of self-forgetfulness, of spiritual and moral beauty, of mutual help, of compassion, and of pity.

4 Bodhisattva, “he whose essence is wisdom or intelligence.” A human who has almost become a Buddha, whose consciousness has become at one with his own inner divinity. While the higher principles of such a human can learn no more [in this cycle avidyā has been destroyed], the spiritually awakened personal man, the bodhisattva, may choose, out of compassion, to remain on earth, that means to run the cycle again and again to help others, occasionally through physical incarnation, or by assuming the vehicle of nirmāṇakāya (cf. OG 19).

5 Humans in Myalba, our earth, which is like a hell compared to higher states of being. Exoterically, myalba is regarded as an actual hell, a place, a state of being of great suffering.

6 Kāma-rūpic existences are the temporary astral forms of the desirous parts of humans or animals after death. The human consciousness undergoes a second death, to be reborn in subjective higher mental consciousness until the processes of descent toward reincarnation begin with the collection of the waiting skandhas from former existences.

7 Elementals are, within our cyclic universe, the lowest classes of beings, in the sense of evolutionary development (though not necessarily in the sense of spirituality). Usually the invisible realms of nature spirits which in evolutionary development are even below or before the mineral kingdom are meant, but it is also legitimate in theosophical language to include minerals, plants and animals within the concept of “elementals.” According to De Purucker’s Occult Glossary, “minerals themselves are expressions of one family or host or hierarchy of elemental beings of a more evolved type. The vegetable kingdom likewise manifests merely one family or host of elemental beings which are now in the vegetable-phase of their evolution on this earth. Just so likewise is it as regards the beasts. The beasts are highly evolved elemental beings, relatively speaking” (Occult Glossary p. 43).