Skip to main content

Septenary System Nomenclature, The

The purpose of this article is to describe the various systems of tabulating the human sevenfold nature which have been suggested or used in the Theosophical Society (TS) since 1875. Theosophy recognizes the complex of energies and spiritual components of humans and currently divides these into seven parts. It was realized quite early in the history of the Theosophical Society that neither English nor any other European language contains words adequate to describe all of these “sheaths” and much effort was expended to devise a system of nomenclature adequate for the purpose. This article will deal with the most important systems adopted by various writers and the historical approach will be adopted which will serve to bring to attention most of the tabular methods used during the past one hundred years.

It seems that Allan O. Hume was the first to attempt a tabulation of the subtle bodies which was published in The Theosophist magazine of October 1881 with the preamble given below:

In order to understand clearly the view of the Occultists, it is necessary to glance at the constitution of the living human being. Even the spiritualist teaches that man is a trinity, composed of (1) a higher spirit or the “Spiritual Soul” as ancient philosophers designated it; (2) its envelope — the ethereal form or shadow of the body — called by the Neoplatonists the “animal soul”; and (3) the physical body. Although from one point of view this is broadly correct, yet, according to Occultists, to render our conceptions of this truth clearer and follow successfully the course of man after death, it is necessary to subdivide further these three entities and resolve them into their constituent principles. This analysis being almost wholly unknown to western nations, it is difficult in some cases to find any English words by which to represent the Occult subdivisions, but we give them in the least obscure phraseology that we can command.

Hume then set forth the following tabulation (the Sanskrit transliteration has been altered to conform to modern practice):

1. The physical body, composed wholly of matter in its grossest and most tangible form.

2. The vital principle — or (Jīvātma) — a form of force, indestructible and when disconnected with one set of atoms, becoming attracted immediately by others.

3. The Astral Body (LINGA-ŠARĪRA) composed of highly etherealized matter; in its habitual passive state, the perfect but very shadowy duplicate of the body; its activity, consolidation and form depending entirely on the Kāma-rūpa.

4. The astral shape (KĀMA-RŪPA) or body of desire, a principle defining the configuration of.

5. The animal or physical intelligence or consciousness or Ego, analogous to, though proportionally higher in degree than, the reason, instinct, memory, imagination, etc., existing in the higher animals.

6. The higher or spiritual intelligence or consciousness, or Spiritual Ego, in which mainly resides the sense of consciousness in the perfect man, though the lower dimmer animal consciousness co-exists in No. 5.

7. The Spirit — an emanation from the ABSOLUTE; uncreated, eternal, a state rather then a being.

In an article in The Theosophist dated April 1882 Helena P. Blavatsky deplored the absence of suitable terminology to describe the so-called “subtle bodies.”

T. Subba Row, an Advaita Vedantist, wrote a long letter to Blavatsky regarding the seven-fold divisions and she quoted from it at some length in The Theosophist, dated January 1882. In abbreviated form Subba Row’s tabulation was as follows:

1. Prakti. The basis of the Physical Body.

2. Linga-śarīra. Astral Body.

3. Śakti. Will-force or Universal Energy.

4. Brahman, Śakti, and Prakti. Life-force.

5. Brahman and Prakti. Physical Intelligence.

6. Brahman and Śakti. Spiritual Intelligence.

7. Ātma. The emanation from the Absolute.

This may have been correct from Row’s point of view, but merely added to the confusion as far as English speaking people were concerned. The “mechanics” of reincarnation did not fit easily into Row’s scheme unless there was familiarity with the reasoning behind the labels, and terminology fails if it demands excessive qualification. For instance, manas, the link between the high Spiritual Self and the lower self is missing. On the other hand, the omission of the physical body from the seven may be deemed logical since it is not a subtle body and the label “Vehicles” might be a better choice, logically allowing the inclusion of “The Gross Physical.”

An early scheme was contained in a letter from the Master Koot Hoomi to Hume (The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, letter 67; 3rd ed., letter 15) which reads in part:

“. . . The correspondence between [Earth] and her child may be thus worked out. Both have their seven principles. In [Earth] the elementals (of which there are in all seven species), form —

(a) A gross body.

(b) Her fluidic double (linga-śarīra).

(c) Her life principle (jīva).

(d) Her fourth principle (kāma-rūpa).

(e) Her fifth principle (animal soul or manas, physical intelligence) is embodied in the vegetable, in germ, and animal kingdom).

(f) Her sixth principle (or spiritual soul, buddhi) is man.

(g) and her seventh principle (ātma) is a thin film of spiritualized ākāśa that surrounds her.

Here we have a list of useful Sanskrit terms which is complete except for the physical body term sthūla-śarīra.

An undated manuscript written by Alfred P. Sinnett and published in The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, edited by A. T. Barker, p. 378, offered yet another version with comparison between Tibetan, Sanskrit and English terms: 

Septenary System comparing Tibetan, Sanskrit and English













In August 1882 Blavatsky published in The Theosophist a list of terms, all in Sanskrit:

7. Ātma, ........... Pure spirit.

6. Buddhi, ......... Spiritual Soul or Intelligence.

5. Manas, .......... Mind or Animal Soul.

4. Kāma-Rūpa,...... Desire or passion form.

3. Linga-Śarīra,.... Astral or Vital Body.

2. Jīva,........... Life Principle.

1. Sthūla-Śarīra,.... Body.

Here the dual nature of manas has not been indicated although it is possible that K€ma-R™pa is intended to designate the lower function of manas.

Next on the septenary scene was an offering from A. P. Sinnett in his Esoteric Buddhism (p. 21)

1. The Body ......... Rūpa.

2. Vitality ......... Prāna or Jīva.

3. Astral Body ....... Linga-Śarīra.

4. Animal Soul ...... Kāma-Rūpa.

5. Human Soul ....... Manas.

6. Spiritual Soul .... Buddhi.

7. Spirit .......... ātmā.

The use of the word Rūpa which means “form” may not be so appropriate as Śthúla which means “gross” and again the link between the Higher and Lower Self is indeterminate. In 1889 Blavatsky published her Key to Theosophy which offered yet another interpretation (pp. 91-2) (Table I). Here there is a clear indication in the definition of manas that it is dual in function. In her ES Instruction No.1 (CW XII:515), Blavatsky discussed the matter of divisions and terminology at some length. Inclusion of her argument would take us beyond the appropriate scope of this article, but it might be helpful to include a table which followed her comment, “Thus man functions on, and responds to, seven distinct yet correlated wave-lengths, each of which corresponds to a specific plane or world of being, while the One Cosmic Life-Consciousness, binding and permeating everything, flows through all of them.”

ĀTMAN - Divine-Spiritual or Universal Self

BUDDHI - Spiritual Self; Spiritual Intelligence, Wisdom Vision and Intuition

MANAS - Planetary Self; Higher Human Mind or Reincarnating Self

KĀMA - Animal Self; Passions, Emotions, desires

PRĀNA - Vital-Astral self; Field of Vital Currents

LINGA-ŚARĪRA - Astral body, pattern or model body

STHŪLA-ŚARĪRA - Physical Body

            Table II

About 1890, Blavasky included a table of the subtle principles in her E.S. Instructions III. This is reproduced here together with her explanatory comments (Table III). William Quan Judge, one of the founders of the TS, writing in 1890, emphasized the need to understand the universality of “spirit” which he termed ātma. He then suggested the following “sheaths” for ātma:

Body, as a gross vehicle. Vitality or Prāna. Astral Body, or Linga-Śarįra. Animal Soul or, Kāma-rūpa. Human Soul, or Manas. Spiritual Soul, or Buddhi. (Echoes from the Orient, p. 57)

Annie Besant, in her Seven Principles of Man (1892), discusses the problems of nomenclature very extensively and she emphasizes that a dogmatic approach ought not to be indulged in because the last word on this complex subject may never be spoken. She illustrates this point by giving several different groupings of “Planes” and “Principles.” It is in the work just cited that Besant suggests an arrangement that has found much support:

7. Ātma 6. Buddhi. 5. Higher Manas. 4. Lower Manas. 3. Kāma or Astral. 2. Linga-Śarīra or Etheric Double. 1. Dense Physical Body.

In a lecture on Yoga delivered at Adyar (Madras) in 1893 and published in The Building of the Kosmos (p. 93), Besant makes an interesting comment: “Suppose of this classification, which deals with man as a sixfold entity, you want to know how man is going to deal with himself when he wants to investigate the different regions of the universe, you find you cannot divide him in this sevenfold or sixfold fashion. The sheaths are not all divisible one from the other. You have to take the division which is only triple. Man can only be divided into three for all practical purposes of Yoga. There are but three Upādhis in which these different principles or sheaths can work. . . .” The Upādhis Besant mentions are listed in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (vol. I, p. 212 under the heading “Tāraka Rāja Yoga”; they are:

1. Sthūlopādhi. (A ‘principle’ relating to physical body, Astral Form and Life).

2. Sūkshmopādhi. (The ‘Principle’ including the higher and lower Manas, also Kāma.)

3. Kāranopādhi. (The Causal Soul).

A comparison of the Septenary divisions in different Indian systems was published in 1894 in Five Years of Theosophy (second edition, p. 118). In this tabulation the third principle is not separately listed in the “Buddhist” or Rāja classification as it is considered the vehicle of Prāna. The fourth principle is included in the third Koa (sheath) on the grounds that it is but the vehicle of “will-power,” considered the energy of the mind. Further it will be seen that Vijñānamaya-Kośa is thought to be distinct from Manomaya-Kośa.

Table IV












                                             Table IV

In the last column it will be noted that there are three distinct Upādis or bases in each of which ātma is able to function independently. In 1896 Sinnett wrote a book entitled The Growth of the Soul in which he tabulated the seven human principles in a slightly modified form from that which he gave in Esoteric Buddhism. These were as follows:

1. Physical Body.

2. Etheric Double.

3. Jīva.

4. The Astral Vehicle.

5. Manas.

6. Buddhi.

7. Ātma

This was an attempt to bring some degree of order into the presentation of the subject, but the use of the term J…va was to sow further confusion. Blavatsky, who, together with The Mahātma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, was the source on which Sinnett drew, defined Jīva as “Life, as the Absolute; the Monad also or ‘Ātmā-Buddhi.’” It is to be presumed that Sinnett used the term Jīva as a synonym for Prāna. And again, of course, Manas is not shown to be dual.

Besant’s book The Ancient Wisdom published in 1897, six years after the death of Blavatsky, displayed yet another version (p. 176). Here an attempt has been made to differentiate between “Principles” and “Vehicles” or form; Manas has been shown as a duality. The problem at this stage of events was acute. Apart from the variations in the division and labeling, the terms “Vehicles,” “Forms,” “Principles” “Vestures (upādhis),” “Veils” “Sheaths” and “Subtle Bodies” had been used. Some writers reserved the term “Principles” to refer to “Cosmic Principles,” others used it to denote the Subtle Bodies.

Ātma, Spirit Ātmā   
Buddhi, Spiritual Soul   Bliss body
Higher Manas   Causal Body
Lower Manas, Human Soul   Mental Body
Kāma, Animal Soul   Astral Body
Linga-Śarīra   Etheric Double
Sthūla-Śarīra   Dense Body







                                               Table V






Subba Row had made an effort to reconcile the Brahmanical and Tibetan nomenclature in a letter to Blavatsky published in The Theosophist, January 1882, pp. 93-99, in which he compared the result of this with Blavatsky’s terminology (Table VI).

The article by Subba Row together with comments by Blavatsky may be found in the latter’s Collected Writings, (CW III:396-424); a further discussion by Blavatsky about Subba Row’s notions of the classifications may be found in CW VII:284-300. Although there are obvious discrepancies between Row’s and Blavatsky’s versions, these are not now considered serious and a commentary by Peter Bandtlow on this matter may be found in The Theosophist (October 1970, pp. 46-56).

1894 saw the publication of a collection of Annie Besant’s lectures entitled The Building of the Kosmos in which, under the title Yoga, firstly (p. 91) she defines the principles:

1. Ātma, the Self

2. Buddhi, the spiritual soul

3. Manas, the rational or human soul

4. Kāma, the animal soul (of passions and desires)

5. Prana, life principle

6. Ethereal Body

7. Physical Body

On page 92 Besant discusses the Principles using a different division and Sanskrit in which the “sheath” or “veil” function is the yardstick:

“First there is štma, the Spiritual Self which takes on five different sheaths:

1. Annamaya-kośa (This is the equivalent of Sthūla-śarīra the physical body).

2. Prānamaya-kośa (“Vehicle of Prāna”).

3. Manomaya-kośa, (Lower Mental).

4. Vijñānamaya-kośa, (Higher mental or Causal).

5. Ānandamaya-kośa, (Buddhic).

The foregoing is substantially that of the Vedantic philosophy which divides our being into the Divine Monad or Ātman and five sheaths known collectively as the Pañca-kośa. Here Besant shows manas as a duality. In the previous tabulation she refers to the “animal soul,” a term which is no longer used because of its contradictory implications.

In 1896 Annie Besant produced a slender book in the Theosophical Manuals series called Man and His Bodies. In this she attempted to present a simplified version of the septenary system in respect of the human, adopting the following scheme:

1. Sthula-Śarīra, or Gross Physical Body

2. Linga-Śarīra or Etheric Double

3. The Astral Body

4. Mental Body

5. Causal Body

6. Buddhic Body

7. Ātmic (Spiritual Self)

All the classification systems produced so far have met with criticism on one or more counts. Purists deplore the mixing of Sanskrit and English; they argue that only one language should be used in the same context. It is likely that the practice of mixing languages has not recommended us to those accustomed to a disciplined academic approach. The problem here is that no succinct English terms exist that will be synonymous with certain Sanskrit ones; or an approximately suitable English term has been so misused that it has been rendered useless. A typical example is “spirit.” For this reason many writers have retained the Sanskrit terms štma and Buddhi, but ventured to use familiar English for the rest.

It would appear that a system universally appropriate would have to be so heavily qualified that it would verge on the unintelligible — certainly too cumbersome to be generally useful. Where there is no objection to the mixing of languages the following classification might be used:

1. Ātma – The spiritual Self or the Divine Monad

2. Buddhi – The vehicle of Ātma. Spiritual consciousness

3. Higher Manas – The Causal Body

4. Lower Manas – The Mental Body

5. Astral Body – The emotional self

6. Etheric Double

7. Physical Body

This tabulation will allow the “mechanism” of reincarnation to be discussed without difficulty; will accommodate a discussion of Prāna and Chakras. Some difficulty may be encountered if it is necessary to reconcile or relate the Human Principles to the Planes in Nature.

In his Lecture Notes, Vol. I (1962) Geoffrey Hodson lists (p. 142), the seven principles entirely in English as:

(1) Physical Body

(2) Etheric Double

(3) Emotional Body

(4) Lower Mental Body

(5) Higher Mental Body

(6) Body of Intuition

(7) Body of Spiritual Will

G. A. Farthing, in a monograph drew attention to what is, in his opinion, a fundamental discrepancy between the nomenclature used by Blavatsky and later writers, particularly Besant and Leadbeater. Farthing emphasizes the fact that Blavatsky did not document the existence of the etheric double (The Etheric Double, June 1995).

Most of the terms mentioned in this article are explained in separate entries elsewhere in this encyclopaedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Theosophist. October 1881; January 1882; August 1882; October 1970. Letters of the Masters of the Wisdom, 1870-1900. C. Jinar€jad€sa, T.P.H. 1945; Letters of H. P. Blavatsky. A. T. Barker, T.U.P, Pasadena; Esoteric Buddhism, A. P. Sinnett, T.P.H., (Adyar); Key to Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky. T.P.H. (Adyar); Seven Principles of Man, Annie Besant, TPH (Adyar) 1950; The Building of the Kosmos, Annie Besant, T.P.S. London, 1894; The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky, (Adyar Ed. 1962); The Growth of the Soul. A. P. Sinnett, T.P.S, London, 1896; Echoes From the Orient, William Quan Judge, Pasadena; The Ancient Wisdom. Annie Besant, T.P.H London, 1897; The Collected Writings of H. P. Blavatsky, Vol. III, T.P.H., Wheaton, 1966; Man and His Bodies. Annie Besant, T.P.S., London, 1896; The Divine Plan, G. A. Barborka, T.P.H., Adyar, 1964; The Mah€tma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, T.P.H., Adyar,1962.; Lecture Notes, Geoffrey Hodson, T.P.H. Adyar, 1962.


© Copyright by the Theosophical Publishing House, Manila