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The five aggregates (skandhas)

Skandha (devanāgarī: स्कन्ध) is a Sanskrit term usually translated as "aggregate". It used in Buddhism to refer to the five functions or aspects that constitute the human being. In Theosophy the concept is frequently used in a similar way, though they are regarded to constitute the personality only, not the totality of a human being.

In Buddhism

The Buddhist sūtras describe human beings as composed of five aggregates, nothing among them being a permanent "I":

  • Rūpa ("form" or "matter"): The physical world and the material body.
  • Vedanā ("sensation" or "feeling"): The pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations arising from the perception of an object.
  • Samjñā ("perception" or "cognition"): Recognition of the qualities of an object perceived.
  • Samskāra ("mental formations" or "volition"): Volition and all types of mental habits, which trigger a reaction to the perception of an object. Connected to the formation of karma.
  • Vijñāna ("consciousness" or "discernment"): Awareness of or sensitivity to an object.

In Theosophy

Mme. Blavatsky defined them as follows:

“Bundles”, or groups of attributes; everything finite, inapplicable to the eternal and the absolute. There are five—esoterically, seven—attributes in every human living being, which are known as the Pancha Shandhas. . . . These unite at the birth of man and constitute his personality. After the maturity of these Skandhas, they begin to separate and weaken, and this is followed by jarâmarana, or decrepitude and death.[1]

Theosophical literature agrees with Buddhism that nowhere within the five skandhas can a real or permanent "I" be found. However, it postulates that the skandhas belong only to the personality, and that beyond them there is the real Ego:

The personality with its Skandhas is ever changing with every new birth. . . . 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.[2]

Because they belong to the personality, the skandhas cannot follow the higher ego to Devachan after death. However, they are not merely dissolved, but "wait" for the return of the Ego to the new incarnation:

Karma, with its army of Skandhas, waits at the threshold of Devachan, whence the Ego re-emerges to assume a new incarnation.[3]

They [the skandhas] remain as Karmic effects, as germs, hanging in the atmosphere of the terrestrial plane, ready to come to life, as so many avenging fiends, to attach themselves to the new personality of the Ego when it reincarnates.[4]

As can be seen, the skandhas are intimately connected to the idea of karma. In fact, Mahatma K.H. wrote: "The Buddhist calls this his 'Skandha', the Hindu gives it the name of 'Karma'".[5]

Esoteric skandhas

Mme. Blavatsky's mention of the esoteric skandhas is further explained in The Mahatma Letters:

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; Samkara — 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.[6]

The word sakkāya-diṭṭhi is Pali (from sakkāya, "aggregates of existence" + diṭṭhi, "wrong view or belief") and means the wrong idea that we are the personality formed by the skandhas. The word attavāda is also Pali (from attan, "self' + vada, "theory"), and refers to the illusion of the existence one's personal self as a substantial and permanent entity.

Dora Kunz commentary

Dora van Gelder Kunz wrote:

Each person comes into the world with certain attributes, or skandhas, as the Buddhists call them: "conditions of existence" which we all bring with us at birth. While these are obviously connected with genetic factors, there is also a basic, unique individuality which is sometimes strangely different from the family pattern, with unaccountable idiosyncrasies. We know that during life the present is shaped for an individual by past experiences; reincarnation merely extends this past to include a larger heritage of assimilated experiences...
The concept of skandhas comes closer, I believe, than any other to identifying the causal connection between our past in its entirety and what we now are. You could say that each one of us is "caused" by our heritage - physically, of course, but also mentally and emotionally. But, according to reincarnation, that heritage is not limited to this brief life, but extends far back to the dawn of our consciousness. It equally reaches into the most distant future, for what we are now - which includes the changes we make in ourselves - becomes the seeds of what we shall be. This is the essence of the evolution of consciousness.[7]

Online resources




  1. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 301-302.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing House, [1987]), 131.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing House, [1987]), 141.
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing House, [1987]), 154.
  5. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence Appendix I (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 472.
  6. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 68 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 199.
  7. Dora van Gelder Kunz, The Personal Aura (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 60-61.