Svābhāvika School

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The Svābhāvika School of Buddhism, in scholarly literature of the 19th century, was said to be one of the oldest Buddhist sects existing in Nepal. Blavatsky and the Mahatmas referred to this school on several occasions, pointing to the agreement of some of its tenets with their own teachings.

Later scholars failed to find references to this school in the following 150 years, and its existence is regarded as a fiction by most. However, recent research by Theosophical scholars suggest that this school is connected to the Great Madhyamaka tradition.

Theosophical view

H. P. Blavatsky says that the Svâbhâvika school "maintains that nothing exists but “Svabhavat” (substance or nature) which exists by itself without any creator",[1] and quotes E. Burnouf in his Introduction a la histoire du Buddhisme Indien saying that the followers of this school "assume that all things, men as well as gods and spirits, were born from Swabhâva, or their own nature".[2] She also wrote:

Svâbhâvika (Sk.). The oldest existing school of Buddhism. They assigned the manifestation of the universe and physical phenomena to Svabhâva or respective nature of things. According to Wilson the Svabhâvas of things are “the inherent properties of the qualities by which they act, as soothing, terrific or stupefying, and the forms Swarûpas are the distinction of biped, quadruped, brute, fish, animal and the like”.[3]

[N]either the Svâbhâvikas, Buddhist philosophers — nor the Brahmans believe in a creation of the universe ex nihilo, but both believe in the Prakriti, the indestructibility of matter.[4]

The Kabala has survived to show that their philosophy was precisely that of the modern Nepal Buddhists, the Svâbhâvikas. They believed in the eternity and the indestructibility of matter, and hence in many prior creations and destructions of worlds, before our own. . . . Moreover, they believed, again like the Svâbhâvikas, now termed Atheists, that every thing proceeds (is created) from its own nature and that once that the first impulse is given by that Creative Force inherent in the “Self-created substance,” or Sephira, everything evolves out of itself, following its pattern, the more spiritual prototype which precedes it in the scale of infinite creation.[5]

The esoteric doctrine, then, teaches, like Buddhism and Brahmanism, and even the persecuted Kabala, that the one infinite and unknown Essence exists from all eternity, and in regular and harmonious successions is either passive or active. In the poetical phraseology of Manu these conditions are called the “day” and the “night” of Brahma. The latter is either “awake” or “asleep.” The Svâbhâvikas, or philosophers of the oldest school of Buddhism (which still exists in Nepaul), speculate but upon the active condition of this “Essence,” which they call Svabhâvât, and deem it foolish to theorize upon the abstract and “unknowable” power in its passive condition. Hence they are called atheists by both Christian theology and modern scientists; for neither of the two are able to understand the profound logic of their philosophy.[6]

One acquainted with the Hindu philosophy would be singularly reminded of both the Vedanta and that extreme Buddhist system known as the school of the Svâbhâvikas. According to [Spinoza's] ideas God is “a Substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses an absolutely infinite and eternal essence.” It follows that this Substance—necessary and infinite, one and indivisible, is God, the only Self-existence, All-Perfection and absolute Infinitude. Take away the name of the Diety, and you have here the abstract ideas about the only creative Power of the World, of the Svâbhâvikas. “Nothing exists in the Universe but Substance—or Nature,” say the latter. “This Substance exists by, and through itself (Svabhavat) having never been either created or had a Creator.”[7]

There were no Atheists in those days of old; no disbelievers or materialists, in the modern sense of the word, as there were no bigoted detractors. He who judges the ancient philosophies by their external phraseology, and quotes from ancient writings sentences seemingly atheistical, is unfit to be trusted as a critic, for he is unable to penetrate into the inner sense of their metaphysics. The views of Pyrrho, whose rationalism has become proverbial, can be interpreted only by the light of the oldest Hindu philosophy. From Manu down to the latest Swâbhâvika, its leading metaphysical feature ever was to proclaim the reality and supremacy of spirit, with a vehemence proportionate to the denial of the objective existence of our material world — passing phantom of temporary forms and beings.[8]

In one of his letters, Mahatma K.H. wrote:

Study the laws and doctrines of the Nepaulese Swabhavikas, the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India, and you will find them the most learned as the most scientifically logical wranglers in the world. Their plastic, invisible, eternal, omnipresent and unconscious Swabhavat is Force or Motion ever generating its electricity which is life.[9]

Scholarly research

The existence of a Nepalese school of Buddhism called "Swābhāvika" was first postulated by Brian H. Hodgson, a pioneer scholar of Buddhism in the first half of the 19th century:

The only sources on this available either then or now, are the essays of Brian H. Hodgson published in Asiatic Researches, etc., starting in 1828, and later collected into a book entitled Essays on the Languages, Literature and Religion of Nepál and Tibet, London, 1874. Hodgson had been British Resident in Kathmandu, living there from 1821 through 1843. Since Nepal was otherwise closed to foreigners, Hodgson’s writings were for nearly a century the only source of information on Nepalese Buddhism. All the early Buddhist scholars, including Eugène Burnouf, Samuel Beal, Joseph Edkins, Hendrik Kern, etc., most of whom were quoted by Blavatsky and K.H., relied on these writings.[10]

Later scholars failed to find any other reference to the existence of a school that bears this name, so this idea is today considered mistaken by most. However, as a result of an in-depth exploration of the references given by Hodgson, Theosophical researcher Samantha Province came to the conclusion that "we may identify the Nepalese Swābhāvikas with the Great Madhyamaka tradition."[11]

See also

Online resources



  1. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. III (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 91.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 93.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 314.
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. II, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 271.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. II, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 220.
  6. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. II, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 264.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XIII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1982), 309.
  8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. II, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 530-531.
  9. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence No. 90 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 281. See Mahatma Letter No. 90 page 11.
  10. Technical Terms in Stanza II by David Reigle
  11. Hodgson’s Schools of Nepalese Buddhism Identified with Particular Reference to the Swābhāvikas by Samantha Province