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Girl Looking in the Mirror by Alfred Stevens​

Consciousness is defined in a general way as sentience or awareness of internal and external existence. In this view, consciousness includes any kind of cognition, experience, feeling, or perception. A special case of consciousness is what has been called "self-consciousness" or "self-awareness," which is the experience or perception of one's own personality or individuality.

Theosophical literature presents consciousness as a fundamental (not an emergent) property of the cosmos, which is present in everything including inorganic matter. In this definition, consciousness is not necessarily a cognitive function as normally experienced by humans, but rather the more basic ability to perceive and respond to the environment in some form. Thus, the chemical atom is regarded as possessing a principle of consciousness in its most basic form. This does not mean that there is some process of thinking in the atom. An example of "atomic consciousness" could be its ability to "perceive" or "identify" atoms with which it has affinity, responding to them by forming molecules.

Theosophists have proposed that there are many levels of consciousness, depending on the plane or body through which it manifests.

The difference between consciousness and self-consciousness is also important in Theosophical literature, since the latter is said to be a special feature that is fully developed only in human beings, especially in connection to the physical plane. Some species in the animal kingdom, however, already show the incipient development of a basic form of physical self-consciousness.

General description


In the view of most scientists, consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, resulting from the communication of information across all its regions. However, although modern science has been successful in studying the brain, it has been unable to produce a satisfying theory of the nature of consciousness. Philosopher Philip Goff said:

Despite great progress in our scientific understanding of the brain, we still don’t have even the beginnings of an explanation of how complex electrochemical signaling is somehow able to give rise to the inner subjective world of colors, sounds, smells and tastes that each of us knows in our own case. There is a deep mystery in understanding how what we know about ourselves from the inside fits together with what science tells us about matter from the outside.[1]

Theosophical literature does not agree with the scientific theory that consciousness is merely an emergent property, that is, a characteristic that appears out of the complexity of a system (the brain) but that is absent from its individual parts (cells or atoms). Theosophical teachers such as H. P. Blavatsky have claimed that consciousness is an fundamental feature of the cosmos, which means that everything possesses some kind of consciousness:

Esoteric philosophy teaches that everything lives and is conscious, but not that all life and consciousness are similar to those of human or even animal beings.[2]

The consciousness of any given entity is a complex process. To begin with, since everything is conscious, the consciousness of such entity is the sum total of all the elements that compose it. In addition, any being is composed of seven principles, all with their own type of consciousness. Not all these levels are active in pre-human kingdoms, but in the case of human beings they all are in the process of awakening.



H. P. Blavatsky explained the mechanism of perception in humans as follows:

In the normal or natural state, the sensations are transmitted from the lowest physical to the highest spiritual body, i.e., from the first to the 6th principle (the 7th being no organized or conditioned body, but an infinite, hence unconditioned principle or state), the faculties of each body having to awaken the faculties of the next higher one, to transmit the message in succession, until they reach the last, when, having received the impression, the latter (the spiritual soul) sends it back in an inverse order to the body.[3]

Thus, the possibilities and limitations of consciousness, and the range of its perception, depends on the degree to which each of the principles or bodies are active:

Hence, the faculties of some of the “bodies” (we use this word for want of a better term) being less developed, they fail to transmit the message correctly to the highest principle, and thus also fail to produce the right impression upon the physical senses, as a telegram may have started for the place of its destination faultless, and have been bungled up and misinterpreted by the telegraph operator at some intermediate station. This is why some people, otherwise endowed with great intellectual powers and perceptive faculties, are often utterly unable to appreciate—say, the beauties of nature, or some particular moral quality; as, however perfect their physical intellect. Unless the . . . physical impression conveyed has passed in a circuit through the sieve of every “principle”—(from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, up to 7, and down again from 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, to No. 1)—and that every “sieve” is in good order—the spiritual perception will always be imperfect. The Yogi, who, by a constant training and incessant watchfulness, keeps his septenary instrument in good tune and whose spirit has obtained a perfect control over all, can, at will, and by paralysing the functions of the four intermediate principles, communicate from body to spirit and vice versa—direct.[4]

Absolute consciousness

When talking about consciousness in its absolute quality, Mme. Blavatsky wrote:

To know itself or oneself, necessitates consciousness and perception (both limited faculties in relation to any subject except Parabrahm), to be cognized. Hence the “Eternal Breath which knows itself not.” Infinity cannot comprehend Finiteness. The Boundless can have no relation to the bounded and the conditioned. In the occult teachings, the Unknown and the Unknowable mover, or the Self-Existing, is the absolute divine Essence. And thus being Absolute Consciousness, and Absolute Motion—to the limited senses of those who describe this indescribable—it is unconsciousness and immoveableness. Concrete consciousness cannot be predicated of abstract Consciousness, any more than the quality wet can be predicated of water—wetness being its own attribute and the cause of the wet quality in other things. Consciousness implies limitations and qualifications; something to be conscious of, and someone to be conscious of it. But Absolute Consciousness contains the cognizer, the thing cognized and the cognition, all three in itself and all three one. . . . It must not be forgotten, also, that we give names to things according to the appearances they assume for ourselves. We call absolute consciousness “unconsciousness,” because it seems to us that it must necessarily be so, just as we call the Absolute, “Darkness,” because to our finite understanding it appears quite impenetrable, yet we recognize fully that our perception of such things does not do them justice. We involuntarily distinguish in our minds, for instance, between unconscious absolute consciousness, and unconsciousness, by secretly endowing the former with some indefinite quality that corresponds, on a higher plane than our thoughts can reach, with what we know as consciousness in ourselves. But this is not any kind of consciousness that we can manage to distinguish from what appears to us as unconsciousness.[5]

Higher consciousness

According to H. P. Blavatsky, the highest source of consciousness in human beings is the sixth and fifth principles:

Consciousness per se, as understood and explained by Occult philosophy, is the highest quality of the sentient spiritual Principle in us, the divine soul (or buddhi) and our higher ego.[6]

The seventh principle is not included here, because atman, being a ray of the absolute, is beyond consciousness as we know it.[7]

The higher consciousness in human beings is the source of all spiritual aspirations and virtues. In its manasic level, it is individual but impersonal. In its buddhic and atmic levels, it is universal. To learn more about the three higher principles read the articles on Atman, Buddhi and Manas.


Self-consciousness or self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. It is not to be confused with consciousness. While consciousness is a term given to being aware of one’s environment, self-consciousness is the recognition of that awareness.

Although animals have consciousness, they are not aware of themselves as being a particular entity experiencing the environment (except in a few cases which show an incipient awakening of self-consciousness). This is because the principle that gives self-consciousness becomes individualized and active only in the human kingdom. We are referring to manas, which is "the principle of self-consciousness, the 'I-am-I'":[8]

The perception of “I,” or the sense of one’s personal individuality ... belongs ... to the fifth Principle, or manas.[9]

Because this principle is the origin of the sense of "I-ness", it is called the "Ego":

Ego (Lat.) "I"; the consciousness in man of the "I am I," or the feeling of I-am-ship. Esoteric philosophy teaches the existence of two Egos in man, the mortal or personal, and the higher, the divine or impersonal, calling the former "personality", and the latter "individuality".[10]

Personal consciousness

See also

Additional resources

Articles and pamphlets




  • What Is Consciousness? by Richard Smoley. Presented on April 16, 2020 at the Theosophical Society in America. "There is a fierce debate these days about the nature of consciousness--what it is, and how it functions in the universe. Do only humans have consciousness? Is the universe conscious, as some are saying these days? What are contemporary science and philosophy trying to tell us? And what do the esoteric traditions have to say on this subject? Richard Smoley will offer a brisk, lively, and engaging talk on this most mysterious of subjects."



  1. Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe? An Interview with Philip Goff Scientific American.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 49.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 101-102.
  4. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 101-102.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 56.
  6. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XIV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 387.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 56.
  8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. X (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 249.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, ​1991), 581.
  10. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 111.