Skandhaic Activity

[Reprinted from THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT, September 1963.]

Among members of the same family, and even between twins, there often exists such a diversity of intellectual and moral perception that it challenges our intellect for a rational solution. Modern thought has put forward no satisfactory explanation. The doctrine of heredity as propounded by Western thinkers is at a loss when faced with these congenital differences in traits and tendencies. A satisfactory solution cannot be found outside of the twin doctrine of Karma-Reincarnation, for these differences are the result of antecedent causes. Paul wrote: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." With each person, the sowing varies according to the soil, the seed, the labour and the method. The harvest reflects that sowing. Our present characteristics are the crop. Our actions of today are the seeds that will yield the harvest of the morrow. Karma is the unerring law that adjusts the harvest to the sowing.

It is our purpose to examine some of the agencies through which our quantum of merit or demerit is brought home to us and our characteristics receive a longer or a shorter lease of life.

There is no dead matter anywhere. Says H.P.B. in The Secret Doctrine I, 248-49):

All is Life, and every atom of even mineral dust is a Life, though beyond our comprehension and perception, because it is outside the range of the laws known to those who reject Occultism.

Every form of matter, therefore, whether "organic" or seemingly inert, is a form of life. All processes of nature are acts of incessant borrowing and giving back between these forms. They are composed of sentient points or lives which are in constant ebb and flow from the human to the other kingdoms and back. These sentient points are receptive to magnetic impresses which they have the power of retaining for long periods. There may be almost indelible impresses, which may expend themselves only at the threshold of Pralaya. These lives give each man his characteristics; and as the process of throwing off and taking in is not confined to post-mortem states, but is incessant, a man's characteristics may undergo as phenomenal a change as any that nature presents.

This constant interchange of lives is without any break, and it helps in changing human characteristics. The process is steady, for nature never works by fits and starts. At birth, the man brings his characteristics—skandhas—from previous incarnations and from them as germ or basis builds up a new set of skandhas for the new life. It is indeed the thirst for life inherent in these skandhas that forces reincarnation. These become the foundations of his personality and lay down the trend of the life that is to be lived. Traits that have been built up through lives cannot be thrown away in a day, no matter how great the present effort. For man, there is always a "circle Pass-not" for any given incarnation, and that is one reason why one does not achieve perfection in a single birth. The old lives resist change, and thus give the man time to think and choose deliberately. Of the skandhas, some last throughout the span of a man's life. They have their youth, maturity and old age; and as it is on them as a substratum that the personality is built, their separation leads to decrepitude and death. Other skandhas are more nebulous, and are replaceable in a comparatively short time. It is these that make possible a rapid change in the personality, for weal or woe.

The lower man is a compound divisible into five skandhaic groups. There is a sevenfold classification referred to by H.P.B., but not much is said about the two higher groups. The five consist of Rupa—the body with its four capacities of Vedana—the perception of pleasure and pain; Sanjna—the cognition of things; Sanskara—the action that leads to passion, aversion, etc; Vidyana—the knowledge of external things. The assemblage of these at birth forms a man's personality. Pertaining, however, to man's transitory aspect, they cannot be said to be permanent, though some portion of them may attach to the returning Ego and persist over a series of lives. Neither can it be said that the final dispersion of the groups means the annihilation of the individuality. Quite the contrary. Their final dissolution—transmutation really—would mean liberation and the attainment of Nirvana.

The mystery of the building up of the body and the personality is locked up in the skandhas. When their function is grasped and it is considered that they have their re-embodiment in future lives, one sees why in one the body is weak and in another strong. How often we deplore our lack of virility and the congenital disorders of our organs and attributes! We ought instead to trace our skandhaic lineage to see what led up to the effects; and then we should not shrink from Karma, but pay tribute to it. What we readily see in reference to the limitations of the body applies no less to the other groups. More subtle, because more hidden, their qualities are nevertheless even more palpable in their effects upon the personal man. The ebullitions of the personality are hard to check, yet it is with these groups that a man has to deal, as they intimately affect his psychic and intellectual nature. Here are the roots of passion, anger, greed. Here lies the thirst for things. These are activated or they atrophy with the changing of the skandhas.

When a man dies, a process analogous to digestion takes place. Just as the nutritive essence of foods is separated for assimilation, while the refuse is brought together for elimination, so after death nature forces a separation between good and evil tendencies. The good and beneficent ones are assimilated and accompany the Devachanee. The evil ones form the Kama-rupa which begins to disintegrate, leaving the lives forming it, with their impresses, to mingle with lives of the same polarity and to hover about seeking forms most suited to the working out of the impressions. A violin string tuned to a particular pitch when vibrated will set in vibration another string tuned to the identical pitch. So with these lives. Any form not attuned to their pitch is unsuitable for them. But a form in tune with them through consubstantiality creates a kind of magnetic sympathy which exerts a pull sufficient to take them in. Some are thus absorbed by our fellow men, some by animals, other by lower kingdoms. Lives which bear impresses of anger, envy, hate and passion tend towards a lower level. In their transmigrations they stir human minds to base activities, or exhaust themselves in the kingdoms below ours.

In each kingdom the original impress produces corresponding outward manifestations, till the journey from form to form ultimately overshadows the memory of the detailed events that gave the impress and leaves only the essence of the desire or the quality. But through all these gyrations, the karmic responsibility of the person who gave the impress is heightened. The lives that bear his impress are his ambassadors who carry his curse or his blessing to countless living entities. They knit him with those who react to his impresses. In active life he may have been oblivious of giving a sentient point its polarity. But the act once committed is past recall. Either at his death or sooner, the polarized sentient point goes out to engender right or wrong tendencies in others. That his action was not deliberate can avail him little. Karmically he is linked by strong magnetic threads with his ambassadors in their movements through space, and the law demands that he shall reap the consequences in time to come. This reaping may take the shape of strengthening or weakening characteristics brought by the returning lives which await the Ego at the threshold of Devachan.

The skandhas are our progeny, and because they reflect our true qualities they are of great potential usefulness. When they hold the mirror to us, we shrink from the reflection, not realizing that they are our true friends who show us an unretouched photograph of ourselves. If they show the pallor of disease, the unhealthy flush of passion, the vacant expression of the intellectual bankrupt, is it the fault of the reflection? Instead of remedying the defects, mankind has been too prone to kick against the pricks—a useless course, for "the pricks seem to enjoy it."

A critical stage in the purgation of the skandhas is reached at death. If one is to live in the eternal, then the suffering due to existence through the five groups must be stopped. Anything that tends to heighten tanha or thirst for life in the skandhas reacts for the worse on the future personality. The wide implications of a solitary lapse from the discipline are not therefore incomprehensible. The living of the higher life assumes paramount importance, for thereby alone can the desires be starved out. Forming the habit of thinking correctly is a task which might daunt the stoutest heart, but victories are to be victorious. It is helpful to remember that Karma aids our efforts to purify the skandhas, by adjusting to our strength the magnitude of the immediate task.

Two verses in the Dhammapada show what part the skandhas play, and what our attitude should be:

202. There is no fire like that of lust; there is no (moral) breach like that of ill-will; there is no suffering like that of existence through the Five Groups [skandhas]; there is no bliss like the Highest Peace.

374. As soon as he has considered the origin and the destruction of the Five Groups, he finds happiness and joy which belong to those who know the immortal.

The skandhas must therefore be transmuted, their earthly dross eliminated and a stamp of spirituality given them instead. The five bonds of egoism, doubt, false belief, lust and hatred have to be cut. The disciple must, "free from hate, live happily among those who hate"; "free from ailments and lust, live happily among the ailing and lustful." This he can do only when he has gathered unto himself Faith, Energy, Mindfulness and Spiritual Insight. Once consubstantiality with the perishable elements is severed, not power on earth can reattach them to the soul. He whose hand is unwounded may touch poison; it can affect him not. No sin can attach to him whose ills are dead and quit. He may reincarnate to fulfil his destiny, but never will yearnings torture him, nor sins stain him, nor ache or earthly joys and woes invade his safe eternal peace.

Socrates, indeed, when he was asked of what country he called himself, said, "Of the world"; for he considered himself an inhabitant and a citizen of the whole world.


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