Shishtas: seeds of life

‘Shishta’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘remainder’. It is used in theosophy to refer to the most evolved representatives of any kingdom or life-wave, which remain on a globe of a planetary chain as dormant seeds of life when most of the monads in the kingdom concerned move on to the next globe. When the life-wave returns to the same globe in the next round the shishtas reawaken to a new cycle of activity and provide the initial vehicles for the incoming monads.

    Almost the entire mineral life-wave has gone on to globe E of the earth-chain, and the mineral kingdom remaining on our globe D therefore consists of the aggregated mineral shishtas. The vegetable life-wave is rapidly passing over to globe E but has not yet completely done so, while about half the animal life-wave has moved on to the next globe. The mineral kingdom is therefore relatively quiescent, the plant kingdom is a little more active, and the beast kingdom is still more active. The human kingdom is the dominant active life-wave on our globe at the present time.

    When the mineral life-wave was in its heyday, we would have seen tremendous seismic and volcanic activity, minerals advancing on the surface of the earth, and the earth rising and falling, moving and flowing, as if alive. The fourth round began some 320 million years ago with the Laurentian and Cambrian geological periods, a time of tremendous seismic convulsions and widespread volcanism, brought about by the return of the mineral life-wave to our globe. Prior to this period the entire earth is thought by many scientists to have been in the grip of the severest and most extensive ice age known* – corresponding to the period of obscuration or dormancy between the third and fourth rounds.

*New Scientist, 1 Feb. 1992, pp. 42-9.

    The most stable areas of the earth’s crust are the ancient continental nuclei and the present deep ocean basins. Crustal uplift and subsidence are constantly in progress but generally proceed very slowly. Intense mineral activity in the form of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc. also occurs but is intermittent and confined to restricted zones. The violent eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, for example, devastated 550 square kilometres of mountain terrain, felled 10 million trees, displaced 2.7 cubic kilometres of volcanic rock, and lopped 1100 metres off the mountain summit. The explosive eruption of Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815 expelled up to 100 cubic kilometres of magma. Even this event is dwarfed to insignificance by the cataclysmic eruption at Yellowstone in the US about 2 million years ago which spewed out nearly 3000 cubic kilometres of explosively boiling magma. The awesome power displayed by these events may appear to be purely destructive, but it is also a force of regeneration and renewal.

    There are several possible explanations for these episodes of heightened mineral activity: firstly, a small proportion of the mineral life-wave has not yet left for globe E and is still active here (the trailers among the mineral monads); secondly, ‘trickles’ of mineral monads are constantly passing through our globe to the next one, these being the forerunners of the mineral life-wave, which is currently embodied on another globe (Dia 3:319); thirdly, ‘mineral monads’ from other planets may be passing through the earth on their outer rounds; and fourthly, the disharmonious thoughts and deeds of the human kingdom create tensions on the astral plane which may disturb and reactivate the dormant mineral monads, resulting in violent outbursts of activity.

    The earliest vegetable forms in the present, fourth round developed from the plant shishtas from the previous round; they were initially highly ethereal, and attained their present degree of materiality in the mid-Mesozoic. When the plants were in their heyday, we would have seen trees move their branches about, reaching to things, and trying to envelop passing creatures. Vegetation would have been extremely abundant and luxuriant, as can still be seen today on a much smaller scale in the tropical rainforests. Extensive lush vegetation is particularly associated with the moderately warm and humid climates of the Carboniferous period.

    Allan Stover says that we can discover the traces of a once more active plant life in the microscopic plants to be found in any stagnant pool of water, swimming and darting around for food like animals. There are many obvious examples of plant shishtas. In the desert we find remains of bunch-grass, flowers, and bushes whose ancestors once covered vast areas of the desert floor with greenery. The scrubby desert tea, found on all continents, is an after-thought of the same great stock which formed the giant redwood pines and cedars. The low club mosses were once huge trees that formed the coal forests of the Carboniferous. The earliest sequoias known lived in the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era, or age of reptiles, and reached their climax in the Miocene, when they were spread over the world. Several million years ago, they began to decrease, until today the genus is represented by the redwoods of the California coast and by the grandest of their race, the big trees of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are shishtas, living relicts of a line which has endured for millions of years (NM 1-2, 14, 18-9, 68).

    Some types of vegetation still show the more active characteristics of archaic vegetation. Species of the sundew family, for example, are noted for their ability to trap insects. The Drosera species has leaves covered with gland-tipped hairs that exude a sticky substance attractive to insects. Insects are captured by flexible tentacles on the upper surface of the leaf, and eventually become engulfed by a web of sticky tentacles. After the trapped prey has been digested by enzymes secreted by the tentacles, the leaf reopens, resetting the trap. The Venus flytrap is a member of the same family but more lively. Its leaves are bordered with formidable spikes, tipped with tempting honey. When an insect steps on one of the sensitive nerve-hairs, the sides of the leaf snap together like a mousetrap. When the prey is digested the leaf opens again and the trap is set for the next meal (Dia 2:348).

An active trap of the sundew (Drosera capensis). Sensitive tentacles topped with red mucilage-secreting glands fold over to secure and digest the struggling insect.

    The vegetable life-wave has passed through several stages of development. Stover says that if we want to know what a landscape looked like during Lemurian times, we should go into any forest of pine, fir, or other coniferous trees – relicts of the once-great forests that were spread over the earth in the Mesozoic. Later, in Atlantean times, broad-leaf flowering trees and shrubs had their golden age, and have been declining ever since. Still later, with the onset of the Pleistocene ice age during fifth root-race times, many plants became dwarfed, so annuals developed, which could pass the cold winters in the form of seeds (NM 14).

    Cambrian rocks include the first appearance of virtually every animal phylum that has left fossil records. This period saw the sudden proliferation of such an extraordinary array of new body plans that the event has been called the ‘Cambrian explosion’. It was made possible by the awakening, differentiation, and materialization of the animal shishtas, or astral root-types, from the third round. Animal evolution during the present round has been punctuated by major extinctions and the sudden appearance of new stocks, and can be divided into the following main stages: the age of trilobites and the age of fishes in the Palaeozoic, the age of reptiles in the Mesozoic, and the age of mammals beginning in the late Mesozoic and continuing during the Cenozoic.

    The beast kingdom today is about 50% shishtas (Dia 2:347), and therefore far less active than it once was. The beasts are increasingly losing their aggressive powers, becoming quieter, and dying out. Many of the lower animals, such as the insects, fishes and crustaceans, are shishtas, and even the mammals are becoming shishtas, except for the apes. The little lizards of today are shishtas of the stock from which the 60-foot dinosaurs of the age of reptiles sprang, reached their climax, and passed away.

    During the Cambrian, shellfish were the most elaborate form of life. This was the era of the trilobites, primitive arthropods of which the modern horseshoe crab is the closest living relative. The horseshoe crab has survived with few evolutionary changes since the Jurassic period (which began 200 million years ago according to science and 28 million years ago according to theosophy) and is an example of what is called a ‘living fossil’.

    The mollusc species known as Nautilus and their relatives, the ammonites, dominated the ancient seas during the Palaeozoic. But while the ammonites suffered a catastrophic extinction, the Nautilus species survive today as living fossils. Ammonites were fast-growing, active predators that could grow up to several metres across, and produced thousands of eggs at a time. When the oxygen level in the oceans rose dramatically, oxygen-hungry fish developed that outcompeted the ammonites for resources, with the result that the latter were wiped out. Nautilus alone survived because early on their ancestors settled for life in the slow lane; they expended little energy in hunting and feeding, and reproduced very slowly.* In other words, they became a type of shishta.

*New Scientist, 4 July 1992, p. 16.

    In 1938, a trawler fishing off South Africa brought up an odd fish about 5 feet long. It turned out to be a coelacanth, a primitive fish that zoologists had thought extinct for 60 million years (theosophy: 7.5 million). The second specimen was caught in 1958, and many more have since been found. There are numerous reported sightings of a wide variety of animals – mammal, reptile, amphibian, fish – whose existence is controversial because no specimens currently exist. These ‘cryptids’ include apelike creatures (e.g. Bigfoot, Yeti, Almas), lake monsters (possibly zeuglodons and plesiosaurs), giant octopuses, sea serpents, sauropodlike animals (e.g. Mokele-mbembe in central Africa), and flying reptiles (resembling pterosaurs).* The physical evidence for many of these creatures is quite strong, and some are probably survivors of once-flourishing species. Others, however, appear to be temporary materializations of astral entities or elemental energies, given their unusual behaviour – for instance, they may be unaffected by bullets or vanish into thin air. Theosophy teaches that the animals will steadily die out from now to the end of our planetary chain’s lifetime, as fewer and fewer animal monads will be able to make the grade upwards on the ascending, spiritualizing arc of evolution and will pass into nirvanic rest (SOP 680-1).

*Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark, Cryptozoology A to Z: the encyclopedia of loch monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and other authentic mysteries of nature, New York: Fireside, 1999; Cryptozoology,

    It is interesting to note that bacteria found in salts taken from a Permian limestone formation in Germany and a Permian salt formation in New Mexico have been successfully revived (the rocks are 250 million years old according to science, 44 million according to theosophy). The oldest deposits from which living bacteria have been extracted are about 650 million years old (theosophy: 320 million).* Scientists say this is astonishing because the complex molecules should have degraded to very simple compounds by now.

*New Scientist, 21 Oct. 2000, p. 12; Nature, 19 Oct. 2000, pp. 844-5; W.R. Corliss (comp.), Anomalies in Geology: physical, chemical, biological, Glen Arm, MD: Sourcebook Project, 1989, p. 73.

    There are also a great many cases on record of animals – notably toads and frogs – being discovered alive in solid stone or deep in compact earth. They usually seem to have occupied a cavity only slightly larger than their bodies. Freshly disinterred toads sometimes appear transparent, and most die quickly after release. Nowadays most scientists simply dismiss all such reports since they cannot believe that entombed animals can survive for millions of years without air or food.*

*Anomalies in Geology, pp. 60-71; Jerome Clark, Unexplained! 347 strange sightings, incredible occurrences, and puzzling physical phenomena, Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1993, pp. 110-3; SD 1:385-6.

    In addition to physical shishtas, other long-extinct stocks of plants and animals continue to exist as imprints on the astral plane, and will one day, in some future planetary cycle, provide the prototypes for a new efflorescence of plant and animal life. At present, Mars is in obscuration between its third and fourth rounds, while Mercury is beginning to come out of obscuration to begin its seventh round. The official view is that no forms of plant or animal life exist on these two planets. However, there is strong evidence for some form of microbial life in the soil of Mars, and some photographs show intriguing signs of plant life.* Most of the shishtas of the various kingdoms probably exist on the astral plane, or on a physical subplane beyond our range of perception, and some may be living in underground habitats.

*Barry E. DiGregorio, Mars: the living planet, Berkeley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 1997.

    The human stock is the dominant life-wave on globe D of the earth-chain at present. From time to time, however, certain races or nations go through inactive, shishta-like phases, when their energies die down, and the race or stock loses its power and becomes quiescent for several hundred or thousand years, like the Greeks were during the Middle Ages and the Spanish are to a certain extent even today after their heyday of social and political power a few hundred years ago. The shishtas of the race destined to overthrow the decadent Mediterranean civilization were the northern barbarians; they received a new influx of life, conquered the Mediterranean peoples, and finally produced the modern European civilization. The Hindus, Chinese, and many of the Asiatic tribes have all been in obscuration; they have been and in some respects still are human shishtas on a small scale. Some races become amalgamated with newer human stocks, like the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Very old races die out completely (as far as their bodies are concerned), as is happening with the American Indians (Dia 3:191-4).

    After a crest wave of human activity has passed, those areas which supported teeming populations and abundant vegetation slowly become desert, or otherwise uninhabitable, and enjoy a period of rest. Bad human habits often contribute to an area becoming barren and infertile. With the lessening of outer activity, the deserts are purified by sun and wind and other forces. They also play an important role in cleaning the air, heating it, and sending it upward to redescend over the oceans and the inhabited parts of the earth (NM 66-7). Arid deserts cover one-sixth of the world’s land surface and the area is steadily increasing; regions that are too cold to support vegetation and large human populations are sometimes called ‘frigid deserts’.

    When the present human life-wave leaves for globe E, the shishtas that remain behind will be the highest humans of the seventh root-race. They will be ‘dormant’ as compared with what they will be when they rebecome the great instructors of infant humanity in the fifth round. They will continue to live and die, go through various portmortem states, and reincarnate. Children will be born by creative will and imagination (kriyashakti) (Dia 2:352; 3:224).

    The human shishtas, even the lowest of them, will live in a Saturnian age, a happy, dreamlike period lasting for ages upon ages until the life-wave returns. While this is in a sense a sacrifice, they will have their reward, because after the earth has ended its obscuration period following our departure, the dhyani-chohanic life-wave now on globe C will arrive here, and the human shishtas will be living in the presence of a quasi-godlike race, which will be as far superior to us present humans, or even the humans of the seventh root-race of this round, as we are higher than the anthropoid apes (Dia 3:216).

    In general, the succeeding life-wave of dhyani-chohans will not incarnate in the human shishtas, just as we do not embody in the beasts, plants or minerals. However, the very lowest class of the dhyani-chohans will probably incarnate in the noblest of the shishtas to a certain extent. The dhyani-chohanic shishtas are living and waiting on earth even today. Where? ‘There are many mysteries about the Earth of which very little has been said, even in our Esoteric School’ (Dia 2:391).

    That even the shishtas slowly evolve and change is shown by the fact that the highest humans during the third round on this globe were monkey-like beings, whereas the bodies which the shishtas provided for the incoming human life-wave in the fourth round were enormous, globular, astral or semi-astral forms, bearing only a very faint resemblance to the present human shape. Between two rounds, evolution therefore continues very slowly, but sufficiently to make the bodies of the shishtas suitable for the needs of the incoming life-wave in the first root-race of the next round. The highest shishtas – a body of masters and high initiates – will watch over the rest of the human shishtas, from time to time dropping the seeds of civilizing thought among them to keep the light burning, so that the shishtas never fall beneath a certain level (Dia 3:221-2, 194).

    The relatively small number of astral shishtas which existed on this globe prior to the arrival of the human life-wave in the fourth round consisted of seven subclasses. Slowly, over the course of millions of years, the forerunners of the human life-wave began to arrive from globe C. Their seven subclasses were attracted to and awakened the corresponding subclasses of shishtas, which then began to increase in number and multiply by projecting their astral doubles or ‘shadows’. Finally, the bulk of the human life-wave arrived and took up abode in these astral forms. The first subrace of the first root-race therefore consisted of seven groups, seven embryonic astral humanities, evolving on seven different zones of the first continent (SOP 260-2, 432-4). The two highest classes of shishtas, and possibly the third, were mentally awakened from the very start of the fourth round, and kept the flame of spirituality and intellectuality alight as a brotherhood (Dia 2:211-2), guided and inspired by the earth’s Silent Watcher. The origins of the first race go back some 150 million years to the mid-Palaeozoic if we include the gradual awakening of the shishtas (SOP 162-5; SD 2:150, 710).

    The humans who become the shishtas at the end of the seventh race in the present round will be fifth rounders (together with a few rare sixth rounders), and they will remain behind because, through individual effort and aspiration, they have run ahead of the bulk of the life-wave and returned as fifth rounders. They cannot go on in their evolutionary development until the bulk of the life-wave catches them up (FSO 371; SOP 330-1). The vast majority of our human life-wave are fourth rounders and must therefore complete their fourth round and then commence their fifth. When they reach this globe again they will be fifth rounders and will meet fifth-round bodies.

    Certain families of beasts are obviously more evolved than others, and this is especially true of domestic animals, and of the monkeys and apes, which ‘stand in the beast-world just about where fifth rounders stand to us humans, when we speak of human fifth and sixth rounders’ (Dia 2:24-5). If certain animal monads occupy a status among the beasts corresponding to that of fifth rounders in the human kingdom, this suggests that they, too, are in a sense fifth rounders. If the shishtas in any of the kingdoms were not already fifth rounders, it is hard to see how they could provide the necessary vehicles for the returning life-wave in the fifth round. All the kingdoms pass through all the globes in the course of a chain-round, and, by analogy with the human kingdom, we would expect every kingdom to have its forerunners and its trailers.

    Another aspect of the theosophical teaching about shishtas concerns what is known as the ‘surplus of life’. During the building of a planetary chain, those monads of a life-wave which remain behind at each stage are shishtas, while the ‘surplus of lives’ – the active part of the life-wave – passes onwards to the next globe. In the first round, when the first elemental kingdom goes into dormancy on globe A, the second elemental kingdom begins its work there. Meanwhile, the surplus of life of the first elemental kingdom flows over to globe B, and lays the foundation of it. These surplus lives are the 42 principles – 42 of the 49 ‘fires’ – of the other six globes of the lower seven, and although contained in the first elemental kingdom, they really overshadow and animate it. They pass down to the plane below due to its attraction of their inferior qualities or svabhava. As soon as they touch their own realms, the sleeping fires of the life-waves belonging to those realms begin to awaken. The same general procedure applies to all the life-waves in the first round. In the second round, the hosts of monads merely have to step into and awaken the ‘sleeping’ bodies – that is, the shishtas – left behind in the first round (FEP 580-2, 596-7). But the basic process is the same: the bulk of a life-wave – the surplus of lives – passes from globe to globe, leaving shishtas behind at each stage.

    Thus during the unrolling of the cosmic planes after a pralaya, or period of rest and withdrawal, the septenary life-wave descends from spirit into matter, each unfolding stage becoming a cosmic plane, and the surplus of life passes on downwards, thus producing a complete universe, solar system, or planetary chain, according to the scale. Each such unfolded stage or plane is technically a shishta, because it is that which is ‘left behind’ or ‘remains’ while the rest of the aggregate septenary life-waves – the surplus of lives – passes on, dropping or unfolding a new shishta at each stage (Dia 3:217-8).

    The same thing happens with the building of the human constitution. During reembodiment the first of the seven principles to appear and act is atman (the inner divinity). The surplus of life then brings forth buddhi (spiritual intelligence), the remaining surplus of life brings forth manas (the human mind), and the process continues until all the surplus of life has been unfolded, producing the complete human being (SOP 113-4).

    The shishta groups left behind on the different globes of our planetary chain during any round are globe shishtas. There are also shishtas which pass over from one dying planetary or solar chain to the next embodiment of the same chain, and these shishta groups are the seeds of life, or root-shishtas, which open the new manvantara, or cycle of evolutionary activity, in the first round on globe A of the new chain embodiment. These shishta groups are not so much individuals manifested in bodies, but rather monadic spheres or eggs. When the new chain is forming it is always the highest representatives of all classes which, combining with the elementals of their own class, become the ‘architects’; they impress the architectural plan upon these elementals so that the latter can do their work in building the globes of a chain. The lower representatives of each kingdom then begin to manifest and prepare the different types of groundwork through which the higher representatives can manifest again later (FSO 371-2).

    The Sanskrit word ‘manu’ is a generic name for the progenitors of mankind and, in its widest sense, of any kindgom. The shishtas are very closely linked with the manus but are not entirely identical with them. A life-wave begins its evolutionary course on a globe as a root-manu, out of which the seven root-races will proceed in due course. When the life-wave leaves a globe it is the seed-manu; it passes forwards on its round through the other globes and rebecomes the root-manu when it reaches that globe once more. The shishtas are the most advanced individuals of the seed-manu; they become the seeds of life when their manu reaches the globe again and become part of the root-manu. The term ‘manu’ in its broadest sense therefore includes not only the shishtas but the main body of the life-wave as well (FSO 374). There are root-manus and seed-manus for every globe, round, planetary manvantara, solar system, etc.

    Shishtas on any particular plane can remain on that plane only during an obscuration. When that plane dissolves into ethereal invisibility in the pralaya, the shishtas vanish too, but remain as the seeds of life on the inner planes. When the time comes, our physical galaxy will vanish, but in the space it now occupies there will remain its hidden seeds of life, or spiritual shishtas (Dia 3:197).

    The human reincarnating ego in its devachan, clothed in its auric egg, is a type of shishta, a sleeping monadic egg or sphere, which will give rise to the new human being in the next earth-life (FSO 371-2). A reincarnating entity has its own shishtas on lower levels, including the particular life-atom or life-germ which will find its way into a female body and be fertilized, and produce the new physical body (Dia 3:198).

    All entities in nature – atoms, cells, plants, beasts, humans, gods, planets, suns, galaxies, and universes – evolve in alternating periods of activity and rest, of birth, death, and rebirth. But rebirth is only possible if some part of the entity-that-was remains in existence to provide the seed or nucleus of the entity-to-be; that inner, relatively spiritual and dormant entity is a shishta. The newborn entity is formed through the emanation of energy-substances from within that spiritual nucleus of life ‘outwards’ and ‘downwards’ into denser spheres of manifestation, and by the attraction and accretion of life-atoms around the corresponding nucleus on each plane of the embodied entity’s constitution. This basic principle provides a key to understanding the universal process of reembodiment.


Dia Dialogues of G. de Purucker, TUP, 1948
FEP Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, G. de Purucker, TUP, 2nd ed., 1979
FSO     Fountain-Source of Occultism, G. de Purucker TUP, 1974
NMNature’s Magic, Allan J. Stover, TUP, 1948
SD The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky, TUP, 1977 (1888)
SOP Studies in Occult Philosophy, G. de Purucker, TUP, 1973

David Pratt. January 2002. Last revised: Dec 2010.

Geological timescale

Evolution in the fourth round