This is the first of a 3-part blog that I originally posted to Advaita Academy, on the subject of the pa~ncha kosha prakriyA, probably better known to most as the metaphor of the ‘Five Sheaths’.
Simplistically, this is the idea that there are various levels of identification of ‘Who I really am’ with aspects of the body-mind and that these have to be recognized and dropped so that I can realize my true nature.
However, because of the way that this idea is sometimes presented, there is often a serious misunderstanding on the part of the seeker who, taking the metaphor in a more literal sense, mistakenly believes that the self is literally ‘covered over’ by these ‘layers’ and somehow has to be ‘uncovered’, like some Russian doll. This misunderstanding may be reinforced by the notion of the Self being ‘hidden in the cave of the heart’ – another potentially misleading idea that I have discussed before.
I myself was confused by this prakriyA back in the days when I wrote the first edition of ‘Book of One’. Here is what I said then:
It has been noted above that ‘I’, the real Self, ‘identifies’ with the body for example, with the end result that I think I am the body. There is a system in Vedantic literature that describes these various layers of identification. They are referred to as ‘sheaths’ (Sanskrit kosha) which cover over our true essence in the way that a scabbard covers a dagger or sword.
The rest of the description was fairly innocuous and largely correct, apart from the repetition of the concept of ‘covering’. I reproduce it below so that anyone unfamiliar with the metaphor can understand what we are talking about:
The first of these layers – the ‘grossest’ and the one with which we first tend to identify – is the body. This is referred to as the sheath made of food (annamayakosha). The body is born, grows old, dies and decays back into the food from which it originally came (well, food for worms anyway) but this has nothing to do with the real Self, which is much closer than hand or skin.
The second layer is called the ‘vital sheath’ or sheath made of breath
( prANamayakosha). Hindu mythology refers to the ‘air’ as breathing life into the body. We might call it the vital force by means of which the body is animated and actions are performed. Although this force derives from the Self, as indeed everything does, it is not the Self. We each of us tend to believe that we are somehow immortal. Although we acknowledge that the body must eventually die we feel that there is this animating force which will survive that death. This is the identification with the vital sheath.
(As an aside here it is worth noting that, from a vyAvahArika standpoint, the teaching is that on the death of a non-realized person a ‘minute body’ is assigned to the jIva so that the subtle body, prANa-s and sense organs etc can accompany the jIva in the process of preparation for the next rebirth. But let’s not allow this to confuse the issue!)
The next layer is the mental sheath consisting of the thinking mind and the organs of perception (manomayakosha). This is the part of the mental makeup responsible for transmitting information from the ‘outside world’ but which usually gets up to mischief that is really none of its business, i.e. thinking and trying to understand everything. The Sanskrit word for this ‘organ’ of mind is manas. This is probably the sheath with which most of us identify.
Beyond this, however, there is the higher faculty of mind, responsible for discrimination, recognizing truth or falsehood, real or unreal, without recourse to mundane things like thought and memory. In silence, it knows without needing to think. We might call this the intellect; Sanskrit calls it buddhi. It is responsible for such judgments as Solomon’s in respect of the two mothers claiming the same child. He suggested sawing the baby in two and giving half to each woman. Supposedly the false mother agreed to this while the real mother said that the other woman could have the child. This is the intellectual sheath, vij~nAnamayakosha.
Some readers who meditate may have been fortunate enough to experience moments of the most profound peace and silence, when the mind is completely absent and a feeling of deep contentment can be felt. It might be thought that this is the state of realization for which we are aiming, if only it could be maintained. Instead it lasts mere minutes or, very rarely hours for a few dedicated ascetics. But no, this is just another state, albeit perhaps a desirable and blissful one. We are still observing it and therefore cannot be it. It is the final sheath, called appropriately enough the ‘Bliss’ sheath (Anandamayakosha). Because of its supremely blissful nature, it is reputedly the most difficult of the sheaths to transcend.
What we truly are, then, is the ‘Real Self’ or simply ‘Self’ with a capital ‘S’ as it will be called in this book. But, through identification with these various layers or sheaths, this Self is obscured. It is like water contained in a colored glass bottle. The water itself seems to take on the color of the glass, though it is itself colorless.
I realized recently that my misunderstanding about this metaphor came from a source that I respected highly at the time – Sri Parthasarathy’s ‘Vedanta Treatise’. (Don’t misunderstand me here – this is a good book but not everything in it can be relied upon for accuracy according to sampradAya teaching.) In this book he says: “The structure of man can be further divided into five material layers enveloping Atman. Atman is the core of your personality. It is represented in the diagram below by the mystic symbol ॐ (pronounced OM). The five concentric circles around the symbol represent the five layers of matter.” And a diagram is presented as below:
It is hardly surprising then that this sort of concept of the Atman being ‘covered over’ or ‘hidden’ is formed or taken on board by many people. And of course it must be quite erroneous. How can the Atman (which is the eternal, unlimited, infinite brahman) be covered by anything? There is nowhere that brahman is not, because everything is brahman.
The word kosha can have many meanings – a cask or vessel for holding liquids, such as a bucket or cup; a box, cupboard, drawer or trunk; a case or covering; store room, store (or even provisions); a treasury; a surgical bandage; a dictionary; a collection of poetry; a nutmeg; the inner part of certain fruit; the cocoon of a silk worm; the membrane covering an egg in the womb; the vulva, testicle, scrotum or penis (?); a ball or globe; the eye ball; an oath; a shoe or sandal; a kind of perfume; a ploughshare. (It is incredible that, when you look up a Sanskrit word in the dictionary, it often seems to have so many possible meanings that you wonder how anyone can translate the scriptures! Also the majority of words seem to have sexual connotations – and I don’t think this is my imagination!)
But the meaning that appears relevant here is given as: “a term for the three sheaths or succession of cases which make up the various frames of the body enveloping the soul.” (The reason why ‘three’ is mentioned rather than five will become clear later.) So here again we have the idea of something ‘covering’ our soul or essential nature.
The original metaphor seems to come from the Taittiriya Upanishad. (It is also outlined in the Sarva-Sara Upanishad and the Paingala Upanishad.)
Here are some extracts from Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of the Taittiriya:
II.1.3. From the Atman was born AkAsha; from AkAsha, air; from air, fire; from fire, water; from water, earth; from earth, herbs; from herbs, food; from food, man. He, that man, verily consists of the essence of food. This indeed is his head, this right arm is the right wing, this left arm is the left wing, this trunk is his body, this support below the navel is his tail.
II.2.1. Verily, different from this, which consists of the essence of food, but within it, is another self, which consists of the vital breath. By this the former is filled. This too has the shape of a man. Like the human shape of the former is the human shape of the latter. prANa, indeed, is its head; vyAna is its right wing; apAna is its left wing; AkAsha is its trunk; the earth is its tail, its support.
II.3.2. Verily, different from this sheath, which consists of the essence of the prANa, but within it, is another self, which consists of the mind. By this the former is filled. This too has the shape of a man. Like the human shape of the former is the human shape of the latter. The Yajur Veda is its head, the Rig Veda is its right wing, the Sama Veda is its left wing, the teaching is its trunk, the hymns of Atharva and Angiras are its tail, its support.
II.4.2. Verily, different from this sheath, which consists of the essence of the mind, but within it, is another self, which consists of the intellect. By this the former is filled. This too has the shape of a man. Like the human shape of the former is the human shape of the latter. Faith is it head, what is right is its right wing, what is truth is its left wing, absorption is its trunk, Mahat is its tail, its support.
II.5.2. Verily, different from this, which consists of the essence of the intellect, but within it, is another self, which consists of bliss. By this the former is filled. This too has the shape of a man. Like the human shape of the former is the human shape of the latter. Joy is its head, delight is its right wing, great delight is its left, bliss is its trunk. Brahman is its tail, its support.
It is interesting to note that the word ‘kosha’ does not appear here, however. The terms annamaya, manomaya etc are used and there is reference to earlier levels ‘embodying’ the later ones or to later ones ‘filling’ the earlier – but no mention of ‘sheaths’.
The method used here is to direct our attention to increasingly more subtle levels so that, although we may not appreciate what is meant by the Atman initially, we do by the end. I described this method in ‘Back to the Truth’:
This method, whereby the teacher directs the student from his initial identification with something gross on to increasingly more subtle levels of understanding, is called sthUla arundhatI nyAya. It is the clearest example of the Advaitic method of teaching. nyAya means logical argument. arundhatI is the Indian name given to a star, Alcor, in the constellation of Ursa Major (Great Bear, Plough or Big Dipper). In marriage ceremonies in India, the star is pointed out to the bride as an example to be followed, since the star is “devoted” to its companion star, Mizar or vAsiShTha (arundhatI was the wife of vAsiShTha). Because the star is scarcely visible, it is necessary to lead the eye to it gradually. Thus one might first locate the constellation by reference to the moon. Then the attention can be directed to the bright star that is at the tail of the Great Bear. Finally, there is a companion star which is only 11 minutes distant and fourth magnitude that can only be seen by people with exceptional eyesight. This is arundhatI.
In the same way, the taittirIya upaniShad first points to the body as being the Atman but then indicates that the vital energy is more subtle and the body is, after all, only food. In this way, the disciple is guided through successive levels until he is able to recognize his previously mistaken identifications and understand his essential nature.
The Sheath metaphor is effectively a subset of the more general Atma – anAtma viveka, the differentiation between Self and not-Self, or dRRigdRRishya viveka, the differentiation between the seer and the seen; the ‘net neti’ of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. It is also an example of the principal method of Advaita – adhyAropa – apavAda. First we are told that we are the body. This is then shown to be an erroneous superimposition due to ignorance and that explanation is taken back. Then it is said we are the life-force, prANa. Then that is shown to be wrong and rejected. And so on until we finally appreciate that we must be the Atman.
Swami Dayananda, when explaining this process, also uses the same analysis for Ishvara so that, when all of the ‘coverings’ have been shown to be mithyA, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that my Self and Ishvara must be the same – tat tvam asi. Both resolve into Brahman.
The model is dealt with in more detail, and in a much more approachable manner, in the Vivekachudamani from verse 156 – 213 (or thereabouts – there is a discrepancy of one or two amongst the many translations and commentaries of this work). And now the word kosha is actually used. For example: “The prANa endowed with the five organs of action forms this prANamaya kosha…” (Verse 167).
It begins with the Food Sheath (in the translation by AJ Alston):
- This physical body, arising from food and consisting of food, is one sheath. It lives through food and perishes without it. It is a conglomeration of skin, flesh, blood, bones and excrement. It cannot be the eternal pure principle.
- This physical body does not exist before its birth or after its death. Even after it is born, its nature is unstable and it changes from moment to moment. It is not a single entity, is non-conscious and is an object of perception like a pot. How can it be one’s own true self, which is the knower of the (apparent) modifications undergone by Being?
- This body with its hands and feet cannot be the Self because it continues to live when some of its powers are retained after the loss of some of its limbs. As that which is subject to control, it cannot be the (Self as) controller.
- The Self is the Witness of the body, its attributes and states. The existence of the Self is self-evident, and so is it different from the body.
- The body is a heap of bones smeared with flesh, full of impurities and thoroughly dirty. How can it be the self existent one, who knows it as an object, different from it in kind?
- Those of confused mind identify themselves with a mass of bones, fat, flesh, skin and excrement. A reflective person will realise that in his true nature he is the supreme reality, different from the body.
Shankara comments on the above section: “The individual soul, though intrinsically none other than Brahman, still identifies itself with, and becomes attached to, the sheaths made of food etc, which are external, limited, and composed of the subtle elements.” (Swami Gambhirananda translation) And he refers to the Tenth Man story, where the ten men swim across the river and think that one of their number has been lost because each forgets to count himself. In the same way, “the individual soul, under a spell of ignorance characterized by the non-perception of one’s own true nature as Brahman, accepts the external non-Selves, such as the body composed of food, as the Self, and as a consequence, begins to think, ‘I am none other than those non-Selves composed of food etc.”
In practice, of course, we do not consciously identify with the sheath itself but with one or more attributes of them. Thus, for example, we claim that ‘I am fat’ or ‘I am ugly’, effectively identifying with the body or food sheath; ‘I am stupid’, when referring to the mind or intellect. The Self is never really associated with these attributes or the sheaths themselves because only the Self is real – the rest are mithyA. Failure to understand this leads some teachers to claim that we need to ‘get rid of the mind’ or ‘destroy the ego’ in order to achieve realization. This is like saying that we have to kill the snake in order to discover the rope.
Shankara says that each successive sheath takes the human shape of the food sheath, like pouring liquid into a mould when casting an image. The word ‘maya’ in the names given to the sheaths means ‘made up of’ or ‘modification of’. The first level of identification is with the body, which is only a modification of food. So even the bliss sheath still belongs to the realm of effects. Each successive sheath is subtler than the previous and ‘pervades’ it. But beyond (or ‘inside’) them all is the true Self, which is the cause of the elements constituting the sheaths but is itself eternal and changeless.
But perhaps the best translation of kosha is the chrysalis or outer casing of a pupa. The word chrysalis comes from the Greek khrusallis, (khrusos means ‘gold’) because of the gold colour or metallic sheen of some pupae. The Sanskrit for chrysalis is koshakAra – the caterpillar actually makes the casing itself (kAra means ‘making’ or ‘doing’). I.e. it effectively constructs its own prison. And so do we, when we identify with the body and mind! But the pupa is not the casing, just as the body is not the Self. But the metaphor should not be taken all the way – the body does not actually encase the Self in the way that the outer shell of the chrysalis covers the caterpillar as it metamorphoses. (Although there is another nice parallel here, in that it is said that the jIva can only attain enlightenment in the body of a human.)
It should be noted that the Taittiriya Upanishad itself stops its descriptions of the successive ‘selves’ with the Anandamaya kosha. There is therefore the implication that this is the ‘highest’ Self, i.e. that it is not itself a ‘covering’ of something further. This doubt is raised in the Brahma Sutra Topic 6 (Anandamayo.bhyAsAt – I.1.12 – 19). The doubt raised is that Anandamaya cannot be the paramAtman because it has the form of the body, has parts (head, tail etc) and has joy, whereas the Self is formless, partless and limitless. The sutra concludes that it is Brahman, because Ananda is repeatedly uses as an ‘indicator’ or ‘characteristic’ of Brahman. The Taittiriya concludes that ‘Ananda is Brahman’ (II.6.1) and the Brihadaranyaka says that ‘Knowledge and bliss is Brahman’ (II.9.27) so the ‘Self made of bliss’ must be Brahman also. It is the most subtle in the series of increasing levels of subtlety pointed out in the metaphor.
Shankara disagrees and states that Anandamaya is not Brahman but the last of the five sheaths. It is the ‘causal body’ for the other four. We enjoy bliss in deep sleep but we are clearly not ‘united’ with Brahman because we return to ordinary waking afterwards. Anandamaya is the fluctuating bodily enjoyment or ‘reflection of’ the real Ananda, whereas Ananda itself is Brahman.
The Self is the ultimate ‘support’ for all of the sheaths, with which we erroneously identify as the result of ignorance. As Shankara puts it: “That very non-dual Brahman, which is the farthest limit of all negation of duality superimposed by ignorance, is the support (of the blissful self), for the blissful self culminates in unity. (It follows therefore, that) there does exist that one, non-dual Brahman, as the farthest limit of the negation of duality called up by the ignorance, and this Brahman supports (the duality) like a tail.” When all of the anAtman has been rejected (neti, neti), what remains is the ultimate subject – Brahman. II.vi.1 of the Taittiriya puts it: “If anyone knows Brahman as non-existing, he himself becomes non-existent.”
The sheath-related verses in the Panchadashi occur in Chapter 1:
- The five sheaths of the Self are those of the food, the vital air, the mind, the intellect and bliss. Enveloped in them, it forgets its real nature and becomes subject to transmigration.
- The gross body which is the product of the quintuplicated elements is known as the food sheath. That portion of the subtle body which is composed of the five vital airs and the five organs of action, and which is the effect of the rajas aspect of Prakriti is called the vital sheath.
- The doubting mind and the five sensory organs, which are the effect of Sattva, make up the mind sheath. The determining intellect and the sensory organs make up the intellect sheath.
- The impure Sattva which is in the causal body, along with joy and other Vrittis (mental modifications), is called the bliss sheath. Due to identification with the different sheaths, the Self assumes their respective natures.
- By differentiating the Self from the five sheaths through the method of distinguishing between the variable and the invariable, one can draw out one’s own Self from the five sheaths and attain the supreme Brahman.
(These are from the translation by Swami Swahananda.)
And this text then goes on to explain that the method of anvaya – vyatireka (co-presence and co-absence) shows us the nature of the Self. In the case of the physical body, for example, this is absent in the dream state although ‘I’ am present in both states. Therefore, I am not the body. The subtle body is similarly absent in deep sleep, though ‘I’ remain. Therefore, I cannot be the vital, mental or intellectual sheath either. Finally, ignorance (which equates to the bliss sheath) disappears in samAdhi so that I cannot be this sheath either.
In fact, I am the Atman, present in all three states, witnessing the so-called kosha-s. They are only coverings to the extent that, through ignorance, I take myself to be other than Atman. I say that ‘I am fat’, ‘I am old’ etc because I take myself to be the physical body. Therefore, effectively, the body acts as a ‘covering’ over my true nature. But these are attributes of the body, not my Self. The Atman does not itself have any of these attributes; and likewise for the other kosha-s.
The key thing to realize, warns Swami Dayananda, is that there is not some ‘inner Self’ to be experienced beyond or inside of all these kosha-s. We are that Atman all the time, no matter what mistaken view the mind might be taking. Nothing is ever really ‘hidden’.
Swami Paramarthananda treats the kosha-s as the functional aspect of the sharIra-s, the three ‘bodies’ into which we traditionally divide ourselves.
Thus, the Gross Body, sthUla sharIra, has as its function the taking in of food (anna) and growing. (And of course it is itself food. As I am fond of quoting Raquel Welch: ‘All you see, I owe to spaghetti’.) Hence it equates to annamaya kosha.
The Subtle Body, sUkShma sharIra, is made up of 19 parts, according to the tattva bodha:
1) The 5 organs of action or karmendriya-s: vAk (speech), pANi (hands), pAda (legs), pAyu (excretion), upastha (reproduction).
2) The 5 organs of knowledge or j~nAnendriya-s: chakShu (eye), shrotra (ear), rasanA (tongue), ghrANa (nose), tvacha (skin).
3) The 5 physiological systems or prANa-s: prANa (respiration), apAna (excretion), samAna (digestion), vyAna (circulation), udAna (vomiting, sneezing etc).
4) The 4 elements of mind, antaHkaraNa: manas (emotional mind), buddhi (intellect), chitta (memory), ahaMkAra (ego). These are reduced to 2 in tattva bodha – mind and intellect – so that the text refers to 17 elements making up the subtle body altogether. This is also the number used in the Brahma Sutra bhAShya for example.
The Subtle Body has three faculties:
- A) The power of action – kriyA shakti.
- B) The power of desire – ichChA shakti s.
- C) The power of knowledge – j~nAna shakti.
The relationship between the kosha-s, the faculties and the parts of the subtle body are as follows:
The prANamayakosha is made up of the 5 prANa-s and 5 karmendriya-s. The prANa-s take in food (anna), process it and provide energy to the karmendriya-s for kriyA shakti.
The manomayakosha is made up of the 5 j~nAnendriya-s together with the mind (manas and ahaMkAra) and these manifest the power of desire, ichChA shakti.
The vij~nAnamayakosha is made up of the 5 j~nAnendriya-s together with the intellect (buddhi and chitta) providing the power to gain knowledge from the outside world, j~nAna shakti.
The Causal Body, kAraNa sharIra, equates to Anandamayakosha. It is the sheath relevant to the deep sleep state. In this state, mind and body are resolved; there is no experience of any sort of limitation so that what ‘remains’ is our natural condition of happiness. This causal state can also be regarded as ignorance, avidyA.
Swami Swahananda points out, in his commentary on the Panchadashi (verse 17), that translating sharIra as ‘body’ is a bit confusing, since it does not mean body in the sense of having head, hands and legs etc but in the sense of a perishable ‘outer coating’ (or sheath, in fact!). Ignorance is thus perishable in the sense that it is destroyed by knowledge. And it is ‘causal’ in the sense that it is as a result of ignorance that we come to believe we are the gross or subtle bodies. We ‘forget’ who we really are.
Who-we-really-are, the Atman is not any of these three bodies.
I’d like to conclude by looking at another mistaken, or least misleading, viewpoint. This one is from Swami Vivekananda in his j~nAna yoga lectures. He says:
Therefore there must be someone behind them all, who is the real manifester, the real seer, the real enjoyer and He in Sanskrit is called the Atman, the soul of man, the real self of man. He it is who really sees things. The external instruments and the organs catch the impressions and convey them to the mind, and the mind to the intellect, and intellect reflects them as on a mirror, and back of it is the soul that looks on them and gives His orders and His directions. He is the ruler of all these instruments, the master in the house, the enthroned king in the body.
I have already written about ‘The real I verses the presumed I’, and an earlier blog specifically addressed the question of ‘Who or (what) is it that really acts?’ Although, from the standpoint of vyavahAra, it could be said that the Self ‘acts’, to avoid confusion we should really speak of chidAbhAsa – the reflected Self.
In the Kena Upanishad, the first verse asks:
Willed by whom does the directed mind go towards its objects? Being directed by whom does the vital force that precedes all proceed (towards its duty)? By whom is this speech willed that people utter? Who is the effulgent being who directs the eyes and ears? (Swami Gambhirananda translation)
Swami Dayananda points out that, if we assume that there is someone/something ‘behind’ the mind, which puts thoughts and desires into it, causing it to initiate actions in a particular way, then we have the fallacy of anavastha, infinite regress. Because that which is effectively ‘willing’ the mind, will need another mind in order to have the thoughts about how to influence the first mind. And so on. So the question goes rather to a consideration of whether the very presence of something, without a will of its own, enables the actions to take place. (The metaphor he uses is that of a magnet, whose presence influences the movement of iron filings although the magnet itself does nothing.)