The three bodies per the Yoga Shastras
These three bodies consist of the physical body, astral or subtle body, and the casual or super-subtle body. Throughout the subtle body are energy channels, through which our life energy flows. Through regular practice of Yoga and pranayama, you can keep your physical body under control; it would be easier for you to reach your higher self. The astral, or the subtle body, is related to the mind and chakra energy system. Breathing exercises, the practice of prathyhara, and concentration, can help control the astral or subtle body. The casual or the super-subtle body is the finest body. It contains the soul itself and your connection to the God. You can communicate with this body through meditation and the attainment of samadhi or enlightenment.
THE FIVE SHEATHS OF EXISTENCE
Within these three bodies are five sheaths of existence, which are like layers of energy – each containing and governing different aspects of your body. They are the physical sheath (annamaya-kosha, the vital sheath (pranamaya-kosha), the mind sheath (manomaya-kosha), the intellect sheath (vijnanamaya-kosha), and the bliss sheath (anandamaya-kosha). These five sheaths are the covering of the self or the soul. Taittiriya Upanishad gives us the Pancha Kosha Viveka to help discriminate between the self and the non-self. They help us understand what is self and how these sheets move from the gross physical body to the subtle spiritual body. Once we develop an understanding of the five koshas, it helps us to slowly peel off these layers and bring us closer to our true identity.
PHYSICAL SHEATH (ANNAMAYA KOSHA) (Physical Body)
The word anna means food and maya means composed of. Physical sheath is composed of food, blood, flesh, bones, skin, hair, organs, and systems. This is the body, which is most familiar to us. It is also made of five elements namely earth, water, fire, air, and space. Each body system is related to a particular element; i.e. the skeletal system is related to earth, the circulatory and immune systems to water, the respiratory system to air, the digestive system to fire, and the central nervous system to space. This remains in a state of balance – only when all the elements are in synchronization. The gross, or physical body, obtained knowledge of the external world through ear, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose and does actions through the mouth, arms, legs, anus, and penis – which helps her for functioning of speech, holding, walking, excretion, and procreation. Due to the presence of the ego, this body undergoes six transformations: birth, growth, disease, old age, decay, and death and has qualities like I am fat or thin, I am white or black, I am young or old, I am man or a women, I am healthy or sick, attractive or unattractive, big or small. They feel separate from the self, and it is very difficult for them to leave these. It is our responsibility to take good care of this sheath and to re-define our relationship with our body through regular yogic asanas, cleansing kriyas, proper diet, and relaxation. As the body purifies, you begin to experience the inner bodies; energy and consciousness manifest in a subtler form. Then, you realize that the body is not the self. Hence, the self is different from the body, unchanging, ever pure, and free from modifications.
VITAL SHEATH (PRANAYMAYA KOSHA) (Astral Body)
The next layer of experience is pranamaya kosha – movement of the pranic force directing our physical and mental activities. This movement happens through nadis or channels, conductors of energy, which are controlled by the six chakras. Vital sheath is a subtler sheath when compared to annamaya kosha. This is composed of vital energy. As long as this vital energy exists in the organisms, life continues. This sheath is responsible for our physiological functions; namely breathing, digesting, metabolizing, circulation, endocrinal, neural, skeletal, muscular, etc. This body has qualities like hunger, thirst, sleep, fatigue, evacuation, and regeneration. These states come in cycles and depend upon external conditions, such as food, air, water, and other factors. Due to the presence of the ego, our body functions become imbalanced. To balance these systems, one of the methods of purification of the nadis, or channels, is through Nadi-sodhana pranayama. As you begin to experience this aspect of existence, you discover that this sheath is merely an illusion covering over the eternal self. Hence, the self is different from the body, unchanging, ever pure, and free from modifications.
THE MIND SHEATH (MANOMAYA KOSHA) (Astral Body –Lower Mind)
This sheath is the energy of action. This mental sheath is composed of two qualities, mana (mind) and buddhi (intellect). Mana is the rational, linear, sequential, thoughtful mind. Buddhi is the quality of discrimination, which comes after knowledge, after the removal, or the absence of ignorance. The former constitutes the manomaya kosha, while the latter is called the Vigyanmaya Kosha. Mind gives power to the senses – in sense perceptions and action. It collects the sensory information from the senses and sends them to the intellect for ascertaining their nature. This portion of the mind lacks the cognitive abilities of reasoning; void of any discrimination. People, residing in this layer, experience pain, pleasure, longing, doubt, fear, and the many tides of emotion. When the mind is cheerful, we are happy. When the mind is gloomy, we are depressed. We are at the mercy of the mind that waxes and wanes. We suffer from these because we gave all the powers to the mind and made it our master. These vrittis, of this mind, lead to habitual imbalances at manomaya kosha. You can learn to control the mind and intellect sheaths through breath control, the practice of sense withdrawal (pratyahara), and concentration techniques. When these techniques are done with a sense of total devotion, the body purifies and it loses its solidity. Then anger and serenity, sadness and happiness, sorrow and joy are each welcomed happily. As you begin to experience this aspect of existence, you discover that this sheath is merely an illusion, covering over the eternal self. Hence, the self is different from the body, unchanging, ever pure, and free from modifications. Therefore, the self is a witness of the Manomaya Kosha.
THE INTELLECT SHEATH (VIJNANAMAYA-KOSHA) (Astral Body-Higher Mind)
The Vijnanamaya kosha is the sheath of the intellect(buddhi) and intuitive knowledge/wisdom, which gives us the discriminative capability that helps to differentiate between virtues and vice, good and bad, right and wrong, truth and untruth. It controls the mind, the senses, the fructifying samskaras, and all activities of the body. This knowledge helps us for our inner growth, ethics, and morals. The intellect can be looked upon as having two components – one that is controlled by our ego, and driven by our past memories and impressions (samskaras), and the other which is controlled by our pure intuition. The ego-driven intellect can lead to actions, when it gets co-mingled with the memories and is clouded over by the manas, which results in pain and suffering. Its knowledge is affected by the moods of the mind and other factors. Through the practices of meditation, regular self-study, and enrichment of knowledge through libraries and discourses, could it then lead towards devotion. Our mind becomes purified and the intellect can then begin to depend more and more on the pure intuitive wisdom, rather than be influenced by the ego. As you begin to experience this aspect of existence, you discover that this sheath is merely an illusion covering over the eternal self. Hence, the self is different from the body, unchanging, ever pure, and free from modifications. Therefore, the self is a witness of the Vijnanamaya Kosha.
THE BLISS SHEATH (ANANDAMAYA KOSHA) (Casual Body)
When we can transcend the other four layers described above, we can begin to experience a sense of pure joy, which does not need any sensory input or any of the past experiences or impressions. This kosha is the finest, thinnest veil covering the self (atman), and could also be called the level of the soul. It contains the essence of an individual soul’s experiences of countless lifetimes and stage of spiritual evolution. On this level, there is a strong awareness about the oneness of the individual and the absolute. But as long as there is individuality, there must be a faint sense of ego. With the grace of God, you can get rid of ego by good deeds, self-suggested happiness, deep awareness of being (samadhi), and morning walks, could bring a person to this level of the self. Samadhi is the transcendent state of union with the divine. All the impurities and dross evaporate, and effulgence of soul is experienced. Then one can imagine an afterlife, where one no longer has a body, where there is no need for breath, where the mind doesn’t process data anymore. At that point, a human being experiences true divinity, the realization of self or God. The yogi, who resides in the bliss sheath, experiences absolute peace, joy, and love.
SELF / SOUL
The essence of human personality is the Soul. The soul is a unit of God’s omnipresent cosmic consciousness, which was never born and never dies. It is a pure, eternal, blissful, luminous entity, which is ever unchanging. A yogi, who does not see himself as white or black, man or women, fat or thin, etc. or does not associate himself with these qualities, realizes the self and gets liberated beyond death. Just as butter is removed from milk, by churning the mixture of curd, so also the butter of the Atman should be taken from the mixture of the five koshas – by the churning of constant meditation on the immortal Brahman or soul, which fictitiously appears as the sheaths. Hence, in reality, the self is the seer, knower, and the witness of the causal body, who is never limited by time and space or the dualities contained therein.
The Concept of Brahmn or Consciousness Through the Story of the Young Bhrigu
The Taittiriya Upanishad offers a cosmic perspective by throwing light on the concept of Brahmn, or consciousness, through the story of the young Bhrigu, who has set out in search of the bliss of Brahmn.
Varuna, the father of Bhrigu, sets the tone for his son’s initiation with this opening line: Food, vital force, eye, ear, mind, speech — these are the basis to the knowledge of Brahmn. He instructs him to do tapas, to meditate. Upon doing, Bhrigu finds himself concentrating on the idea of anna, or food, that nourishes and sustains all beings. Bhrigu understands the physicality of food to be the first principle, which pervades all matter and nourishes it, and understands this to be the physical manifestation, the gross cosmic virat swaroop or manifestation of Brahmn.
With this knowledge of the annamaya kosha, the physical sheath, that still leaves him with a feeling of incompleteness, Bhrigu goes back to his father to learn more about attaining to the knowledge of Brahmn; but the teacher directs him to delve deeper into the origin of food.
Bhrigus’s next meditation focuses on the life force, the vitality throbbing behind matter, the prana, which energises all matter and runs through all physical systems, as electricity runs through wires to generate power. Bhrigu recognizes this vitality to be behind the physical sheath, and the understanding of the pranamaya kosha, the energy-astral body, as the next manifestation of Brahmn . He goes back to his father.
Once again, Bhrigu goes back to meditate, entering the third phase of his spiritual journey, to focus on the subtler aspects of this energy, to go into the idea that is behind all this, that which has triggered the vitality. Bhrigu discovers that it is the mind that provides the stimulus for the vitality. It is the manomaya kosha, the mental sheath that triggers all senses of knowledge — though still instinctual only, but emanating from the mind itself. Bhrigu becomes aware that the mind, too, is a manifestation of Brahmn, but senses that this knowledge too is incomplete.
In the fourth phase of meditation, he enters the subtle mind, the vijnanakosha of buddhi, the intellectual ability to understand cause and effect, an awareness that enables the mind to distinguish and discriminate the cognitive sheath. The manifestation of Brahmn, as Intellect, excites Bhrigu – for it takes him closer to comprehending the real nature of things. Yet, the restlessness is back, prompting him to seek out the very origin of thought.
Eventually, Brighu enters the fifth and final phase of meditation at the behest of his father, Varuna , who helps him become aware of the inner space in which all of existence, sat, and all of consciousness, chit are to be found, leading to ananda, bliss. It is the sat-chit-ananda, or attainment of ultimate bliss, that satisfies the spiritual quest of the hither-to restless mind and body.
Brahmn manifests as every atom of existence and every perception of consciousness, but realizing this need, does not necessarily make one happy and content. Bhrigus’s intense desire to know Brahmn, leads him to that state of bliss, the anandamaya kosha, which lies beyond all thought and desire, and to the realization that the entire manifested world, reflects the bliss of Brahmn equally. The atman, the self, is manifested in five different sheaths, five different energy levels, each as essential and central to the knowledge of Brahmn as the other. The understanding of the five koshas leads one back to the self.
Article by Dr Rita Khanna
Dr. Rita Khanna’s YogaShaastra Studio
(An Exclusive Yoga & Naturopathy Therapy Studio)
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