Five Sheaths of the Body

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For those seeking expanded awareness and an abiding state of spiritual awakening, why does is seem so hard, seemingly unattainable in this lifetime? Vedantic wisdom proclaims that our True Self is covered by five sheaths, or Panchakosha. These are interlocking aspects of the human personality which form a veil over who we truly are – the non-dual existence, consciousness, bliss. Let’s review each kosha and look at why it is indeed a veil.

The Panchakosha go from gross to more and more subtle, beginning with Annamaya kosha. This is the sheath we are most aware of – our body. Annam literally means food. This body is a masterful conglomeration of what we have gathered from this planet, artfully coalesced by immense intelligence into the temple that we carry ourselves in. This body is ours, but we are not this body. We are the same one, yet the body changes, grows, and regenerates. The body is an object of our awareness, how can we be something we experience? Also, given that karma exists, how can we be this incarnation of the body when our past actions caused the very karma that is now acting on this body? And given reincarnation, we must exist after the body dies, so again how can we be the body? Panchakosha is the first sheath that hides the Infinite Self.

Next is Pranamaya kosha. This is one dimension more subtle than the body, but fully pervades it. The Pranamaya kosha refers to the life energy, or Prana as well as the organs of action. You may be aware of Pranayama practices to control the life forces. All of these life processes, and our experiences of health & illness are all because of this. But right there we see another clue – the prana is always changing, even moment to moment. Sometimes you feel this when the left or right nasal cavities become dominant in breathing. We are aware of these changing life processes so how can we be that? We are not the Pranamaya kosha, it is the second sheath.

After this comes Manomaya kosha. This is the mind, including our thoughts, memories and emotions. If people get past Annamaya kosha and Pranamaya kosha, they typically get stuck with the mind. Most of us identify ourselves with our minds, and we define who we are by its contents, as does materialist psychiatry. But again, the mind is fickle, churning out thoughts and undergoing waves of emotions. It has undergone drastic change from childhood. We are aware of the mind’s changing desires, likes and dislikes. Just as the body is experienced, the mind is also experienced. The subject can not be the object, at least not from an egoic perspective. We are not our personality, that is just an ego-mask that we have identified so deeply with, and that has become the strongest illusion hiding the True Self.

Yet more subtle is Vijnanamaya kosha. This is the intellect. Not to be confused with the mind but integrated with it, this is a faculty of understanding. It is the agent of knowing and learning. Once again, we apply the sharp logic of Vedanta. Does it not change? Can it not be developed? Are we not aware of our intellect? Do we not use it as a tool? So again, it is an object. How can we be that which is being used? Because it is such a subtle sheath, it is harder to distinguish. But recognize – we are the user, and the awareness, infusing the intellect with consciousness.

The final sheath is Anandamaya kosha. This is closest to the Atman and it is the bliss body. Many advanced practitioners get stuck here because it is so blissful, but it still not the True Self. When we are in deep sleep, we are still there but there is no awareness of a body and its processes, or mind, or intellect. When we wake up, something is aware of having been in that state of deep restfulness even though the mind was not in a conscious and in an awake state. This sheath percolates happiness through our awareness but again it is experienced, as subtle as it is.

The witness of the sheaths, seeing through their veils is the True Self that we have forgotten. All that exists can be divided into the vastness that is unknown, and the modest knowledge that we have gathered. But we have forgotten about the knower and identified wrongly with that tiny portion of existence which we perceive. Consciousness illumines the five sheaths, and in fact Advaita Vedanta goes further to say that in fact, consciousness alone exists, arising to appear as the five sheaths.

 

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