The five sheaths (pancha-koshas) are alluded to in the fourteen verses of the Atmabodha. Atma Bodha one of the finest treatises on the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya. In this text Sankaracharya lucidly explains the nature of Self, the nature of the ignorance of the self, how it arises, and how to overcome it. A deep contemplation into this text brings the seeker to his natural state of the absolute bliss and understanding of ones own energy field.
These fields or layers range from gross to subtle. The five sheaths are said to cover the Self. It is a layer or realm of existence. These sheaths cover the Atman (True Self), according to Vedantic philosophy. Appearing in one of the earliest Taittiriya Upanishads is a mystical concept is five sheaths. The Taittiriya Upanishad is exceptional in that it is one of the first writings to present a systematic metaphysical theory of these first principles. It speaks of the individual as divided into five layers of energy. The koshas symbolize an aspect of yoga psychology which tends to start where contemporary Western psychology ends. These energy sheaths portray our personality as permeating different fields of energy and consciousness. Yoga text states we evolve through the koshas as our awareness deepens and expands, and that is a matter of karma and free will.
Some people remain in annamaya and manomaya koshas all their lives. They can literally subsist at a survival level without ever realizing more subtle intelligence that surround us. Very few people are aware of pranamaya kosha which forms the intricate energy systems weaving the consciousness into personality. The blockages occurring at this level prevent people from knowing this part of themselves and condition them to grosser experiences of life. Difficulties with past life karma at vijnanamaya kosha usually inhibit people from knowing the bliss of ananda or soul.
Physical – Annamaya kosha: Anna means food. All of the physical aspects of life come and go, and are consumed by another aspect of external reality. Thus, the outermost of the koshas is called the sheath of food, or Annamaya kosha. In the Vedantic practice, we train this aspect of ourselves, take care of it, nurture it, so that we can both enjoy our external lives and go inward without it being an obstacle during meditation.
Energy – Pranamaya kosha: The next of the koshas is Pranamaya kosha. Prana means energy. It is the vital force that produces subtle vibrations related to breath, it is the driving force behind the physical aspect of the senses and the operation of the physical body. This energy allows the invisible indweller, our True Self to animate in the external world. At the same time, however, it allows the eternally still, silent center to not be mistakenly identified as the moving, visible physical body. Vedanta says that it is very useful, or essential that this level of our being is to be trained, regulated, and directed, so that it flows smoothly. In meditation, we become aware of Pranamaya kosha, explore it, and then go inward, to and through the other koshas.
Mental – Manamaya kosha: The next of the koshas is Manamaya kosha. Mana means mind. It is the level of processing thoughts and emotions. It is in direct control of the operation, through the prana, of the physical body and senses. It is like a supervisor in a factory, in that it gives instructions, but is not supposed to be the manager of the factory of life. Because of this, it naturally has doubts, and created illusions. When it receives clear instructions from the deeper level, it functions quite well. However, when it is clouded over by its illusions, the deeper wisdom is clouded over. After taking care of the physical body and training the energy flow of prana, the most important part to be trained in positive ways is this level of mind. In meditation, we become aware of Manamaya kosha, explore it, and then go inward, to and through the remaining koshas.
Wisdom – Vijnanamaya kosha: The next of the koshas is Vijnanamaya kosha. Vijnana means knowing. It is the sheath of wisdom that is underneath the processing, thinking aspect of mind. It knows, decides, judges, and discriminates between this and that, between useful and not useful. It is also the level of ego consciousness, meaning the powerful wave of I-am-ness. This I-am-ness itself is a positive influence, but when it gets co-mingled with the memories, and is clouded over by the manas, it loses its positive strength. A major part of sadhana (spiritual practice) is gaining ever increasing access to this level of our being. It is the level that has the higher wisdom to seek Truth, to go within, in search of the eternal center of consciousness.
Bliss – Anandamaya kosha: Anandamaya kosha is the most interior of the koshas, the first of the koshas surrounding the Atman, the eternal center of consciousness. Ananda means bliss. However, it is not bliss as a mere emotion experienced at the level of the sheath of mind. Ananda is a whole different order of reality from that of the mind. It is peace, joy, and love that is underneath, beyond the mind, independent of any reason or stimulus to cause a happy mental reaction. It is simply being, resting in bliss called ananda. Yet, even this bliss, however wonderful it is, is still a covering, a sheath, a lampshade covering the pure light of consciousness. It is the subtle most of the five koshas. In the silence of deep meditation, this too is let go of, so as to experience the center.
Atman – Self: Atman is the Self, the eternal center of consciousness, which was never born and never dies. In the metaphor of the lamp and the lampshades, Atman is the light itself, though to even describe it as that is incomplete and incorrect. The deepest light shines through the koshas, and takes on their colorings. Atman, the Self, has been best described as indescribable. The realization of that, in direct experience, is the goal of Yoga meditation, Advaita Vedanta, and Tantra practices.
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