Updated: Feb 28, 2021
The Taittiriya Upanishad describes human beings as having five sheaths or layers of existence, each one being internal to the next which are akin to several components that make up one whole body. Yet in this case, each component is perceived as a body or layer in and of itself. Still, all five Koshas are interconnected and constantly interacting with one other.
“To be free from bondage the wise one must practise discrimination between self and non-self. By that alone she will become full of joy, recognising herself as Being, Consciousness and Bliss.”
This is verse fifty-two of Vivekachudamani (The Crest Jewel of Discrimination) by Adi Shankaracharya, discussing the Upanishad on Pancha Koshas 1200 years ago.
What is bondage? What is self? And what is non-self? This is the subject matter of most Vedic scriptures that are 1000-3000 years old, yet are not the subject matter of general society today. Why should we be concerned about these ancient concepts if so few are talking about them in today’s world?
To understand deeply and clearly what bondage, self and non-self mean and why that understanding is key to a life of lasting joy, health and peace - let's look at another quote from the same book about the 5 Sheaths (Pancha Koshas) or layers of our existence:
“When the five sheaths have been removed, the supreme light shines forth, pure, eternally blissful, single in essence, and within.” -verse 51
What are these layers or sheaths and why does removing them clarify the self? Think of the self as that part of your existence which is eternal and never dies. Think of the non-self as attributes of our humanness that are temporary and will not continue forever. Think of the layers as layers of an onion. And once we peel through and understand the functions of these different aspects of being human, we gain an overall understanding and experience of who we are as the soul. With that experience we then become free from fears, mistaken beliefs, delusions, projections and assumptions - or in other words - free from bondage. These layers are called “koshas” in Sanskrit. Each layer is denoted by an aspect of human existence. These koshas are:
Annamaya kosha – your physical layer.
Pranamaya kosha – physiological or energetic layer.
Manomaya kosha – psychological or the mind layer.
Vijnanamaya kosha – wisdom body or layer.
Anandamaya kosha – bliss body or layer.
It is not an easy contemplation to understand the Pancha Koshas. Rishis who wrote about them long ago spent a lifetime in meditation to understand them. So for now, let’s explore how we can make the awareness of these layers practical in the science of living life. In Sanskrit, the word life is “Ayur” and the word science or knowledge is “Veda.” So to make use of the teachings of the Pancha Koshas we will look at them through the lens of Ayurveda...the science or knowledge of life which also includes Yoga, the integration of the whole. The practices of these two allow us to create healthy balance throughout the five layers via balanced healthy diet, practices, habits and life-style.
Annamaya Kosha - The Physical Layer or Body
The first layer is called Annamaya Kosha. This literally means “sheath made of food, which is impermanent”. The physical is created and sustained by food, rest, fresh air and sunshine. Sufficient sleep and daily routine are key for sustaining the balance of the physical body. Also, if the quality of your food and water is high, the temporary nature of the body is more easily perceived. This is why fresh and seasonal food such as fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes and vegetables are recommended as a yogic diet. Eating fresh food increases vitality available to nurture this “food body”. When we eat overcooked food, stale food, or animals the food body then becomes devitalized and has difficulty refining the food into a fuel necessary for the needs of the second body...
Pranamaya Kosha - The Physiological or Energetic Body
Internal to the physical body is the second layer translated as the “sheath made of Prana which is impermanent” or the vital sheath. Prana is quite similar to electrical, magnetic, electromagnetic, photonic, ocular, thermal and mental energies layered within the physical Anamaya Kosha body. So as you can see, these sheaths or layers are not separated from one another in physical space. They are intrinsically woven into one another like electrical circuits and wires throughout a house or vehicle. This subtle body’s anatomy is made of energy channels called nadis, slightly akin to nerve pathways and endings, which terminate in energy centres where the body’s most vital organs are functioning. This more subtle sheath is also composed of our senses and emotional states. The energy flowing through these channels is sensory input from the five gross senses and the subtler senses associated with the mind. These vortices and channels are always active during our waking state seeking sensory and emotional stimulation. When we are fed beautiful sense impressions such as art, nature, music, live vibrant colorful aromatic food, fresh air, sunlight and healthy community/relationships – they can be converted into the”prana” which keeps the body healthy. The strength of the prana is also the strength of the body. If the prana is weak, the body will also be weak. The prana energises the sense organs as well. Clarity of vision, clarity of hearing, and clarity and ability of the other sense organs are also caused by the energy quantum of the prana, the vitality in us. With negative input such as toxic relationships, violent or stress-inducing media, lack of fresh air and sunlight, and chemical food there is less vitality available to be converted to prana and less vitality for stimulating positive thought...
Manomaya Kosha - Psychological or the Mind Body
Internal to the vital layer is the mind or the “sheath made of thought, which is temporary”. It is made up of products from the first two bodies as well as its own capacity to generate positive uplifting thoughts or the opposite. When thoughts are loving, kind, understanding or empathetic, the mind is content and at peace. When thoughts are of anger, pride, cruelty or insincerity the mind festers. When positivity is generated the mind refreshes itself. The nature of this layer is thought. In Ayurveda it is always recommended to feed the mind a daily diet of meditation, mantra, pranayama, uplifting reflections and yoga. These can transform the mind to a higher level of perception and cognition. When the mind and energetic layers are high functioning, the physical body becomes higher functioning. This is why physical healing not only happens through physical medicines and treatments, but by maintaining one's mental and energetic bodies with proper sustenance. This expert maintenance results in wisdom...
Vijnanamaya Kosha - Wisdom Body or Layer
Internal to the mind sheath is the intellectual sheath translated as “the sheath made of wisdom, which is impermanent”. This layer is made of transcendent thoughts. It is awareness that is free of self-centeredness. It is concerned for the welfare of all. This is generated by a naturally-arising state of detachment from the grosser bodies. This body knows it is not the physical food body; therefore, one established in this awareness is detached from obsessions or desires regarding the physical, energetic or mental sheaths. For what happens to the physical body does not change the state of wisdom. Wisdom is the beginning of contact with transcendence. This state is earned by feeding the wisdom layer with meditation, yoga, pranayama, good company, spiritual literature, contemplation and selfless service to others. By a regular diet of nutritious habits, the body of wisdom becomes more active and can remain unfettered by the chaos or difficulties nearby.
Anandamaya Kosha - The Bliss Layer or Body
The fifth sheath is termed the “sheath of bliss, which is impermanent”. This layer is said to be the thinnest of sheaths which barely separates ordinary awareness from the true self or the soul. This body is composed of happiness. It does not need anything to generate its happiness, as that is its natural state. It is still considered the causal body and is associated with the state of dreamless sleep and self-realization. The beneficial foods given to the four grosser bodies will be refined into the fuel which allows us to experience this bliss layer.
Ayurveda and Yoga Treats All Five Layers
The reason why Ayurveda and Yoga are said to be holistic practices is that they not only recognise the existence of our five different sheaths or Koshas but they provide the skills and knowledge of how to bring each layer into its optimal state.