by Swami Krishnananda
The physical sheath is the densest of all the five, and is called the Annamaya-Kosa. It is originated by a combination of Sukla and Sonita, or the male and female reproductive seeds, and is thus made up of the essence of food. It does not exist prior to birth or posterior to death, and so is non-eternal. It is preponderated by the quality of Tamas, and does not manifest consciousness. It is an effect of the combination of the five gross elements that go to make up this perceptible world. We do not see any consciousness in a dead body. If the gross body were to be the Atman, even the corpse ought to be conscious. In dream, the physical body remains immobile, as if deceased. On death, this body gets absorbed into the earth. Even when certain parts of the body are cut off, self-consciousness is observed to be intact. The physical sheath, therefore, cannot be the true knower.
The foolish man identifies himself with the mass of flesh, fat, skin, bones, etc., while a discerning person becomes aware that he is an intelligent principle. The Pandit who has only a theoretical knowledge identifies himself with a mixture of body, mind and soul, while the liberated sage regards the eternal consciousness as his Self. There cannot be a real connection between extended matter and unextended spirit. In Indian logic, two kinds of relationship are pointed out,—Samavaya or inherence, and Samyoga or contact. Samavaya-Sambandha is the inseparable relation that is seen between the whole and its parts, the class and the individual, the substance and its attribute, the actor and the action. Samyoga-Sambandha is the external relation that obtains between two objects, e.g., a drum and a stick. There cannot be the relation of inherence between the sheaths and the Atman, for the insentient and the ephemeral cannot be said to inhere in the sentient and the eternal. There cannot be a relation between entities possessing entirely dissimilar properties. There is not, again, between the sheaths and the Atman, any external contact, for the Atman is unlimited, while the sheaths are confined to spatial and temporal endurance. The two are not made of the same substance, and so there cannot be any contact between them. The apparent relation between the Atman and the sheaths is one of Adhyasa or erroneous imposition.
Superimposition can be of two kinds: partial and mutual. When we see a snake in a rope, the snake is superimposed on the rope, but there is no superimposition of the rope on the snake. This is an instance where the error is one-sided or partial. But the transference of attributes between the Atman and the sheaths is not thus overbalanced, but obtains on both sides; the superimposition is mutual. The essences of the Atman are projected on the sheaths and the defects of the sheaths are swung upon the Atman. This reciprocal superimposition is called Anyonya-Adhyasa. The nature of Satchidananda which belongs to the Atman is falsely attributed to the sheaths when one makes such statements as ‘My body exists,’ ‘my body is intelligent,’ ‘my body is dear,’ ‘my life is precious,’ etc. In statements like ‘I am a man,’ ‘I am a male,’ ‘I live,’ ‘I grow,’ ‘I die,’ ‘I am hungry,’ ‘I am thirsty,’ ‘I am happy,’ ‘I am sorry,’ etc., there is seen an interjection of the qualities of the sheaths on the Atman. It is this apparent relation that is brought about between the Atman and the sheaths that is the cause of one’s bondage and suffering, and it is the aim of the Vedanta to enlighten the Jiva in its attempts to overcome this ignorance and to realise the Atman in this very life.
The vital sheath which lies next to the physical body consists of the five Pranas, actuating the five organs of action, and is called the Pranamaya-Kosa. When permeated by this sheath, the physical body engages itself in activity, as if it were living. There is a mutual superimposition, again, between the vital sheath and the Atman. The Prana is nothing but a force forming a link between the mind and the body. It is inert, is devoid of consciousness, and is an effect of Rajo-guna. It has no knowledge of itself, and it cannot know others. In the state of deep sleep it exhibits its real nature of unconsciousness and inability to undertake any deliberate initiative. The Prana is a subtle force from the active principles of the five Tanmatras. The Atman, obviously, is different from this sheath. The function of the Prana is motion, and in the Atman all activity has to be denied as extraneous to the character of eternality.
The five senses of knowledge, together with the mind, make up the mental sheath, called the Manomaya-Kosa. The mind is the cause of the diversity of concepts and notions like ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ It creates egoism and attachment in regard to objects, such as house, wife, son, etc. It moves outward through the avenues of the senses, in the act of perception. One generally feels: ‘I think,’ ‘I fancy,’ ‘I am in grief,’ ‘I am happy,’ ‘I am deluded,’ ‘I am the seer, the hearer,’ etc. Here the functions of the mental sheath are wrongly imputed to the Atman. Conversely, the stamp of the Atman is imprinted on the mental sheath. This phenomenon is observed when one expresses such feelings as ‘My mind is,’ ‘my mind shines,’ ‘my mind is dear to me,’ etc. The inner conflicts, the pains and the pleasures of life are attributable to this reciprocal superimposition between the mental sheath and the Atman.
The mind is not the Atman, for it is different from consciousness. If it were identical with the Atman, it ought to continue to work even in deep sleep. The mind is seen to lose its light and even its balance on several occasions. It is a product of Avidya, and is inert by nature. It is the outcome of the Sattva property of Prakriti, and so has a beginning and an end. It is only an instrument in the act of knowing, and is subject to modifications of various kinds. The Atman shines even in deep sleep, while the mind does not. The mental sheath pervades the vital sheath and gives it vigour by means of the activation of Vrittis, which work due to the impetus given by a consciousness borrowed from the Atman.
The intellectual sheath consists of the intellect working in collaboration with the senses of knowledge, and is called the Vijnanamaya-Kosa. One’s predisposition to agency in action is attributed to this vesture of the soul. The intellect is the knower, which uses the mind as its instrument. One generally says: ‘I have done this,’ ‘I am the doer,’ ‘I am one of firm determination,’ ‘I am possessed of intelligence,’ etc. Here the functions of the intellectual sheath are falsely ascribed to the Atman. In turn, the attributes of the Atman are transfused into the intellect, as when one opines, for instance: ‘My intellect is,’ ‘my intellect shines,’ ‘my intellect is valuable.’ The intellect cannot be the self luminous Atman, for it is subject to change, and has a beginning and an end. In deep sleep it is involved in ignorance, along with the Chidabhasa or the intelligence reflected through it. It appears to have knowledge on account of its being possessed of an increased amount of Sattvaguna and its proximity to the Atman in subtlety. In fact, the intellect is insentient, being objective, dualistic and limited. It is not eternally present, and so cannot be taken for the highest Self.
The innermost sheath is made up of Avidya or ignorance, in which Sattva is completely overpowered by Tamas and Rajas, and is known as the Anandamaya-Kosa. The great activity of this sheath goes on in the state of dreamless sleep, though it functions in dream and waking, also. The pleasure that one experiences in life is the result of a modification of this sheath. Its essential properties are the Vrittis of Priya or the happiness that arises in one at the mere sight of a desired object, Moda or the happiness which is felt when one is in possession of this object, and Pramoda or the happiness which one obtains from its actual enjoyment. The Anandamaya-Kosa makes itself spontaneously felt during the fruition of one’s virtuous deeds. Man is wont to say: ‘I am the enjoyer,’ ‘I am happy,’ ‘I am peaceful,’ ‘I am contented,’ etc. Here, obviously the qualities of the Anandamaya-Kosa are carried over to the Atman. And conversely, the nature of Satchidananda, which is the true Atman, is attributed to this Kosa in such feelings as: ‘My happiness is,’ ‘my happiness is experienced,’ ‘my happiness is dear to me.’
The Anandamaya-Kosa cannot be the Atman, for it is affected by changeful qualities. It is a modification of Prakriti, and consists of the latent potencies of one’s past actions. If the Anandamaya-Kosa were the Atman, one in deep sleep would enter into Samadhi and have an experience of the Absolute. Those who regard this sheath to be identical with the Atman forget that in sleep, when it has its fullest play, one does not have a knowledge of the Atman, but appears to be drowned in an ignorance from which he rises again to empirical activity, propelled by the forces hidden therein.
The five sheaths have, thus, no independent reality. Just as the mutations that take place in the body of a cow,—growth, decay, etc., do not in the least affect the owner of the cow, who is only a witness, so the changes that occur in the sheaths do not touch the Atman which is their witness. Just as one can distinguish the sound of one person from that of another through the power of discrimination; just as by this faculty one can feel: ‘This is soft, this is hard, this is hot, this is cold,’ etc.; just as one can, by looking at a mural picture on a wall, say: ‘This is blue colour, this is red colour, this is the wall,’ etc., with one’s discerning capacity, although one is not able to separate the red colour from the blue, or the picture from the wall; just as one can know by tasting a drink: ‘This is lemonade, this is orange,’ etc., through the understanding faculty; just as one can know the odour in a cloth by the organ of smell, although the odour cannot really be separated from the cloth; so also one can clearly differentiate the Atman from the sheaths by an analysis and study of their respective natures. It is impossible for ordinary people to separate water from milk when the two are mixed together, but it is possible for a swan to do so. In like manner, though it is impossible for persons of gross understanding to distinguish between the Atman and the sheaths, yet, it is within the capacity of an aspirant endowed with subtle discrimination to fulfil this difficult task.
A doubt is likely to arise as to the nature of the phenomenality of the sheaths as contradistinguished from the Atman, for it is seen that the former do not entirely vanish but manifest themselves even after one’s attainment of spiritual insight. How, then, can they be said to be unreal? Well; we know that the water in a mirage appears to a person even after he becomes conscious that its water is illusory, and that a pot with its characteristic form, though it is nothing but clay in itself, continues to be seen, even if we know that there is no pot apart from clay. The five sheaths, thus, may be present to the sage even after he attains Self-knowledge, but this appearance will be like that of a burnt cloth—which has perceptibility but no substantiality. When the soul gets discriminated from the sheaths, it shines in its pristine glory of pure consciousness. It, then, does not require to be established by proof of any kind, for it knows itself as self-evident reality. The Atman is the presupposition of all proof. It is the unshakable and the final conclusion of the Vedanta that, as clay alone truly endures after the name and form of the jar disappear, the eternal Atman alone survives even after the five sheaths are shaken off with the saving knowledge. Whoever knows thus is a knower of Brahman.