Pancha Kosha - The Five Sheaths of the Human Being
By Swami Nishchalananda
In yogic philosophy, there are various concepts which help us understand the nature of the human being. One such conceptual system is that of the pancha kosha. Though only a concept, the pancha kosha ties in very nicely with the experiences which can occur as one goes deeper in Meditation. It does not, obviously, represent an exact picture of ‘what is’ – nor did the yogis who formulated it intend it to be. Just as a map of India is not India itself but nevertheless helps us to explore India, so the concept of pancha kosha is a map that gives indications to show us a way of exploring our own Being.
The word kosha can be translated as ‘sheath’ or ‘envelope;’ pancha is the word for ‘five.’ Therefore the term pancha kosha can be translated as the ‘five sheaths’ or ‘five envelopes’ and refers to five layers in the spectrum of our being, from the surface of our physical body to the depths of the unconscious mind.
FUNCTION OF THE KOSHAS
At every moment and in every situation, the koshas determine our thoughts, emotions, words and deeds. They perform two, seemingly contradictory, functions:
They are the vehicle and medium through which Consciousness expresses Itself in the physical world
They are the ‘Life Fields’ which allow us to live.
The Edge of Infinity
The Koshas veil or conceal underlying Consciousness. That is, they obscure our essential Being. As an analogy, consider the different layers which envelope the tender coconut: the coconut cannot be seen (nor even eaten!) unless these protective shells are removed. So it is with the koshas. They act as barriers. Unless they are peeled away, one cannot realise Consciousness – the core of our Being.
Without the koshas we could not live nor express ourselves in the world; yet at the same time they keep us in a state of spiritual ignorance and prevent us from knowing the true Self. The purpose of Yoga is to help us gradually understand and explore these different layers and liberate ourselves from blockages within them. In this way, we are progressively freed from pain, fear, suffering and ignorance, becoming more creative and joyful and able to express greater potential in our lives.
SUMMARY OF THE KOSHAS
The five koshas can be summarised as follows:
Equivalent Name (Western Mysticism)
Lower astral body or individual mind
Higher astral body
*The Sanskrit suffix -maya means ‘-ful;’ not to be confused with ‘maya’ (pronounced maayaa) which means ‘illusion.’
The pancha kosha concept gives us the idea that the five sheaths are completely separate and distinct from each other. This is only partly true. Starting from the anna-maya kosha, the physical body, which is ‘solid’ energy, all the koshas exist at increasingly subtle frequencies contained within one continuum of energy.
However, there are also distinct quantum leaps in state between the koshas. Though they are all energy, there is a distinct phase change, for example, between the anna-maya kosha (physical body) and the prana-maya kosha (etheric body). As an analogy, take the atomic structure in which there are different possible electron orbits around a nucleus. With our eyes, we see matter only as different elements. We don’t see the different electron orbits, though, according to atomic theory, these orbits do exist. So it is with the koshas. They exist as an indivisible continuum of energy. At certain stages, however, when one kosha changes to another, there are also phase (or orbit!) changes.
The koshas are shown as five concentric circles:
The outside circle normally represents the most visible kosha, the anna-maya kosha (physical body), whilst the central circle represents the most subtle, ananda-maya kosha (causal body). The reason for this is that during meditation we start from the physical body and move progressively inwards to perceive on more subtle levels of our existence.
The concentric circles do not mean that the koshas are one within the other, but rather that they are progressively more subtle. Therefore, it would be just as accurate and meaningful to show the anna-maya kosha on the inside as the central circle, showing physical limitation, with the ananda-maya kosha on the outside, showing its much less limited and more expansive nature.
The symbol also indicates the process of Yoga where a scattered personality is gradually transformed into a state of one-pointedness and harmony as the yogic practitioner starts to get in touch with the more subtle koshas.
In daily life we usually tend to over identify with the grosser koshas, especially the anna-maya kosha (the physical body) and the mana- maya kosha (individual mind). This limits our Self-understanding. Yoga helps us free ourselves from this over identification with the more visible aspects of our being – thereby opening our eyes to the wider dimensions of our own existence and that of the entire universe.
Let us briefly consider the individual koshas moving from the gross to the more subtle:
Anna-maya kosha corresponds to the physical body and all the organs and functions within it. The word anna means food, implying that this kosha is nourished by the substances and energy found in the food we eat. One can find huge tracts of information on this kosha by opening any book on human anatomy and physiology. Besides the physical structure, it also includes the nervous system, heat and biochemical energies. It can be balanced and harmonised by a whole range of methods, including a wholesome diet, a healthy life-style and regular practice of Hatha Yoga.
Prana-maya kosha is the energy sheath and is concerned with the network of vital energy (Sanskrit, prana) which regulates the growth, shape and function of the physical body, as well as the decay of cells, tissues and organs. It surrounds and interpenetrates our physical body and can be seen by sensitive and perceptive people as the aura.
In Western mysticism, it is known as the etheric body – the web of energies which underlies our physical body. It corresponds to the ‘Life (‘L’) fields’ first measured and so named by Dr. Harold Burr at Yale University in the U.S. in 1935, and to ‘Bio-plasmic Energy,’ a term given to it in Russia when it was first photographed in the 1940’s using Kirlian photography. Though science is only just discovering and investigating this kosha, it has been widely known and recorded by yogis and mystics throughout the ages and in all parts of the world.
The energy field of this kosha differs in healthy and unhealthy organisms; that is, a disease pattern can be seen in the energy body before it manifests in the physical body. It is influenced by the climate, machinery, cosmic radiation, human interaction and so on.
Every ‘thing’ in this universe, animate or inanimate, has an underlying energy field, a prana-maya kosha. Needless to say, it is far more complex in a human being than in, say, a stone. Energy in this kosha is conducted through energy channels (Sanskrit, nadi). According to Tantra Yoga texts there are 72,000 of these channels in each human being. Connections between points in these nadis are rather like those in an electromagnetic field. Influencing one part of the field has an instantaneous effect throughout the entire field. In the healing science of acupuncture, these energy channels, called meridians, are manipulated to bring about a change of energy flow and therefore removal of disease and better health. These meridians, of which more than seven hundred have been mapped and precisely described, conduct ki or chi energy, which is the same as prana.
Yogic texts clearly state that our breathing acts directly on the prana- maya kosha. This has been corroborated by modern scientific research using Kirlian photography. Hence pranayama (yogic breathing) improves the functioning of the prana-maya kosha and our overall health. All kinds of other Yoga practices also act on this kosha, enhancing its functioning and helping us become more aware of it.
Mana-maya kosha is what we normally call the individual mind. It controls and directly influences the prana-maya and anna-maya koshas . In Western mysticism it is known as the ‘lower astral body,’ the sphere of our mind which is closely tied to the physical body. Everyone thinks and, indeed, everyone knows that they think, but the possibility of thought nadis or pathways is yet to be considered by most of us. According to Yoga however, thought takes place through subtle thought-energy channels. The mapping of these thought nadis has never been done and is probably impossible, since they don’t have physical location (i.e., thoughts don’t operate in physical space as do the nadis of the two previous koshas). Yet thoughts do indeed flow in the ‘mental space’ (Sanskrit, chittakasha) though, ultimately, they originate from the deeper levels of the unconscious mind represented by the more subtle koshas.
Patterns of thinking, attitudes and beliefs are all aspects of our personality and are embedded blueprints in the mana-maya kosha. These are all conditioned by family, social, cultural, national and religious stereotypes. Fixed ways of thinking and rigid responses lead to most of our emotional responses, such as anger, greed, jealousy and so on, which are expressed through the prana-maya and anna-maya koshas. One of the purposes of Yoga is to render the mana-maya kosha more fluid and harmonious so that we are less bound by stormy, and probably inappropriate, emotions. We will still have emotions, for humans are emotional animals (and it is emotions that add colour to our lives) but they will tend to become less disruptive. Instead of being ruled by our unruly emotions, gradually, as the mana-maya kosha becomes more balanced and concordant, the emotions become vehicles of more creative expression. We can develop greater understanding of the mana-maya kosha (our own mind) by all types of Yoga practices.
Vigyana-maya kosha, the fourth kosha, is the intuitive sheath, the source of insight and intuitive perception. It is also the repository of transpersonal faculties such as telepathy, clairvoyance, thought reading and other so-called psychic or paranormal phenomena. These phenomena take place through extremely subtle pathways. They are not confined to the physical individual but are located in the depths of our Being where individuality merges in the collective unconscious. Thus, whilst the mana-maya kosha is the individual mind, the vigyana-maya kosha is the much vaster arena of mind that exists beyond the personality – the transpersonal Mind.
The vigyana-maya kosha is the realm of intuition, insight and creative inspiration. A researcher, poet, or musician is trying to open, or perhaps more exactly re-open, channels of knowledge and expression, which already exist in the cosmic Mind but which are currently inaccessible to us. Once a channel is opened up by one person it becomes easier for the rest of us to access it.
This process is well explained in the morphogenetic field theory proposed by biochemist Rupert Sheldrake who studied biological systems and developed the idea of morphogenetic fields and the theory of morphic resonance. His work shows that biological forms continually evolve through an underlying intelligent unified life field, the morphogenetic field. This life field automatically maintains health or seeks to return to it. This field is not only alive and constantly unfolding, but has what he calls morphic resonance with all other fields. That is, it is in contact and communicates with all other life fields. What happens to one creature will be communicated to all other creatures through morphic resonance. What one creature learns will eventually be transmitted to all other creatures, as expressed in the story of the hundredth monkey in a book by Ken Keyes, Jr.
New discoveries in science are based on an intuitive process which bypasses logic, sometimes two or more scientists in different countries ‘discovering’ the same thing at or around the same time. All new ways of thinking, concepts and inventions are due to the opening of these intuitive pathways in the vigyana-maya kosha.
In Western mysticism, the vigyana-maya kosha is known as the ‘higher astral body,’ which is widely associated with ‘astral travel’ – that is, going beyond the limitations of the individual mind and accessing the collective unconscious. Like the previous, this kosha can be accessed by yogic practices.
Ananda-maya kosha, the fifth and last of the koshas, is the blissful sheath, and it relates to the Joy that bubbles up from the depths of our essential Being. In Western mysticism, it is known as the causal body, the seed of our manifest Being. It is the trapdoor into the realms of Super-consciousness and can be accessed in deep states of Meditation. All forms of Yoga help us get in touch with the ananda-maya kosha so that we experience the thrill and bliss of underlying Consciousness. The knowledge and experience of this kosha gives meaning to our life and to existence.
INTERCOMMUNICATION BETWEEN THE KOSHAS
The koshas are not really separate, but inextricably tied up with each other. They are considered separate only for the sake of explanation and conceptual understanding. Energies flow continually from one kosha to another. For example, thoughts in the mana-maya kosha stimulate a flow of vital energy in the prana-maya kosha, which in turn stimulates the physical body through nerve and hormonal pathways. Thoughts and perceptions in the mana-maya kosha express themselves in the prana-maya and anna-maya koshas as emotions; thoughts and intentions in the mana-maya kosha are expressed in the anna-maya kosha as physical actions such as walking, talking and writing. And intuitions in the vigyana-maya kosha are accompanied by a throb of joy from the ananda-maya kosha and by inspired activity in the mana-maya, prana-maya and anna- maya koshas.
The koshas encompass a spectrum of energies which comprise our whole Being, our perceptions and our capacity to act in the world. They include our personality yet reach far beyond our personality; they enable us to reach out and touch ALL THAT IS.
‘WHO AM I?’ IN RELATION TO THE KOSHAS
The question ‘Who am I?’ is the central question of life. When we know the answer then all our activities become significant and purposeful; otherwise life is a monotonous series of events. This essential existential question may be asked in relation to each of the five koshas and in itself constitutes a fundamental part of Gyana Yoga – the profound and transformative practice of reflection.
Let us consider the five koshas one after the other in the light of this question:
Anna-maya Kosha Certainly the physical body is an essential part of our personality. Without it we would not be able to live or even function in the world. But am ‘I’ merely the physical body? From the day of our birth we are conditioned to believe that we are almost exclusively the physical body. We are told that we were born on a certain day, that we look like our mother or our father, that we are handsome, cuddlesome etc. We accept this without question: physical identification is firmly established and remains generally unquestioned throughout our lives.
Yoga reminds us that our physical body is constantly changing. Science tells us that all the molecules and substances of the body are completely replaced every seven years. Moreover, the body undergoes a constant change in appearance from childhood to old-age. Yet despite all this physical change, the sense of ‘I’ doesn’t change. Why?
We speak of the body as ‘my body,’ ‘my face’ and so on, which suggests, deep down, that we know that these parts of the physical body ‘belong’ to us, but that we are not essentially these parts of the body nor the body as a whole. The body is not ‘I’ but something that belongs to the ‘I.’
Therefore the physical body is not the essential ‘I’ but rather an instrument and vehicle for acting in the world. If we desire to go deeper in our wisdom and understanding it is best to avoid totally identifying with the physical body, though the practice of Yoga helps us care for it in a balanced way
Prana-maya Kosha Vital energy sustains the physical body but it is in a constant state of flux. Sometimes we have more, sometimes less. Our emotions and state of health are constantly changing. Yet despite this continuous fluctuation, there remains a constant and permanent sense of ‘I.’
Therefore, the etheric sheath also cannot be considered the essential ‘I.’ There is something in the background that remains constant and observes this continual flux of energies and moods.
Mana-maya Kosha The human mind is always changing. It is as fickle as a kitten and as unstable as a rowing boat in a hurricane. Yet if we are alert we can easily observe these constant mental changes. Many meditational techniques, such as Antar Mouna, are designed specifically to develop our capacity to observe or witness these mental patterns and fluctuations. Surely that which can be observed cannot be the essential ‘I’ – for one can only observe something which is other than oneself! Again, we say ‘my’ mind, which suggests, deep down, that we do not consider our mind as the essential ‘I.’ Therefore, the individual mind, no matter how attached we may be to our intellectual prowess, is not the essential ‘I.’ To repeat: there is something in the background which is able to observe its activities.
Vigyana-maya Kosha and Ananda-maya Kosha These two koshas are more nebulous in terms of identification. Even intuitive flashes and flushes of joy are experiences which are still peripheral to the core of our Being. These experiences happen to us, which in itself suggests that they are still not the essential ‘I.’
The essential ‘I’ Lies Beyond the Koshas
According to Yoga, the essential ‘I’ (Sanskrit, Atma) lies beyond the five koshas, which as the name ‘sheath’ suggests, envelope our essential Being. Therefore, deep reflection on the existential question ‘Who am I?’ is necessary if we want a deeper understanding of our own Being and the purpose of our life. Without accepting the seemingly obvious answers, we must persevere until we find the answer in its pristine glory.
Yoga helps us understand the five koshas and experience them more intimately. Eventually we realise That which is beyond all the koshas – the essential ‘I.’ Then our life resonates with joy and meaning. The impossible becomes possible. We awaken from the dream-like state that we mistakenly believe is normal life. Nisargadatta Maharaj70 points out the nature of this realisation:
Once you realise that the personality is merely a shadow of Reality but not Reality itself, you cease to fret and worry. You agree to be guided from within and life becomes a journey to the Unknown.
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