by Swami Krishnananda
Guhāhitaṁ brahma yat tat pañcakośa vivekataḥ, boddhuṁ śakyaṁ tataḥ kośa pañcakaṁ pravi vicyate (1). In the second chapter we had conducted an objective analysis of the Universal Consciousness as being different from the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. In a similar manner, here in this third chapter an analysis is being conducted which distinguishes the Pure Consciousness in the individual from the body of the individual which is constituted of five sheaths, known as annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya – the physical, vital, mental, intellectual and causal sheaths. The investigation into the real nature of these five sheaths will enable one to know that Pure Consciousness, which is the essential nature of all things, is independent of the five sheaths, and the human individual actually is not a bundle of these sheaths.
Inasmuch as it is possible to know the deepest Atman hidden in the cave of the heart by distinguishing it from the five sheaths, we now undertake the task of knowing what these five sheaths are. They are: dehād abhyan taraḥ prāṇaḥ prāṇā abhyan taraṁ manaḥ, tataḥ kartā tato bhoktā guhā seyaṁ paramparā (2). We have heard the phrase ‘cave of the heart’. The cave is nothing but a five-corridored holy of holies, the names of these corridors being the names of the five sheaths. The outermost sheath is the physical body that is visible to the eyes. Internal to the physical body is the vital body, which is made up of prana – the breath, the vital energy. Internal to the vital sheath is the mental sheath, which contains the mind and the senses of knowledge.
Internal to the mind is the intellect, which has the consciousness of the doership in actions. We begin to feel that we are doing something – we are going, we are sitting, we are such and such. This appropriation of individuality and doership in actions is the function of the intellect, which is inseparable from the ego.
Internal to the intellect is the causal body. It is also known as the anandamaya kosha. Karta and bhokta are the words used here to designate the intellectual sheath and the causal sheath. It is on account of the operation of the causal sheath that we feel happy. We had occasion to know something about the working of these internal sheaths when we studied the first chapter.
In the causal sheath, there is a balancing of the properties of prakriti – sattva, rajas and tamas, whereas in the other sheaths there is an imbalance of the properties. Some one or the other of the properties of prakriti gets accentuated or emphasised in the outer sheaths, whereas in the innermost level, the causal sheath, they are in an almost equilibrated condition. That is why we feel happy when the causal sheath works, especially in deep sleep. The doer is the intellect with the ego; the enjoyer is the causal sheath. That is why the two sheaths are called karta and bhokta, the doer and the enjoyer.
Pitṛ bhuktā nnajād vīryā jjāto’nnenaiva vardhate, dehaḥ so’nnamayo nātmā prāk cordhvām tada bhāvataḥ (3). The physical body is the product of the essence of the food consumed by our parents, and it is also sustained by the intake of food every day. It is purely material in its nature. It is constituted of a material force, and it is subsequently sustained also by a material force. The physical body is pure matter; it has no consciousness.
Inasmuch as it is material, it cannot be identified with the Atman, which is consciousness. This physical sheath is called annamaya kosha – that is, the physical encasement. Dehaḥ so’nnamayo nātmā: This is not the Atman, because the body was not there before it was born, and it will not be there also when it is cast away. It has a beginning and it has an end. Therefore, it cannot be the Atman, which is infinite, eternal. The body is perishable. It was caused by certain circumstances, and it will be destroyed by certain other circumstances. Hence, none of the qualities which we perceive in a physical body can be considered as qualities of the Atman. It is perishable, and it is inert. Therefore, this body is not the Atman. Our essential nature is not the physical body and, therefore, a description of a person in terms of physical relation is not a correct way of evaluating him.
Pūrva janma nyasann etaj janma saṁpādayet katham, bhāvi janman yasan karma na bhuñjī teha sañcitam (4). There must have been some cause for the production of this body. How did it suddenly rise up, and why does it perish? What is the reason? Some forces are at the back of this event. We cannot say that the physical body has suddenly risen into action without any kind of cause whatsoever. The joys and sorrows of life which are also experienced through this body cannot be regarded as effects of nothing. Nothing produces nothing. Do we sometimes experience happiness and grief through this body? How is it that we sometimes feel very comfortable physically and at other times are irking and very grief-stricken physically?
The body has not brought anything when it came, yet it feel the pinch of the troubles of life; and sometimes it also feel comfortable. So how could there be this effect of feeling through the body unless there is a cause behind it? That is one aspect of the matter.
Secondly, through this body we do so many actions. Some are good actions, some are bad actions. Do we mean to say that these actions will not produce any result? Good actions are rewarded; bad actions are punished. Now, where comes the field? Where is the field for the reward of the good actions done through this body or the field for the suffering of the consequences of the bad actions, if the body is to cease immediately after death?
There is, therefore, something which is the true individuality of a person, the operation of which alone can explain how it is that we have various kinds of experiences in this world, and also why we do good actions, etc. Why do we do good actions if the end of the body is also our own end? The end of the body may occur even tomorrow or the day after. But people do large philanthropic deeds; they contemplate large projects for the welfare of humanity, and various other things. After all, what is the purpose of these welfare projects if the reward for these actions is not to be experienced because of the possible death of the body the next day itself?
If the body is to be considered as the true identity of the human individual, we cannot explain how the joys and sorrows of life have come up on a particular individual in a particular way, or account for the results of their good and bad deeds. There is some continuity of personality from before the coming of the body. Because of the continuity of the person prior to the manufacture of this body, we can explain how we can have experiences of various types the other through this body.
One person's experience is different from another’s. Though physically all the bodies are made of the same stuff, the experiences are different. The experiences, therefore, should not be identified with the physical body. The experiencer is not the body. Also, the nature of the experience has to be accounted for. There must be a cause for an effect. The effect is the experience, and the cause is not visible.
So by argument of inference, we conclude that there is something prior to the coming of the body; and because of the necessity to reward actions, we have to also conclude that there is something that persists even after the death of the body. All this shows that the body is not the Atman.
Akritabhyagama and kritanasa are the two terms used to describe the incongruity that may follow if the body is to be identified with the Atman – because the body has a beginning and an end. Therefore, the experiences of the body will be identical with the time of the rise of the body.
How does it follow that a person should suddenly have undeserved sufferings and joys, as we may say, in this life, if there is no cause prior to it? That is called akritabhyagama, the coming of that which is not deserved, and the going of that which is actually deserved. So, if there is no prior cause and posterior existence for a person, then the result of good actions also will go unrewarded, and the results of actions which he has not done too will come upon his head. The person is, therefore, different from the body.
Pūrṅo dehe balaṁ yacchan akṣaṇāṁ yaḥ pravartakaḥ, vāyuḥ prāṅamayo nāsou ātmā caitanya varjanāt (5). Internal to the physical body is the vital sheath, known as pranamaya sarira. This vitality it is that gives strength to the system. The energy that we feel in ourselves is due to the prana moving through the body. The strength of the prana is also the strength of the body. If the prana is weak, the body will also be weak. And, it energises the sense organs as well; therefore, clarity of vision, clarity of audition, and clarity and ability of the other sense organs are also caused by the energy quantum of the prana, the vitality in us.
The extent of vitality that we have in our system will determine the extent of health that we enjoy, the ability that we have, the strength that we have, and the like. This vital sheath is the subtle aspect of the air principle. But this vital sheath – the prana, which is inside the physical body – also cannot be identified with the Atman, because prana has no consciousness. It is like electric energy; it works, but it does not know that it is working.
Even in the state of dream and sleep, the prana is working, but we are not conscious that the prana is working. As we are not conscious of the physical body, so also we are not conscious of the breathing process. Therefore, neither the physical body nor the vital sheath can be regarded as identical with the Atman.
What is our essential nature? It is not this body, not even the breath. There is something else in us. What is inside the vital sheath then?