The Five Koshas
Swami Satyananda Saraswati
In philosophy, the body, mind and spirit are understood as one continuity, but in fact eastern and western thought were never in agreement with each other. Western philosophy originated from Greece while eastern philosophy originated in India. Greek philosophers in general and western philosophers in particular spoke about the object. Indian philosophers in general and in particular spoke about consciousness, and for many centuries western thinkers could never accept anything beyond object as tangible: here is the object, I can see it, I can touch it, therefore it is.
However, in yoga and in vedanta, object and consciousness are interrelated. In fact, modern science, what you call physics, speaks in exactly the same way as yoga. Both modern physics and ancient yoga move absolutely parallel to each other in explaining the reality of matter and consciousness.
Body, mind and spirit are interconnected, interrelated and interpenetrating. Therefore, a person is a combination of three things: firstly, the gross body, secondly, the subtle or astral body and thirdly, the causal body or unconscious. These three bodies constitute you, me and everyone, but they are gross divisions, broad classifications.
Each body has a dimension and a layer. You can call it a field. Just as you say electromagnetic field or radioactive field, in exactly the same way there are fields in your body. In vedanta, they are known as koshas which means ‘sheaths’. These koshas are five in number: annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya, and are further sub-divisions of the three bodies, which represent the three states of your daily experience.
Every day you have three types of experiences. One is the waking experience in which you experience through your senses and mind. The second experience is dream. In dream you do not experience through the senses, but through your subconscious mind. The third experience is sleep in which there is no knowledge of time and space, no knowledge about yourself or about anything in sleep, but when you get up in the morning, you know that you slept well the night before.
So every day the individual self undergoes these three experiences alternately. These experiences relate to a particular field. Whenever your individual self goes to one particular realm, it has one experience, and as your individual self changes the field, realm or dimension, it has another experience. For example, if you go to the North Pole, you will feel cold, or if you go to a tropical country, you will feel hot.
The first kosha is annamaya, the physical body. Annamaya kosha can be sattwic, rajasic or tamasic. The word sattwa means harmony, balance and tranquillity, where you create a balance between activity and peace. Rajas means dynamic, active, violent. Tamas means dull and inert. Through the hatha yoga shatkriyas, you develop a sattwic annamaya kosha and when annamaya kosha becomes sattwic, then the bouncing of energy is much greater.
In modern science it is said that all the time, the whole day and night, atomic energy is bouncing in and out from this physical body like a pendulum. Of course, you cannot see it, but scientifically it has been seen that just like a pendulum swings from left to right, left to right, in the same manner everybody is emitting or throwing away these atoms. The sattwic body creates a longer bouncing, a tamasic body perhaps no bouncing at all, while a rajasic body has a bouncing but it has no limitation.
Now when these atoms or atomic particles bounce off your body and come back, there is a period of rest. That period of rest is always in the pendulum also. When it goes to the left and then turns to the right, there is a moment of rest. In the same way, when you do pranayama, in between inhalation and exhalation there is a point of rest. That is called timelessness and it is very short. Sometimes it can be a one-thousandth part of one second and sometimes a ten-thousandth part of a second. In that short period, the body transmits energy which is sattwic, rajasic or tamasic. Therefore, annamaya kosha, which is the container of the other koshas, is tackled through the practices of the hatha yoga shatkriyas.
The second kosha is pranamaya, the kosha composed of prana, or life force. This prana is a part of cosmic life. Each and every creature, each and every thing in this world is a part of cosmic life. Prana is the force or energy for all kinds of motion. Prana is a Sanskrit word meaning movement, motion or vibration.
Pranic energy is in constant motion throughout life. It is not only in human beings, animals, herbs or trees, not only in oceans and mountains, minerals and bacteria. The tiniest part of an atom has prana. This prana is both visible and invisible. We need not talk about invisible prana now. Visible prana is manifesting before you. Wherever there is prana there is movement, growth, change and activity and where there is no prana there is no activity. When we die the body dissipates because it has become completely bereft of prana.
Prana is one item of your total composition and should also be dealt with in yoga. If the pranas are agitated or there is a pranic imbalance, there is imbalance everywhere. To understand prana you need to know a little about positive and negative atoms. The pranas are in the atmosphere in the form of positive and negative ions, which keep on bouncing, migrating and reintegrating. A balance has to be created between them.
If you study the science of the behaviour of positive and negative ions, you will understand the importance of balancing the prana in the body, because prana represents the positive energy in the body, and mind represents the negative energy. When there is a balance between positive and negative energy, then you can see illumination and everything is in harmony.
This prana is responsible for the action of the karmendriyas, the organs of action, just as electrical energy is responsible for the functioning of a microphone or light bulb. If the electricity which is being supplied somewhere in 220 volts becomes 440 volts, everything will burn. If the electricity becomes 120 volts, then there will also be a crisis. Therefore, the electricity has to be adjusted according to the capacity of the microphone or the bulbs. Similarly, there has to be coordination between the prana and the indriyas or sense organs. If there is too much prana, then your children are sometimes hyperactive. Hyperactivity in the body is due to hyperactivity of the prana.
There are five karmendriyas: feet, hands, vocal cords, urinary and excretory systems. Indriya means vehicle, tool or sense. Karma means action. Through these five karmendriyas you perform five gross actions. Prana is the force behind them. You have seen how old people become slow due to lack of prana. Pranamaya kosha is the energy in annamaya kosha.
There are five main pranas: prana, apana, udana, samana and vyana. These forms of prana control various functions in the physical body. For example, urination, excretion, insemination and childbirth are consequences of apana. Then there are five auxiliary or secondary pranas.
Prana is not a mechanical outcome of the body as it is understood in modern medical science. According to the classical tradition prana enters the womb in the fourth month of pregnancy. When an embryo is developed in the mother’s womb, it is part of the mother’s body and prana. After the third month, the independent or individual pranas manifest in the foetus. That is to say, from the fourth month, the mother’s prana and the prana of the embryo become two different pranas. Therefore, remember that prana is universal energy.
Pranamaya kosha is purified through the practice of pranayama, because pranayama makes the pranic energy penetrate into each and every cell and fibre of the body. Pranayama does not literally mean breathing exercise. The word pranayama is composed of two ideas, prana and ayama, meaning field, dimension or area. Pranayama means extending the field of prana. In this physical body you have a field of prana. It is the subtle form of energy and can be measured. This prana shakti can also get blocked. It can be in excess in some parts of the body and sometimes there is an imbalance in the prana.
The third kosha is manomaya, the kosha composed of the mind. Mind is consciousness. It is a field of energy by itself. Even as prana is the positive field of energy, mind is the negative field of energy. In Sanskrit, the mind is known as manas, and has three dimensions. In fact, in Samkhya philosophy, they say that the mind has ten dimensions. Here they mean the mind of everyone, not only of human beings but of lower animals, the vegetable kingdom, the mind of each and everything in this world.
There are ten stages in the evolution of the mind from the most crude to the most fine. If you want to study those ten stages, you should read the Samkhya Sutras. However, out of those ten stages of mind, three are known to human beings: the conscious mind, the subconscious mind and the unconscious mind. Now these three stages are divisions of the human mind. The literal meaning of manas is ‘that by which you cognize, perceive and understand’. Perception, cognition and understanding are the basic and primary qualities of the mind.
This mind is connected with time, space and causality. What are past, present and future? They are the three so-called divisions of the same mind. What is the form of the mind? It is said that the mind moves at the greatest speed. Do you know the speed of an object? French trains run at 240 kilometres per hour. You know the speed of sound and of light, but do you know the speed of the mind. If only you could create a mental train! The mind is a very subtle unit and when it goes to the subconscious level, it begins to go into the unknown past.
Carl Jung used to talk about archetypes, dreams and visions. He said there is no known source of these things. Whether they are transferred to you from your parents or from a super space, from your previous incarnations or from some unknown transmissions, there is a primitive stock of archetypes within you. This is called samskara. It is known as the seed body or the unconscious. These are the three broad divisions of the mind.
Now this mind can be brought closer, that is to say, time, space and causality can be brought closer. When we are on the external conscious plane, the distance between time, space and causality is long and when you are in meditation, then the gap between time, space and causality is very short. In fact, if the mind can sometimes stop, time stops. A lot of work has been done on this by modern physicists.
The mind which I am talking about is part of the cosmic mind. Of course, I think that I have an individual mind. Everyone thinks this, but it is ignorance because we do not know, just like an ignorant person may feel that the light burning in the light bulb is individual, but another person understands that the energy is coming from the powerhouse. In the same way, this mind is part of the universal mind. How can we put this mind in touch with the cosmic mind? Through raja yoga practices.
The fourth kosha is vijnanamaya. Vijnana means psyche. Vijnana is a Sanskrit word from the prefix vi and jnana meaning knowledge or awareness, inner perception or experience. Vijnana has two meanings: external science and also inner experience. Therefore, whenever you have any experience which is subjective in nature, it is a consequence of vijnanamaya kosha. Whatever you are dreaming is a projection of vijnanamaya kosha, and in your meditation, concentration or mantra yoga, when you see lights and flowers, figures, angels or saints, smell perfumes or hear sounds, it is the consequence or result of vijnanamaya kosha.
Vijnanamaya kosha is related to a very unknown part of the universe and it is a link or sutra between the conscious mind, the individual mind and the universal mind. Universal knowledge comes to the conscious mind through vijnanamaya kosha or the psychic mind. Vijnanamaya kosha does not depend on time, space and causation factors.
You may not have seen Peking, but vijnanamaya kosha can give you a complete film of Peking because it is not limited by time past, present or future. The mind has its eyes on the object, but vijnanamaya kosha has its eye on the universe, and therefore Hindus say that vijnanamaya kosha has a thousand heads and a thousand eyes, a thousand hands and a thousand feet. This means it can see anywhere and think anything.
How can it be developed? It can be developed through tantra because tantra is related to vijnanamaya kosha. The tantric practices act as a catalyst because it is in you, just as curd and butter are in milk, but cannot be seen as separate unless they are released. Matter has energy in it, but when you look at matter, can you see the energy? No, you cannot. Even if you believe that there is energy in matter, still you cannot see it. Then you adopt a method to separate the energy from the matter. That is what nuclear energy is. All energy is inherent in matter. In the same way, vijnanamaya kosha is inherent within you but it is hidden in you like butter is hidden in milk. You have to separate it; you have to release your vijnanamaya kosha.
The fifth organism is anandamaya kosha. It is not possible to translate the word ananda. Some translate it as bliss or happiness, but ananda is when there is no happiness and no unhappiness. In happiness you are jumping, in unhappiness you are dull – sometimes low, sometimes high. So your mind is swinging. In ananda there is no swinging. There is unified experience and that experience does not change.
Death cannot change that experience; birth cannot change it; love and hatred cannot make your experiences swing. When your mind has become steady in experience and does not fluctuate under any condition, that is ananda. So we call it homogenous experience. The experience which you have in your life every day is not homogenous. It is divided and that is why swamis have ananda in their name, to remind them that they must achieve the state of mind where there is no swinging. So, anandamaya kosha means the kosha which comprises homogenous experience.
In many books, anandamaya kosha is translated as the blissful sheath. But I have thought about ananda for many years and have come to the conclusion that there is a state of mind which does not change, despite anything that happens in life. With that state of mind you can live with all the conditions of life. You can live with a good partner or a bad partner, prosperity or poverty, disease or death, in a discotheque, on a beach, a hotel, everywhere, because nothing affects you. You are where you are, firmly rooted in your own self, but at the same time you can interact with everyone. You can even fight, but still not be affected.
The three gunas
You are composed of these five sheaths or koshas, but you are not that. These five koshas belong to the lower existence, not to the range of supreme knowledge. They are controlled by the three gunas: sattwa, rajas and tamas. Guna means quality, faculty or attribute. The three gunas belong to nature. In this context nature does not mean beautiful places, mountains and hills.
In philosophy nature means prakriti, the universal law. There is a universal law which controls all, from biggest to tiniest, and it is inherent in the thing itself. Take a tree, for example. It is controlled by the laws inherent in the tree. In the same way every human being and every animal is controlled by a law which is inherent in it. My controller is inherent in me and that is the law. That is prakriti, and it controls, maintains or manages each and every law by the three gunas.
These three gunas again control the five koshas. The three gunas work in unison. Nothing is controlled by one guna. The body is controlled by tamoguna, but there is also a little bit of rajas and sattwa. In the same way, anandamaya kosha is controlled by sattwa guna, but there is a trace of the other two gunas. The mind is controlled by rajoguna, but there is a trace of the other two gunas. The three gunas control the five koshas in cooperation with each other. They all have a share. In one kosha, one guna may have a major share and in the others a very minor share, but the proportion changes from time to time.
Where can we place yoga here? First of all, the various practices of yoga purify the mechanism of these koshas. Thereby they can change the quantum of the gunas in each kosha. For example, the body is predominantly tamasic, but by the practices of hatha yoga, sattwic food and a good daily program, you can increase sattwa guna in the body. In the same way you can change the quantum of the gunas in each kosha.
When you change the quantum of the gunas in these five koshas through the yoga practices, a balance is created and when balance is created, then greater awareness takes place. These five koshas are separate classifications. You can experience them during your yoga practice. When you meditate, you pierce through or penetrate each and every kosha.
There are many books on the koshas. One is Vivekachudamani, a very famous book by Adi Shankaracharya, the second is Panchadashi, a very famous book in fifteen chapters dealing with terminologies in yoga and vedanta, and the third is Samkhya Sutras. These three are authentic classical texts.
The five koshas, five tattwas, three gunas and various forms of yoga should be studied in conjunction with each other because they are related to everyone. Even animals have koshas, but the nature of evolution is different. Animals have a well developed annamaya kosha and pranamaya kosha, but their manomaya kosha is in a rudimentary state of evolution, while their anandamaya kosha is not at all manifest. In little insects, annamaya kosha is there but pranamaya kosha is not fully developed and manomaya kosha is unmanifest there.
So the five koshas are not the sole property of human beings. Anything in this universe which has a body has five koshas, but as it goes on evolving then the later koshas become more and more prominent. A yoga practitioner has a developed vijnanamaya kosha while one who has achieved the result of yoga has anandamaya kosha fully developed. But beyond these five koshas is the absolute self. The purpose of existence is to experience that cosmic self and in order to understand and experience that cosmic self, you have to first understand these five koshas and then separate them.