Indian scriptures and the ancient Rishis describe a human being as a combination of three bodies and five sheaths. In Sanskrit the body is known as sarira and the sheath is known as kosa. The three bodies are the gross body, the subtle body and the causal body. The outermost body is the gross body and the innermost body is the causal body. The five sheaths are the Annamaya kosa, the Pranamaya kosa, the Manomaya kosa, the Vijnanamaya kosa and the Anandamaya kosa. The outermost sheath is the annamaya kosa and the innermost sheath is the anandamaya kosa. The annamaya kosa and the gross body are perceived by the naked eye. The Rishis distinguish the Atma from the three bodies and the five sheaths. The three bodies and the five sheaths have no existence independent of the Atma. Explaining the three bodies and the five sheaths is a powerful teaching methodology used by the ancient Rishis for thousands of years, to distinguish the Atma from the body, prana, mind and the senses. It is an intellectual method used by the Rishis to understand the truth. The three bodies and the five sheaths are explained in the Brahmananda Valli of the Taittriyopanisad. The knowledge about the three bodies and the five sheaths leads us to the method used by the ancient Rishis to make us understand the truth. The nature of the Satchitananda Atma is distinguished from the three bodies and the five sheaths.
Gross body or Sthula sarira
The gross body is the physical body. Science views the gross body in a different perspective. Science believes that the gross body is composed of atoms, chemicals, flesh and bones. They believe that the disease is caused by the imbalance in the chemicals in the body, and the disease is cured by intake of the deficient chemicals in the form of medicines. Science says that the disturbance in the equilibrium of the chemicals generate electrical signals in the body, which results as thoughts and emotions. Science does not accept the concept of mind; it accepts only its physical counterpart, the brain. Science is correct in its own perspective but the only thing is, it is not adequate. Science has to go much deeper to get the whole picture of the human being. It is difficult for science to accept the subtle concepts of spirituality. By analyzing the human body, only a part of the human being is analyzed. The knowledge about the three bodies and the five kosas gives an overall knowledge about the human being.
The gross body takes its birth and grows by food (annam) and decays by the absence of food. It is subject to six stages of change. They are birth, existence, growth, modification, decay and death. In the waking state, the gross body is active and performs various actions. It is almost inactive in the other two states, namely the dream and the deep sleep states.
Annamaya kosa exists in the gross body. Annamaya kosa is nourished by food and it decays by the decrease or lack of food. The annamaya kosa is very closely attached to its next inner sheath, the pranamaya kosa. Annamaya kosa is the only kosa present in the gross body.
Since the gross body decays and disintegrates it is called sarira. As the body is burnt after death it is called Deha. The gross body is distinct from the subtle and causal bodies. The formation of the gross body around the subtle and causal body is called birth; the separation of the gross body from the subtle and causal body is called death. The subtle body expresses its desires through the gross body. The five basic elements namely space, air, fire, water, and matter (earth) constitute the gross body.
Gross body is finite and it has impurities. Gross body is inert and it is powered by the Atma. Gross body is distinct from the Atma, because the nature of the Atma like purity, infinity and intelligence is not applicable to the gross body. Gross body is dependent on the Atma for its existence.
Subtle body or Linga sarira
Subtle body is also called as astral or energy body. It is made of seventeen tattwas. They are the five jnana indriyas(sense organs), five karma indriyas(action organs), the mind and the intellect. This body enables one to experience hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling. Subtle body is developed by intense ego and desires. It decays when either ego or desire is destroyed. Subtle body is very strong in the worldly minded people. Inside the physical body, the subtle body appears as an aura. The subtle body comes in to existence before the physical body and remains till the physical body completely disintegrates and disappears. When the physical body separates from the subtle body(death), the subtle body acts as a vehicle for the transmigration process. A person with an evolved mind can view the subtle body as a thumb size bright light. The subtle body along with the causal body (both are very subtle and not visible to the naked eye), after the separation from the gross body, move to the place according to the stored mental impressions and tendencies(karma) and takes birth in that place. It experiences their desires and tendencies(karma) through that newly formed gross body. The subtle body always emits vibrations. The subtle body has three kosas. They are the pranamaya kosa, manomaya kosa and the vijnanamaya kosa.
Pranamaya kosa or Vital sheath
Prana (vital force) is the cause for the existence of the pranamaya kosa. This kosas has seven chakras; they are activated by the prana. Pranamaya kosa is closely related and attached to the annamaya kosa. Prana is accessed by regularizing the breathing movement in the gross body. Pranamaya kosa is more subtle than the annamaya kosa. Pranamaya kosa is responsible for the physiological functions like breathing, digestion, circulation of blood etc(Vide article Prana and the chakras). Paranamaya kosa is purified by pranayama. Pranamaya kosa is also closely attached to the manomaya kosa. The movement of the prana controls the mind. When the prana enters the higher chakras, the mind will be highly evolved and the mind will be in the edge of realizing the universal consciousness.
Manomaya kosa or Mental sheath
A person enters and leaves this world with a bundle of thoughts in the form of mind. He exists because of thoughts. This mind is called the manomaya kosa. Development of this sheath gives importance to the human birth. Other living beings also have the annamaya and paranamaya kosas, but the manomaya kosa is completely developed only in the human beings. A person thinks, judges, argues and analyses because of the presence of the manomaya kosa. Thoughts continuously emerge from the manomaya kosa, which subsequently affect the pranamaya and annamaya kosas. Each cell in the body gets the effect of the mental sheath. Every thought causes a vibration in the subtle body. This is transmitted to the gross body through the brain. The nerve cells in the brain cause the electrical and chemical changes in the body. Even after the separation of the gross body from the subtle body, the subtle body emits thought vibrations.
Vijnanamaya kosa or Knowledge sheath
Vijnanamaya kosa performs the discriminative action and it is based on the inner intelligence. It is also called the intellectual sheath. Vijnanamaya kosa controls the fructifying impressions by the present acquired knowledge. Vijnanamaya kosa experiences pain and happiness when it combines with manomaya kosa. The nature (gunas) of the mind affects the vijnamaya kosa. When the mind becomes purified, vijnamaya kosa experiences pure intuitive wisdom. Vijnanamaya kosa is the seat of I-consciousness. Sometimes we get deep knowledge or intuition from this sheath. This sheath reflects the light of the self. This sheath is purified by the knowledge of the scriptures, right enquiry and meditation. Vijnanamaya kosa is closely attached to the manomaya kosa and its higher inner sheath, anandamaya kosa.
The subtle body which has three sheaths is also inert. It has a beginning and an end. It is finite and subject to change. The qualities of this kosa are distinct from the nature of the Atma, which is pure, infinite and intelligent. The subtle body is not Atma, but it is powered by the Atma. Subtle body is dependent on the Atma for its existence.
Causal body or Karana sarira
Causal body is the innermost of the three bodies. Causal body is close to the Atma, it always reflects the intelligence of the Atma. It is the causal body which develops an idea of separation from Brahman. It develops an idea that “I am jiva and different from Brahman”. It nourishes this idea by supplementing it with many other thoughts. The causal body decays only when the idea of separation is annihilated. Causal body is very strong in the worldly minded people. This sheath is formed of ignorance. When the truth is known the causal body disappears. The experiences from the previous births are stored as “Vasanas” (impressions) in the causal body. The causal body is the cause for the formation of the gross and subtle bodies. It is the causal body which determines the next birth. Causal body is the doorway to the higher consciousness; it links the individual soul to the universal consciousness.
In the dreamless sleep, we have neither the gross body nor the subtle body. In that deep sleep state, a person cannot perceive anything. It is a dark but peaceful state. When the mind arises or comes out of that deep sleep state, it does not remember anything other than darkness. That state of not knowing anything, either internally or externally is called the causal body. In that state the pure ego is realized. Mind does not realize or understand this state, because mind is full of impurities and ignorance.
In deep sleep, the ego is alive in a very subtle form as tendencies (vasanas). The ego is the reason for the subtle and gross bodies to rise from deep sleep state. After separation from the gross body, the individuality of a person exists in the causal body. Next birth springs out from this causal body. Anandamaya kosa exists in the causal body.
Anandamaya kosa is close to the Atma, and it is closely related to the vijnanamaya kosa. It is the innermost sheath. Happiness or sorrows are not experienced in this sheath. The causal body reflects the bliss of the anandamaya kosa. It is easy to connect to Brahman from this sheath. Anandamaya kosa is the most powerful and blissful among the five sheaths. The lower sheaths always obey the higher sheaths. The outermost sheath, the annamaya kosa is the most untransformed sheath, so it complies with the commands of the other higher layers. Anandamaya kosa exist in all people but it is evolved only in a very few people. This sheath gets purified by meditation.
The causal body is also inert; it is powered by the Atma. When a person gets knowledge of the self, the causal body disappears. Causal body is finite, inert and impure. It cannot be the infinite, indivisible pure Atma. Causal body is dependent on the Atma for its existence.
In the waking state a person is identified with the gross body, in the dream state a person is identified with the subtle body, in the deep sleep state a person is identified with the causal body. The life span of the three bodies is different. The gross body has a shorter period of existence compared to the other two bodies. The subtle body survives by thoughts and emotions and survives for a longer period of duration. The causal body survives by the bliss of the Atma, so it survives for a much longer period than the other two bodies. When knowledge arises in a person, the three bodies merge in consciousness. Atma uses the body and mind for its manifestations. A person, who realizes that Atma is entirely distinct from the three bodies and five sheaths, is a liberated person and is Brahman himself. When we gain knowledge about the three bodies and the five sheaths, we will definitely feel that we are more than the mere physical body, and we will realize that our inherent nature is divine as explained by the scriptures.
Taittriyopanisad, (Swami Sarvananda, trans), Mylapore, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003
Pancadasi, (Swami Swahananda,trans), Mylapore, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2001
Vivekacudamani, (Swami Turiyananda, trans), Mylapore, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2001