The Five Bodies
“Throw away the shell and take the kernel; do not be one of those who ignore the features, but tear away the veil!”
–Abd al-Karim al-Jill
All major spiritual traditions sanction the belief that the physical body is not the only vehicle in which consciousness can express itself or in which the Spirit or Self (atman) manifests itself. Thus, most schools of Post-Classical Yoga and Vedanta accept the doctrine of the pancha kosha (“five bodies”—in Sanskrit, kosha means “sheath” or “casing”), which was first introduced in the ancient Taittiriya Upanishad (2:7).
The names of all of the bodies contain the word maya. In this context, maya means “made by” or “composed of.” This composition points to the illusory and contingent nature of the physical body, the etheric body, or any of the other koshas. In yogic philosophy, “contingent” means “not having the cause in itself, relative,” since all these “sheaths” are present only because of atman, the real core and cause of our being.
Each of the pancha kosha can be seen as obstructing the pure light of the transcendental Self. However, it is not the kosha itself that creates the “seeming” separation from our Divine Self, but our identification with it. By identifying with these different layers of our being we forget who we truly are in essence. All of the koshas are part of the manifestation of the true Self.
Taittiriya Upanishad refers to the following bodies (koshas):
- Annamaya Kosha—The “Sheath Composed of Food”
This “sheath” is the physical body. It is the least subtle of the five coverings that obstruct the freedom of the Supreme Self. It leads the jiva (individual soul) to identify with the physical body.
- Pranamaya Kosha—The “Sheath Composed of Life Force”
Pranamaya kosha, the second of the five coverings that obstruct the freedom of the Supreme Self, is the etheric body. It makes the jiva identify with the etheric body.
- Manomaya Kosha—The “Sheath Composed of Mind”
The third body is known as the astral body and makes the jiva identify with the astral body.
- Vijnanamaya Kosha—The “Sheath Composed of Wisdom”
Vijnanamaya kosha, the “sheath composed of intellectual knowledge and understanding,” is the fourth body. This sheath makes the jiva identify with the buddhi (intellect). Whenever we are aware of ourselves as a rational being capable of intellectual insight and judgment, we are using vijnanamaya kosha.
- Anandamaya Kosha—The “Sheath Composed of Bliss”
Anandamaya Kosha is the causal body. It is fifth of the five coverings that obstruct the freedom of the Supreme Self. It leads the jiva to identify with the causal body. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, anandamaya kosha is equated with the transcendental Reality itself, though later schools consider it to still be a fine veil around the Self.
It is important to note that the model of the five bodies is not accepted in Classical Yoga. Yet, even there, the existence of a supraphysical body composed of matter-energy that is subtler than the material body is postulated. While the Yoga Sutras does not mention such a body directly, it is implied—for instance, in the notion that there are highly evolved yoga masters who have merged with the very ground of Nature.