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Atman is Distinct from the Pancha Koshas

by Swami Sivananda

Atman is distinct from the five Koshas or sheaths. The five sheaths are Annamaya Kosha (food-sheath), Pranamaya Kosha (vital sheath), Manomaya Kosha (mental sheath), Vijnanamaya Kosha (intellect-sheath) and Anandamaya Kosha (blissful sheath). 'Maya' means full. 'Kosha' means sheath.

Just as the scabbard hides the sword, the outer shell covers the tamarind fruit, the coat covers the body, so also these five sheaths hide the Atman. Hence the significant name Kosha. Just as the Kosakar worm gets itself bound in its nest, so also the Jiva gets himself bound within the Koshas.

Annamaya Kosha is this gross body. This is the densest sheath. This is generated by a combination of Shukla and Sonita (semen and female seed). It is born of food because semen is manufactured out of food only. The body is nourished by food. It dies without food. It gets itself merged in the Annamaya earth after death. It is the seat for the experience of pleasure and pain. It is subject to six changes (Shad-bhava-vikara, viz., birth, existence, growth, change, decay and death). Hence the name Annamaya Kosha.

The Annamaya Kosha forms the gross body. The Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vijnanamaya Koshas go to constitute the subtle or astral body or Linga Sarira. The Anandamaya Kosha forms the causal body or Karana Sarira. The five Karma Indriyas are contained in the Pranamaya Kosha. The five Jnana Indriyas are contained in the Manomaya Kosha.

Just as the clouds which are generated by the rays of the sun, and which exist only on account of the sun cover the sun, just as the smoke which has its existence through fire conceals the fire, just as the snake in the rope which owes its existence to the rope hides the rope, just as the jar which exists on account of the clay conceals the clay, just as the ear-rings which owe their existence to the gold hide the gold, the five Koshas which owe their very existence to the Atman cover the very Atman.

It is the innate tendency of the human mind to identify the Self with the five Koshas. This is due to ignorance (Avidya) only. This is due to Adhyasa or superimposition. The ignorant man of dull intellect identifies the Self with the physical body. Others identify the Self or Atman with Prana, mind, intellect, or the Karana Sarira according to their various grades of intelligence. The Atman transcends the five sheaths. It is entirely distinct from the five sheaths. You will have to pierce through these five sheaths if you want to get knowledge of the Self. These five sheaths form a cave (Guha) and the Atman is hidden in the cave. The self-effulgent Atman shines in the midst of Pranas within the heart. A detailed knowledge and comprehensive understanding of the five sheaths is an indispensable requisite, if you want to attain Self-realisation and practise the 'Neti-neti' doctrine of Vedanta.

The following arguments will prove clearly that the Atman is entirely distinct from the Annamaya sheath or physical body. The physical body is a mass of skin, flesh, blood, bones and lots of other filthy things. It can never be eternally pure, self-existent Brahman. It does not exist prior to birth or posterior to death. It lasts only for a short period. It is full of parts. It is ever changing. It has a beginning and an end. It is inert. It is the effect of Tamoguna. It is the combination of five elements. How can it be one's own Self, the silent witness of changes in all things?

There is no consciousness in a dead body. If the gross body is the Self or Atman, the corpse also would be as conscious as the living body. The physical body is dead as it were during the dreaming state. The physical body is not eternal. It disintegrates after death. As the physical body has a beginning and an end, it is an effect like the jar. The body cannot be the Self, because one continues to live even when particular limbs are gone, even when his legs and hands are amputated. That the Self is entirely different from the body, its characteristics, activities and states of which it is the silent witness is self-evident and needs no demonstration or proof. How can the inert body, being a pack of bones, covered with flesh and full of filth, and highly impure, he the self-luminous, self-existent, intelligent Self, the Knower, which is ever distinct from it?

The foolish man identifies himself with a mass of flesh, fat, skin, bones and filth, while the man of discrimination knows that his Self is distinct from this perishable body. The stupid man thinks that he is the body. A Pundit who has read some religious books identifies himself with a mixture of body and soul, while the liberated sage regards the eternal, unchanging Atman as his Self. So long as the learned Pundit does not abandon his erroneous identification with this unreal, perishable body, there is no hope of salvation for him, even though he is a scholar in Vedanta. The identification with the physical body alone is the root cause which brings the misery of birth and death and its concomitant evils. Therefore destroy at once this identification. There will be no more chance for rebirths. O ignorant worldly man! Give up Moha for this physical body of filth, flesh and hones. Identify yourself with the pure Brahman, the Self of all and thus attain Immortality and everlasting Peace.

There is an illusory connection between Annamaya Kosha and Atman through Anyonya Adhyasa or mutual super-imposition by which the Dharmas or attributes of the former appear on the latter and the Dharmas of the latter appear on the former.

In Indian Logic there are two kinds of relationship, viz., Samavaya and Samyoga. Samavaya Sambandha is inseparable. This is the relationship that exists between a man and his limbs, a person and his qualities, the actor and his actions. There is no Samavaya Sambandha between Atman and the five Koshas. Samyoga Sambandha is the relationship that exists between a drum and the stick. There cannot be any Samyoga Sambandha between Atman and the five sheaths, as Atman is not a substance that is made up of the five elements. But the relationship that exists between Atman and the five sheaths is only the Adhyasa (illusory or superimposed) relationship that exists between a rope and a snake or between mother-of-pearl and silver or between a post in darkness and a thief, or between the sky and the blue colour. Is the illusion caused by one to another, or is it reciprocal? It must be reciprocal (Anyonya Adhyasa), because Atman and Ahamkara go hand in hand and are referred one to the other reciprocally in worldly parlance.

The mutual illusory relationship that exists between Atman and Annamaya Kosha can be clearly understood from the daily talks of men. People say: I am a man. I am a male. I live. I grow. I shall die. I am a boy. I am a grown up man. I am an old man. I am a Brahmin. I am a Kshatriya. I am a Vaishya. I am a Sudra. I am a Brahmachari. I am a householder. I am a Sannyasi. I am an Indian. I am an Englishman. I am a Pundit. I am an illiterate man. I am sick. I am poor. I am fat. I am lean. I am sickly. I am healthy. Here all the properties of Annamaya sheath are ascribed by delusion to Atman. The characteristics of Satchidananda are attributed falsely to the Annamaya Kosha as you see from such illustration: My body is. My body shines. My body is dear. You can clearly understand now that there exists a mutual illusory relationship between Atman and the Annamaya Kosha. Therefore the Atman is not Annamaya Kosha. This food-sheath is not yours. This is gross body. You are the Self. The Self is distinct from the food-sheath, because it is the Knower of the sheath.

The second sheath or the sheath lying next to the physical body consists of the five vital airs with the five organs of action (Karma Indriyas) and is known as Pranamaya Kosha permeated by which the Annamaya Kosha engages itself in all activities as if it were living. There is Anyonya Adhyasa or mutual illusory relationship between Atman and the Pranamaya Kosha. The attributes of the vital sheath such as hunger and thirst are superimposed on the Self. Man generally says: I am hungry. I am thirsty. I am strong. I am brave. I walk, I talk, I give. I do actions. I am dumb. I am a lame man. I am impotent. I am weak. Here the functions of the Pranamaya Kosha are falsely attributed to Atman (the 'I'). Conversely the attributes of Atman are falsely ascribed to the vital sheath. Man generally says: My Prana is; my Prana shines; my Prana is dear to me. This is the reciprocal relationship between Atman and the Pranamaya Kosha.

Prana is Jada or inert. It is an effect of Tamoguna. It has no knowledge of itself. It cannot know others. During sleep it cannot welcome a man. It cannot stop a thief from removing his jewels. Therefore it is Jada or inert like a jar or a piece of stone. It has a beginning and an end. It cannot be self-effulgent Atman, because it is a modification of Vayu and like the air it enters into and comes out of the body, because it never knows in the least either its own weal or woe, or those of others, being eternally dependent on the Self.

The Atman is pure consciousness and is eternally distinct from the Pranamaya Kosha. You are not the Pranamaya Kosha. This is not yours also. This belongs to the subtle body. The Self is distinct from the vital sheath because it is the Knower of this sheath.

The five organs of knowledge together with the mind constitute the Manomaya Kosha or the mental sheath. This mind is the cause for the diversity of the things such as 'I' and 'mine'. It creates egoism and mineness in house, son, wife and property. It passes outside through the avenues or channels of senses. It is powerful, it creates the difference of name, etc. It manifests itself as permeating the vital sheath. Man generally says: I think. I fancy. I am in grief. I am deluded. I am hot-tempered. I am the enjoyer, I am a sickly person. I am the desirer. I am the seer, the taster, the smeller, toucher. I am a deaf person. I am a blind man, and so on. Here the functions of the Manomaya Kosha are falsely attributed to the Atman. Conversely the characteristics of Atman are falsely ascribed to the Manomaya Kosha. Man generally says: My mind is, my mind shines and my mind is dear to me. Thus there is the reciprocal illusory relationship between Atman and the Manomaya Kosha.

There is no ignorance outside mind. The mind is Avidya. When mind is destroyed, everything else is destroyed. When the mind manifests, all else manifests. In dreams, the mind alone creates the object such as mountains, rivers, flowers, chariot, horses, driver etc. It is the subject. It is the object. In dreamless sleep it rests in the Mula Ajnana or primitive ignorance, its cause. If it were identical with consciousness, it should have continued like it even when the man enters into dreamless sleep. Mind is only Jada or inert. It is not self-luminous. It is a product of Sattva-Guna. It has a beginning and an end. It is only an instrument in the hands of the subject who is its user. It is subject to modifications. It is ever changing. It is an object. Its attributes are pleasure and pain. Therefore, it cannot be changeless, self-effulgent, pure Atman. The Atman exists even during deep sleep. This is proved by the man's remembrance in the morning to the effect that he enjoyed sound sleep the previous night and that he was aware of nothing during sleep. As only that man who had the experience can have the remembrance of an experience, we must conclude that the man who had the remembrance in the above form in the morning did exist during deep sleep and experience the bliss and the absence of knowledge remembered by him during the waking state.

Mind is associated with the Vrittis, viz., lust, anger, greed, etc. It has no steadiness. So it is a Vikari. Atman is changeless (Nirvikara) and silent witness. In reality you are the Atman. Therefore, you are not the Manomaya Kosha. It is not yours also. It belongs to the subtle body. You are distinct from the Manomaya Kosha. You are the knowing subject. The Self is distinct from the Manomaya Kosha, because it is the Knower of this sheath.

Buddhi or intellect with its modifications and the five organs of knowledge, having the characteristics of the agent constitutes the Vijnanamaya Kosha or the knowledge-sheath. In deep sleep, it gets involved along with the reflected intelligence (Chidabhasa). The knowledge sheath is highly luminous on account of its close proximity to the Paramatman.

Man generally says: I am the agent. I am a man of firm determination. I am a man of intelligence. I am a learned man. I can understand everything beautifully. I can remove the doubts of others. I know the Vedas. I am a wise man. Here the functions of the Vijnanamaya Kosha are falsely ascribed to Atman. Conversely the attributes of Atman are falsely attributed to the Vijnanamaya Kosha. Man says: My Buddhi is, my Buddhi shines and my Buddhi is dear to me. Thus there exits a reciprocal illusory relationship between Atman and the intellectual sheath.

This knowledge-sheath cannot be the self-effulgent pure Atman, because it is subject to change, it has a beginning and an end; it is an effect of Sattva-Guna; it is Jada or insentient; it is not self-luminous; it is a limited thing; it is an object; it is not constantly present; it gets involved during deep sleep. An unreal thing cannot therefore be taken for the eternal, real Atman.

You are not the Vijnanamaya Kosha. This sheath also is not yours. It belongs to the subtle body. You are the Knower of this sheath and as such are entirely distinct from it.

The fifth sheath is the Anandamaya Kosha or Avidya in its Sattvic aspect causing the blissful experience of Sushupti or deep sleep. It is endowed with the three Vrittis, viz., Priya, Moda and Pramoda. Priya is the happiness that arises in one from the mere sight of a desired object. Moda is the happiness which one enjoys when he is in possession of a desired object. Pramoda is the happiness which one gets from the actual enjoyment of the desired object. This sheath makes itself spontaneously felt to the fortunate during the fruition of their virtuous deeds. This Anandamaya Kosha has its fullest play during deep sleep. In the dreaming and waking states it has only a partial operation, caused by the sight of pleasant objects. Priya Vritti is the head of Anandamaya Kosha. Moda Vritti is the right wing. Pramoda Vritti is its left wing. Pratibimbananda is its trunk. The Bimbananda of Atman is its tail.

Man generally says: I am the enjoyer. I am happy. I am peaceful. I am contented. I am Sattvic. I am Rajasic. I am Tamasic. I am a dull man. I am an ignorant man. I am a miserable man. I am a discontented person. I am a man of discrimination. I am a vicious person. I am a deluded person. Here the attributes of the Anandamaya Kosha are falsely ascribed to the Atman. Conversely the characteristics of the Satchidananda of Atman are falsely attributed to the Anandamaya Kosha. Man generally says: My bliss is, my bliss shines and my bliss is dear to me. Thus there is reciprocal illusory relationship between Atman and Anandamaya Kosha.

The Anandamaya Kosha cannot be the Atman, because it is endowed with changeful attributes. It is a modification of Prakriti. It is the effect of past good deeds. It has an end. You are not the Anandamaya Kosha. This sheath is not yours also. It constitutes the causal body. You are entirely distinct from this sheath. You are always the knower of this sheath. In the illustrations, 'My cow', 'my son', 'my wife', 'my house', the cow, the son, the wife and the house are entirely separate from man. Man generally says, 'My body, my Prana, my intellect, my senses, my ignorance'. This means that the body etc., are different from their proprietor indicated by the word 'my'. It is obvious that all the things are related to a Being which is beyond them all. The relationship is one of property towards its proprietor. You can clearly understand by the practice of 'Neti, neti' doctrine (a continuous process of elimination) that the body, Prana, mind, etc., are not the Soul or Atman, but belong to it.

All this illusion has arisen in men on account of ignorance and non-discrimination or absence of the faculty which discriminates between the eternal Atman and the illusory five sheaths which are falsely superimposed upon the Atman. The five sheaths are creations by the mind on account of ignorance. The five sheaths cannot be the pure, self-existent, self-luminous Atman. Srutis emphatically declare that the Atman is bodiless. Just as the changes that take place in the cow such as growth, decay, etc., do not in the least affect the proprietor of the cow, the seer, so also the changes that occur in the five sheaths do not touch their proprietor and seer, the Atman.

Just as you can clearly distinguish the sound of one man from another through the power of discrimination; just as you can clearly feel, this is soft, this is hard, this is hot, this is cold, by the power of discrimination; just as you can clearly understand by looking at a picture on a wall, this is black colour, this is red colour, this is wall, this is a picture, through the power of discrimination, although you are not able to separate the red colour from the black colour, the picture from the wall; just as you can clearly understand by tasting a drink, this is lemonade, this is orange, this is raspberry, through the power of discrimination, although you cannot separate the salt or sugar from the water; just as you can know the odour in a cloth by the organ of smell although you cannot separate the odour from the cloth; so also you can clearly differentiate Atman and the Koshas by understanding the essential nature of Atman and the five sheaths, by hearing Vedanta from a Guru. You can clearly understand that there is no connection between the Atman and the five sheaths. Although it is impossible for ordinary people to separate water from milk, yet it is possible for a Hamsa (swan) to separate water from milk. Although it is impossible for people of gross intellect to differentiate Atman from the five sheaths, yet it is possible for a man of subtle intellect to differentiate between them.

The five sheaths are not really in Atman. Just as the snake is superimposed upon the rope, silver on the mother-of-pearl, thief on the post, water in the mirage, blueness in the sky, so also the five sheaths are superimposed on the Atman on account of ignorance. Just as the illusion of snake vanishes when the knowledge of rope is attained, so also the erroneous conception of the five sheaths disappears when one gets knowledge of the Self.

The disciple generally asks the Guru: The five sheaths do not entirely perish, but manifest themselves even after the attainment of the Self. How can they be said to be illusory? Just as the water in the mirage appears for the man even after he is fully aware that it is illusory water only, so also, the five sheaths may appear to the sage even after he has attained Brahma Jnana. Just as a pot with a neck, body, etc., though it is nothing but the illusory appearance of clay, survives as long as the neck, body, etc., survive, so also the five sheaths, though known to be illusory appear as real like a burnt cloth so long as Prarabdha survives. When the soul gets differentiated from its sheaths, it shines in its true pristine glory, it shines in its true character of pure consciousness. It does not require any proof; for it is the basis of all proofs, something that the proofs must presuppose before they are brought into operation.

It is the unshakable and final conclusion of the Vedanta that, like the clay which alone truly survives after the name and form of the jar, which is but an illusory appearance of the clay, perish, the eternal, self-luminous Atman alone really survives after the five sheaths, which are but illusory attributes of Atman, are destroyed by the knowledge of the Self. Whoever knows thus, he is a Knower of Brahman, he is a Knower of the truths of Vedanta, he alone is a Jivanmukta. This is the emphatic declaration of the Upanishads.

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