Understanding the Pancha Koshas

If you are a student of Vedanta, you probably know   that every living being is made up five (pancha) Koshas. Koshas is a Sanskrit word which means ‘sheath’ or ‘layers’.  Based on this, the 5 koshas can be defined as follows:  The word ‘maya’ in the names shown below means ‘made up of’.

  1. Annamaya Kosha – Sheath made of food – This is our physical body.
  2. Pranamaya Kosha – Sheath made of energy – to keep the physical body functional
  3. Manomaya Kosha – Sheath made up of mind stuff
  4. Vijnanamaya Kosha – Sheath made of intelligence/knowledge
  5. Ananadamaya Kosha – Sheath made of bliss

The ‘made of’ used above is not some abstract term. It literally means that the koshas are  made of the things stated above.  For example, the Vijnanamaya kosha is made of intelligence. The substratrum of the kosha is intelligence. Just like material is made up of atoms and molecules, in the same way this kosha is made up of intelligence. Intelligence is its essence. This logic applies to other the koshas also and each kosha has its own building blocks.  Most books describing the 5 koshas use the above illustration. It may not be an accurate representation, but it does convey the idea quite well. Each outer sheath covers the inner sheath. If you peel off the outer sheath, you move to the inner sheath. The Food Sheath covers the Pranamaya Kosha, the Pranamaya Kosha covers the Manomaya Kosha and so on. It is like peeling the layers of an onion or unpacking the Russian dolls. If you peel all the 5 layers, the above image shows you will reach your inner core, which is Pure Consciousness. Instead of Pure Consciousness, the term we will use in this article is Self-Awareness. They mean the same.    

Pure Consciousness = Self-Awareness

The concept of the 5 Koshas was first revealed in the Taittiriya Upanishad, which was written around 600 BC. This Upanishad is the source material for a detailed analysis of the 5 koshas. The great sages closed their eyes and meditated, looking for their innermost core. During this process, they gained tremendous insights into a wide variety of subjects. The insight into the 5 Koshas is one of them.

The main purpose for discussing the 5 Koshas is to show the correct path to reach your inner core which is Self-Awareness. The strategy of neti, neti is described – not this, not this is suggested in this Upanishad. In this methodology, you start eliminating what is not you, till you discover your inner self. Each one of us thinks we are the physical body. You identify the physical body as yourself. The Taittiriya Upanishad explains that the physical body is only made up of food – Annamaya Kosha. It is born out of food; it lives on food and after dying it goes back as food. It is therefore impossible that your inner core, which is Self-Awareness, can be made up of food. The Upanishad suggests you meditate on this idea and when you are convinced that you are not the body, you peel away the Food sheath as not being yourself.

The next inner layer is the Pranamaya Kosha. It vitalizes the body and keeps the body and the inner organs functioning. Blood circulation, breathing and muscle toning etc. are some of the powers of this Kosha. Without this Kosha, the physical body is dead. The Upanishad explains that this layer is inert, it has no intelligence, it does its job like a robot. It is a slave doing its job faithfully. The Upanishad ask us to meditate on this idea and conclude that you are not the Pranamaya Kosha. This way you can eliminate this layer also.

The next sheath is the Manomaya Kosha or the mind stuff. The mind is continuously changing, it is changing with every thought. There is hardly a moment when there is no thought in the mind. We are taught that out inner core of Self-Awareness is unchanging. So, the ever-changing mind just cannot be our inner core. After meditating on this idea, you can peel away this sheath.

The next sheath you will encounter is the Vijnanamaya Kosha. This sheath is made up of intelligence. During deep sleep (sleep without dreams), this Kosha is no longer active, yet you still exist – even if you have no thoughts, feelings or emotions, and your mind is absent, YOU still exist.  Your inner core is always present. It cannot take a leave of absence. If the Vinanamaya Kosha is absent during deep sleep, it only means that you cannot be the Vijnanamaya Kosha. This way, you can negate this Kosha also.

The next kosha is the Ananadamaya Kosha. This is the innermost kosha and it is closest to the inner core. Ananda means bliss but this Kosha should not be translated as the “Bliss Sheath”. Ananda or bliss as it is commonly translated   occurs only in ideal conditions when there are no thoughts in the mind. This is impossible during the waking and dream states. During the waking and dream state, the mind full of activity. During these active states, this Kosha is the center of emotions or feeling. I am tired, I am sad and so on. This means that this kosha has many different such attributes We are taught that Self-Awareness is without attributes or qualities, therefore we cannot be this Kosha. By meditating on this Kosha, you can say, neti, neti to this Kosha also.

Once the identification with all the 5 koshas is removed, what remains is Self-Awareness. The Taittiriya Upanishad uses this teaching methodology of neti, neti for reaching your inner core. This does seem logical and powerful. To better implement this teaching, it is a good idea, that we have a more detailed understanding of the 5 Koshas.  We will now analyze the 5 koshas in the following ways:  

  • Self-Awareness and the 5 Koshas
  • 5 Koshas and the 3 bodies
  • Role of the different Koshas

Self-Awareness and the 5 Koshas

To start our discussion, it is important to understand Self-Awareness and Awareness. As mentioned, Self-Awareness is our inner core and Awareness is the nature of Self-Awareness. Please read my post ‘Analyzing Awareness’ for a detailed explanation. Here is a quick run-down.

If Awareness is analyzed, it will be found to have three things: Subject, Intelligence and Object. If any one of them is missing, there will be no Awareness.

  1. There must be a Subject, who is aware of the experience. The subject is the knower of Awareness
  2. There must be an Object, which must be experienced. This object is the known part of Awareness
  3. There must be Intelligence by which the subject gets to know the object. This is the knowing part of the Awareness

Awareness = Subject + Object + Intelligence

Power of Awareness = Power of Knower + Power of Knowing + Power of Known

Awareness is made up of Subject, Intelligence, and Object and it has three different powers – Knower, Knowing and Known. It must be understood that the Subject, Intelligence, and Object and the three powers are not something outside in the world, but they are within Awareness and they make up Awareness. Wherever there is awareness, Subject, Intelligence and Object are present with all the three powers. Right now, you are aware of reading this article, therefore Subject, Intelligence and Object are present within your Awareness of this article. 

What is Self-Awareness? There must be a Self who is Aware. Vedanta teaches us that this Self is our inner core, which is full, complete and it is stand alone. For Awareness to be full and complete, it must be Self-Aware. Self-Awareness means that ‘Awareness is aware of Awareness’. It is like saying ‘I am seeing a tree’. Here ‘I am’ is the subject and the tree is the object. Seeing is the intelligence connecting the object with the subject. Applying this to Self-Awareness, you will notice that the subject is Awareness, object is Awareness and the intelligence is Awareness. Awareness plays the role of subject and object. In other words, both the subject and object are the same. This is not easy to grasp, but there is only one entity in which subject and object are the same It is therefore non-dual. This complete, independent Self Awareness is our inner core. There is no separation between the subject and object. Self-Awareness is non-dual and homogenous. It is Self-Shining.

Awareness = Subject + Object + Intelligence

In Self-Awareness, Self = Subject = Object = Intelligence.

This Self-shining Awareness is like a Bulb of Awareness and it is our inner core. It is not dependent upon anything else and it generates its own light of Awareness. 

Pixel of Ignorance and Koshas: If our nature and inner core is Self-Awareness, why don’t we know it, why don’t we feel it? The simple answer is that we are ignorant of our inner core. Since we have forgotten our true nature, Ignorance covers up Self-Awareness. When we forget who we really are, Ignorance pops up and like a veil, covers Awareness.

This veil of Ignorance is made up of a countless number of pixels, each pixel representing a living being. Each living being thus has their own unique pixel of ignorance, depending upon their degree of ignorance. A self-realized person will have zero ignorance and at the other extreme there are living beings with 100% ignorance, who have no clue about their true nature. Each one of us falls somewhere in between these two extremes. You have a pixel of ignorance; I have one and every living being has a pixel of ignorance. You could say that the veil of ignorance with its countless pixels covers Self-Awareness.

The pixel of ignorance is a mix of ignorance and knowledge, unique for each living being. It also contains the personality traits (vasanas) accumulated over all past births of an individual. It’s like your passport, which all of your prior travel details. We will see that this pixel of ignorance is our seed body. Vedanta calls this pixel the spiritual heart or cave. One can also call this the soul of the human being.

Ignorance has a strange power; it can separate the subject and object from the non-dual Self-Awareness. Yes, it has that power! How does this happen? Because of ignorance, we forget we are both the subject and object, we do not know that both subject and object are one and non-dual. If we do not know that we are both Subject and Object, it means that the subject and object are no longer a single entity but are separate and independent entities. Non duality becomes duality by the simple fact of forgetting. This forgetting or not knowing is the power of Ignorance. 

Although Self Awareness is nondual, it does have the following 4 parts:

In Self-Awareness, Self = Subject = Object = Intelligence

When subject and object separation take place, the different Koshas are created. The process of separation of the subject and object is like refraction. Place a prism in front of light and we can see the 7 different colors on the other side. In the same way, the pixel of ignorance refracts the light of Self-Awareness into the following 3 different Koshas plus the Sakshi as witness.

  1. Manomaya Kosha – The home of the objects  
  2. Vijnanamaya Kosha – The home of the intelligence
  3. Ananadamaya Kosha – The home of the self
  4. Sakshi (Witness) – The home of the subject.

These homogenous and integrated parts of Self-Awareness become the 3 Koshas + Witness. Thus, we see that the above 3 Koshas are a mix of Self-Awareness and the pixel of Ignorance.

Koshas = Awareness + Ignorance

So, these 3 koshas evolve from a pixel of ignorance. What about the Annamaya Kosha and the Pranamaya Kosha? Their evolution is independent from the other 3 koshas. Let us this discuss this further:

Annamaya Kosha: This is the physical or gross body. We know the starting place for the physical body is the mother’s womb. It grows from a single cell to a complex physical body all in the womb. I recently found out that the Garbha Upanishad gives a detailed analysis of the growth of the fetus in the womb. It gives a comprehensive timetable as to when the different parts of the body show up. It is quite amazing. It would be nice if the medical community could verify the timetable mentioned in this Upanishad.

Pranamaya Kosha: The Garba Upanishad also indicates that in the 7 month of being in the womb, the pixel of ignorance or the soul (jivatman) enters and connects with the Annamaya Kosha. How is the connection made? The connection is made by the Pranamaya Kosha. The Pranamaya Kosha is made up vital energy, connects the soul with the Annamaya Kosha. The 5 senses – eyes, ear, tongue, nose, and skin in the Annamaya Kosha are connected to the Manomaya Kosha. Also, organs of action like hands, legs, speech etc. are interconnected between the 3 koshas and the Annamaya kosha. It is quite amazing how these connections are made seamlessly. So, the main role of Pranamaya kosha is to interconnect the 3 koshas from the pixel of ignorance with the Annamaya kosha

It is quite intriguing to learn from the Upanishad that the seed only enters the body in the 7th month. Before that, the fetus is just a piece of flesh like any other part of the body. So, the baby in the womb has a soul, a personality only after 7th month. Before that it is a body part within the womb. What is unknown and intriguing is how the selection is made. Which soul will enter which body? I am sure there must be a logical process which is controlled by some laws of nature.  

5 Koshas and 3 Body’s

To get a better understanding of the 5 Koshas, it is important to correlate this with the 3 bodies. Vedanta teaches us that every living being has the following 3 different bodies.

  1. Seed Body
  2. Subtle Body
  3. Gross/Physical Body

We saw earlier that due to the pixel of ignorance, the seed body is created. The seed body creates the subtle body. The subtle body creates the gross body.

What is the difference between a kosha/sheath and a body? A sheath is a layer within a body. A pastry or a cake is a body and this pastry/cake may have different layers like cream, chocolate, fruits etc. In the same way each of the 3 bodies has different layers or koshas. Let us see each one of them in little more detail:

1. Seed Body:

The seed body is like any seed from which a tree with branches, leaves and fruits are created. The seed already has the potential form of the tree already built in. You could say that the tree in an unmanifest condition is present in the seed. The seed body is also called a causal body because it is the cause for the tree. In the same way, an individual seed body will become a human being with all his or her tendencies – character/personality traits (called vasanas). This seed body will also contain the blueprint of one’s life including all the karmas that will be exhausted in this life. It is important to know that every object (living + nonliving) in the universe has a seed body. In fact, even the universe has a seed body. The seed body for the universe will be the total of all the seeds for individual objects.

Earlier, we discussed the pixel of ignorance. This pixel of ignorance is the same as the seed body. Vedanta teaches us that the seed body resides in the spiritual heart or cave. The spiritual heart is not the physical heart. It is subtle; it does not have a physical form, and it’s something we all have within us. According to Ramana Maharishi, the spiritual heart is two fingers to the right side of your chest.  

Seed Body = Pixel of Ignorance    

When the seed body with the power of the Pranamaya Kosha connects with the fetus or the Annamaya Kosha, magic happens. The light of Self-Awareness refracts through the pixel of ignorance (seed body) and creates the Anandmaya kosha, Vijanamaya Kosha and Manomaya Kosha. The fetus is no longer a fetus but a living being with a personality etc. When the refraction takes place and the 3 koshas are created, the integration is complete. At this moment, the seed body starts to germinate in the living being. The seed body blossoms to play out the blueprint of life.  

The Anandamaya Kosha is within the seed body. It is the main layer within the pixel of ignorance. The seed body operates through the Anandamaya Kosha. The Anandamaya kosha houses the feeling of ‘I-ness’, and creates the feeling of I within us. The feeling of ‘I’ is also called the Ahamkara or Ego. Ahamkara in Sanskrit means the ‘I Maker’.

2. Subtle Body

As mentioned, the Manomaya Kosha and Vijnanamaya Kosha are created by the refraction of Self-Awareness. After refraction, these two are housed in the Subtle body as two sheaths. A common name for the subtle body is the mind. From our experience, we know that the mind is located within the brain. So, when the refraction takes place in the pixel of ignorance, the 2 koshas are beamed as the mind within the brain.

We know the mind is rarely quiet, it is continually active. This means that the Manomaya kosha and Vijnanamaya koshas have a heavy load of activity. If you are a student of Vedanta, you will learn that the activity in the mind is made up of ‘vrittis’ or mental waveforms. These vrittis represent the different objects or combination of objects. The object waveforms are made up of mind stuff – they are made up of the 2 sheaths in the subtle body. Manomaya Kosha helps creates the material for the objects, while the Vijnanamaya Kosha adds intelligence to the mind stuff.

Subtle Body = Manomaya Kosha + Vijnanamaya Kosha

Manomaya Kosha is the home of objects. The power to become objects is within the Manomaya Kosha. The input side of the Manomaya Kosha is connected to the 5 organs of sense and 5 organs of action. The 5 organs of sense are – nose for smell, tongue for taste, ear for sound, eyes for vison and skin for touch. The 5 organs of action are – feet, hand, mouth for talking, organs for excretion and reproduction. The output side of Manomaya Kosha is connected to Vijnanamaya Kosha.    

Vijnanamaya Kosha is the home of intelligence. It is the storehouse of knowledge. The input side is connected to the Manomaya Kosha, while the outside is connected to the Anandamaya Kosha. We have seen earlier that the Anandamaya kosha is a layer within the seed body.

3. Gross Body

Annamaya Kosha is part of the Gross body. We have seen earlier that the gross body is created in the mother’s womb. It is connected to the other koshas through the Pranamaya Kosha.

In the 3 bodies, we have covered all the koshas except the Pranamaya Kosha. The question is where does the Pranamaya Kosha fit? Is it part of the seed, subtle or gross body? There is no clear-cut answer. Some believe it is part of the gross body and other think it is part of the subtle body. The Pranamaya Kosha comes into force, when the seed body connects with the fetus in the womb. According to the Garbha Upanishad, this happens in the 7th month. It is not really a sheath, but it is the interconnector between the seed body and the fetus in the womb. This fetus finally becomes the Annamaya Kosha. The Pranamaya Kosha sustains this Annamaya Kosha for the duration of its life.

Roles of the Different Koshas

Each Kosha plays a different and distinct role. Let us try to understand this.

Perceiving: The perceiving of objects takes place in the Manomaya Kosha. We mentioned earlier that the Manomaya Kosha is connected to the 5 organs of the senses. It must be understood that the input signals from the 5 sense organs does not come from the gross body, but it comes from the subtle version of the 5 sense organs. Every gross object (living + nonliving) in the universe has a subtle version. This means every part of your body has a subtle version. There is a subtle version of your ear, eye, nose and every cell and tissue and bone.  Each of the subtle objects is made of ‘vrittis’ or mental waveforms. Based on this reasoning, it is only logical to assume that there is a fully functional subtle universe made of waveforms. Everything that we experience really occurs in the subtle universe, the gross universe is only the manifestation of the subtle universe. This may seem radical, but it is the only truth. These object waveforms are the building block of the subtle universe. Science, with its string theory, is moving in the same direction.

It could be vision, sound, touch, smell and taste, the perception of these objects takes place in the Manomaya kosha. For example, when the input signal is for a tree, the Manomaya Kosha creates the required material which makes up the tree. This material is in the form of mental waveforms or vrittis. This mental waveform has the required ingredients for the tree. If the input is music; it creates the material which makes up the sound for the music. This way, it handles all the input signals coming from the outside world.

The perception does take place in the Manomaya Kosha, but the kosha has no clue what these objects are. It creates the source material, but it is clueless what it is. The Manomaya Kosha needs help, it therefore passes on the input signals to the Vijnanamaya Kosha for decoding.

Learning/Thinking: Vijnanamaya Kosha has intelligence. At the time of birth, the Vijnanamaya Kosha is a blank slate. With the power of intelligence, it learns continuously and acquires a great deal of knowledge. With this learning, it decodes the input signal. In the process of decoding, it adds intelligence to the object waveform. The object waveform is now made of knowledge. Knowledge is the substratum of the waveform. The object waveform has the knowledge of what the waveform represents. The object waveform has the knowledge, but there is no awareness. There is knowledge but no awareness within Vijnanamaya Kosha. There must be an ‘I’ or self who is aware. There is no ‘I’ or self within this kosha.

Vijnanamaya Kosha is powerful, it has the power of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. Some these powers are as follows

  • Power of Cognition or Sensation
  • Power of Imagination
  • Power of Logic
  • Power of Will:
  • Power of Memory

It like a CPU in a computer, crunching and analyzing all sorts of numbers. Intelligence seems to be there but no awareness.  In the same way, the Vinanamaya Kosha has all these powers, but there is no self who is aware of these activities.   

Feeling: Feeling and similar emotions takes place in the Anandamaya Kosha. The name ‘Anandamaya’ does not convey this idea. We have seen earlier that Anandamaya Kosha means maker of bliss. This bliss can only happen when there are no vrittis or mental waveforms in the mind. Is this possible? Yes, only during deep sleep. During deep sleep there are no vrittis, no mental waveforms in the mind. The mind is blank. When there are no vrittis in the mind, only during that state, Anandamaya kosha experiences bliss. During the waking and dream states, this is not possible. A continuous stream of object waveforms is being sent fromthe mind. The Anandamaya kosha must react to these incoming vrittis.

We have seen earlier that the Anandamaya Kosha is made up with of feeling of ‘I’. This feeling is nothing but the ego. The ego is looking for permanent peace and happiness in the world. We saw that the Vijnanamaya Kosha decodes objects (waveforms) coming in from the 5 sense organs in the Manomaya Kosha. These objects are presented to the Ahamkara or ego. What does the Ahamkara do with these object waveforms? The ego has a clear goal – it is looking for continuous happiness. It evaluates the object waveform against this key criterion. If the ego thinks this object can provide that happiness, it will like that object. If the ego thinks that it will not provide that happiness, it will dislike that object. In Vedanta this is called Raga(like)/Dvesha (dislike). The ego will run towards the object it likes and run away from objects which it dislikes. Ego undertakes this task for all the thoughts and objects which it encounters.  

This is how the ego interacts with the object waveform presented by Vijnanamaya Kosha and adds the sense of feeling to the object waveform with its likes/dislikes. This kosha starts to feel a range of emotions covering the entire spectrum. It feels, happiness, sadness, anger, jealously, attraction, repulsion and so on. This sense of feeling takes place in Anandamaya kosha.

Most living beings live within these 5 koshas. The ego operates within these 5 koshas. This does not help reaching your inner most core, which is Self-Awareness.

Knowing: Knowing is the ultimate level. This level is beyond the 5 koshas. It functions in our inner most core. It functions in the realm of Awareness. How to understand this? Let us start our discussion with the following statements, we make every day:

  • I am listening to music
  • I am reading this book
  • I am thinking to travel
  • I am talking on the phone
  • I am looking at a tree

All the above statements are happening within the 5 koshas. We all live our daily lives within the 5 koshas. We undertake such tasks every moment. If we take a step deeper into our inner core, we can make the same statements as follows:

  • I am knowing that I am listening to music
  • I am knowing that I am reading this book
  • I am knowing that I am thinking to travel
  • I am knowing that I am talking on the phone
  • I am knowing that I am seeing a movie

The above is not the right way to construct the sentence. We have done so to being the knowing part into the sentence. There is a tremendous change in these statements as compared to the earlier statements. ‘I am listening to music’, ‘I am reading this book’ etc., are no longer self-contained sentences, but they are the objects in the statement. It would seem that ‘I am’ in ‘I am knowing….’ is witnessing these objects. It could be listening to music, reading a book etc. Your Real Self is just witnessing, and not doing any action. The ‘I am’ in ‘I am knowing…’ is your Real Self.  Yes, it is a witness, but it is aware that it is a witness. This is important. It is an awareful witness. This is Self-Awareness.

The ‘I am’ in ‘I am listening….’ is not your Real Self. This ‘I am’ in ‘I am listening……’ is really your ego. The ego always thinks it is the real Self. Vedanta teaches that the ego masquerades as the real I, but when you make a proper inquiry, you will find that the ego is like any other object. Ego is just another thought in the mind.

Daily, as you apply the Knowing part to every sentence you say or think you will discover your Real Self within you. The ‘I am’ in ‘I am knowing….’ is your Real Self.

The ego and the 5 koshas are not part of your Real Self. Self-Awareness is your Real Self. Ignorance is hiding the Real Self. The goal is to discover the Real Self and stay within that Real Self.

12 thoughts on “Understanding the Pancha Koshas”

  1. Brilliant Jayant!
    it will take me a couple of readings to assimilate part of this profound knowledge.

  2. Re-read the article.
    I am knowing that I have re-read the article.
    I am knowing that I thank you for the profound knowledge shared in the article.

    1. Thanks Sudhir. Focusing on ‘I am Knowing…..’ is the direct path to reach your inner core. Staying 24/7 at ‘I am knowing…..’ is the difficult part.

  3. So True!
    But a beginning has been made. More and more we try live in Self Awareness, we feel lighter.

  4. Very clearly drafted and explained article. Please accept my sincere gratitude. Its really helpful

  5. Namaste.This is clearest article I have ever read on panchakoshas.Can we say ego uses anandmaya Josh’s?or they are same? kindly respond.

    1. Thank you for your positive feedback. Anadamaya kosha has a sense of feeling. I am sad, I am happy, I am angry, Whenever there is feeling, there must an “I” who has the feeling. Ego pops in the anandamaya kosha when ever there is a feeling.

    1. I am not clear what you mean by Josh. Kosha is a terms used in all the scriptures’.

  6. Namaste.If there is no raga,dvesha,vijnanmaya kosha has viveka and witness can see bliss also.am I right?

  7. You have really done us all a favour by sharing this article . This is a beautiful work . Everything has been explained so well and so systematically ! Thanks a lot .

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