One of the most common theological features of all schools and streams of Sanātana Dharma is the teaching that at we are not the body. The body is only the vehicle for worldly experience, we are the Ātman, the soul-spirit. Non-dualistic streams of both Vedānta and Śaivism teach us that this Ātman is indeed Brahman; the Jīva (embodied Ātman) is but Śiva (personified Brahman) in essence. But, when we say we are not the body, we must understand what one means by body. There is more to the body than meets the eye. All streams of Sanātana Dharma teach that by body, we mean the three bodies – the physical (sthūla), the subtle (sūkshma) and causal (kārana). Alternatively, the three bodies may be described as five sheaths (kośas) that cover the Ātman, and lead it to identify with these sheaths and believe itself to be a limited and individual entity, separate or separable from Brahman.
With this brief background, let us take some time to understand the intricacies and subtleties of the three bodies a little further.
I. The Physical Body (Sthūla Śarīra)
The physical or gross body is the body one sees in the mirror. It is the body that is made up of muscles, bones, blood, etc. It grows, ages, and decays with time. The physical body is known as the sheath of food (annamaya kośa) because it is sustained and maintained by the intake of food.
Classical Hindu literature describes the physical body to be made up of the five gross elements (mahābhūtas) – earth (prthivī), water (āp), fire (tejas), air (vāyu) and space (ākāśa). From a strictly physical interpretation, we may understand this to mean that the physical body (like the physical universe) is composed of solid (earth), liquid (water) and gas (air) – the three states of matter, energy (fire) and space, in which all this is contained.
The physical body is said to be of the quality of tamas (inertia). It is a lump of inert matter, only enlivened by the inner active sheaths, as will be described below. When we are in the waking state (jāgrat-avasthā), our consciousness rests with the physical body.
II. The Subtle Body (Sūkshma Śarīra)
From the above description, we know that the physical body is but a lump of matter made up of the five gross elements. Yet, what keeps it alive, what keeps is functioning? The answer is the subtle body contained within the physical body. The subtle body, as the name implies, is subtler than the physical body and carries out the internal physical and mental functions.
The subtle body is classically explained to be composed of three layers of sheaths – the sheath of vitality (prānamaya kośa), the sheath of the mind (manomaya kośa) and the sheath of the intellect (vijñānamaya kośa).
A. Sheath of Vitality (Prānamaya Kośa)
The first layer of the subtle body is the sheath of vitality. The sheath of vitality consists of five major vital airs (prānas) which are prāna, apāna, vyāna, samāna, and udāna, and the five minor vital airs – nāga, kūrma, krkala, devadatta and dhanañjaya. The 10 major and minor vital airs are responsible for carrying out the functions of the physical body at the subtle level. In scientific terms, the vital airs or energies are responsible for various physiological functions like inhalation, exhalation, hunger, thirst, circulation, distribution, transformation, digestion, absorption, elimination, expulsion, excretion, sleepiness, speech, motion, stillness, control of limbs, etc. The vital airs also regulate the flow through the 72,000 nādīs (blood vessels) of the body, and allow for proper distribution of subtle ingredients (essential nutrients) to all parts of the body. In other words, the vital airs together are primarily responsible for controlling and maintaining the organs of the body. The sheath of vitality, therefore, is said to control the five organs of action (karmendriyas) – vāk (organ of speech), pāni (organ of action, hands), pāda (organ of motion, feet), pāyu (organ of excretion) and upastha (organ of procreation and sex).
In addition to the physiological functions, the prānas also regulate the flow of energy through three psychic currents known as the ida, pingala and sushumna. The three primary psychic currents allow for the flow of consciousness up and down the spinal column which is dotted with the seven primary chakras – mūlādhara, svādhishthāna, manipūra, anāhata, viśuddha, ājña and sahasrāra. The psychic currents of the body are invariably connected with prāna, which is regulated by breath. Advanced yogis are able to control and utilize the flow of psychic currents by various means, and thereby raise their consciousness to higher levels along successively higher chakras.
B. Sheath of the Mind (Manomaya Kośa)
The next layer of the subtle body is the sheath of the mind (manomaya kośa). The sheath of the mind is composed of the instinctive mind and intellect (manas chitta and buddhi chitta) – associated with the five sense organs (jñānendriyas) – śrotra (organ of hearing), tvāk (organ of perception), cakshu (organ of vision), rasanā (organ of taste) and ghrnā (organ of smell). It is the lower mind guided by the sense modalities that tells us that we are hungry, thirsty, tired, sleepy, etc. The manomaya kośa is, therefore, the layer of the mind where one feels emotion such as I am angry, sad, happy, etc. In classical Hinduism, it is described that upon quitting the physical body (sheath of food), one also drops the sheath of vitality. Therefore, afterlife experiences are experienced from this inner sheath of the mind, from which impressions (samskāras) are made onto the next layer inward (vijñānamaya kośa). The sheath of the mind is also where memory (smrti) is stored and from where it is recalled.
C. Sheath of Intellect (Vijñānamaya Kośa)
Beyond the sheath of the mind is the sheath of the intellect (vijñānamaya kośa). The sheath of the intellect (or cognition) is the place of higher intellect (vijñāna) and the seat of the individual ego (ahamkāra). It is from this sheath that creativity, higher knowledge, realization, understanding, intuition, cognition, etc. arise. It is also the layer in which one experiences the subjective ego, and attributes everything experienced and performed by the sense and motor organs to the atomic self. All thoughts involving morality, justice, compassion, generosity, as well as selfishness, self-aggrandizement, self-glory, self-control, etc. are all attributed to the sheath of the intellect. This layer is also the area where experiences and accumulated karmas are stored in form of impressions (samskāras) to be experienced in this life and future ones. The vijñānamaya kośa, unlike the more gross sheaths, is not dropped prior to rebirth into a new body.
In Śaivite doctrine, the vijñānamaya kośa is also the region where the perception of the limited, individual soul (purusha, jīva or paśu) lies. This perception of the individual and limited soul arises because of the five coverings (kañcukas) placed on it by the mirific energy known as māyā. Due to māyā, the five coverings known as rāga (desire), vidyā (knowledge), kalā (creativity), niyati (space restraint) and kāla (time) bind the purusha and keep him from realizing his true nature as one with Śiva. The five kañcukas of rāga, vidyā, kalā, niyati and kalā constrain the purusha within world of unfulfilled desires, limited knowledge, limited creative potential, limited spatial movement and limited time movement, respectively. Therefore, the purusha fails to realize his true self, until the veil of māyā is lifted.
To summarize, the subtle body is of the quality of rajas (action), as it is involved in the perception of the external world and internalizing the picture of the external world. The perceived external world of the five gross elements is internalized through the vehicle of the sense organs. What connects the external world of the five gross elements to the internal world is the five subtle elements of perception (tanmātras) – smell (gandha), taste (rasa), shape (rūpa), feeling (sparśa) and sound (śabda), which are external stimuli for the five organs of knowledge. Moreover, the subtle body is also involved in processing the external stimuli and performing reciprocal actions (reacting to external cues) through the five organs of actions, all of which is guided by the mind, emotion, intellect, memory, ego, and intuition.
The subtle body is collectively also called the puryāshtaka (the eightfold city) because it consists of the five major groups of five elements: (i) subtle elements of perceptions, (ii) major vital airs, (iii) minor vital airs, (iv) organs of action, and (v) organs of knowledge; plus the three internal organs (antahkaranas): (vi) mind, (vii) subjective ego and (viii) intellect. The subtle body also goes by many other names such as linga-śarira, linga-deha, etc. Sometimes, one finds the subtle body divided in various other ways such as emotional body, astral body, mental body, supramental body, etc. Regardless of how it is described, the collective subtle body is the active component which enlivens the physical external shell we see in the mirror. Also, unlike the physical body, of which we are conscious only during our waking state, we are aware of the subtle body both in the waking state (jāgrat-avasthā) and dream state (svapna-avasthā), as we take in external stimuli and react to it in both conditions.
III. The Causal Body (Kārana Śarīra)
Beyond and subtler than both the physical and subtle bodies, lies the causal body. The causal body, sometimes referred to as the soul or seed body, is composed of the last sheath known as the sheath of bliss (ānandamaya kośa). Per Śaivism, the sheath of bliss is the soul itself, if it can be called as such, free from the constraints of māyā and all her coverings. It is not a sheath in the sense of the other sheaths, as it is not itself composed of any subjective elements. Rather, the sheath of bliss is an effulgent body, reflecting the light of the Supreme, and experiencing the world first in the context of the sheaths described above, then upon liberation experiencing the bliss of the bodiless state. It is the last state of individual being, likened to a spark that has emerged from the fire, and about to, once again, merge back into that fire.
The sheath of bliss is beyond the cycles of cause and effect that affects the physical and subtle bodies, and also beyond the cycles of actions and reactions. Within it lies the cause only, the cause of existence, the cause of experience. It is the silent experiencer of both the individual subjective state (under māyā), and the individual's universal objective state (upon release from māyā and in lower samādhi states). It is this bliss we experience daily in the deep-sleep state (jāgrat-avasthā), where there is no perception of the external world, no reaction to it, no sense of I or you, but a peaceful state of being, of non-applied objective awareness. Hence, the causal body is said to be of the quality of sattva (essence), as the essence of one's individual being lies in the sheath of bliss.
The causal body (sheath of bliss) is the very soul, should there be such a thing, per non-dualistic philosophies of Śaivism and Vedānta. This sheath is not an eternal entity, and ultimately also needs to be dropped or rather merged into oneness with the Light of Parameśvara (Supreme Lord). The identification with Parameśvara occurs in the state of Turīya, the fourth, which is beyond, yet inherent, within waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states. Turīya is the non-dual experience or realization in the higher states of samādhi, and sustained Turīya is called Turīyātīta. It is the non-dual consciousness of Ātman, which is nothing but Brahman, nothing but Paramaśiva-Parāśakti. Upon the dropping of the sheath of bliss, there is no Ātman and Brahman, no onenesses or twonesses, no individuality or universality, but only That.
Truly, it is because of Śiva’s Tirodhana Śakti (Power of Concealment), which He has placed upon Himself, that we identify with the three bodies and these worlds of transience. And, truly it is His Anugraha Śakti (Power of Revealment), with which He graces Himself, that we identify with Śiva and the worldlessness of permanence. It is His Śakti, that Tripurāsundarī (Beauty of the Three Cities), that has created the three cities of the physical, subtle and causal bodies in which only He inhabits. It is truly He, that Tripurāntakāri (Destroyer of the Three Cities), that will dissolve the three cities, through His very Śakti, and again realize Himself as the very universal experience which He embodies.
|| ॐ नमः शिवाय ॐ नमः शिवाय ॐ नमः शिवाय ||
© Agnideva, 2007. All rights reserved.
For additional information on the three bodies, the sheaths and kañcukas per non-dualistic Śaivism and Vedānta: