The doctrine of the five sheaths as a method to obtain self-realization

The five sheaths are the limitations (upadhis) which are taken on itself by the jiva. Shri Shankara makes this analysis of the limitations of the jivatman for the purpose of liberation, and he gives the methods of meditation on the sheaths by which liberation is to be obtained. There is no other purpose ; the analysis is made for the purpose of liberation only.

Man is a composite being, an individual self enclosed in various ` coverings ‘ or sheaths which are of different materials, and are related to worlds made of those materials. As we have electrical forces in the body, so there is a world of electricity ; there is matter in the body which is related to a material world. Man is therefore in touch with these worlds and in continual relationship with them.

The five sheaths are :

Anna-maya (maya here means vikara, product)-food or matter

Prana-maya-vital energy

Mano-maya-mind governed by desire



Shri Shankara says :-“The innermost being in all, the Self, lies hidden and does not manifest Himself to him whose mind is turned outward. On the contrary He manifests Himself to him whose mind is turned inward. For him, whose mind is thus turned inward and always seeks to see the subtle Reality, it is possible to ` see ‘ the Self by means of buddhi, which by practice of yoga has attained to one-pointedness and is able to grasp the subtle. It cannot be objected that, if Self alone be the subject of exposition, the description of the whole series of sheaths would be useless, because this series is the means whereby the mind which is turned outward is enabled gradually to approach the Self.” (Taittiriya Upanishad).

He makes it quite clear that the purpose in making the analysis is slowly to turn the mind within and finally to realise the Self. There is a series of meditations for this, and there is a parallel series of meditations on the world, and that meditation is in the form ” From Whom the world has come forth, by Whom it is supported, in Whom it is dissolved, know that One.”

The individual in his meditations gradually analyses the sheaths of which he is made up, and in the outer world similarly he analyses the universe as it is perceived and experienced. In the Taittiriya Upanishad there are two separate sections, one in which the man achieves realisation by analysing the sheaths, and the other by analysing the world, trying to find whence it has come forth, by what it is sustained and in what it is dissolved.

  1. ANNA-MAYA SHEATH (the sheath of matter)

This is the physical sheath. The guna is tamas-neither, power of action nor of knowledge by itself. The Upanishad says: ” He indeed is this man, consisting of the essence of matter. It is his head, the right wing, the left wing, it is his trunk, it is his support.”

Here the man is taught that his Self is this body, and he is taught in this way to detach him from identification with external things, such as sons, property, status. He is first taught to sit and think : ” I am not anything outside, I am this body.” As is evident, there is a double imposition. First of all the man thinks ` This body is the Self ‘ and secondly: ` The Self is this body’. Having sat still and detached himself from identification with the external world, he unravels that double knot, and it is done in two ways. First he must see the body as a mere part or effect of Virat, the cosmic body, with nothing special about it, the object being to prevent him from thinking the body is the Self.    

Secondly : the Self cannot be this body because the Self witnesses the body. In this way he detaches his real Self from the body.

The first meditation (seeing the body as a part, with nothing special about it, of the cosmic body) is given in the 11 th chapter of the Gita where the vision of the physical unity (Virat) is described, and in the 10 th chapter the Lord says ” Of the Pandavas I am Arjuna “, an indication that the body that belongs to the clan of the Pandavas, belongs to the Lord. The Upanishad continues: ” Different from this one formed of matter, there is another self within, formed of vital energy. By him is this one filled.” Now he analyses and he finds that within the body of matter which is inert, there is the thing which gives it life. This is the second false-Self (mitthya-atman).

  1. PRANA-MAYA SHEATH (vital energy)

The guna is rajas, the power of action, and the characteristic of this body is the power of action. ” As an arrow shot by a bowman, so is this body propelled by prana.” The matter-body changes every few years we know, and we cannot be identified with the matter-body, because if we were, we should vanish at least in a few years. We find it is the life with which we are identified, not the changing matter-body. For instance, when the nails and hair grow and are cut, we feel no sense of loss, which shows we are not identified with matter.

Now man meditates that it is not the matter-body but the life within which is his Self.    Life is taught as Self, in order to detach the Self from the body.  Having established this, there are two meditations

The first meditation : To see prana, to see one’s ‘life, as a mere effect, a mere part, with nothing special about it, of the cosmic life, which forms a unity.., That detaches the prana from being mistaken for the Self.

The second meditation: To detach the Self from being mistaken for the prana, the man meditates : The Self cannot be the prana, because it perceives the prana. The Upanishad goes on: ” Different from this one formed of Prana, there is another self within, formed of Mind (manas). By him is this one filled.”

3: MANOMAYA SHEATH (mind, governed by desire)

This is taught as the Self to detach the man, jiva, from identification with prana. Manas is mind governed by desire. There is nothing in manas which is not associated with desire. The guna is sattwa, which makes mind conscious, plus tamas. There is power of knowledge in this sheath, but always connected with attachment and hatred ; there is no activity in manas which is not associated with desire, but because there is sattwa, the Chit (Consciousness) is reflected there. Mind, unlike the two previous sheaths which are inert, is conscious, or Consciousness is able to reflect in it.

The Rishis (Seers) also say that prana is subordinate to manas and is exterior to manas. Manas is taught as the Self to detach the man from identifying his Self with prana. Having done that, they produce many arguments, such as that people would rather lose their life than their mind. Having established that the mind, manas, is interior to prana, the two meditations are

First: To see the manas as one in essence with the cosmic manas.

In the 13th Chapter of the Gita in the description of the Field, are given the psychological characteristics, hate, strength of will, which are all described as part of the Field; so the man is to see his mind. as a mere part of the cosmic mind, which detaches the mind from the self, and prevents it from being mistaken for the Self.

Second: To detach the Self from identification with the mind it is asserted that manas is not the Self because it is perceived by the Self, and what is perceived is always different from the one which perceives.

Then the Upanishad says : ” Different from this one formed of Manas, there is another Self within, formed of Intelligence (Vijnana). By him is this one filled.” That bring us to the fourth false-Self.

  1. VIJNANAMAYA SHEATH (intelligence)

The guna is sattwa, which reflects Chit and gives consciousness, plus rajas, action. From those two the power is knowledge but without attachment. The action and the knowledge here are free from attachment. It is intelligence, knowledge, which determines and discriminates, and it is this sheath that reflects the infinite in the complex which is the ego, the sense of being an actor. It is in this sheath that the man has the impression, the idea that he is an actor, one who acts, and thus the reflection of the infinite in this sheath gives the experience of being the agent, the owner of the different states of mind. In manas there are different states of mind, but manas simply, as it were, goes through a series of reflexes, but it is this sheath which gives the impression of being the owner of those states of mind the one who passes through those states of mind.

The function of the actor is not simply the resultant of the desires, but it is to do disinterested action, and here you get the conception of duty and sacrifice. Manas is simply a battle-field of desires, and the strongest desires over-rule the weaker, but in Vijnana the actor is able to do disinterested action, he is able to see the conception of duty and sacrifice which of course go contrary to the desires.           

The Gita says : ” He does that which is to be done simply because it is to be done, without attachment to the results “.

Then there is the higher stage where the man acts, without being conscious of being an actor at all. This sheath is the former stage. The simile is given: ” Faith is his head ; ‘ virtue is his right wing ; truth is his left wing ; Yoga is his trunk, and the cosmic intelligence is his support “. And that gives the clue to the two meditations.

First : To see the Vijnana as one in essence with the cosmic Vijnana.

Secondly : This Vijnana cannot be the Self because it is perceived by the Self.

The Upanishad then says : ” Different from this one formed of Intelligence, there is another Self within formed of bliss (Ananda). By him is this one filled.” This brings us to the fifth false-self.


This is not the pure Bliss in the sense that Brahman is said to be ananda or Bliss, but this is the bliss resulting from thought and action. This sheath is, as it were, very clear and reflects the bliss of Brahman or Atman very clearly, but it is still. to some extent conditioned, because the bliss in this sheath is the bliss which results from thought and action. The guna is pure sattwa, which is the highest form of illusion, but still in illusion. He is here the enjoyer, having identified himself with illusion, manifesting as love and so on. He identifies himself with maya, but it is the highest form of maya, reflecting or manifesting as love. The object of all the action of the intelligence sheath, Vijnana-maya sheath, is to secure this bliss.

In the two lowest sheaths which are inert, there is only Sat (existence) reflected; in the next two-Manas and vijnana-there is also Chit (consciousness) reflected, but in this sheath-ananda-is reflected Bliss. It is still however only a reflection of Bliss.

The Upanishad describes this sheath: ” Love is the head; joy is the right wing ; delight is the left wing ; bliss is the trunk. Brahman (Reality) is the support “. The meditations are:

First: To remove the identification or the mistake that the ananda-maya sheath is the Self, to see the ananda-maya as one in essence with the cosmic Bliss.

Second: It is not the Self because it is perceived by the Self. Shri Shankara says : ” On realizing intuitively by contemplation the Ananda-maya, the mind attains concentration in Brahman Himself. And then as conveying no reflection of any kind, the mind surely realizes the true nature of Brahman-which is his own Self “.

This sheath reflects the ananda of Brahman, but by contemplation on it, the concentration is attained, and then as having no reflection of any kind, the man realises the true nature of Brahman.

These are the two parallel series of meditations. The man analyses the sheaths, sees them each as simply a part of the cosmic upadhi (limitation) which corresponds to it, and secondly he detaches his Self successively from these five sheaths, and then there is no reflection of any kind and he realizes Brahman directly.

The Upanishad says: ” Non-being, verily, does one become if he as non-being knows Brahman. If one knows that Brahman is, then he himself is Being “. ” Being the supreme Self, the Self can never be non-being, except as the sheaths. But it happens that a man thinks a pot exists when he sees it, and if he does not see it, he thinks it does not exist. With this habit of reasoning firmly ingrained, he thinks Brahman which he does not see, does not exist. The man who thus regards Brahman as non-being, is himself non-existent, for it has been shown that the koshas (sheaths) are non-self, and he does not admit the existence of Brahman beyond the koshas-(Shri Shankara). So that, as Swami Mangalnath says in Vira Vijaya, such a man labours under self-contradiction.

This is a summary of the doctrine of the five sheaths as it is set out in the Taittinya Upanishad and explained by Shri Shankara as a method to obtain self-realization.

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