The Five Sheaths

(Extracts from notes taken of a talk given by Trevor Leggett 13th March 1949)


The five sheaths are the limitations, upadhis, which are taken on itself by the jiva.  Shri Shankara makes this analysis of the limitations of jivātman 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 these materials. As we have electric 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 vikāra, product) – sheath of food or matter;

Prana-maya – vital energy;

Mano-maya – mind governed by desire;

Vijñāna-maya – intelligence;

Ananda- maya – bliss.

Shri Shankara says, “As 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 his 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 comes 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 out whence it has come forth, by what it is maintained and in what it is dissolved.

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

This is the physical body.  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 his Self is this body, and it is taught in that way to detach him from the 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 you know, there is a double imposition.  First of all, we think, “This body is the Self” and secondly, we think, “This Self is this body”.  Having sat still and detached himself from identification with external things, he unravels that double knot, and it is done in two ways.  First, he is to see the body as a mere part or effect of Virat, the cosmic body, with nothing special about it – that is to prevent him thinking the body is the Self.  Secondly, the Self cannot be this body because Self witnesses the body.  In this way he detaches his real Self from the body.

The first meditation (seeing the body is just a part, with nothing special about it, of the cosmic body) is given in the eleventh chapter of the Gita, with the vision of the physical unity, Virat.  And in the tenth chapter, the Lord says, “Of the Pandavas I am Arjuna” – an indication that the body that belongs to the clan, the Pandavas, belongs to the Lord.

The Upanishad then says, “Than that, verily – than this one formed of matter – there is another self within formed of vital energy.  By him this one is filled.”  Now he analyses and finds that, within the body of matter, which is inert, there is the thing which gives it life; this is the false-Self (mithya-atman), number two.

  1. PRANAMAYA SHEATH (sheath of 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 hours, we know; and we cannot be identified with the matter-body because, if we were, we should vanish at least within a few years.  We find it is the life with which we are identified, not the changing matter-body.  For instance, when the hair and nails grow long and are cut, we feel no sense of loss, which shows we are not identified with matter.

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

The first meditation – to see prana, to see the man’s life, his own 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, he meditates: ‘The Self cannot be the prana because it perceives the prana’.

The Upanishad goes on, “Than that, verily – than this one formed of prana – there is another self within formed of mind (manas).  By him is this one filled.”

  1. MANOMAYA SHEATH (sheath of mind)

This is taught as the Self to detach the man 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 gives mind consciousness, plus tamas.  There is power of knowledge in this sheath, but with attachment and hatred always.  There is no activity in manas which is not associated with desire; but because there is sattwa, Chit, consciousness, is reflected there.  Mind, unlike the two previous sheaths which are inert, does contain consciousness, or consciousness is reflected in it.

The rishis also say prana is subordinate to manas and is exterior to manas.  Manas is taught as Self to detach the man from identifying his Self with prana.  Having done that they give many arguments, such as 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 manas as one in essence with the cosmic manas.  In the thirteenth 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.  That detaches the mind from the Self and stops the mind being mistaken for the Self.

Second meditation – to detach the Self from identification with the mind, he is to say manas is not the Self, because it is perceived by the Self, and what is perceived is always different from the one that perceives.

Then the Upanishad says, “Than that, verily – than this one formed of manas – there is another self within formed of intelligence (vijñāna).  By him is this one filled.”  That brings us to the false-Self, number four.

4        VIJNANA-MAYA SHEATH (sheath of intelligence)

The guna is sattwa, which reflects Chit and gives the consciousness, plus rajas, action.  From those two the power is knowledge but without attachment.  The action and knowledge here are pure 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 the mind.  In manas there are different states of mind, but manas simply, as it were, goes through a series of reflexes.  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.  Man is simply a battlefield of desires, and the stronger desires over-rule the weaker.  But, in vijñāna, the actor is able to do disinterested action; he is able to see the conception of duty and sacrifice which, of course, goes 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 vijñāna as one in essence with the cosmic vijñāna.

Second – this vijñāna cannot be the Self, because it is perceived by the Self.

The Upanishad then says, “Than that, verily – than 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.

5        ANANDA-MAYA SHEATH (Sheath of bliss)

This is not the pure bliss in the sense that Brahman is said to be ānanda 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 is illusion.  He is here the enjoyer, having identified himself with illusion, manifesting as love, and so on.  He identifies himself with the maya, but it is the highest form of maya, reflecting or manifesting as love.  The object of all the action of the intelligence sheath, vijñāna-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 vijñāna – there is also chit (consciousness) reflected.  But in this sheath – ānanda – 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 ānandamaya sheath is the Self, to see the ānandamaya 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 realising intuitively, by contemplation, the ānandamaya, the mind attains concentration in Brahman Himself.  And then, as conveying no reflection of any kind, the mind surely realises the true nature of Brahman.” – which is his own Self.

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

That is the two parallel series of meditations.  He analyses the sheaths, sees them each as simply a part of the cosmic upadhi, or 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 realises Brahman directly.

The Upanishad says, “Non-being, verily, does one become if he, as non-being, knows Brahman. If one knows that Brahman, then he is himself is Being.”  “Being the supreme Self, the Self can never be non-being, because there is no 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 are non-Self, and he does not admit the existence of Brahman beyond the koshas.” (Shri Shankara).  So that, as Swami Mangalnath, in Vira-Vijaya says, “Such a man labours under self-contradiction.”

This covers the doctrine of the five sheaths, as it is set out in the Upanishad and explained by Shri Shankara, to obtain Self-realisation.



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