INFINITE LAYERS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
THE SCIENCE OF SPIRITUALITY
Evolution of Consciousness Series
Generally we think of human anatomy as being about the physical body, including the nervous system, the organs, the circulatory system, the structure and functioning of cells and DNA, etc. There has been so much scientific research in this field, especially during the last 500 years; we have really specialized in this knowledge.
But this is only one aspect of human anatomy. As we have discussed in previous articles, we have three main bodies – the physical, subtle and causal. Over the centuries, the knowledge of these three bodies has developed, and today research in the dynamic field of integrative body-mind-spirit science is unfolding faster than ever before. So we are better able to understand the dynamics of the physical, subtle and spiritual anatomies. This is the juncture of science and spirituality.
For example, we know that the subtle bodies came into existence for the continuous improvement of consciousness. In other words, they arose for our evolution, and they support each other. First of all it was for the survival of the ‘I’, for our identity. The ‘I’ could not survive without the discrimination of the intellect and the thinking capacity of the mind. These functions of the mind support each other in a coordinated effort for existence and growth.
These subtle bodies can be used for our betterment or for our undoing, as they are functions of the mind that can be used in any way we choose. The purpose of a heart-based meditation practice with transmission is to learn to use them so that consciousness evolves.
Yogis also describe our complex human system in another way: the koshas, sheaths or coverings. In this description, a human being is made up of layer upon layer of coverings, from the outermost to the innermost. The five elements, or pancha bhutas, are yet another way of describing the human makeup – earth, fire, water, air and ether (akasha). Still another classification is that of the seven regions – the Heart Region, Cosmic Region, Para-cosmic Region, Prapanna, Prapanna-Prabhu, Prabhu and the Central Region.
So in Yoga, a description of human anatomy combines all these things – the elements, points, regions, bodies and sheaths.
Let’s explore what the koshas tell us about consciousness. There are an infinite number of coverings or sheaths in the human system, the densest being the physical at the outside, with progressively finer and finer coverings as we approach the center of our being. They are indicators of the infinite layers of consciousness we potentially have at our disposal. They are usually presented as five main koshas.
The first text describing them is the Taittiriya Upanishad, written around the 6th century BCE, where they are described as lying one inside the other, like the layers of an onion or Russian matryoshka dolls:
The quality of the annamaya kosha depends a lot on the type of food we eat and how we eat it. It also depends on how our mother ate during pregnancy, the quality of that food, the environment, and her habits. These maternal influences contribute heavily towards the make up of our annamaya kosha.
When we are in the company of a saint we feel energetic, because the kosha of the saint is radiating energy. There are some other people who draw energy from us, so that we feel drained. To avoid draining others, our intake of food and the quality of the food we eat must be light. That is why fasting is prescribed now and then, to balance and regulate this kosha. But too much fasting can damage the annamaya kosha, just as too much food can damage it. This is not related to having a lean or a heavy body.
The annamaya kosha is one
kosha where we undergo
or play out the effect of
karma. We find a lot of
variation in the physical
sheaths of people.
Regarding the quality of food:
Tamasic foods make us feel lazy and lethargic,
Rajasic foods make us active, but also sometimes irritable, short-tempered and anxious, if we eat them too often and late in the day. They are best eaten around noon,
Sattvik foods promote lightness, calmness and peace of mind, and
Food consumed with gratefulness has a very special impact.
A preoccupation with this sheath can have a negative effect, but we do need to pay enough attention to the body to support a healthy life. It functions best when it is under the influence of the subtler koshas.
The annamaya kosha is one kosha where we undergo or play out the effect of karma. We find a lot of variation in the physical sheaths of people.
The next three koshas are all associated with the subtle bodies:
The pranamaya kosha is our vital body, where we experience the flow of energy in our system, and with the world around us. It is subtler and more refined than the annamaya kosha.
Yogis have described the energy flow in the human system according to five energetic processes (karmendriyas) and five energy flows (pranas).
The five energetic processes are elimination, reproduction, movement, grasping with our hands, and speaking.
The five flows of energy within the human body are known as the vayus or ‘winds’. These are:
The inward flow that governs respiration and the reception of everything, from air and food to ideas and impressions,
The downward and outward flow of elimination – excretion, urination and menstruation on the physical level, and anything that needs to be removed mentally,
The balancing and integrating flow at the meeting point between the inward and outward flows, associated with assimilation and digestion,
The ascending flow that directs energy towards higher levels of consciousness and governs self-expression through communication, and
The flow through the nadis, the circulatory system, the nervous system, the lymphatic system, the movement of muscles and joints, and thoughts and emotions.
Hatha yoga is often prescribed to develop this kosha, as it is regulated by breathing exercises. But the sheath of prana is subtle and not glued to the physical system. It envelops us like an energy bubble, creating the field of the aura. The chakrasof the subtle body are also associated with this kosha, so spiritual practices are needed to refine the pranamaya kosha.
This energy sheath is usually affected before any physical ailment appears in the body. That is why acupuncture and acupressure treatments work on our energy meridians. Whenever an imbalance or illness happens, the first kosha to be compromised is often the pranamaya kosha.
This energy sheath is
usually affected before any
physical ailment appears
in the body … Whenever
an imbalance or illness
happens, the first kosha to
be compromised is often
the pranamaya kosha.
Sometimes we can predict the health of a person just by looking at the aura around their face. We feel the difference – someone is angry, a lover in the company of her beloved, a tender mother with her baby, or someone not happy about the work they are doing. It is our attitude that affects our pranamaya kosha to a large extent. When this kosha is shining, our overall health is benefited. We radiate whatever state we have in our energy sheath, including a loving joyous feeling in certain situations; love is something very palpable.
When we are stressed, angry, or emotionally reactive, we need more energy. So we activate the pranamaya kosha by activating the sympathetic nervous system: our heart rate goes up, our breathing changes, and our body goes into its stress response.
This is one of the reasons why pranayama came into being in Yoga – to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress, we can calm ourselves by activating the parasympathetic system through the Chandra nadi. And when we need to be more active and engaged, we can activate the sympathetic system through the Surya nadi. We are able to bring about balance.
This energy kosha is quite forbidding to refine, because here consciousness mixes with ego, and that can be like sodium metal exposed to moisture – explosive. All our energetic processes and cognitive senses derive their energy from this sheath, our waking consciousness is regulated by this sheath, and the natural emotions of passion and anger are nourished by this sheath.
Fights and conflicts at work and at home with dear ones are due to the maladjustment of this sheath. When it is spoilt, we can be terribly egotistical whereas if rightly used it supports Self-Realization.
Obsessive attention to pleasure as well as excessive materialism can distort the finer balance of the energy sheath. In contrast, moderation of our emotions and all our faculties harmonizes the pranamaya kosha, and this in turn helps to harmonize the annamaya kosha. The Heartfulness practices of meditation on point A and cleaning of point B1 also refine this kosha.
The play of opposites is very strong with this sheath. The ever-weighing attitudes of likes and dislikes, attraction and repulsion, make this sheath even more formidable. Moderation is hard to come by when such is the case. We have to remain vigilant with speech, body language, and inner attitude. It means being humble and respectful towards everyone, including young ones and elders. Constantly delving into a state of insignificance, curbing the ego, is the surest way to refine this sheath. It finds its true luster only after we have totally refined the ego to its original purity.
The next sheath is the even subtler manomaya kosha, the mental sheath that makes use of the mind, manas, and the five cognitive sense organs – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. It is vaster than the previous two and is all about mental processes– thoughts, ideas, reason, logic, contemplation, feelings, dreams, hopes, and the feelings of good and bad, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain.
While the manomaya kosha is largely dormant in other animals, it is well developed in humans. This kosha defines our human species, along with the heart, and is the bridge between human life and divine life.
By developing this kosha, we are able to arrive at our own conclusions. We exercise it by questioning, experiencing, observing, analyzing, exploring and inferring. We need direct experience in anything we do, including spirituality, for our manomaya kosha to remain functional and healthy. Will our hunger be satisfied by someone else eating? Will we grow mentally by someone else attending college on our behalf?
The manomaya kosha grows even when we make mistakes. When we make efforts to analyze things, we sometimes come to wrong conclusions, but that is how we learn, by exercising our manomaya kosha.
It is important to remember this in the education of children. When an education system is based solely on rote learning, we are not helping children develop this sheath.
Individual contentment and
true peace are possible
only when we are freed
from the demands of these
mental disturbances. And
when more and more of
us join in this ennobling
endeavor, individual peace
will lead to world peace.
Even as adults, we will also remain stuck if we only read, watch videos and go on quoting other people, no matter how profound the knowledge, because it is all borrowed knowledge. It must be applied practically and experienced for it to have any benefit.
The manomaya kosha develops when it is challenged by day-to-day events. That is why family life is good for the evolution of consciousness. There are challenges every day, and consciousness evolves when the manomaya kosha is challenged. So running away from society and problems does not help us grow.
Struggles and sufferings benefit this kosha, as they challenge us to find solutions, experience things for ourselves, accept and move forward. They help us if we accept them graciously, and they change our lives instantly, with a quantum leap into a higher level of consciousness, if we accept them cheerfully and with gratitude.
But the manomaya kosha can also develop logic to defend our actions, whether right or wrong, justifying our anger, inactions, lethargy, envy, jealousy and mistakes. When it is not pure, this kosha will condescend to any extent to justify moral turpitude for the sake of fulfilling desires, resorting to unjust means. If we succumb to a compromised mind, we compromise what is vital for our evolution.
A Heartfulness trainer can easily set such tendencies right in a few sessions by diverting the flow of thoughts towards the next chakra, the seat of the soul or atma chakra. Over a period of time, and with practice, our thoughts are regulated so that we remain in a state of acceptance. The Heartfulness practices of meditation on point A and cleaning of point B around the heart also help.2 Heartfulness practices are such a boon in refining this troublesome sheath.
Individual contentment and true peace are possible only when we are freed from the demands of these mental disturbances. And when more and more of us join in this ennobling endeavor, individual peace will lead to world peace.
It is the manomaya kosha that offers us the most satisfaction as well the greatest discontent or restlessness. When unrefined and heavy, this sheath adds to our confusion and disasters. When its focus is in the higher realms, it helps us perform extraordinary mental marvels, including the much talked-about astral travels.
Next is the vignanamaya kosha, the sheath of knowledge or the wisdom sheath, which makes use of our intelligence and discriminative abilities (buddhi), and the five cognitive senses. As this sheath is refined, our intellect expands to encompass intelligence, intuition, wisdom and beyond. It is sometimes described as the ‘witness mind’, because here consciousness is no longer entangled in our thoughts, emotions and actions, so it can witness everything.
It is subtler than the previous three sheaths, and based on previous cognates is able to become cognizant and to re-cognize. At its best, it remains in tune with the highest consciousness. At the very least, it guides us to discriminate between what is ephemeral and what is eternal. This wisdom is needed in spirituality. When this state of discernment matures, we automatically develop non-attachment to temporary things, resulting in a state of unattached-attachment. The mind can remain actively involved in daily activities; the trick is to have the conviction that we are not the doer. If we allow our Maker to be the performer of any act we do, then we are free of attachment.
The vignanamaya kosha is mostly about self-awareness. Through this sheath our consciousness can expand into the sky of superconsciousness and the depths of subconsciousness. As this sheath becomes more and more refined, it helps us access finer levels of superconsciousness. Once again it is worth mentioning here that it is the practice of meditation with the aid of transmission that makes such an expansion possible.
The vignanamaya kosha
is mostly about self-awareness.
sheath our consciousness
can expand into the sky
and the depths of
subconsciousness. As this
sheath becomes more
and more refined, it helps
us access finer levels of
This kosha also helps us to decide on any course of action. Based on previous cognates, we learn to choose wisely, for example, not to play with snakes, not to put our hand in the fire, etc. The mind receives the cognates, consciousness feeds us with memory (recognition), and intelligence and wisdom help us to choose.
When this discernment results in right and favorable results, we become more confident. When it fails to yield favorable results, we lose confidence. Then we retrace our steps and see where we went wrong. This step of back tracking is important for continuous self-improvement. In due course we learn to listen to the heart. At times the heart tells us to avoid something but we don’t listen, and then we see the consequences, resulting in regret. Never mind! Let it not repeat.
Heartfulness meditation accelerates the purification of the koshas, the chakras, and the overall physical system at a vibratory level. The help of the three koshas associated with the subtle bodies is an asset in any pursuit. They perform at their best when there is constant inward attention towards the heart, so that the heart becomes the guide. An innocent pure heart is helped. It is worth recalling the statement of Lord Christ: “Be ye like little children.” That childlike state reflects innocence and purity. Children have no ego to say, “I know it all.” Such claims prevent the expansion of consciousness.
The trio of subtle bodies and their associated koshas also play a major role in the formation and dissolution of samskaras, thoughts, memory storage, and recalling of cognates, thus providing information as and when needed.
Then finally we have the anandamaya kosha, the sheath around the soul or causal body, associated with a yet finer level of consciousness. It is the sheath of happiness, joy and bliss, and its food is joy. This kosha is beyond knowledge and experience, beyond the mind. It is about ‘being’, where we are bliss.
It is the subtlest of the five sheaths. On our journey we come across various spiritual stages offering us various levels of experiences, exposing our consciousness to more and more. We express joy at the level of the other four sheaths depending upon the resonance arising from the anandamaya kosha.
Even this fifth kosha is not the end of the journey, although sat-chit-anand is considered to be such a high state. During the spiritual journey all these sheaths are transcended. And this transcendence is another way of describing the journey of human evolution, the expansion of consciousness.
All the koshas have their inherent limitations, however subtle they may be. They are all interwoven, in fact, and not like the wooden Russian matryoshka dolls, one inside the next in a strictly sequential fashion. During meditation, we often have thoughts. Based on the kinds of thoughts we have, we can deduce the koshas where we are more or less restricted.
So regarding the aligment between the subtle bodies and koshas, we can say that:
Ahankar, ego, is the subtle body of willpower and vitality, and is most closely associated with the pranamaya kosha,
Manas, the thinking mind, is most closely associate with the manomaya kosha, and
Buddhi, intellect, is most closely associated with the vignanamaya kosha, the wisdom sheath.
During the spiritual
journey all these sheaths
are transcended. And
this transcendence is
another way of describing
the journey of human
evolution, the expansion of
What about chit, consciousness? Remember that consciousness is the canvas upon which the other three subtle bodies play out their functions, so it is associated with all three koshas of the subtle bodies – pranayama, manomaya and vignanamaya. But consciousness is also there in every organ and every cell of the physical body, and at the other end of the spectrum it is also closest to the soul. So where is it?
Consciousness is everywhere. In a fully realized Yogi, consciousness is a 360-degree affair, flowing wherever it is needed in the moment. Consciousness spans all the koshas of the human being.
Even if we are not fully realized, and not aware of the full reach of our consciousness, that is only because we have not yet expanded it across the full spectrum of subconsciousness and superconsciousness. The koshas are another way to describe this spectrum of consciousness that we expand into as we go further and further on our journey.
Yoga is for this – a set of practices that refine our energy centers or chakras, refine the sheaths or koshas, and help us traverse through the various levels of consciousness.
Each one of us displays a consciousness based on its play within the complex web of these five sheaths, which are purified through the practice of meditation and cleaning. This purifying process is greatly accelerated by pranahuti. When we are able to harmonize our consciousness across all the five sheaths, we will see joy in life flowering on its own.