by Annapurna/Leigh Anne Gurtov

In Vedanta philosophy, Adhara, meaning "container," refers to those sheaths (koshas) in which Consciousness manifests Itself.  There are positive and negative assertions that help the aspirant to distinguish or separate the Atman (the true Self/Soul) from the five sheaths.  A traditional analogy explains this by speaking of five kinds of lentils that are all mixed together.  In similar fashion, the Atman is mixed with the five koshas and the aspirant must learn which is real (the Self) and which is merely the vehicle or container.  The Atman exists temporarily in the sheaths, but It is not the sheaths.  This is one of the forms of the Vedanta discipline of discrimination.

DISCERNING THE DIFFERENCE between what is infinite and unchanging and that which is finite and changeful is a universal teaching at the core of most, if not all, spiritual traditions.  In Vedanta it is called viveka, discrimination.  Precisely because this teaching has such a universal application, I emphasize it when asked to speak on Vedanta and spiritual practice at world religions courses in high schools and universities.  To make the practice more concrete I draw on the blackboard a diagram of the five koshas according to Vedanta philosophy.   The five koshas are the different gross and subtle sheaths that serve as physical, vital and mental mechanisms for the embodied being.

These layers float, as it were, in the infinite ocean of pure Consciousness, the ultimate Reality, in which time, space and all levels of existence reside.  This Reality, which in Sanskrit is referred to as Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without attributes), is never in time and space, yet pervades everything as their essence and substratum.  It is the inconceivable One-without-a-second upon which all else depends.  This pure Consciousness is the one unchanging Soul (called Atman when seen through the koshas) expressing through all beings, appearing and behaving differently (apparently) in accord with the infinite diversity of the koshas.

Here is where the practice of discrimination begins.  The all-pervasive Reality, of the very nature of awareness and bliss, is also the freedom of absolute potential beyond all possibility of physical and conceptual limits.  This, say the ancient Vedic seers, is our true nature.  This is the Self that we are to identify with if we wish to transcend the limits of body, energy, mind and ego - these latter are at best vehicles for divine expression and not the true Self. 

Yet, identifying with the body and mind is so natural for us.  We confuse them with the Soul (Atman) constantly.  Most of us even have a hard time distinguishing between mind and body, let alone these two and the Soul.  The conceptual system of the five koshas clarifies these aspects of embodied existence and makes the practice of discrimination understandable and accessible.

We will begin by describing each kosha, moving from subtle to gross, and then give the practical application of discrimination from gross to subtle.  There is a reason for proceeding in this manner.  In the revelations of the ancient rishis (seers) we have learned that the Supreme Being manifests the universe from subtle to gross.  In the beginning is the Word - this idea appears in various traditions - and from the Word comes a blueprint for the universe that produces cosmic mind and ego, cosmic laws, such as space, time, causation, will, desire, and so on.  These give rise to subtle elements, gross elements and finally the universe as we see it.  The details vary according to the tradition. 

The point is that since everything comes from the One, therefore, it is possible to reverse this process of evolution and begin the process of involution.  This is, in actuality, a mental practice, a method of convincing the mind and intellect that one's true nature is not the changing, but the Unchanging, and always has been.  It is the creation, nature, that evolves, not the Atman.  It is only due to a mistake of perception that I have come to think I am something other than unlimited Consciousness.  

The Seer and the seen
In Vedanta philosophy we speak of the Seer and the seen.  The Seer is always one and unchanging.  The seen is always an object.  The seen can never be the Seer.  We habitually mix these two up, however, when, for instance we say "I am overweight."  "I," can only refer to the Seer while, "overweight," is an attribute of the body.  These two cannot be the same thing.  Another common example arises in such statements as, "I feel depressed" or, "I am angry."  Feelings belong to the mind which operates in the realm of time, space and causation.  "I" is always the Seer who is never limited by time and space or the dualities contained therein. The essential lesson here is that we are never what we see.  If I can see it - whatever it is - from the body, to the functioning of the mind or ego, then I am not that.  I cannot be an object.  I am also never my reactions to what I see, for those reactions themselves are seen, are objects.

This is not mere mental gymnastics but a form of reasoning that has been proven over thousands of years to release people from bondage to matter, gross and subtle, which is the cause of all suffering.  As we are fond of quipping in our SRV sangha, "pain is inevitable for embodied beings, but suffering is optional."

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