Adhara, The System of the Five Koshas

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.”


The Five Koshas

Evolution from Subtle to Gross

the sheath of bliss


This sheath is responsible for our sense of separation.  It is the seat of the “ego-I,” though it exists in an unmodified state that feels the bliss of close association with the Atman.  Bliss is most accessible in dreamless sleep (when the mind is disconnected from the physical body and has dissolved into the causal body where it remains in seed form, free from all worry and suffering) and is partially manifested when pleasurable objects are in view during the waking state.  In contrast to these ordinary examples, Sri Ramakrishna tells us that it is due to this sheath that the devotee, while in states of samadhi, feels the bliss of the Divine.  Consciously identified at this most subtle of sheaths, one looks upon the Brahman effulgence and knows that the sense of separation is only an appearance. [see end note]  Due to its subtlety, this sheath pervades all the following koshas.

the sheath of intellect

This kosha is the seat of our sense of agency.  Supported by the anandamaya kosha with its “ego-I,” the sheath of intellect is responsible for our sense of being the doer of actions and being identified with those actions and their results.  This is also the mechanism by which the embodied being reflects most closely the Intelligence that is the very nature of the Atman, the substratum of all the sheaths.  The intellect is like a plate filled with water that reflects the Light of Atman.  What is Omniscience in the ever-free Atman, manifests as (limited) knowledge, insight and wisdom in the vijnanamaya kosha.  This covering of intellect, along with the bliss sheath, pervades the following koshas.

the sheath of mind

This is not mind in the way westerners usually conceive of the word.  It refers only to that part of the mind that is connected to the body, the senses, the vital energy and their processes.  The manas takes in the experiences of the body and physical senses and regards them as “mine.”  The sense of ownership is especially seated here.  One of the shorthand but quintessential teachings in our SRV sangha states that three things must be renounced in order to live a divine life of peace and illumination: the sense of ownership, sense of agency and the sense of separation.  Indeed, those three describe the traits of the jiva, the embodied soul living in a state of bondage.  Again, this sheath, along with those of intellect and bliss, pervade the following denser sheaths.

the sheath of vital energy

It should be noted here that these sheaths are not completely “air-tight” structures.  We are taking abstract principles and putting them down in a form that the mind can more easily work with.  Prana is the insentient dynamic force that moves the entire universe.  It operates everywhere and is the Divine Being’s vehicle for action in all realms of existence.  Here, as the kosha of vital energy, we separate out that portion of its operations that causes the body to function internally (heart, lungs, nerves and so on), and externally (senses and motor organs).  It impacts upon the mind-body connection in the areas of emotion and the quality of alertness that results from the good or bad functioning of the body.  This sheath is also responsible for transporting the subtle body (made of prana-, mana-, vijnana- and anandamaya koshas) of those beings still attached to embodied existence to other realms at death.  Needless to say, the vital energy sheath, along with all the others, pervades the final and most dense sheath.

the sheath of food / the physical sheath

This covering is called the food sheath because food sustains the body.   Food is also the cause of the body in that it supports the progenitive power of the mother and father.  This sheath is a great teacher of the transitoriness of embodied existence.  The body undergoes six transformations, which, due to the presence of the ego-I, and the manomayakosha, we think of as belonging to us:  birth, growth, disease, old age, decay, and death.


Returning to our true nature

Overcoming false identification
The sun reflects on the ripples of the ocean.  When a ripple subsides and the reflection disappears, we do not think the sun has died.  From our vantage point as the witness of both sun and ripple we know that the ripple was never the sun and the sun never depended upon the ripples for its existence.  Recognition that the reflected sun cannot be the real sun is a tool of discrimination called adhyaropa.  We are applying adhyaropa when we perceive that the body and mind cannot be the Soul.  This is a vital step in the process of discrimination – difficult for many to grasp – and one which affords a feeling of victory because one can now discern a difference between Spirit and matter.   Many aspirants, therefore, stop here, satisfied with this level of understanding. 

However, unlike the sun analogy, it is not so easy to get over the feeling that what happens to the body and mind is happening to us.  To address this problem we need a powerful method that enables us to cease identifying the Soul with the nonsoul.  This is the apavada method of discrimination.  It employs the practice of neti-neti, “not this, not this,” with a concentrated mind that seeks to feel the increasing freedom resulting from the removal of each layer of misperception.  Simple affirmations, such as “I am not the body or mind,” are not enough.  Furthermore, in addition to apavada, we must also remain cognizant of what we are and have always been: the unlimited, undying, blissful Atman.  Finally, as crucial as this practice is, in order to attain complete success – realization of the Atman and freedom – the guidance of a competent teacher is essential.

With this in mind, and with salutations to Sri Shankaracharya, whose Vivekachudamani is a primary source for this essay, as well as to all my teachers, I will close with an example of discrimination and involution using the five koshas.

I am not the body.

The body is made of the combination of five elements.  It is subject to birth, disease and death and has qualities like fat and thin, young and old, attractive and unattractive.  It depends on food and dies without it.  Atman depends on nothing; It is self-existent.  I see the body and its attributes, therefore they cannot be my Self.  I cannot die, having never been born.  Not bound by time, I have no age.  Not bound by space, I have no specific location.  I am the Atman, unchanging, ever pure and free from modifications.

I am not the vital energy.

The vital energy makes the body and mind feel hungry or thirsty, energetic or listless.  These states come in cycles and depend upon external conditions such as food, air, water and other factors.  I see the workings of the pranamayakosha, therefore it is an object.  I am the Self, unaffected by all temporal conditions, of unwavering awareness and unbounded energy.

I am not the mind.  

The mind is subject to happiness and sorrow, depression, grief, remorse, feelings of unworthiness, pride, anger, jealousy and attachment.  Its well-being is dependent upon external conditions like heat and cold, food, occupation, money, various objects of practical use or luxury, the opinion of others, and so on.  I see the mind and its conditions, its thoughts and feelings.  Therefore, it is not myself.  I am the Atman, the ever blissful One.  The cycles of the mind do not belong to me.

I am not the intellect.

The intellect is attached to its knowledge and action.  It says “I am the doer,” “I am the knower.”  What it does and knows is finite.  Some days it knows much and some days it knows little.  Its knowledge is affected by the moods of the mind and other factors.  When its actions and knowledge have positive results the intellect/mind is happy.  When the reverse occurs, it is sad or angry.  I see the intellect and its fluctuating powers of reasoning, its insights and obtuseness.  Therefore, it too is an object and not my Self.  I am the Atman, the Seer, the self-effulgent One, of undiminished Intelligence.  How can the limitations of the intellect belong to me?

I am not the sheath of bliss.

The happiness of this sheath is easily covered by the other koshas.  Its happiness fluctuates in the states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep and in accordance with the presence of pleasurable objects.  Though extremely subtle, I can see the ego and its repetitious attraction to limited pleasures, base or refined, therefore it cannot by my true Self.  The bliss of the anandamayakosha is circumscribed by the limitation of the ego which seeks to preserve its separateness.  I am the Atman, free from all limits, the ultimate subtlety whose perpetual bliss cannot be covered, tainted or pervaded by anything.  

Patanjali, the father of yoga, mentions attachment to subtle bliss, experienced as the aspirant “involves” to more rarefied states of awareness, as the final barrier to meditation and samadhi.  Attachment to the subtle pleasure experienced in divine moods and visions is likened to “tasting sugar,” whereas, total immersion in Atman/Brahman is likened to “being sugar.”  When asked why one would want to forego the delight of tasting sugar in order to be sugar, a sage replied: “Those who raise the question have not yet tasted sugar.  When they have, they will long for the intense bliss of being sugar.”

Unconscious identification with the anandamaya kosha/causal body is what happens in dreamless sleep.  This lack of conscious recognition of the divine bliss experienced in that state is classically used to distinguish between profound sleep and nirvikalpa samadhi, where ego is transcended entirely.  In all cases the mind is not functioning or has been dissolved.

Annapurna lives in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches and lectures on Vedanta Philosophy.  She also serves as president of SRV Oregon and manages the SRV publications.