Pancha Kosa Vidya

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission.

In my previous newsletter I wrote about the enormous scholarship of my
revered Guru Sri Krishnamacharya. He taught several traditional texts
including many upanishads

I had mentioned  the general approach of the old works to guide the
student from the known to the unknown. One of the well known vidyas of
the upanishads, the pancha-kosa-vidya is popular with many yoga
students, teachers and spiritual seekers. The Yogasutras refer to the
known– of seen person (drusya atma)– to lead to the subtle unseen
‘self’ or Purusha. The pancha kosa vidya leads the inquirer from the
seen or known five-kosa-person to the indwelling Self or atman in a
step by step approach. It urges the sadhaka to contemplate on each of
the kosas in succession to ultimately arrive at the true self. This is
the main purpose of this vidya found in Tattiriya Upanishad.

In the Yoga Sutra the physical person seen is made up of basically the
three gunas, the five bhutas  and the eleven indriyas and this body-
mind complex is used by most people for experiences, pleasant and
unpleasant, but a few use this person for ‘roll back’ or resolution to
the basic elements of prakriti which is identified as nirodha. While
most persons look outward to obtain experiences (bhoga) , the yogi
uses the body and life time to look and work  inward (apavarga)to
obtain the state of Kaivalya.

The Taittiriya upanishad looks at the ‘seen person’ as one made up of
five kosas, and exhorts the spiritual seeker to transcend the ‘five
kosa seen person’ by deep step by step contemplation and understand
the nature of the atman. These five kosas are envisaged, each one of
them as made up of the five parts of a bird,  and each one of the
kosas more subtle than the outer one. The five kosas start with the
one made of food or matter, the physical body. It is made of physical
matter  consisting of five distinct portions as the head, the right
and left wings, the body of the front and the tail or the back. It
gets energy from anna or food/matter. This kosa should be kept pure
and yogasanas are said to help one achieve this goal. There is a vedic
prayer which helps one pray for the pure satvic quality of the
physical body made fully of anna(annamaya) or matter.

This physical body is identified by everybody, including a child, as
the person, the self. But the self by definition is the innermost,
subtlest principle in every human being. Is there anything more subtle
than the physical body?  The upanishad begins to investigate.

And it finds out that there is an inner self to the physical body made
fully of life force called prana, in the same mold of the physical
body. This pranamaya permeates the whole physical body and is
visualized as the self of the physical body or annamaya kosa. It also
is visualized with five distinct parts, the head, the two wings, the
chest and then the tail. The Prana, the main life force is the head
of  vyana and apana are the right and left wings, then udana is the
body or heart of this kosa and then samana is the tail or support of
this system. A regular pranayama workout will help maintain this kosa
in good stead.

There is an inner self, of the shape of the person, to this prana maya
kosa which itself is a sheath or a kosa called mano maya. It is
permeated with an aspect of the chitta called manas. Manas coordinates
all the senses and instruments of action. Interestingly the most
important sense for a vedic scholar is the sense of hearing. Hearing
the vedas from the teacher the vedic student learns by heart the
vedas. Also this vedic student has his mano maya kosa full of vedic
knowledge. The head of this mano maya  is the yajur veda, the right
and the left wings are the rik and sama vedas. The body or the chest
is the vedic injunctions (adesa or the brahmana portion) and the tail
is the last veda, the atharva veda. It therefore actually refers to
our entire memory kosa. This kosa according to yogis can be kept in
good condition by pratyahara. The vaidics would say chanting of the
vedas  keeps the manomaya kosa in good shape.

Is there anything subtler than this? Yes, says the Upanishad. Subtler
than the mano maya is the vigyana maya or the kosa of intellect. This
is the self of the previous kosa, of the human form but is visualized
with a head which is shraddha or faith(in the scriptures). Since the
vedic scholar is doing this self analysis and investigation, he uses
this kosa towards the spiritual end. So the right wing is
righteousness or straight forwardness(rtam) and the left wing is satya
or the ultimate spiritual Truth. Then the heart or the atma of this
sheath is yoga or the ability to remain concentrated or go into
samadhi. The whole kosa is supported by mahat or universal
intelligence. The upanishad sadhaka has to have this kosa in good
stead to clearly understand the nature of the self using this kosa
diligently. And dhyana or meditation is the means of keeping this kosa

The soul of this kosa is another subtle kosa called ananda maya which
is translated roughly as the bliss kosa. Again this kosa is  in the
human form but is visualized as a bird. The head of this kosa is
affection (priya), the right wing is glee (moda), the left wing is
ecstasy (pramoda) and the heart is bliss (ananda) and the support of
this is Brahman, the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality, the Atman/
Brahman which is defined (swarupa lakshana) as pure consciousness
unaffected by ether time or space (satyam, gnanam anantam brahma) and
whose realization is possible by the path shown (tatasta lakshana) by
the knowledge called the pancha maya (kosa) vidya is what is to be
known to end the evil of transmigratory existence.

The first step is to  consider the human body, called the annamaya, as
part of the outside matter of the universe as it is that which is made
up of five elements, earth, water, etc., returns to the earth/universe
after death. During the lifetime, the annamaya body is sustained by
anna or food/matter, itself drawing the energy from it. The subtle
self of the human body which is the inner sheath known as pranamaya is
the one that keeps the body alive. The force that maintains it is
called prana sakti. It is said that udana, one of the five forces
keeps the balance between prana the inward life force and apana the
outward life force under balance. Once the udana loses that control at
the time of death, the apana with  prana and  other life forces leaves
the body. The other three sheaths , the manomaya, its inner core/
atman, the vigyana maya and the subtlest sheath the ananda maya are
controlled by the power of veil or ignorance called the avarana
sakthi. This is the power which prevents the individual from realizing
the true nature of one’s core or atman which is pure consciousness and
beyond the five kosas. This power when it operates in the subtlest or
the ananda maya kosa is known as ichha sakti or the power of desire.
When it operates in the vignyana maya kosa it is known as gnana sakti
or power of discrimination and then when it operates in the mano maya
it is known as kriya sakti. The desire for the desirable object arising
in the ananda maya leads the vignyana maya to contemplate the means
for fulfilling it and thereafter the manomaya directs the physical
body to do the necessary physical work to achieve the goal, which it
succeeds in sometimes and not some other times leading to the feeling
of happiness or unhappiness in the ananda maya self. Thus even though
the spiritual nature of the self is clearly discernible from the
pancha maya vidya of the Upanishads, it is obscured by the power of
the avarana sakthi or the power of spiritual ignorance which gets more
and more strengthened by the operation of this sakthi, life after
life. Hence the upanishad not only explains the nature of the real
self as opposed to the mistaken self (mithya atma) made up of five
kosas but also gives a step by step approach to strengthen the
spiritual knowledge leading to transcending the evil of endless
transmigratory existence.

Since the human body returns to earth and other elements the entire
universe including the human body is considered one virat one whole
universe of anna or matter of  the five elements. The prana which is
the subtle self of the human body is considered the subtle self
therefore of the universe and then regressing further one arrives at
the individual soul or atman as the self. And since now it is also the
Self of the Universe it is called Brahman and the advaitins proclaims
the oneness (advaita) of the individual self (atman) and the supreme
self (brahman) as one and the same

Taittiriya Upanishad is one of the 10 major upanishads and is chanted
regularly especially (early on the 12th day after full moon and new
moon days, after a day of fasting, Ekadasi) in South India. I had made
a recording some 25 years ago of this Upanishad and I find it is
available in USA now at India Club.

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