Physiology and Neurology of the Five Sheaths (Koshas)
In Vedic spirituality, in the Taittiriya Upanishad, written about 6th century BC, there is the notion that your physical being consists of five koshas.
The Sanskrit word Kosha is sometimes translated as “body,” but it means pail, bucket, sheath, or simply container. According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, your body is made of five koshas or five containers.
Traditionally the five koshas are named the annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnamaya, and anandamaya kosha.
The annamaya kosha is the physical container, or food sheath. This is the physical body of flesh, fluid, and bone. In the Upanishad, it is called the food sheath because it develops from the energy provided by food, and also because, when it is dead, it becomes food for other living beings.
After the annamaya kosha is the pranamaya kosha. The pranamaya kosha is the body’s “prana” container. In Vedic spiritualty, prana means energy, so this container is filled with the “vital life force” energy of the universe.
After the pranamaya kosha comes the manomaya kosha. The manomaya kosha is the mind container. This kosha is made up of our basic thoughts and feelings. The manomaya kosha also includes aspects of your Bodily Ego. We might call the manomaya kosha your “lower mind” kosha.
After your lower mind comes the vijnanmaya kosha. The vijnamaya kosha is the container for your discriminating intellect. The vijnamaya kosha includes your critical thought functions.
Finally, there is the anandamaya kosha, or bliss container. This is that aspect of your physical being where you purportedly experience connection and the pure bliss of higher Consciousness.
In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the five sheaths are said to fit one inside another, like a Russian stacking doll. Inside all of them is the atman, higher Self, or soul.
This Vedic view of the five koshas is interesting, and rings true to a lot of people, and for good reason. Despite the age of the concepts, the koshas map quite closely to what a modern scientist might say about the Physical Unit.
For example, the food kosha is obviously the physical body as a lump of inanimate flesh and bone.
The energy kosha also maps. The energy kosha is the prana sheath, the “breath of life sheath” or just the “life” sheath. The life sheath represents the electrical, chemical, neurological and metabolic life functions of the physical body.
Interestingly, the life functions are literally contained by the physical body, just like the Upanishad says. Without the cells and neurons of the physical body, there is no neurological or biological life.
If the food kosha is the physical body and the life kosha is the body’s life functions, the manomaya kosha is the “mind” that emerges from the brain and central nervous system. The mind functions would include the body’s autonomic functions, reflexes, instincts, memories, and so on. It would also include those aspects of the brain and central nervous system which create the body’s basic sense of ego, the Bodily Ego as I call it. Neurologically, these functions emerge from the hind brain and mid brain.
Once again, just as the metabolic functions are “contained” by the physical unit, the mind functions of the body are contained by the previous koshas. Without the body, there is no metabolism, no life functions, and no brain. Similarly, without neurology, there can be no mind functions. Each layer fits in and is contained and enabled by the layer that comes before it, just like the Upanishad says.
Next up is the vijnamaya kosha, or the discriminating mind. At this point, you can probably anticipate that this kosha maps directly to the cerebral cortex. It is in the cerebral cortex, that we find our discernment and information processing abilities, exactly as suggested by the ancient Upanishad. Of course, as with the previous koshas, the neocortex is made possible the lower brain, the CNS, the body’s metabolism, and the body itself.
Finally, there is the bliss kosha or bliss sheath. Modern neuroscience and psychology has no awareness of what this might be, though given how accurate and well thought out the original koshas are, and how often the concept of bliss appears in Vedic, Islamic, and Christian spiritualities, it is reasonable to speculate that the body does have some kind of bliss response, and that this kosha might actually exist. What it might be is, at this point, anybody’s guess, though I’m thinking the body’s endocannabanoid system may have something to do with it.
So there you have it. A modern mapping of ancient Vedic wisdom.
Before closing up, a few final comments are in order.
Number one, it is interesting to see how well these ancient Vedic concepts map to modern medical science. As long as you see beyond the pre-medical modelling, it is a one-to-one correspondence. That is amazing. Without the benefit of modern medicine, Vedic thinkers correctly identified and demarcated the physical, biological, neurological, mental, and spiritual systems of the physical unit in a way that would be familiar to a modern scientist. They erred only in extending the analogy with the body too far, in thinking that their observations meant the physical unit consisted of five separate bodies, and not five separate biological systems. If the Vedic thinkers who put this together had access to modern neuroscience, they would have said the same thing, but conceived of it slightly differently, as I have.
Number two, despite the slight error, we can see the deep wisdom of understanding the biological systems in terms of layers or containers. Each “container,” each system, contains the next and as a consequence, each system, starting with the physical unit and ending with the bliss functions, must be healthy and properly “aligned” for the physical unit to work as a proper container for the atman, or the soul. If you want your body to function as a proper container for your soul, you must keep all systems of the body, all the koshas, all the containers, healthy, aligned, and operational. Once all the bodily systems are active, healthy, and aligned, the bliss kosha is activated and the atman inside is able to situate and shine brightly forth.
Number three, you can see that if you want to get anything out of the ancient teachings, you have to adopt the appropriate perspective towards them. Clearly, disrespecting and dismissing ancient teachings as primitive and untrue just because of their age or the difficulty we have in understanding them, is not appropriate, at least in some cases. If this single example is any indication, despite the lack of modern science, ancient vedic thinkers were thinking about things and coming up with sensible answers, and they should be respected for that.
On the other hand, you can’t just take ancient teachings verbatim without some effort to update and modernize the work. If you do, you won’t make any sense to modern minds, and you’ll actually sow disrespect for the teachings. I’ve seen many people try and explain the koshas; but without updating the concepts, their explanations sound trivial and even stupid. When they do this, they make the Upanishads, or any other ancient teaching, look bad. That’s not useful, fair, or very scientific at all.
The appropriate perspective is not blind adherence and not abrupt dismissal, but simple, respectful, inquiry. You can’t dismiss them outright, because they just might contain useful information, perhaps even spiritual wisdom; but neither can you approach them without using the functionality provided by your vijnanmaya kosha, your critical neocortex brain. You cannot be afraid to engage with, update, and modernize the text you approach. If you engage, update, and modernize, you generate understanding and respect. If you don’t, you sow confusion and disrespect. Frankly, the last thing this world needs right now is more confusion and more disrespect.
Finally, just to state what might not be so obvious, if you want to activate your “bliss sheath,” take the advice of the ancient vedic thinkers and pay attention to your entire physical, biological, mental, emotional, and spiritual being, to all five koshas. The ancient lesson is quite clear; your body, your brain, your central nervous system, your bodily ego, and your critical thinking capacities all have to be healthy and aligned for everything to function correctly. Only when your koshas are all healthy and aligned can your body properly contain your soul. As we can see, this is not rocket science. It is just ancient common sense.