Hindu philosophy describes the human constitution in the model called the Panchakosha. This model was first taught in the Vedas. It is at the heart of Vedantic psychology. For millennia, the Vedic human constitution, the Panchakosha was a common subject matter, in countless Hindu literature, most significantly in the scriptures of the Advaita Vedanta tradition. The Panchakosha forms an important framework upon which yoga practices were developed. It is, therefore, absolutely essential for all yoga practitioners to have its proper understanding. It serves as a very useful aid for meditation and enquiry into Self-awareness.
The Panchakosha presents to us a comprehensive and observable model based on the functional aspects of the human constitution. It gives us a schema of how the different aspects are organised and how they interact with one and another. It is holistic and logical. The oversold catchphrase ‘body-mind-spirit’ model, in modern-day spirituality and wellness, is actually not only simplistic but also not really compatible to even begin to understand Vedic thought and yoga systems. It is time to study and use the authentic and original framework of the human constitution. The Panchakosha model also opens up many possibilities of application because it is a model that is functionally and easily relatable to all aspects of human life.
The Sanskrit term Panchakosha literally means ‘five sheaths’ (Pancha = five, kosha = sheath). It is a model constituted of five composite layers, namely anna-maya-kosha, prana-maya-kosha, mano-maya-kosha, vijnana-maya-kosha and ananda-maya-kosha. The word maya appended here means ‘saturated’, and it implies the preponderance of a specific substance, e.g., anna, prana, etc in a particular kosha ‘sheath or layer’.
Annamayakosha – ‘food-dominant sheath’ (anna = food)
Annamayakosha is the ‘biological layer’ of the human constitution. It is the first layer. It is our organic physical body. It is primarily made of nutrients derived from the food we consume. Ayurveda describes this layer as having seven major tissues; namely plasma (rasa), blood (rakta), muscle (mamsa), fat (meda), bone (asthi), bone marrow and nerve (majja) and reproductive fluid (shukra).
Vedanta says the annamayakosha is the bhoga-ayatanam, ‘the base of experiences’. Just as the teapot is a vessel in which the tea is brewed, so too is our physical body is the platform in which we create experiences. It is the counter through which thoughts communicate and interact with the world. Only the annamayakosha of the human constitution undergoes shad-vikaras, ‘six modifications’, viz. asti (existence), jayate (birth), vardhate (growth), viparinamate (change), apaksheeyate (decay) and vinashyate (death).
Pranamayakosha – ‘energy-dominant sheath’ (prana = vital force)
Pranamayakosha is the ‘energetic layer’ of the human constitution. It is the second layer. It is our energy field. It is primarily made of prana that spurs animation and activities in the physical body, as well as, in the mind-complex. The pranamayakosha is the medium through which energy is distributed and supplied to fuel all our physiological and psychological processes. It facilitates information exchange between the mind and the body. It powers the movement of the body.
Prana is always in motion. Different flows of prana within the pranamayakosha govern different functions. There are five major prana-vayus or ‘pranic flows’ and many minor prana-vayus. The major five are:
- Prana – relates to the respiratory and circulatory systems. It is the basic prana from which other pranas arise and thus gives its name to the group as a whole. It has a forward movement.
- Apana – relates to the elimination of waste and excretory systems. It has a downward and outward movement.
- Udana – relates to vocal apparatus and facial expressions (speaking, singing, laughing and crying). It has an upward movement. It also plays a role in thought activity and the shifting of the mind between waking state, dream state and deep sleep state.
- Samana – relates to the digestive and metabolic system. It is characterised by inward movement.
- Vyana – relates to muscular movement and the coordination and circulation of energy to the entire body (blood stream).
The pranamayakosha also contains the faculty of the pancha karmendriyas (karma-indriyas) or 'five action senses’. The karmendriyas are responsible for the control, coordination and execution of the motor organs, which are vak: speech (articulators & larynx), pani: grasping (hands), pada: locomotion (feet), payu: excretion (anus) and upastha: sexual activities (genitals).
Manomayakosha – ‘mental-dominant sheath’ (manas = mind)
Manomayakosha is the ‘cognitive layer’ of the human constitution. It is the third layer. It is the field of mentation and creativity. It is primarily made of thought-waves that take the form of sensations, imaginations, emotions and sensory constructs. When an artist imagines a visual representation of her creation then she is working with the manomayakosha. Vedanta says the manomayakosha is the bhoga-sadhanam, ‘the apparatus of experiences’. It is the instrument that interprets stimuli and memory, and constructs all our experiences both sukham, ‘pleasant/pleasure’ and dukkham ‘unpleasant/pain’.
The manomayakosha contains three major faculties, viz. manas, citta and jnanendriyas. The manas is the perceiving mind; the seat of sensations, desires, ideas and feelings. The citta is the memory; the seat of recollection and imaginations. The manomayakosha also contains the mental faculty of the pancha jnanendriyas (jnana-indriyas) or ‘five cognitve senses’, viz. chakshu: sight, srotra: sound, gharana: smell, rasana: taste and tvak: touch. The jnanendriyas are responsible for receiving external stimuli through the sensory-organs, and ordering the information in the field of the mind.
Vijnanamayakosha – ‘intellectual-dominant sheath’ (vijnana = intelligence)
Vijnanamayakosha is the ‘intellectual layer’ of the human constitution. It is the fourth layer. It is the field of intelligence and identity. It is primarily made of thought-waves that take the form of differentiation, recognition, comprehension, volition (will), direction, doership and identification. When a mathematician reflects over abstract objects of her hypothesis then she is working with the vijnanamayakosha. Our thoughts of judgement, decision and direction comes from here.
The vijnanamayakosha contains two major faculties, viz. buddhi and ahamkara. The buddhi is the intellect; the faculty of reasoning and discernment. Vedic wisdom traditions like the Advaita tradition, consider the development of the buddhi as an indispensable necessity for meditation. The intellectual abilities of the buddhi such as viveka, ‘discriminative wisdom’ and vairagya, ‘objectivity / dispassion’ are important spiritual qualifications. The ahamkara is the individual ego; a composite of self-images. It is the portrait of self-identity that arises through identification with the characteristics and activities of the body and mind. We express the ego as our sense of individuality.
Vedanta collectively terms the four faculties, namely manas, citta, buddhi and ahamkara, as antahkarana meaning ‘inner mechanics’. Antahkarana represents our core mind-complex that constitutes our personality.
Anandamayakosha – ‘bliss-dominant sheath’ (ananda = bliss)
Anandamayakosha is the ‘blueprint layer’ of the human constitution. It is the fifth layer. It is the field of impressions and ignorance. It is primarily made of the dormant imprints collected by our mind from all experiences and learning. The entire design of the human personality is embedded in these imprints of samskaras, ‘impressions’ and vasanas, ‘tendencies’. It is the most subtle layer and the underlying foundation of the human constitution.
The anandamayakosha is the layer of mind experienced in the deep-sleep state. It is devoid of the ripples of mental thought-waves that bring forth forms and dimensions. Therefore, there is no scope for agitations, pressures and restlessness to arise in it, which is why its experience is blissful and silent. The contents of the anandamayakosha acquire a perceptible form only after they manifest as vibrating thought-waves ‘vrittis’; the building blocks of the other four koshas mentioned earlier.
Sharira Trayam – The Triple Bodies
Hindu teachings also model the human constitution based on the quality of the structural form or body. This model is called Sharira Trayam, ‘the Triple Bodies’ which refers to three bodies, viz. sthula sharira, ‘solid body’, sukshma sharira, ‘subtle body’ and karana sharira, ‘causal body’. The annamayakosha which is the organic physical layer is identical to the sthula sharira, ‘solid body or gross body’. The pranamayakosha, manomayakosha and vijnanamayakosha collectively make up the sukshma sharira, ‘subtle body’. Finally, the anandamayakosha is the same as karana sharira, ‘causal body’. It is called causal body because it is the cause of the other two bodies.
The True Self
Vedic sages and philosophers, after having studied the human constitution in great depth, came to a spectacular discovery – that none of the sheaths of the human constitution are the source of Self-awareness. The fundamental sense of being (existence) and sentiency (consciousness) expressed by the words “I am” is not contained nor produced by the Panchakosha. Although, the sense of a limited individual self (personality) is created by the ego-thoughts (ahamkara), they are not the ‘true Self’, which the Hindu scriptures distinctly term as the Atman. The Atman, the Self refers to our innate changeless Being (Presence) and Self-awareness. The Atman is not the constantly changing composite of the human constitution, but it is its very substratum, without which the Panchakosha cannot manifest.
Rakesh Nair (Yogi Rakesh) is a life mentor and teacher of Vedic philosophy and yoga. A lifelong practitioner since childhood, he studied and trained for many years in the authentic Vedic tradition, primarily in the lineage of Advaita teachers. He holds a Masters degree in Sanskrit studies. He also has a degree in Computer Science majoring in Software Engineering. He founded yogirakesh.com to help bridge the knowledge in ancient scriptures to modern life.