“He who knows Brahman attains the supreme goal. Brahman is the abiding reality, he is pure knowledge, and he is infinity. He who knows that Brahman dwells within the lotus of the heart becomes one with him and enjoys all blessings” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:1a).
This verse contains the famous formula: Satyam, jnanam, anantam Brahman–“Brahman is Reality, Knowledge, and Infinity.” The rest of the verse is self-explanatory, except the Sanskrit says that the liberated one knows “Brahman as existing in the intellect [buddhi] in the supreme space in the heart.” This is the Chidakasha.
“Out of Brahman, who is the Self, came ether; out of ether, air; out of air, fire; out of fire, water; out of water, earth; out of earth, vegetation; out of vegetation, food; out of food, the body of man. The body of man, composed of the essence of food, is the physical sheath of the Self” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1:1b).
There are a few listings in the upanishads of the emanation-stages of creation, for it is essential to realize that everything has come from Brahman and shall return to Brahman. Naturally they are broad–very broad–outlines, for the manifestation of relativity has countless subtle stages. First there comes the great elements (mahabhuta), forerunners of the elements here on the physical level. When the physical planets are fully formed, vegetation, animals and human beings appear–all as abodes of the Self. Implied here is the principle that vegetables are the natural and intended food of human beings–certainly of those who intend to manifest the Self. The Gita and upanishads say a great deal about food because the mind is formed of the subtle essence of food. Vegetarian diet is a cornerstone of humanity, and a necessary factor in the aspiration to divinity. No serious aspirant can afford to ignore this or attempt to ignore it. So the upanishad continues:
“From food are born all creatures, which live upon food and after death return to food. Food is the chief of all things. It is therefore said to be medicine for all diseases of the body. Those who worship food as Brahman gain all material objects. From food are born all beings which, being born, grow by food. All beings feed upon food, and, when they die, food feeds upon them” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:2:1).
This is a great deal of mental food to digest, but is well worth the effort. Food (annam) is not just something material that an organism subsists on, but includes everything that goes to affect any sentient being. Thoughts and feelings are food, and all life-experiences are food. Intuitions are food. Of course some are positive and some are negative, but they all go to “feed” the evolving consciousness. But frankly if we do not start with the regulation of physical food we need not bother with the metaphysical food.
Food, physical and subtle, is the medicine for all ills. This the Indian sages knew long before nutritionists or naturopaths existed. I was fortunate to know a truly great man, Dr. Josef Lenninger, who could cure any disease with diet alone. He was never wrong and he never failed to cure anyone who followed his instructions. He even saved the lives of several people I knew. Diet is everything–this I learned from him much better than from any yogi.
When we realize that Brahman is the ultimate “food” then our spiritual health is assured. When we live in harmony with Brahman, all good comes to us on all levels of our existence. Just as bodies are absorbed in the earth from which they and their food came, so finally we are absorbed into our original Source to live forever in the greatest sense.
The Bodies of the Bodiless
“Different from the physical sheath [annamaya kosha] is the vital sheath [pranamaya kosha]. This is encased in the physical sheath and has the same form. Through this the senses perform their office. From this men and beasts derive their life. This determines the length of life of all creatures. He who worships the vital sheath as Brahman lives to complete his span of life. This sheath is the living self of the physical sheath.
“Different from the vital sheath is the mental sheath [manomaya kosha]. This is encased in the vital sheath and has the same form” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:3:1).
Just as God has encased himself in various layers of manifestation, so has the Self. So knowledge of these sheaths (koshas) is worthwhile.
The pranic and mental (manasic) bodies
Inside the physical body is the pranic body, the body of life-force. Without the pranic body the physical body cannot live. The pranic body is also the most objective astral body, and when seen looks just like the physical body. At death, the grossest part of the pranic body remains, which is why the hair and fingernails grow for a while after death. When it separates from the physical body at death, the pranic body takes on the appearance it had when strongest–usually as the person looked in early middle-age. When projected from the physical while the person still lives in embodiment, however, it looks just like the physical body at that time.
Within the pranic body the currents of life-force move in subtle channels that correspond to the physical nerves. In Sanskrit both the physical and pranic nerves are called nadis.
The pranic body draws its substance from food, sunlight, and air. This latter is one of the reasons yogis pay attention to both diet and breathing. Health of the pranic body can produce health of the material body. The pranic body does indeed determine both the health and the length of life of the physical body. Prana is the very Life of God in manifestation, so we live in and by the Divine Life.
In a sense, the pranic body is the “self” of the physical. It is the link between the physical sense organs and the sensory mind, or manas, which is the mental sheath spoken of next. This body also has the form of the embodied person, but is more radiant than the pranic sheath. It, too, is astral, and draws a great deal of its vitality from the pranic body.
These three bodies are mostly integrated with earthly experience–that is their purpose. For this reason they perceive only the slightest hints of spiritual being–of Spirit Itself. Therefore the upanishad interposes this statement: “Words cannot express the bliss of Brahman, mind cannot reach it. The sage, who knows it, is freed from fear” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:4:1).
This is tremendous information for the yogi. First, it tells him that any words about Brahman and Brahman-experience can be worthless and even deceptive, since It cannot be spoken about, nor can the sensory mind perceive Brahman in Its pure Being. Next it tells him that those who know this truth will be freed from great fear and doubts. This is because ignorant people continually mistake physical, pranic, and mental phenomena for spiritual phenomena, Then, when the flaws–and sometimes outright false character–of those phenomena are discovered, the sincere seeker is thrown into doubt, fear, and confusion. Disillusionment with these things sometimes cause the person to forsake spiritual life altogether. Of course, spiritual life is impossible on those levels, so they never really had one–but they aspired to do so. We are being warned by the upanishad to not make similar mistakes. The yogi must continually live higher than these three levels. He must realize that they are delusive to a high degree. Nevertheless they are vehicles of the divine Self and must be cared for.
“The mental sheath is the living self of the vital sheath” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:4:2). The mental sheath draws much of its power from the pranic sheath, as I said, but it greatly controls the pranic sheath and empowers it by directing it. For example, when the sensory mind sees attractive food, it stimulates the pranic sheath to begin the process of physical digestion. When it perceives something pleasant the two other bodies are likewise affected, and when it perceives something fearful or life-threatening its effects are sometimes cataclysmic.
The intellectual body
“Different from the mental sheath is the intellectual sheath. This is encased in the mental sheath and has the same form. All actions, sacrificial or otherwise, are performed through the intellect. All the senses pay homage to the intellectual sheath. He who worships intellect as Brahman does not err; he does not identify himself with the other sheaths, and does not yield to the passions of the body” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:5:1).
Now the upanishad speaks of the jnanamaya kosha, the intellectual sheath, that is also called the buddhi, the intellect. This controls the three lower sheaths through intelligent understanding. Light strikes the eye and imprints an image of a tree on the retina, the nerves, physical and pranic, convey impulses to the physical and astral brains, the intellect perceives it and says: “That is a tree–a maple tree.” Without this function of the buddhi, we would not be human beings at all.
The intellectual sheath is not astral but causal. If we saw it, we would see light–usually formless, but on the lesser levels it could have the general outline of the human body. The senses are messengers to the intellect, its servants, actually. The wise yogi “does not identify himself with the other sheaths,” but centers his awareness in and directs his life mostly from the buddhi. As a result he “does not yield to the passions of the body.” Surely the buddhi is worthy of reverence.
The will body
“Different from the intellectual sheath is the sheath of the ego. This sheath is encased in the intellectual sheath and has the same form” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:5:2a).
The completion of the body complex is the highest body, the anandamaya kosha which is the seat of will (ichcha) and the sense of asmita–“I exist.” The intellect may know it is seeing a tree, but the will decides whether or not to keep looking at it. In this way it fully controls the lesser levels. It both brings them into function and stops their actions. Just as the buddhi makes us intelligent human beings, the will-body makes us effective human beings.
The anandamaya kosha is the subtlest causal level, so subtle that it touches and partakes of the nature of the spirit-Self. Functionally speaking, it is a mixture of subtle energy and pure consciousness–though it is not really, since “beyond all sheaths is the Self” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:5:2b). Sometimes we have to speak inaccurately to get across at least a shadow of higher realities.
All intelligent thought and action are possible because of the buddhi and the will. So they are really the seat of karma. That is why Buddha taught that intention determined the nature of karma more than the act, that a person who accidentally brought about the death of another would not be a murderer. Someone who gives poison to an ill person, fully believing that it is medicine, is not guilty of taking life. Ultimately karma is a matter of the will, for it is the basis of action.
These five bodies correspond to the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. They also correspond to five levels of existence: bhuh, bhuvah, swah, maha, and jana lokas. According to which body we mostly function in determines what world (loka) we will incarnate in after this life. Fortunately for the yogi, he steps beyond these five bodies and cultivates awareness of the Self. So at death the skilled yogi goes to tapa loka, the world of those who are consciously evolving themselves. Hopefully he will not return to earthly birth, but will continue on from there to the highest world, satya loka, the realm of the liberated ones who know Brahman.
Brahman and belief
Beyond the sheaths is the Self, and beyond the Self as Its inmost being is Brahman. Brahman is the basis of all and IS all, as the upanishad will soon discuss. This being so: “Vain and useless becomes his life who thinks of Brahman as nonexistent. He alone who knows Brahman as existent truly lives” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:6:1a). Interestingly, the upanishad literally says: “If anyone knows Brahman as non-existent, he himself becomes non-existent.” How many times do people “know” something that is completely wrong. Our belief in God must not be based on our ignorant mind like the unbelief of the atheist. I have known of people who became atheists when tragedy entered their lives, and I have known people who became believers when tragedy came into their lives. Neither their unbelief nor their belief really amounted to anything. People who come to believe in God as a kind of last resort are like conquered enemies, not free and loyal citizens of the kingdom of God.
We should not believe in God, we should know that God exists. There is a deep intuition of the existence of God in each one of us that comes from our spirit-Self. But because of the mental debris we have accumulated in this and prior lives it has become greatly attenuated, distorted, or even obliterated. An external factor can sometimes shift the debris pile to let some light through, but how long will it be before other things shift it back? The only really safe and sure way is to practice meditation and burn up the things that are obscuring our intuition of spirit. Then we will be knowers of the existence of Brahman and well on the way to becoming knowers of Brahman.
Our minds possess the same creative power as the Divine Mind, though to a finite degree. Nonetheless, our mind determines our entire life–the whole course of our evolution in this and all higher worlds. It does rest squarely on us. Remember what Sri Ramakrishna said: “The mind is everything.” God has created the playing field and supplied all the equipment for the game. But how we play is up to us–none else. If we do not know either the goal of the game or the way it is played, it is hopeless. As the upanishad says, the life of one who does not believe in God is vain and useless. But if we know the goal, the rules, and the way to play, then we will play well–truly live, as the upanishad says.
The only reason for the universe is the attainment of Brahmajnana. So the upanishad finally says: “Surely at death a foolish man does not attain Brahman, but only a wise man” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:6:1b).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Christians: Brahman, Creation, and Us