Sheaths Within Sheaths – Early Devotees

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Sheaths Within Sheaths

Swami tells us that it is only in the depths of silence that the voice of God can be heard. There is another story that speaks of this profound silence that is the Divinity. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, while in the forest, came into an Ashram where there were many rishis and their wives assembled. Rama and Lakshmana joined the men, Sita sat with the ladies. As all the men were sanyasins, they all looked pretty much the same. Even Rama and Lakshmana wore the same simple bark dress as these forest dwellers, and they had their hair in matted locks, as did most of the men there. Sita was of a royal family, brought up in a secluded atmosphere; she was the very embodiment of modesty and morality. In the presence of these sages, Sita bowed her head in humility and did not look up.

One of the rishis’ wives asked Sita, “Did you come alone or with your husband?” Sita indicated that her husband was there and that he was seated among the sanyasins; then she remained silent. When Sita gave no further information, the lady asked her, “Is that one with the knot of hair on his head your husband?” Sita only moved her head a little from side to side to intimate that, no, that was not her husband. “Then is it the one with the long beard?” Again Sita discretely motioned her head to indicate a negative answer. “Is it the one with the long whiskers?” Again a negative movement of the head. “Is it the one with the long nails?” One by one, she was saying ‘no’ with a little movement of her head. When finally the question clearly pointed to Rama, the splendorous one with the bow and the blue skin, Sita remained motionless and silent. Paramatma can be known only in silence.

We are born as human beings. Are we the body? Are we the life-force? Are we the mind? Are we the intelligence? Swami reminds us of the Vedantic answer, ‘Not this, not this, not this.’ When every question, one after the other, has been answered like this in the negative, then at the end one last question alone remains, ‘Are we the Atma?’ Then there will be no answer, only the silent recognition of the great truth. So, the meaning of Sita’s response, Swami says, is to reveal the True Self; and when that Atmic Truth was pointed out she confirmed it by answering ‘yes’ through her silence.

Swami often speaks of the five sheaths, each of which is successively more subtle, fitting one within the other:

First, there is the Annamaya or food sheath, the most outward sheath, which makes up the grossest aspect of the being and relates to the physical body.

Secondly, there is the Pranamaya or vital sheath, sometimes also called the astral body, which accounts for the coursing of the life energy and makes up the densest part of the subtle body of the being.

Thirdly, there is the Manomaya or mental sheath which is associated with the projecting power of the mind, and is also included in the subtle body of the being.

Fourthly, there is the Vignanamaya or the intellectual sheath, associated with the Buddhi, the intuitive and deliberating faculty, and which makes up the finest aspect of the subtle body.

Fifthly, there is the Anandamaya or bliss sheath, the most subtle aspect of being, which makes up the causal body and is associated with the veiling power of the mind.

The gross, the subtle and the causal bodies, made up of these five sheaths, are each associated with one of the three states of consciousness, the waking, the dream and the deep sleep states. They also correspond to each of the three letters making up the AUM, the primal sound, out of which the mind has projected the universe. All these sheaths within sheaths, make up the Upadhis, the limiting physical and mental equipment of the individual soul, the Jiva. They also make up the physical and subtle aspects of the world. They are the stuff of Maya, the illusory fabrications of the illusory mind. Beyond all these is the basis for all these; that is what is called the fourth, the Turiya, and what is also called the Mahakarana, the primal cause. It is the Atmic Principle which is the one true reality… the one unchanging existence on which all these illusory projections come and go.

The five sheaths making up the three states of experience, the five gross and subtle elements, the five senses of perception, the three gunas, and the various aspects of mind, are all different ways of speaking of Maya, and different ways of accounting for the grand illusion of names and forms that make up the multitude of beings and things in the world. Maya is another name for mind, which in turn is born of ignorance. Vedanta teaches us that ignorance is the grand delusion that gives rise to the grand illusion of world. All the names and forms making up this illusion of world, play on their basis, the infinite ocean of Sat-chit-ananda, just like the ever-changing waves and bubbles play on the surface of the deep unchanging sea.

The story of Shiva and Parvarti, as also the wonderful story of the enlightenment of Brighu, which is given in the Taittariya Upanishad, illustrate the successive removal of these sheaths, one overlaying the other, as soon as the spiritual aspirant is ready for the highest wisdom. The presence of the guru catalyzes this process of penetrating deeper and deeper through one’s levels of illusion, until one reaches the very source, the unchanging truth of the Self. In the story given, the clear, pure breath was associated with the vital plane, the beautiful image of the Lord was associated with the purified mental plane, the splendorous light was associated with the effulgent Sun of the Gayatri, which wakes up the intuitive intellect, and is related to the plane of Buddhi, and the OM, the pure sound of creation was associated with the causal plane. Beyond all these is the silence of reality, the eternal Divine Principle, the Immortal Self.

When the sishya, the student, is ready for the final beatitude, the guru instructs him to search out That which, when known, all else will be known… That, by which all is seen but which itself can never be seen… That, by which all is heard but which itself can never be heard… That, out of which everything arises, in which everything exists, and into which everything again dissolves. As he discovers for himself these layers within layers, the guru urges him to go on, not to remain stuck in any place, but to go deeper and deeper.

When all the sheaths are stripped away the answer reveals itself in the silence of reality. The guru doesn’t instruct on what truth is; he points out what is not truth, and goads the sishya on. If the sishya bogs down at some level and strays away, the guru will seek him out to keep him moving on the path, until he reaches the highest wisdom.

~source Al Drucker