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Sheathes of the 'Self'

Assimilated from Vivekchudamani: Ancient thinkers have classified existence (me and my universe) into five SHEATHS, each placed 'within' the preceding one, like the peels of an onion. The outermost 'peel' is the grossest, and it becomes subtler as each successive layer is 'peeled' off by the discriminating intelligence - until (even) that very intelligence is seen to be NOT the 'I', but just an object like any other we perceive. So what remains after that, when all that we experience (including our mind and its activities) have been negated by 'viveka' to be not the 'I'?

* Viveka has been commonly translated as ''discrimination', the act of being able to tell one from the other (here, truth from falsehood). But some commentators also prefer the term 'discernment', which they say, is free of a sense of judgment implied in discrimination.

1) The outermost sheath - The body (grossest); Its made of the food we eat. Its left inert when the life's energy has left it, and then starts to disassimilate. So 'me' minus life's energy = The body sheath, i.e. the Annamaya Kosha (annamaya = made of rice/food, kosha = cell/sheath/container)

2) Inner to that - The energy sheath (Pranamaya Kosha); the mysterious energy that makes the universe seem alive to us, and that is flowing through my body even now (Prana = that universal energy, here considered in an individual sense)

3) Inner to that - The sensory sheath (Manomaya Kosha); The gross sensory interface which makes us perceive the world around us, including what we perceive in our dreams. So this makes  us sense an apple as an apple, an orange as an orange. But it doesn't make us discriminate the former as something I LIKE and the orange as something I don't. It  makes me perceive Harry as Harry, a male of certain age and looks, but doesn't make Harry any dearer to me than say, Mary. It is not associated with perceptible emotions. At this sensory interface, we, that is those of us who have had shared experiences, are not different from each other. We do not have likes or dislikes.

4) Inner to that - The 'I' sheath (Vigyanamaya Kosha); This is the main culprit, the most terrible mischief maker that turns our world into the clinging, attachment ridden world that it is. That which labels everything we perceive, in dreams or in waking state, into likes and dislikes (and shades of those in between). That imparts what is called, in loose parlance, the 'ego', and which makes us endlessly flit from one state of desire to another.

And yet, according to Vivekchudamani (Crest jewel of discrimination/discernment - by the Adi Shankaracharya), even that is not the REAL 'I'. The Vigyanamaya Kosha is the seat of a false sense of identification with everything we perceive. Why is it false? Because it identifies with all that is false. And why are these 'identifiables' false? Because they are all time-bound. Everything we perceive, including the universe of the cosmologists, where events are counted in terms of billions of years, is still time-bound. Everything we are attached to, our parents, friends, pets and possessions (and the memory of all these), and including our own body, and everything we dislike, will one day be taken away from us. THAT is the truth - and yet we suffer! Yet we rejoice, and then cling to, whatever gives us such momentary joy (thus paving the way for future suffering when that desire is not fulfilled).

Hence, all perceptions, which can be traced through all four sheaths thus described, are untruth. Taking away (or negating, through discrimination/discernment) all these sheaths will take us closer to the real 'I', which is said to be a pure, choice-less consciousness.

And yet, one more sheath remains...!

5) Inner to that - The sheath of bliss (Anandamaya kosha); We can't directly perceive this, but we do experience a kind of 'echo', a sense of having passed through this state, after we wake up from deep, DREAMLESS sleep. That is the innermost sheath which makes up the perceivable 'I'. What lies even inner to the sheath of bliss?

That is beyond our experience. Because, to have an experience, consciousness needs to split into subject and object, so that the object can be 'felt' by the subject. I see the keyboard, hence the keyboard is not me. I see my hand, hence the hand is not me. I sense my mind, hence the mind is not me. So if I were able to experience beyond the 5th sheath (of bliss), that would still not be 'me', because that would be an object then, and there would still need to be something experiencing that object.

But one may ask, why is then the Sheath of bliss not the final 'me', since it is something like a void in our experience stream? First of all, that's not entirely true. Even though the world as we know it, completely disappears in deep, dreamless sleep, we do experience a sense of deep relaxation after waking up. So, something remains from that experience. Secondly, deep dreamless sleep is conditional to our preparing to fall asleep. If we can't put head to pillow, if we are not woken up prematurely, it can't happen. Its not a free, unconditional state. So there must be SOMETHING still beyond the Anandamaya Kosha.

One may also ask, if all experiences have thus been negated, why should anything remain at all? Why couldn't it be a state of 'zero'. The answer to that is - to 'know' that there is nothing beyond the five experiential states, someone/something must still exist - otherwise who would confirm that 'nothingness'. There would  have to be a final witness. The ancient thinkers say, THAT something is the real 'I' (when the word 'I' has lost all its shallow, individual-centric meaning), and it is all that there is at the very root of 'being'.

In that state beyond subject-object duality, the Experienc-ER dissolves (for want of a better word) in the Experienc-ED, and vice versa, and only Experienc-ING remains. According to Vivekchudamani, that state is not 'nothingness', it IS something, and life is an opportunity given us to discover, through discrimination and negation of successive layers of experience, THAT very 'something'.

Call it Brahman, call it whatever you want. What's even the need to call it something. One only calls when someone is not here. That which is all pervading, like the space that would continue to exist even if the earth is dislodged from its orbit, or something else replaces it, need not be called at all.


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