An Overview of Vedanta Part 1

Traditionally Vedanta is considered the highest knowledge. (Vedanta = Veda (knowledge) + antah (end). Some say that the name is also given because the Upanishads appear at the ending of each of the Vedas. A study of Vedanta normally encompasses three main works:-

(a) Upanishads
(b) Bhagavad Gita
© Brahma Sutras

(There are more than 200 known Upanishads. Some consider 108 of the as important. The principal Upanishads are said to be be 9 in number-there is no consistency on this, with some authorities talking about 11 and 13 too.)

  1. Vedanta basically answers seven questions:-

i) What is Bondage

ii) How does it arise ?

iii) How does it continue its existence ?

iv) How can one get out of its clutches ?

v) What is the"Not Self" ?

vi) What is the"Self" ?

vii) How do I differentiate between the Self and Not Self ?

These are the seven questions asked by a seeker to his Guru in the text Viveka Chudamani- a poem by the Hindu philosopher Adi Sankaracharya.

  1. In this article, I will attempt to answer the fifth question ie What is the ?Not Self? ?. It is usual to begin a study of Vedanta with this answer for ease of understanding.

Anatman literally means ?Not Atman? ie the Not Self. The Anatman is defined as the ?Sarira Traya? ?the three bodies. A living being is said to consist of three bodies:-

(a) Sthula Sarira ? the gross physical body
(b) Suksuma Sarira ? the Subtle body
© Karana Sarira ? the Causal body*

*Causal as in Cause of ?not to be confused with Casual :slight_smile:

(a) Sthula Sarira- Gross Body

This is the gross physical body. Defined by Sankaracarya as :-

(i) Made up of the five great elements (panca mahabhuta)
(ii) Comes into existence (born) as a result of past good Karma.
(iii) It is the vehicle for experiences
(iv) It is subject to the six modifications.

Let us look at these four properties in some more detail:-

(i) ?Pancikrita Pancamahbhuta? ?Made up of the five great elements that gave gone through the process of ?Pancikrita?.

The five great elements are Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. They exist in two forms ?Subtle and Gross. When they are in the Subtle form they are known as Tanmatras.

(When we say ?Gross? here we mean that which exists in the physical form and is capable of being seen. Conversely the Subtle cannot be perceived directly by the organ of sight.)

Now there is a process called Pancikarana literally meaning ?making into five? or causing five divisions. There is a detailed explanation of this process available in the texts ?which I am not going into. Anyone who wants to know more is more than welcome to send a PM.

Suffice to say here, that during the process of pancikarana, each element splits in half and then the half combines with one eight portion of the other four elements to give the ?gross form? of the relative Tanmatra.

The physical body is made up of these five gross elements. The differences between different physical bodies is accounted for by Karma which determines time, place etc. of the life form. What does this mean ? It means that we ourselves have, through our past actions, given the order specifications for the body. The body is delivered by Isvara (another concept which we will need to cover later). It also means that our current actions are going to form the order specification document for our bodies in future lives. :lol:

On death of the physical body, these elements are surrendered back to nature.

In the words of Longfellow:-

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Truly these lines refer not to the Soul as we shall see during the course of our study.

(ii) Satkarma Janmyam ? born due to good Karma.

The human body is said to be given to one on account of Good Karma. I will hasten to add that there are degrees here. If the Karma leading to birth is ?purna Punya ?Purely Good? then the body is said to be one for a God; if it is purely bad-purna papa, then you a sub human body; if it has a mixture of good and bad then you have a human body, the composition of the mixture determining your lot in this life.

(iii) Vehicle for experiences ?


The body is the vehicle , the means through which we experience pleasure, pain etc. (Sukha Dukha adi). The ?etc? can be taken to cover experiences which evoke neither pleasure or pain ie experiences which we are indifferent to. It is the medium for interaction with the Universe.

(iv) The Gross Body is subject to the six modifications:-

Sariramasti jAyate vardhate viparaNimate apakshiyate

a) Asti ?coming into existence ?
b) Jayate ?Birth
c) Vardhate- Grows
d) Vipaaranimate- undergoes change
e) Apakshiyate-degeneration ?growing old
f) Vinashyati ?destruction ?death

These are the six stages of a the journey of the Sthula Sarira. From this it follows that whatever is born must meet its death. Therefore what is eternal by nature will have no birth and therefore no death.

(b) Suksuma Sarira ?the Subtle body.

Suksuma Sarira is defined as under :-

(i) Made of the five subtle elements
(ii) Born of Good Karma and being the means for enjoying pleasure ,pain etc. And composed of :-
(iii) the five organs of perception
(iv) five organs of action
(v) the five pranas
(vi) the Mind
(vii) the intellect

Let us take up these one by one:-

(i) Made up of the five subtle elements.

By Subtle here is meant the elements before they undergo the process of pancakarana- ie the Tanmatras- please see the definition given earlier. Since the grossification has not taken place, the elements are in a subtle state ie not visible to the organs of perception. Hence the body composed of these subtle elements ?the Sukusuma Sarira? is also not visible.

(ii) The Suksuma Sarira is,like the Sthula Sarira, born due to good karma- Satkarma Janmyam.

(iii) The Suksuma Sarira is the means for gathering the experience of pleasure, pain etc for enjoyment by the Sthula Sarira. It is worthwhile studying the difference here between Sthula and Suksuma. Sthula Sarira is the vehicle for enjoying the experiences, the place at which the experiences can be enjoyed. Many commentators use the phrase ?Counter for enjoyment of pleasure pain etc? while describing the Sthula Sarira. The Suksuma Sarira, is on the other hand, the means for gathering these experiences. Sastras use the term ?bhogayatana? ??the house or the place ?- while commenting on the Sthula Sarira. The Suksuma Sarira is defined as the ?sadhanam? the means or the instrument for enjoying experiences. This is a very relevant distinction which it is necessary to keep in mind. The import of this is that the Suksuma Sarira is the energy which makes the Sthula Sarira function.

(iv) Five organs of perception.

-The Eyes, Ears, Skin, Tongue and Nose.

(v) Five organs of action

-Speech, Hands, Legs, Anus and Genitals

(vi) Five Pranas

  • Pranas are five in number and they control the physiological functions of the body. These are :- (Description in brackets is the function controlled by the respective prana)

 Prana - (Respiration)
 Apana -(Evacuation of waste from the body)
 Vyana - (Blood Circulation)
 Udana -(Actions like sneezing, crying, vomiting etc)
 Samana -(Digestion)

The term Prana is also used to collectively define the five pranas -beginning with Prana.

(vii) The Mind ? Manas

Manas is a collection of thoughts- in a state of oscillation. Doubts and Indecision are a characteristic of Manas. Emotion also belongs to the Manas.

(viii) The Intellect- the Buddhi.

Reasoning, logical thinking, decisiveness ?these are the characteristics of the Buddhi.

Notes: It is worthwhile noting here that the organs of perception and action have been defined as residing in the Subtle body. These organs are not to be confused with the physical entities of the Ear, Eye etc which are part of the physical body. In Vedanta, it is the ?Indriyas? ?which are responsible for the function. The Indriyas are the ?senses?. Thus while the physical organ ?eye? is part of the Gross Body, when we talk about the ?eye?, we are referring to the sense of sight which resides in the Subtle body.

(c ) Karana Sarira ? the Causal Body

Karana Sarira is the Causal body?. The cause of the other two bodies; hence causal.

Sankracharya defines the causal body as :-

Anirvacya ?anadi-avidya-rupam; sarira ?dvayasya- karana- matram; satsvarupa -ajnanam ?nirvikalpaka-rupam- yadasti- tat- karana- sariram

The Causal Body is that which cannot be described, ignorance without a beginning , and is the cause of the two bodies. It is ignorance of one?s true nature , free of differences.

Now to explain these rather cryptic sentences :stuck_out_tongue:

The Karana Sarira is the cause of the other two bodies. Thus the Vasanas (residual impressions of desires and actions) of previous births which have yet to be worked out are the content of the Karana Sarira. It is this content which shapes the individual?s desires and thoughts in the present life. Thus it is responsible for the birth of the Subtle Body. To enable the vasanas which take form (Prarabdha karma-another term which we need to define a bit later ), a suitable gross body is also created for eg. in case the vasanas are very tamasic, an animal body may be created.

Secondly it is of the nature of Ajnana-ignorance. Ignorance of what ? —
-Ignorance of the true nature of the Atman. (satva rupa ajnanam). Atman is defined as Sat-Cit ?Cit-Ananda (3 more definitions later :)). We experience this Ajnana as ignorance of our true nature as the Atman. This Ajnana (ignorance) is of course the real reason for the Karmic Cycle of birth and death. This Ignorance is, therefore, the unique distinctive feature of the Karana Sarira.

Karana Sarira is without a beginning ?anadi. As we shall see when we define Avidya (Sigh ! :frowning: another definition ), ignorance is beyond time. This being so, the Karana Sarira , which is the cause of the mind is necessarily beyond it. Therefore Karana Sarira is not subject to time ?hence it is without a beginning.

Anirvacya ?avidya rupam says the Sastra in defining Karana Sarira. Avidya is another term for Ajnana- ignorance of the nature of our Self. (Sat Svarupa Anjnana) . Anirvacya is that which cannot be defined or explained. One needs to get into a bit of defining terms here to understand the term Anirvacya.

(i) Atman- sat-cit-ananda svarupa. Atman is defined as Sat-cit Ananda Svarupa ie of the nature of Existence ?Consciousness- Bliss.

(ii) What is Sat ? Existence. ?The Sastra defines it as Kala-traye ?api-tistathi ?iti -Sat. ie Sat is that which stays (exists) in all three periods of time-the past, present and future. By which we mean it is beyond time-as stated earlier time is a creation of the mind, it has no meaning without someone to experience it.

(iii) What is Cit ?-Consciousness ?awareness-Of the nature of Knowledge. This Consciousness is the Supreme consciousness, present throughout the universe, across all the three periods of time.

(iv) Ananda is Bliss-supreme unending bliss ?again present in all three periods of time.

Now, and we need to understand this well- We have just said that Ajnana/Avidya is without a beginning-beyond time. Time says Vedanta is a product of our mind ? do we experience time when we the mind is absent ? in deep sleep or in a state of unconsciousness ?under anaesthesia for example ?- No. Therefore to experience time, the mind needs to be present- hence time is said to be a projection of the mind. And since the mind itself is a creation of Avidya, the creator- Avidya is beyond its creation ?time.

But then Atman is also beyond time. ?Sat. Does this mean that Avidya = Sat= Atman ? No. Because Sat has no end ?it is Ananta ?without an end. But Avidya is capable of being destroyed through the process of Self Realisation for that is the purpose of Yoga. So we have a concept Avidya/Ajnana that has no beginning, but can have an end. It therefore does not fit into the definition of Sat.

Is Avidya therefore ?Asat? ?having no reality ? (Asat in Vedanta is defined as that which can never be-never exist in any period of time. Thus the ?horns of a rabbit ? is an Asat.) No, because the existence of Avidya is experienced through its effects, the ignorance of the Self and its consequences ?misery. Thus Avidya has existence but also can have an end. It therefore cannot be explained or categorised as Sat or Asat. For such an entity, Vedanta gives the term ?Mithya?.

And lastly ?Nirvikalpam ?without modification/changes. To this extent Avidya shares this quality with Atman. This quality is the reason why we experience the state of dreamless sleep.

To sum up, the Karana Sarira is Avidya.

  1. Avastha Trayam (Three States )

Why have we talked so much about the three bodies ?

Life can be thought of as a series of experiences. Vedanta relates all experiences in life to three states of consciousness:- (A state is called an Avastha- therefore the three states are known as Avastha Trayam). These are:-

(a) Waking ( Jagrad Avastha)
(b) Sleep (Svapna Avastha)
© Deep Sleep (Susupti Avastha)

(a) Waking State

The waking state is defined as that state where objects are perceived /known through the use of the organs of perception eyes, ears etc and you respond to such stimuli taking action etc. The Atman , when it is identified with such Jagrad Avastha is known as the ?Visva?. Note that Atman being Consciousness is present and enables experiencing. In the waking state the Gross Body is in use.

(b) Sleep State

In the Sleep State , the world of the Waking state disappears for you and a new world appears. You may say that the world is still there- but you have no personal knowledge of this ?it can only be inferred from statements made by others. As far you are concerned, it has ceased to exist. Note that when we say you, we do not mean the Gross Body. In effect you are dead to the waking state and have migrated to the Dream State. The world of the dream state has its roots in the experiences of the waking state and you may find yourself living out or trying to conclude what was unfinished business in the waking state.
Your dream reality is as real as the waking reality. Do you ever know that you are dreaming ? In the dream state if you are being chased by a tiger-do you say ?Oh-I know this is a dream. I need not bother ? No you don?t ?you run as fast ?perhaps faster?and if you wake up suddenly you will find that you are sweating and panting with your heart thudding ?as if it has happened in the waking state.

So, what is the explanation-it is a different order of reality than the waking state. Your gross body is not functional but your subtle body is ?hence the emotions, the fear, anger etc. The ?I? of this state is not the ?Visva?- he is called ?Taijasa? ?effulgence. Because you experience, Consciousness ?Atman is also present in this state.

(c ) Deep Sleep State

The Deep sleep state is said to be the state where you do not experience anything	 and you experience happiness. The scriptures use the words ?Aham Kimapi na Janami sukhena maya nidraanubhuyata? meaning ?I do not know anything and experience happy sleep?.

In this state the Gross Body as well as the subtle body are not functional. With the Subtle body non functional, there is nothing to remember with-hence the absence of any memory about the experience during  deep sleep ? hence ?I experience nothing?. With the ego absent, duality has disappeared. This is the closest to Samadhi that one can experience without actually going into Samadhi. Recall the experience of deep sleep-You can recall no experience-Why ? Because to experience something duality is needed ? the experiencer and that which is experienced. 

The main difference between Susupti and Samadhi is thatin Susupti- there is no awareness; while in Samadhi there is full concentrated awareness. Note that this does not imply duality for in the state of Samadhi , the experiencer , the experience and the process of experiencing have all merged to become one ?the Atman.

The Atman is said to be present in this state too, since you are able to recall that you experienced ?deep sleep?.

Thus the Atman, Consciousness is the common factor and is present across all the three states.
  1. [U] Panca Kosa (Five Sheaths)[/U]

    Another important concept in Vedanta. The three bodies are also defined in terms of five sheaths. Kosa is ?sheath? ? a covering, a veil so to say.

(a) Annamaya Kosa (Food Sheath)

The body is said to be consisting of food (including liquids) consumed. Hence the body is produced from the gross bodies of the parents. During the embryo stage, it is nourished by the food consumed by the mother and after birth by food consumed by the Gross Body. Throughout the stage of being alive, food is required for its maintenance. On destruction of the Gross Body (death), the gross body and becomes food for other beings. 

(This just means that the body goes back to the earth in the form of burial or on the funeral pyre and presumably functions as food for some life form)

Since from conception to post death, the Sthula Sarura ?gross body has a link with food (anna), it is called the Annamaya Kosa.

Why Kosa- because it covers/veils the Atman and the strong identification that we have with the Gross body prevents the vision of the Atman. The strength of this identification is brought out beautifully in verse 78 of the Vivekachudmani.

?The deer, the elephant , the moth , the fish and the blackbee meet with death, each by one of these five senses. What then needs to be said of man in whom all the five are active ??

The first sentence refer to the senses of sound, touch, vision, taste and smell. Sound and touch are the cause of capture of the deer and tthe elephant respectively. The moth attracted by the vision of the flame meets its death in the object of its attraction. The fish is caught by the need to taste the bait and the blackbee is attracted to the smell of the flower and dies in the process of its enjoyment. Each demise is the result of activity of just one sense. What then of man, says Sankaracarya who is bound by all his five senses ?
The Gross Body is therefore also referred to as the Annamaya Kosa

(b) Pranamaya/Manomaya/Vijnanamaya Kosas (Vital Air Sheath, Mental Sheath & Intellectual Sheath)

The Suksma sarira, the subtle body, on the other hand , is divided into three Kosas.

(i) Pranamaya,
(ii) Manomaya and
(iii) Vijnanamaya.

(i) The five Pranas and the Karmeindriyas ?the organs of action- form the Pranamya Kosa or the ?Vital Air Sheath?. The Pranamaya Kosa is where all acts emanate.

(ii) The ?manas? ?mind, the five organs of perception/knowledge, form the Manomaya Kosa.(mental sheath -All desires arise in this Kosa).

(iii) The buddhi ?intellect- and the five organs of perception form the Vijnanamaya Kosa (intellectual sheath). The power of knowledge /perception is located here.

(Note: Both Manomaya and Vijnanamaya Kosas depend upon knowledge gathered by the organs of perception for their functioning. Hence these organs are common to both these sheaths).

(c ) Anandamaya Kosa

The Karana sarira, the causal body is the seat of the Anandamaya Kosa. The sheath of bliss. As mentioned earlier, when you are identified with the Karana sarira eg the Deep Sleep State ?Susupti Avastha, the experience is that of bliss. And the only experience is that of bliss-there is no other experience. Hence the Karana Sarira is also referred to as the Anandamaya Kosa.

It may be noted that identification with the three Sariras also means identification with the panca kosas.

The Self is something separate from the bodies and the Koshas, hence these are called the ?Not Self?- the Anatman.

The answers to the other six questions will form part of subsequent posts.

(The author Ravi Easwaran is the son of Meditation Guru Eknath Easwaran. He lives in India and teaches Yoga and Meditation at the Sivananda Ashram)

great article…helps alot with understanding the koshas…

what is difference between koshas and sariras? seem to be very similar…like the gross body corresponds to anamaya kosha…

basically, vedanta is explaining anatomy and physiology as it were long long ago:)

interesting that Five organs of perception and five of actions are subtle indeed:) cause the real perception occurs in the brain… which is not subtle neither :? or greater perception happens even past the brain:?

finally, it seems like according to vedanta the Self in not koshas, so the Self does not experience the bliss?

Thanks in advance


what is difference between koshas and sariras? seem to be very similar…like the gross body corresponds to anamaya kosha…

finally, it seems like according to vedanta the Self in not koshas, so the Self does not experience the bliss?


Gross, Subtle and Causal bodies are levels of experience for the Not Self. (Not Self being used for that entity which is being given consciousness by the Self ?Atman, God etc, and therefore consists of, as far a human is concerned, of the Body & Mind- The mind itself having four subdivisions (four roles is more accurate) ?Buddhi-Intellect (analysis and decision making) , Manas-Mind-(emotions , likes and dislikes), Citta-Memory and Ahankara-Ego). This Body mind complex is given life by Consciousness also called God, Atman etc. The Gross body gives experiences in the waking state, the Subtle body in the dream state and the Causal body at the level of the Ego. Thus there are three levels of experiences used to describe the ?Not Self? ?called Anatman in the Vedanta.
The Not Self can also be described through the five sheaths (koshas). So this is only a different way of looking at the Not Self. Since they describe the same object, it is possible to draw a correlation between the Sariras and the Koshas. As you have pointed out the Gross body corresponds to the Annamaya Kosha. That is because the body is nourished out of the food and water that we consume. (Anna broadly means food). Vedanta talks about the Gross body as having been brought into existence by food alone ?I suppose it could be a logical meaning since without food a human body (parents) will not be in a position to produce sperm and ova. Further states that grows due to food and finally degenerates and becomes food for other species (on death). That is how it takes the meaning of annamaya Kosha. The Kosah is finally the locus for mistakes. What is the mistake here ? The Gross Body is mistaken for the Atman- ?I am the Body?.
The Subtle Body is said to correspond to Pranamaya , Manomaya and Vijnanamaya Koshas.
Pranamaya Kosha consists of the five Pranas and the five organs of action. The five pranas are prana ? which is responsible for respiration and hence the common understanding of prana as air, apana responsible for evacuation, vyana for circulation, samana for digestion and udana for reversed processes like vomiting. The physical organs consistent with the various pranas are to be understood as being affected by the respective prana, eg Lungs for prana ? the excretory system for apana , liver stomach pancreas etc for samana and so on.
The five organs of actions are the mouth, hands, legs, anus and genitals. These constitute the instruments by which all actions are done.
It is called a Kosha because again it is the locus for error. When the body requires food, we say ?I? am hungry. When we lose a leg, we say ?I? have only one leg etc. The error consists in mistaking any of the constituents or a combination for the Atman.
The Manomaya Kosha (Mind sheath) consists of the Mind(manas) and the five organs of perception/knowledge. The five organs of perception are the eyes, nose, ears, skin and tongue. The mind is necessarily a part of this Kosha as it is the interpreter of the data provided by the five organs. The error here lies in mistaking the mind for Atman. We need to transcend the mind to understand the Atman.
The Vijanana maya Kosha (Intellectual Sheath) consists of the Buddhi (Intellect) and the five organs of perception. Note the five organs of perception are common in Manomaya and this sheath. What changes is the driver for the data which is provided. The error here is mistaking this for the Atman ? ?I? have decided to do so and so, -the thinking that I am the agent f-the doer comes in from this sheath.
The Anandamaya Kosha corresponds to the Causal body. Causal Body is defined as Ignorance along with though modification like Ananda ?pleasure, bliss, and truth. The Causal body is the cause of the other two bodies and does not perish when the Gross body does. It is also the seat of all the impressions (Vasanas) which lead to rebirth. The Causal body is the closest to the Atman ?the Self and therefore its bliss is said to be a reflection of the Bliss of the Atman, but still only a reflection.
Atman is beyond all the five Koshas and hence it is said that to be Self Realized it is necesaryto transcend the Koshas. Atman?s nature is defined as Sat ?Cit ?Ananda Existence, Consciousness and Bliss). Thus the Atman is perpetually blissful. I think the word Bliss does not fully capture the sense of Ananda. Since Bliss also implies an understanding of not being in Bliss. But Atman is perpetual , no beginning, no end, no desires, no wants ?hence the state of not being in Bliss which can happen only when desires come into the picture is not applicable to Atman.
Hope this helps. :slight_smile:

Thanks for posting this!!!


Thanks for the wonderful post!

I gather that mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi) reside in the subtle body. But using the concept of the four functions of mind (buddhi, manas, citta and ego / ahankara) - are all four of these residing in the subtle body, or does ego and citta reside in the causal body?

The reason for the question is that I often read that vasanas reside in the causal body (as per your post above), but sometimes I come across texts indicating that vasanas reside in citta (which I have understood to be part of the subtle body).

Any insights appreciated - thanks in advance!


The causal body is the seed for the other two. It is therefore also called “avidya” -ignorance in sanskrit. Avidya refers to the lack on knowledge -the ignorance about my real nature which is Atman.

Your question about the residence of the vasanas in the casual body (excellent question :smile:) needs to be answered with some technical stuff discussed in the scriptures. The causal body is said to be the seed body (literally the cause of the other two bodies) and hence usually moves together with the subtle body. The causal body is the undifferentiated form of the subtle body ie to say in the subtle body (our mind) we are aware of various factors like intelligence, emotions, prana etc. These come into manifest form only in the subtle body.

Now what happens when the universe is destroyed at the end of a cycle of creation ? The gross body gets destroyed. The subtle body resolves into the causal body and is seemingly destroyed. Only the causal body remains. It is in this causal form that the vasanas etc must remain, for they need to manifest in the subtle body which will emerge when the universe comes into being again -the next cycle of creation. It is in this context that vasanas are said to reside in the causal body. during one cycle of creation, the causal body plays no other role. (except being the entity into which subtle body (minus pranic sheath -pranamaya kosha) resolve in deep sleep.

Hope I have been of some help. Sorry for the long delay - I have been away for some years :slight_smile: