Humans are among the most complex of organisms. Our lives are part of many realities: material, emotional, mental, spiritual, and so on. It makes sense then that most wisdom traditions in various cultures across the globe see the self as a multi-layered entity—something beyond just a physical form, and thus something whose wellness depends on more than physical health. To be truly aware of yourself and your needs, you must be in touch with your holistic self. One way to practice that awareness is through the study of the panchakosha.
The panchakosha (or five kosha) is a theory of consciousness first discussed in the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient primary Sanskrit text that belongs to the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. It is thought to have been published at around 6th century BC and has since been used all over the world, especially in Yogic philosophy for studies into holistic wellbeing.
The kosha system is conceptualized as the five “sheaths” covering the atman (self or consciousness), like the layers of an onion or nesting matryoshka dolls. These layers are interconnected with each other and range from the outer gross physical body to the inner subtle layers of emotions, mind, and spirit. The five sheaths are as follows:
- Annamaya Kosha – food/physical
This sheath is our tangible physical body, consisting of our cells, tissues, and organs. It is literally named the food sheath because it is created by the matter we consume.
- Pranamaya Kosha – energy/breath
The second sheath is the vital sheath, associated with life force. It stands for the field of energy that penetrates and surrounds the physical body, links the body with the mind, and brings life to the body, allowing it to move.
- Manomaya Kosha – mental
The mental kosha is made up of our thoughts, memories, and emotions. It is through this sheath that we perceive and process the outside world—this “emotional body” thrives of input from the five senses of touch, hearing, taste, sight, and smell.
- Vijnanamaya Kosha – wisdom
The fourth sheath represents cognition, intelligence, and wisdom. This is the aspect of us that knows, decides, and judges. Together with the Manomaya, this sheath makes up our mind.
- Anandamaya Kosha – bliss
The blissful sheath is the most interior of the kosha, nearest to the atman. When one transcends all the previous layers, one achieves bliss, the most harmonious state of mind possible.
Panchakosha provides us with a structural framework for understanding the relationship between consciousness, mind, life force, and body—in other words, a guideline towards complete wellness. According to Hindu philosophy, the greatest bliss is the human mind recognizing its own being. This is only possible when each kosha, which represents one aspect of our existence, is accessible and taken care of. In order to live a harmonious and joyful existence, we should not stop at just physical health but rather reflect inwards and truly balance ourselves through these five layers.