Understanding Food Through the Koshas

July 9, 2014    BY Jon Janaka

The Upanishads are among the most important scriptures of the yoga tradition. They typically have no identifiable author, but are remembered as the purest expressions of a teaching style in vogue some 2,500 years ago. Although they are some of the oldest known spiritual teachings, their wisdom remains ever young. They have the capacity to provoke rapid evolution of consciousness, and those who follow their teachings walk the razor’s edge between mundane reality and the awesome potential of unrestricted consciousness.

The problem with reading the Upanishads is that they are a wild tangle of stories and explanations of esoteric doctrine taught by different teachers for various types of students over the course of several centuries. Their language is sparse and obscure. Although there are many fine translations of these texts available, there is a sense in which they remain unintelligible unless studied within a lineage of teachers who have kept the traditional interpretations alive. Despite the proliferation of yoga in recent years, such teachers are increasingly rare.

Genuine understanding of these enigmatic teachings was near extinction toward the close of the 8th century AD, when the great Vedanta scholar Shankaracharya wrote commentaries on the most important Upanishads. Without his efforts their wisdom may have disappeared from human culture entirely. To someone like Shankaracharya, this would have been a great loss. According to the Indian philosophical tradition, sacred texts (shruti) are a unique tool for spiritual transformation because they reveal a vision of the world that we could never see by relying on the limited senses of the human body and mind.

The Upanishads are addressed to individuals seeking a place beyond the reach of language and the mind.

The Upanishads are addressed to individuals seeking a place beyond the reach of language and the mind. Consequently, these texts cannot be understood using the logical framework we might bring to a physics textbook, as Shankaracharya makes clear in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra. The purpose of the Upanishads, he asserts, is not to accurately describe the structure of the physical world, but rather to indicate the process by which we can experience our true Self (atman).

In yoga philosophy, the Self is understood to lie hidden beneath a series of five sheaths (kosha).

In yoga philosophy, the Self is understood to lie hidden beneath a series of five sheaths (kosha). These sheaths obscure our true nature and by identifying with them we limit the scope of our knowledge and action. Habitually, we identify with the objects of our experience rather than with the consciousness that experiences them. By exploring the koshas and knowing their limits, we come to experience what we really are by knowing what we are not. Gradually, the veils are lifted and the true expanse of the Self is revealed.

The textual source of the kosha theory is the Taittiriya Upanishad, which is among the oldest of the Upanishads. Scholars assign it to the 5th or 6th century BC as it seems to have been known before Gautama Buddha arrived on the scene. In three concise chapters, the Taittiriya Upanishad points the way to unity between experiencing consciousness and experienced reality; between the seemingly individuated conscious Self (atman) and the pervasive consciousness some call God (brahman).

While a relatively straightforward exposition of the koshas and their properties is found in the second chapter, the third chapter presents these teachings as a dialogue. The student Bhrigu asks his father, Varuna, to teach him about the nature of reality. Varuna does not answer directly, but leads Bhrigu through a series of contemplations in which he finds the Self by his own efforts. This section of the Taittiriya Upanishad has served as a model for generations of seekers on the quest to integrate the well-known equation Atman = Brahman. Finding the connection between the two requires some reflection, which is exactly the point of the Upanishad. Having done this hard work, Bhrigu proclaims with a sense of wonder:

Hey, wow! Hey, wow! Hey, wow!
I am the Food! I am the Food! I am
the Food!
I am the Eater of the Food! I am
the Eater of the Food! I am
the Eater of the Food!

How did he arrive at that curious proclamation?

Food is God

The second chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad begins by stating the main point of the entire scripture: The goal of life is attained by a person who knows Brahman. It elaborates: “The person who comes to know that Brahman is established in the expansive place at the core of his being attains the reality of that Brahman, along with all worldly desires.” This is decidedly not an other-worldly philosophy, but one that understands spiritual development and worldly success as one and the same project.

In an abstract sense, Brahman can be understood as the universal consciousness. Reasoning from the Taittiriya Upanishad, Shankaracharya declares that Brahman is the source of the universe, the force behind the continuity of things, and also the cause of all changes, such as death. By being present in every operation of the universe, Brahman is known as omnipresent and omnipotent. Because it is the source of all sacred scriptures, Brahman is said to be omniscient. The similarities to Christian definitions of God are striking, and it is generally acceptable to say that Brahman is a name for God.

Just as logical investigation reveals universally recognized characteristics of a supreme being, the notion that our physical reality is a manifestation of more refined energy or consciousness can be found in many of the world’s scriptures. It can also be found in modern physics, starting with Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. The Taittiriya Upanishad states that the physical world proceeds from Brahman, the universal consciousness. The details of this process can be rather subtle and have been subject to much debate over the centuries, but the simple structure of this vision has had an enduring appeal.

Brahman is the all-experiencing consciousness and is by definition not subject to change. However, change defines the experienced world of material reality composed of the five physical elements. Each of these elements is a solidified or “grosser” transformation of the previous one. First to emerge from consciousness (brahman) is space (akasha), the most subtle of the material elements. From space comes air (vayu), then fire (agni), water (apas), and earth (prithivi). Each lower element has the qualities of the higher element with an additional quality of its own. Most important, consciousness (brahman) is found hidden in each, right down to seemingly inert earth.

After briefly describing this process, the philosophical portion of the Taittiriya Upanishad supplies the crucial link between our selves and our environment: food. Food is made of plants, which grow in the earth, here understood in a more general way. It is the Earth, our planet, the environment that produces our food. In this sense, earth is a combination of all five material elements and remains suffused with the consciousness that is Brahman.

From food comes the human body. Food that parents eat becomes the body of a child in the womb. After the child is born, it begins re-creating its own body by consuming more food. As we have seen, the changing world of elements is a modification of the universal consciousness (Brahman). Since food is composed of these elements, it is not an exaggeration to say that food, too, is that consciousness. Our physical bodies are composed of the elements, which reach us in the form of food. Thus the human body, too, is a form that all-pervading consciousness takes.

Food, then, is the crucial connection in the equation Atman = Brahman. Brahman becomes the elements, plants, and finally food that forms the bodies in which our limited self-consciousness resides. But that is not all that we are. Food reminds us that Brahman is within our bodies, and food is the pivot point where we can begin looking to find our innermost, unrestricted Self.

Searching Our Selves

Knowing our selves on every level—the method and goal of yoga practice—is a life-long process. Bhrigu was able to find the innermost Self after a short period of intense reflection because he had a burning desire to know the truth and was exceptionally well prepared to understand each layer of the self he encountered on his quest. The kosha theory provides a map as this experience unfolds, but detailed understanding of each is inevitably a personal and ongoing undertaking.

The first three koshas are familiar faces of our everyday experience. The outermost layer of the self is the annamaya kosha, literally, the sheath made of food. It is simply the human body, the level of identity that receives the most attention in popular culture. Living in it can bring us either pain or pleasure, depending on how we care for it.

It can perhaps best be known—and strong identity with it transcended—through the awareness-building postures of hatha yoga. Made of the elements, it is our strongest connection to the physical world. While first describing the annamaya kosha, the Taittiriya Upanishad proclaims the universal presence of food:

Those who are born, are born
of food.
Whoever reached this Earth,
From then on they subsist on food.
And in the end, they go back to it.
Food is the eldest among the
living beings.
That is why they call it the uni-
versal medicine.

The sheath made of food is purely physical, but it is obvious that there is something more to human experience than flesh and bone. Once the physical body comes under control, we begin to feel a force stirring within. There is a field of energy animating the body and endowing it with feelings and emotions. This energy field is known as the pranamaya kosha, the sheath made of prana. In the physical body, prana manifests as breath and that is the primary vehicle by which it comes to be known in yoga practice. Without prana we would be as lively as a table. The Taittiriya Upanishad indicates its importance by stating simply, “Prana is the very life of all beings.”

We monitor our pranic sheath by watching the breath and this can tell us a great deal about the changing condition of our bodies and minds.

We monitor our pranic sheath by watching the breath and this can tell us a great deal about the changing condition of our bodies and minds. The pranamaya kosha thus acts as a link between the outwardly active physical body and the inner instrument known as the mind, or manomaya kosha. This is the layer of self that reacts to events of the outside world with judgments and demands for action. This is not a negative capacity in itself, but this “automatic mind” tends to be motivated by primitive urges of the body. For this reason the perceived needs for food, sensory pleasures, sleep, and self-preservation inform most of our actions. Most people identify strongly with the thoughts of the mind and the memories it retains. This makes it especially difficult to master and transcend. However, the actions of the mind (manas) can have a greater effect on the course of our lives than that of the body or energy field. That is why mastery of the mind is so important.

While the physical body, the energy field that animates us, and the mind are easily observed, other layers of the self lie beneath the level of conscious awareness. The journey inward here demands a leap literally beyond the mind. The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of a place “from where words and the mind turn back without reaching.” This hair-raising statement tells us that words and concepts are inherently incapable of communicating much at all about the two innermost koshas. Any description of these layers of the self are at best hints and suggestions.

When we sit for meditation, our consciousness typically hovers between the manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas. Vijnana means “insight,” and this layer of the self is sometimes considered the higher mind in contrast to the lower mind of manas, which is closer to the concerns of physical reality. Experience of the higher mind leads still inward to the anandamaya kosha, the sheath of bliss, that reveals the essentially joyful nature of consciousness.

Bhrigu’s quest

“Sir, teach me Brahman.”

Knowing language cannot reach the Self, Varuna responded with measured words:

Seek to know that from which
beings are born,
That by which, having been born,
they continue to live,
That into which they return to
when they depart.
That is what you seek.
That is Brahman.

Bhrigu sat, calmed the breath, collected the mind, and the answer came:

Food is Brahman.
Indeed, beings are born from food,
They continue to live because
of food,
They return to food when they
depart.

But a doubt crept in: Although food is the source of all beings, food itself has a source. Food is made of plants, which grow in the earth, which is made of the elements, which descend from Brahman. The Self that Bhrigu sought has no source. And food is always changing forms, from eater to eaten. The Self that Bhrigu sought is the foundation underlying the world of change.

“Sir, teach me Brahman.”

Seeing his son moving beyond the body, Varuna led on to more subtle realms:

“Seek to know Brahman by tapas. Tapas is the way to Brahman.”

Where the knowledge of Brahman is not yet complete,
But the seeker does not turn back,
There tapas is the only means of accomplishment.
The highest tapas is total concentration of the outer senses and inward functions of the mind.

—Shankaracharya

Bhrigu sat, calmed the breath, collected the mind, and the answer came:

Prana is Brahman.
Indeed, beings are born from prana,
They continue to live because of prana,
They return to prana when they depart.

But a doubt crept in: Although prana is the life of all beings, prana itself has no life of its own. Prana is fixed in the body and moved by the mind. The Self that Bhrigu sought is free from the flesh and is everywhere at once.

“Sir, teach me Brahman.”

 Seeing his son moving beyond the breath, Varuna led on to more subtle realms:

“Seek to know Brahman by tapas. Tapas is the way to Brahman.”

Bhrigu sat, calmed the breath, collected the mind, and the answer came:

Mind is Brahman.
Indeed, beings are born from mind,
They continue to live because of mind,
They return to mind when they depart.

But a doubt crept in: Although mind directs action, something higher directs this mind. The mind wanders far and knows only words. The Self that Bhrigu sought is ever at rest beyond the grasp of language.

“Sir, teach me Brahman.”

Seeing his son moving beyond the mind, Varuna led on to more subtle realms:

“Seek to know Brahman by tapas. Tapas is the way to Brahman.”

Bhrigu sat, calmed the breath, collected the mind. Deep in concentration, he found his knowledge of Brahman incomplete. Seeking, he did not turn back. Through tapas, he reached the innermost bliss, the “I” who eats the food and directs the actions of the mind and body. Having lifted all the veils, he arrived at that place where mind and words cannot go, where the experiencing subject and the object experienced are one.

The layers of the lower self described in the Taittiriya Upanishad are real, but they are incomplete as definitions of the highest Self. As the kosha theory shows, we are not merely the sum of our parts, but are also something entirely different from those identities. By coming to know the layers of the self and assigning them their proper place in our experience, we experience a deeper connection with our environment and find that underneath all the moving dust is one brilliant, unchanging consciousness.

The Koshas

  • Annamaya kosha: the sheath consisting of food (anna)
  • Pranamaya kosha: the sheath consisting of vital energy (prana)
  • Manomaya kosha: the sheath consisting of the lower mind (manas)
  • Vijnanamaya kosha: the sheath consisting of discernment (vijnana)
  • Anandamaya kosha: the sheath consisting of inner bliss (ananda)
  • Self

Food for Thought

The Taittiriya Upanishad takes its name from a story about how it passed from one student to others. It is said that the sage Vaishampayana had taught the Veda to his disciples, including the brilliant but haughty Yajnavalkya. On one occasion Vaishampayana, displeased with Yajnavalkya, asked him to return what had been taught. Obliging, Yajnavalkya vomited up his portion of knowledge. Vaishampayana then instructed his other disciples to take the form of partridges (tittiri) and consume what Yajnavalkya had regurgitated. They, in turn, passed this knowledge to their students and therefore the Upanishad is said to be taittiriya, “from the partridges.”

Jon Janaka
Jon Janaka is a sanskrit scholar who worked in the Himalayan Institute kitchen for over five years.