The Five Bodies of Jiva, the Limited Being

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by Jayaram V

Jiva or Jeeva means any living being, a human, animal, insect, bird, or a microorganism. He also goes by the name the embodied soul (jivatma). Jiv means to live or to be alive and jeeva means he who has life or who is alive. The jivas are specific to the mortal world, just as the gods are to the heaven and the demons to the demonic worlds. The gods are pure beings. The demons personify evil nature, while the jivas are a mixture of both. In them all the three gunas are active.

The jivas are also vulnerable to the influence of both good and evil. They may possess divine or demonic qualities or a mixture of both according to their predominant nature. Hence, they are considered ideal choice for the battles between the good and evil forces. Depending upon their constitution, the jivas are of numerous types and reflect the diversity of Nature. Tradition classifies them according to the number of senses they possess and their level of intelligence. In the Vedas they are classified according to how they give birth to their progeny namely those that are born from eggs, those that are born from the wombs, those that are born from the air, etc.

Significance of human life

According to Hinduism, although the jivas are specific to the mortal word and inferior to gods, they still play an important role in the order and regularity of the worlds. Mortal life facilitates the journey of the souls from the state of bondage and ignorance to liberation through successive stages of self-purification, enlightenment and spiritual transformation. It is not possible in any other world. The culmination of that progress is the birth of an embodied soul in a human body. The scriptures affirm that human birth is very which only after a jiva undergoes innumerable births and deaths and accumulates enough merit.

Thus, humans are more advanced jivas, who have special duties and responsibilities in creation as the upholders of God’s Dharma upon earth. Just as animals serve humans upon earth, humans serve gods through their sacrifices. Animals nourish humans through acts of self-sacrifice by becoming their food or by providing them with food and wealth, whereas humans nourish gods through sacrificial offerings and by becoming their food in the ancestral world. Thus, human beings occupy a central place in God’s creation as the upholders of Dharma and nourishers of gods.

Through their spiritual effort they also enjoy the unique opportunity to work for their liberation, which is not possible to any other being in the higher or the lower worlds. As stated before, in the mortal world, only humans can achieve liberation through self-directed, conscious effort. Other beings have to attain the human birth before they can do the same. Only humans have duties, obligations and aims, which require the exercise of will and discretion. Their fate is determined by their actions (karma).

Even gods have to take birth in the moral world if they desire to attain liberation or ascend to still higher planes of existence. The Puranas suggest that God does not excessively interfere with the progress of creation. He facilitates the process and provides the framework for the manifestation of the worlds. He intervenes only if there is a severe decline of Dharma. Everything else happens through individual effort. The spiritual progress and transformation of the souls are not confined to one birth or even one cycle of creation. The souls keep returning to the mortal world, birth after birth and cycle after cycle, until they achieve liberation.

It seems that even the godhood is earned, but not conferred. The place of Indra is not permanent. Anyone can become the king of heaven and replace Indra through spiritual effort. Hence, he is always in conflict with the mortal beings who want to achieve liberation through austerities. It is also said that the triple gods (Thrimurthis) namely Brahma, Vishnu and Siva have attained their supreme status in the current time cycle because of their good deeds in the previous cycles of creation.

The state of Jiva

In the mortal world the jivas are in a state of bondage to the cycle of births and deaths, which is known as Samsara. Apart from it, they are also subject to the following.

  • Dharma or a set of obligatory duties which are vital to the order and regularity of the world.
  • Karma or the fruit of desire-ridden actions which results in births and rebirths.
  • Modifications of Nature such as impermanence, aging, sickness and death.
  • Physical and mental afflictions
  • The duality of subject and object or the knower and the known.
  • Egoism or identification with name and form which creates the feeling of separation.
  • Longing for life and fear of mortality.
  • Attraction and aversion to the pairs of opposites such as pain and pleasure, heat and cold.
  • Delusion due to the influence of Maya whereby one mistakes the untrue for true.
  • Ignorance about God and the Self.
  • Attachments due to the frequent interaction with sense objects.
  • Desires and passions due to the play of the gunas.
  • Modifications of the mind and body which keep beings unstable and restless.

The law of karma is inexorable, mechanical and impartial. The wheel of dharma knows no discrimination. All beings, who manifest, irrespective of their cosmic status, are subject to the same eternal laws of God which influence their being and becoming. Only the supreme Brahman in His formless and unqualified state (nirguna) is and changeless and free from corporeality, beingness and the finite realities of Nature. In His formless and transcendental state, he is not only immutable but also incomprehensible, indescribable and beyond the whole existence.

The divine nature of jiva

A jiva may have impurities, but he is not devoid of divinity and spiritual possibilities. A Jiva is but Shiva in the embodied form. Although he is subject to the triple impurities of egoism, delusion and attachments, he is still god in human form who contains within himself both Purusha and Prakriti. In him Purusha is passive, while Nature is active. His body is made up of the 23 Tattvas (finite realities) of Nature namely the five basic elements (fire, water, earth, air, space), five organs of action, the five organs of perception, the five subtle senses, the mind, the ego and the intelligence. The eternal soul (atma) constitutes the 24th tattva. However, it is a pure (shuddha) tattva, and free from the impurities of Nature, although it is subject to transmigration in the embodied state due to the influence of the gunas.

A jiva is thus a divine being who is caught in the rigmarole of Samsara. He is a sleeping god who is oblivious of his divinity and eternal nature. As a replica of the Cosmic being (Purusha), he represents the entire universe and houses all the divinities and worlds within himself. Hidden within each being (jiva) is a microcosm, designed in the manner of Saguna Brahman, consisting of all his integral aspects and manifestations.

Therefore, if you want to know God, you do not have to look far. You do not have to question the existence of God or look to others for answers. God is everywhere, and especially in you as your very Self. To doubt him or his existence, is to doubt yourself and your very existence. A devout Hindu is not supposed to worship ignorantly as if God exists in the image of a stone or in a temple of God only. He does not have to travel far to the Himalayas or to a place of pilgrimage to search for him or meet him.

He may indulge in such practices, but he must also look within himself by silencing his mind and body and reach that last point where he can find the eternal Self as his very silent witness. It is by looking into oneself, by knowing and understanding oneself and by honoring oneself with righteous conduct that one can experience the Truth of the Supreme Self in one’s own being. In the Katha Upanishad, Lord Yama declares to Nachiketa that it is through self-contemplation (adhyatma-yogadhigamena) that a wise man realizes the Primal God and leaves behind him both joy and sorrow (the duality of mortal existence).

The embodied Self and the Supreme Self

The mysteries of creation and of Supreme Being can be known only by knowing oneself and one’s essential nature. The knowledge does not arise from the study of scripture, although they are essential for the purpose, but from the direct experience of oneness in which all distinctions and separation between the subject and object are obliterated. All the divinities that exist in the universe have their corresponding divinities in the human personality. Just as we have the body, the Saguna Brahman has the entire manifest universe as his material body. Therefore, there is no better temple than your mind and body to find God and experience oneness with him.

How we perceive ourselves is important to overcome our delusion and achieve liberation. If we consider our names and forms real, we will remain limited and bound to our limited identifies and impure consciousness. If you think you are divine and spiritual and live with that awareness, you increase your chances of finding God within yourself. However, before you merge into the identify of God and experience oneness with him, you have to accept the idea, believe in it and integrate it into your consciousness. That practice rests upon your faith, resolve and effort. If your faith is strong, you will withstand the rigors of your journey to reach the highest goal. Faith is the bridge by which we, the mortals, enter the world of immortality.

The creation and evolution of any jiva are the same as the creation and evolution of the entire universe. The essential structure or construction of Purusha and the Jiva (the Cosmic Being and the living being) is also the same. For example, the Virat (the manifested world) is the waking consciousness or the visible reality. He is the same as the Vaishwanara who is mentioned in the Mandukya Upanishad. Hiranyagarbha (the World Spirit) is Taijasa, the dream state. In him all the forms and ideas already exist in seed form and manifest in their own time. Isvara (the Creative Being) is Saguna Brahman. He is the first to manifest in the beginning of creation “when nothing existed. You may compare him to the deep sleep state or prajna. Finally, at the summit of existence is Brahman, the Absolute, Being, the One, who is without attributes. That state is above sleep. In the being, he is the Atman, the immortal and transcendental Self, who is hidden in each of us. The Upanishads also draw comparisons between a human being and the Cosmic being, identifying the organs in the body with various divinities and planes of existence and the Self with Brahman.

The state of the embodied Self, Jivatma, in the mortal world

There are three primary aspects of creation, the Supreme Self, the jiva or the embodied selves, and Nature or Prakriti. Each jiva is a product of Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is the individual soul, and Prakriti is the physical body including the mind. Purusha is eternal and immutable, while Prakriti is eternal but mutable. Prakriti is indestructible but she undergoes change and instability. She is responsible for the materiality and the corporeality, while Purusha resides in the body as the silent witness and the ultimate enjoyer. As long as the jiva is involved with Prakriti and its modifications, the soul or atman remains bound.

Although the soul is caught in Samsara and remains bound to the mind and body, by itself it is immutable and indestructible. It cannot be tainted by the impurities of Samsara. Even when it is involved with Prakriti it does not under go any change. However, it remains covered by the impurities of gunas, delusion, desires and ignorance. When they are removed, the Self becomes free and returns to its boundless state as if he has woken from a long sleep. Removing the impurities is not an easy task. It may take place over a long time, and at end of innumerable births and deaths.

The five sheaths of an embodied Self

The embodied Self or the jiva does not have a single body. What we see is but the outer sheath. Hidden beneath are four more sheaths. Each jiva is made up of five bodies or sheaths, and each has its own significance in the lives and liberation of the beings. It is believed that when a being dies, only the outer physical body is shed. The soul travels to the next world with the remaining four bodies. The following is a brief description of the five bodies which constitute a living being.

The physical body is the first. It is also known as the food body (annamaya kosa) since it is made up of food only. It is also the densest. Hence, it is called the gross body (sthula sarira), the seat of the darkest desires and passions. The Upanishads compare food to Brahman (annam Brahma). Since it houses the Self, it is compared to the sacrificial pit. As in case of a sacrificial ritual, the food offered to the body is distributed among the divinities (organs and senses) who are present in the body by their overlord, the Breath.

The second body is the breath body called the pranamaya kosa. It is made of prana or breath. Air or breath is the food for this body. Breath is the life of beings (prano hi bhutanam ayuh). It is called the soul of the physical body (sarira atma). Indeed, in some Upanishads, prana is equated to Self itself as the immortal lord of the body. Atman means the breathing one. Breath body is part of the subtle body (sukshma sarira) while the food body constitutes the gross body (sthula sarira). The autonomous nervous system is under its partial control.

The mental body (manomaya kosa) constitutes the third body. It is made up of thoughts, emotions, feelings, desires and memories. It also regulates both the breath body and the physical body including the senses. Mental body is the seat of thoughts, memories and latent impressions. It also part of the subtle body and subsists on food, breath and thoughts. Controlling, purifying and stabilizing the mind forms part of the spiritual practice in liberation. None can achieve liberation, without controlling and purifying the mental body.

Intelligence body (vijnanamay kosa) is the fourth body. It corresponds to buddhi or intelligence, which is responsible for reasoning, discernment and decision making. It is the reasoning and discerning aspect of our consciousness without which we will not be able to consciously exercise our will. It also plays an important role in our lives to make right decisions and avoid mistakes and problems. The scriptures declare that gods (sense organs) worship buddhi as the eldest deity (Brahma jyeshtham), the controller.

The fifth body is known as the bliss body. It is called the anandamaya kosa because it partakes the supreme bliss of the Self. The bliss body is not attained by the senses or the mind but experienced only in the state of self-absorption (Samadhi). It has no organs and no distinguishing marks. It is the very essence of our deepest consciousness. According to the Taittiriya Upanishad the Non-Being who was alone in the beginning produced the Being. He made for himself a soul, which was well made and whose body was bliss itself.

Beyond the five sheaths there is Atman, the eternal soul or Purusha in the microcosm. It is the first, eternal, immutable, indestructible and ever awake, who is also the lord, the witness and the ultimate enjoyer. It is also called the hidden Self, the true Self, the divine Self and the truth body. Our minds do not reach it. The Upanishads state that words return from it, not attaining it, along with the mind. He who attains it becomes free from fear. After that, he is neither perplexed nor tormented by conflicting thoughts. His mind becomes tranquil. There are different views with regard to the status of the bliss body. Sankaracharya considered the bliss body different from the Self and part of the projection of the Self, while Ramanuja regarded them as one, indivisible, transcendental state.

The liberation of Jivas

A jiva attains liberation by realizing his divine or spiritual nature and freeing himself desires and attachments. Liberation is achieved either by individual effort or divine help or both. There are many paths to liberation. However, they all require right effort, right knowledge, right attitude, self-restraint, renunciation, detachment, purity of the mind and body, and devotion. All these approaches are known by different names. They all lead to the highest state of Yoga or union, in which the seeker experiences oneness or union with the Self or the Supreme Self. Scriptures suggest that the grace and guidance of a guru or spiritual master is important on the path of liberation.

As stated before, as a rule human beings are better qualified to achieve liberation. However, there can be exceptions. Some animals may attain liberation due to the merit they earned in their past lives of if they die in the hands of pious people as part of their fate or destiny or to resolve some past karma. Animals which die in the service of God or as sacrificial offerings may also attain liberation or human birth. It is also believed that animals may earn merit if they are killed willfully by humans for entertainment or for food. Through their self-sacrifice they earn good karma while those who indulge in such actions may accrue sin and suffer from the consequences.

The scriptures suggest that those who achieve liberation go to the immortal world, never to return. They travel by the path of gods (devayana) and reach the world of Brahman, which is in the Sun, while those who do not achieve liberation but perform their obligatory duties go to the ancestral world in the moon, where they stay until their karma is exhausted and return to the earth to take birth again. Lastly, those who indulge in sinful actions with demonic qualities and commit mortal sins fall down into the subterranean hell and undergo intense punishment as part of their self-purification. They may return to the earth to take birth as animals, worms or insects.

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