Chapter 5 Part 2: The Sheaths of the Soul

The soul is clothed in many sheaths which are like integuments that protect the divine seed till it becomes ready and mature to express itself. For a long time in its journey of growth this miniature divinity experiences the world-Self through these sheaths which are arranged hierarchically as an evolutionary ladder. These sheaths reflect only one or few of the several aspects of the world and are therefore also called as casings of Ignorance. Yet these partial and imperfect and indirect glimpses are necessary before the individual soul can wake up to its true divinity and the experience of the integral truth and undivided reality of Oneness. Towards this end, the soul moves from life to life and from birth to birth through a series of partial identifications with one or the other sheaths. This identification with the various sheaths of lower nature makes it forget its own deeper truth which is held in the background as the support, while the surface identified with outer nature struggles and suffers and strives. Thus identified (a necessity for the experience), it erroneously feels “I am this or that impulse and sensation”, “I am this or that feeling and desire”, “I am this or that thought and opinion”, “I am this or that idea and idealism.” This identification creates a false sense of self called the ego. The result is that the individual regards himself as a separate ego (since he experiences the world differently from others and not yet in its entire truth) and other individuals as not-self with whom he can associate or disassociate, depending upon whether they nurture or hurt the identity of his ego-self.

Death comes therefore as a release to smash this false ego-identity, necessary for the moment no doubt, but nevertheless not a permanent and settled truth. This de-identification through death is seen as a tragic loss since we are attached and cling to this false view of self. But soon the sheaths dissolve one by one during the intervening period after death. As that happens, we begin to forget our ego-identity of who we were in our outer aspects, and wake up to the true soul. After a short or long period of reconstituting rest (depending upon the degree of inner development), the individual soul returns through rebirth. Now it must choose to identify with yet another aspect of the same sheath or climb to the next higher level. For this evolutionary climb it will use those ‘karmas’ (previous energies) that need to be worked out for its upward ascent. The steps of the ladder are woven by the fine fabric of karma spun by the loom of the world-forces. We supply the thread, the cosmic Divine uses the loom, so that by It’s Infinite wisdom the consequences lead only to an inner growth and progress of the individual divinity, — the psychic consciousness within us. And what is this individual progress of the soul but the emergence of the various divine possibilities hidden in it. Karma in this light becomes a means for this emergence rather than a primitive tribunal of reward and punishment. But beyond the individual and the cosmic (Universal Divine) there is the third aspect of the trinity, the Transcendent Divine, who intervenes here and there in the play, through spiritual aspiration, through Grace, and makes the evolutionary journey shorter and easier to bear.

Finally, through these cycles of birth and death and rebirth, the individual soul completes the variety of experiences necessary for its schooling. It is now mature and ready for knowing itself. Hence comes an urge and identification with spiritual life and we enter into a high-speed momentum spacecraft of our journey. A time comes when this inner Self-awareness of the true soul in us is complete and we are free. It is then that the individual soul can make a momentous choice. Since the initial necessity of the cycle of birth and death and rebirth is over, it can choose not to be reborn again and escapes death. This is what is meant in the great Upanishadic saying:

…by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.[1]

But also, if the individual soul so wills, it can enter into a higher cycle of evolution. Here it apparently renounces its individual freedom and once again consciously enters into the cycle of birth, except this time to work upon and transform the sheaths of universal Ignorance. It starts permeating them with its own light and force as well as by the force and truth and light of the higher worlds till these sheaths themselves become translucent dresses and not the obscure and dark veils that they presently are. This transformation of the sheaths and elements of Nature would mean a momentous change for the world-consciousness. It would mean firstly compressing the evolutionary journey and secondly making it a thing of freedom and joy and not the painful struggle that it has now become. This new phase or chapter of evolution has been opened for the earth and souls by the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Surely, this was the secret intention of the Supreme Divine Himself but naturally this second evolutionary cycle was not possible until a sufficient number of individual souls had arrived at the needed degree of inner development. That time has come now, the time for the freedom of earthbound souls from cosmic Ignorance, the time for freedom from Death. It means a transformation of Death from a dark and destroying ruthless god to one who is the luminous carrier of a greater life. It also means a transformation of unconsciousness of the sheaths so that when the individual soul wraps them around, it no more confuses itself for the sheaths since the sheaths themselves become conscious mantles of the inner light. So there is no forgetfulness and loss of soul-consciousness in birth, nor any forgetfulness and loss of world-consciousness in death.[2] All would be a single movement, a conscious change from one state to another, with no gaps of consciousness in between. And, naturally, with the transformation of Death and unconsciousness, there would be the inevitable transformation of the darkness of Ignorance into Light, of falsehood into Truth-vision and Truth-revelation, of division into Oneness and Love.

But what are these sheaths and levels that for the moment at least cling to the soul as ill-fitting attire or appear as rungs of a ladder in its journey of self-transcendence? They are arranged in a horizontal and vertical fashion. The horizontal arrangement is fairly easy to understand. It simply means that our nature has a surface activity which is away from the inmost soul in us and an activity which is nearer. That which is farther and therefore a confused mass of some sensations, desires, habitual reactions, nervous impulses, a jumbled and mostly aimless patterns of thoughts and feelings, is our surface self. Many of us live identified with it most of the time and know nothing or little else as to our identity except this outer name, form and superficial responses of nature. But deeper, we have an inner/being that is closer to the soul and therefore less restricted in its activity, freer and truer in terms of our self-expression. This inner being is composed of an inner mental, inner vital and even an inner physical. It is also called the subliminal in us because it is behind the surface. While the surface consciousness is aware of little else but the outer and the gross, this inner being is open to the depths as well as to the heights, to the abysses as well as to the sublime. This still makes for a mixed territory, even though it is a vaster area with deeper possibilities. Therefore deeper still are those parts which are identified with the soul during its long drama of life — the true mental, true vital and the true physical in us, the repository of our seeds of karma, which need to be worked out for our evolution through future lives. Death snatches away or dissolves everything except those parts which are identified with the soul. To put it figuratively much of our personality to which we are often so passionately attached is swallowed up by the great devourer death but the person, the true being and the king within our fragile bodies and minds remains and returns and grows.

“What was the divine element in the magnanimity of the warrior, that which expressed itself in his loyalty, nobility, high courage, what was the divine element behind the harmonious mentality and generous vitality of the poet and expressed itself in them, that remains and in a new harmony of character may find a new expression or, if the life is turned towards the Divine, be taken up as powers for the realisation or for the work that has to be done for the Divine.”[3]

In terms of our progressive individual self-awareness, we have the vertical layers as follows:

The Gross Physical

This is naturally linked to the material world and has a certain degree of interdependence with it. Our atoms constantly exchange themselves with the world-matter, either naturally enriching or sometimes depleting each other. The gross physical is itself a creation of a long evolutionary journey of matter out of the inconscient[4] and therefore has its own subconscious past strongly imprinted upon it. It is as if supported on the base of a subconscient[5] energy, insistent and aimless that repeats itself mechanically over and over again, reviving the dead past. The animal and other stages of evolution are there as a concealed memory and an automatic habit or a subconscious mechanical action in the body. It is these ‘subconscious’ habits of responses that are called laws of the body and provide a great resistance to evolution and change. They were no doubt necessary at one point but have become an encumbrance at another stage much like the appendix in man. The stages of our past are reproduced in the womb and often expressed in our psychology, behaviour and life. While on the one hand, its denseness provides stability to the form, on the other it is responsible for the inertia to change. A mechanical fixity, repetitiveness and rigid inertia are the obverse side of stability. That is why it is so difficult to change things in the physical nature, including illnesses which repeat themselves with a tenacity that would surprise even the strong-willed by their persistence. And that is why this last change, the change of physical form itself will be the crown of victory of the Spirit over Matter.

This gross physical sheath appears concrete to us since it is the one most perceptible to our gross senses. Much of our science, especially modern science attempts to study and master this alone.

The Subtle Physical

Behind the gross physical there lies a less rigid, more plastic matter or the true physical in us. Being less rigid and limited, it has an innate sense of the body as a whole and has even a sense of closeness with the inner physical dimension of the world.

All rightly pursued physical culture can awaken it and thereby provide a natural holistic healthy cover to the gross body. All diseases must pass first through this sheath (composed of the subtle physical on one side and the vital on the other) before attacking and lodging themselves in the gross physical body. In its density this sheath appears as hot air surrounding a physical object. Apart from consciously pursued physical culture, a right inner psychological condition strengthens and reinforces this sheath. On the other hand, depression, fear and other similar gross and limiting movements damage and cut holes through it.

This sheath is therefore a kind of watershed between the gross physical world and the forces and energies of the other hidden worlds. Its importance in health and diseases is therefore immense. It is indeed the true physical in us of which the gross outer is often a rough caricature.

The Vital

This is the life-force in us. This energy of life manifests as movements of fear and rage, reproduction and movement in lower life forms. The same energy expresses itself as the principle of desire and ambition, the force of feelings and passions and sentiments in the average humanity. In the rare individual, it climbs still further to supply the energy and fuel for higher pursuits, dynamisms, deep and true emotions, aesthesis, creativity and urge to grow inwardly. These three levels are called correspondingly the lower, middle and higher vital. When our consciousness is identified with this sheath, we live in our surface desire-soul and mistaking it for our deeper self go about the rounds of life trying to gratify this or that desire. But deeper than this is the true or inner vital in us which knows itself as a projection of the soul, an instrument and warrior and worker for and of the Divine. Converted and surrendered it supplies the fuel for our spiritual askesis and progress as well.

The part of the vital sheath in close contact with the physical and supplying its needs is the physical-vital. Equally so, there is a sub-layer of the vital drawing upon the physical, closely using the body as a means to express reflex instincts and sensations, known as the vital-physical.

Similarly, that part which supplies the vital fuel for the mental activities, is called the vital-mental. This sheath, on the one hand adds force and vigour to the mind and on the other (if the being is downwardly oriented or stationed below) it can, in collusion with the vital mind drag down and draw the thoughts to a lower and petty level.

The Mental

This is the domain of thoughts and reason rather than of emotions and passions. It is a filter that cuts reality into small bits and pieces, tries to understand each bit separately and then tries to reassemble each fragment to build up the whole. It is thus a linking consciousness, trying to build a bridge between the world as it sees and experiences it and the world as it intuitively believes, hopes or wants it to be. It is therefore a mediator divinity, essentially a movement of Ignorance but trying to climb towards knowledge and Light and Oneness. This growth out of ignorance to knowledge is in itself a gradual process through several rungs. The lowest of these is the physical mind tied solely to the sense data and has a purely material view of things. It is therefore full of doubts about any higher and suprasensible truths. Sinking below it becomes the material mind of the cells which works incessantly and mechanically as a rewinding spring of a watch to set the cellular machinery in motion.

The vital mind, placed just above the physical in the evolutionary hierarchy is in contrast, full of imaginations and subtle manipulations, ever seeking newness and change, sometimes for its own sake, and can use twists of logic to conceal truth and distort facts, all in order to support our vital ego and its impulses. It is in this sense the devil’s advocate in us, justifying every desire and impulse, often concealing them with nice acceptable and even holy words! Naturally it is very necessary to play detective with this part which is like a subterfuge and a cover for the forces of darkness hiding in a cloak of false light, woven of brilliant argument. It is a mind turned downward and outward to explore and satisfy the needs of body and life.

Above is the birth place of the thinking mind which uses the power of reason to organise life and probe deeper into the reality behind forms and appearances. But it cannot arrive at the total truth since its method is one of comparison and contrast rather than a holistic vision. It strives and strains towards truth but cannot find it leaving us on the dry shores of agnosticism.

To know the integral truth, it must renounce its inferior movement of cutting and rebuilding and leap from analytical reason to an intuitive perception, revelatory sight and inspirational insight. These latter would form the higher ranges of the mind or the spiritual mind as a whole. Awakened, it can create the true thinker, philosopher and poet in us, one in touch with the deeper meaning and purpose of life.

This spiritual mind is essentially a mind growing progressively towards truth-discrimination, truth-vision, truth-perception and truth-intuition. Indeed behind our outer surface mind there lies a much vaster range and power of an inner mind that is not so bound with the surface view.

The spiritual mind itself climbs through several ranges. Sri Aurobindo has classified it as follows:

Higher Mind with clarity of thought as steady sunshine, seeing the world as a symbolic image of a deeper truth.

Illumined Mind with a force of illumination and sight replacing thought.

Intuitive Mind with its arc of lightning revealing what is hidden in the depths or behind the veils of nature through a sudden luminous sight.

Overmind which is the birthplace of original ideas, each creating a vast world-system of its own.[6]

Beyond Mind is beyond the highest ranges of the spiritual mind — there is the infinite field of a Self-luminous Supramental Truth knowledge and Truth-power, the world of Bliss from which our souls fell into this obscure life of small joys and sorrows. Of these things nothing can be or need be spoken since they go beyond the domain of the ‘word’ and have to be accessed, known and realised through the experience of the soul’s identification with them.[7]

Apart from those who consciously pursue a deep and intense yoga, is there some experience of these other layers in normal humanity? Well, there are at least two types of experience that come very close to these hitherto hidden layers, if not the soul itself. These are the Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) and the Near–Death–Experience (NDE).


[1] Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, Verse 11

[2] Please note that a deathless body is not a body that the user is compelled to wear forever. There will be a willed change of the outer garment without any loss of consciousness. To the outer eye however it may seem like death.

[3] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 452

[4] A state of entire oblivion (not an absence) of consciousness, a state of total forgetfulness of the Consciousness, the dark womb of things.

[5] The first stir of consciousness as it wakes up again from its Inconscient state. Still a drowse and forgetfulness but not entirely. Some vague movement as if of seeking for something.

[6] A detailed exposition of these levels would go beyond the scope of this book. The interested reader is advised to refer to the original works of Sri Aurobindo for guidance, especially Letters on Yoga.

[7] This of course is a brief statement. For more details on these sheaths and their functions, the reader is advised to refer to the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, especially the chapter on ‘Planes and Parts of the Being’ as described in Letters on Yoga.

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