Derived from ancient Vedantic texts, Treya Sharira’ or the ‘Doctrine of Three Bodies’ is one of the fundamental aspects of yoga. Here, we discuss the theory of sthula, sukshma, and karana sharira – the physical, subtle, and causal body.
Ancient Indic texts, called Vedantic literature, present an important doctrine called Sharira Traya. It describes the three bodies of an ‘Individual’ that stem from ignorance and prevent us from knowing the true nature of the Self and the Absolute (Brahman). This doctrine is also called Tri Sharira or Traya Deha, which translate to ‘three bodies.’
The origins of ‘Sarira Traya’ can be traced to Shaivism or Indic religions. But the idea is one of the key tenets of Indian philosophy, especially Advaita Vedanata (Non-dualism). It also informs all yoga practices, especially Tantra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, and Hatha Yoga.
Before we commence, let us preface this post with some basic ideas in Vedanta philsophy. Jiva is the term for an individual. Atman is the Sanskrit word for spirit or soul. Prana is the life-giving cosmic energy that animates Jiva and allows an individual to transact with the material world.
Traya Sharira: The three bodies in yoga
Traya is the Sanskrit word for ‘three‘ and sharira translates to ‘body.’ Thereby, the doctrine states that every individual is attired in three bodies, which are as follows:
1. Sthula sharira or the gross body.
2. Sukshma sharira or the subtle body.
3. Karana sharira or the causal body.
The ‘Individual Self’ delights in these three vital bodies that are connected to the three states of consciousness. In simple words, we experience the gross body in the waking state, the subtle body in the dream state, and the causal body in the dreamless sleep state.
Various texts discuss the components, functions, and characteristics of the Traya Sharira or three types of bodies. Below, we look at those aspects in more detail.
1. The Gross Body – Sthula Sharira
The Sthula Sharira is made from gross matter and the five great elements – air, water, fire, earth, and space (ether). It is the physical and mortal body created by a combination of the karma gathered and combined in the five subtle elements by an Individual in past lives.
The gross body has four components: the head, hands, legs, and torso. Together, they form the physical body that moves, breathes, sleeps, and interacts with the physical world using organs of sense-perception and action. It is the primary instrument of an Individual’s experience.
We experience the gross body during the waking state. Its characteristics are anatman (not aware of the Self), created at birth, subject to aging, and ending in death. Any attachment or identification with the Sthula Sharira leads to Ahamkara or Ego. The gross body is subject to modification and ever-changing. Imaginably, the physical body is visible to us and others, which makes it the most experiential of the three bodies. But being finite and limited, it is bound to the rules of nature (Prakriti).
In Vedanta, the gross body is a temporary abode of the Individual, like a rented home. The Jiva uses the body to transact with the material world, allowing karma to fructify. It uses the organs of action to fulfill its basic needs, interact with the world, and express the ideas of the mind.
The gross body belongs also called the food sheath as it consumes life to sustain life. The Individual does not need the gross body if there is no karma. But when the individual is alive, residing in the body, every action and thought creates Punya and Paap – good and bad karma.
2. The Subtle Body – Sukshma Sharira
Sukshma sharira or the subtle body is the quasi-material body composed of the mind and life-energy (prana). It animates the physical body and keeps it alive. It is also called the astral body in the West and Linga Sharira in non-dualistic schools of Indic philosophy.
In Vedanta, the sukshma sharira is described as partly physical and partly spiritual. It links the gross/physical body and the soul (causal body), which unites the two during birth and separates them upon death.
The Sukshma Sharira is composed of the five subtle elements – subtle earth, subtle air, subtle fire, subtle space, and subtle water. One part of the subtle body is the ‘sensory mind’ called Manas and the other part is the discerning wisdom or intellect called Buddhi.
The subtle and causal body store karma and samskaras, causing individuals to stay trapped in the cycle of birth and death. People can attain liberation when they burn all samskaras and karma by following dharma (cosmic law) and through conscious living.
Our most intense experience of the sukshma sharira is during the dream state. In this state, the gross body stops interacting with the material world. The subtle body reveals itself but is colored in the shades of impressions and memories gathered during the waking state.
Sukshma is the Sanskrit word for ‘subtle.’ Thereby, subtle body refers to the psychological body that manages physiological activities. Every person has a unique subtle body that is built with impressions, karma, and associations of the self.
The subtle body contains nineteen instruments of experience – organs of action (hands, legs, speech, anus, genitals), organs of knowledge (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin), internal organs (mind, intellect, memory, ego), life-winds (Prana, Udana, Vyana, Samana, Apana Vayu).
Sukshma sharira is also called the ‘mind’ or sensory body. It gives rise to all feelings, ideas, and thoughts. Therefore, it is the seat of the mind, bound to kama (desire) and karma. The subtle body departs or perishes along with the physical body upon death.
3. The Causal Body – Karana Sharira
Karana Sharira is called the causal body because it is the seed or cause for the Individual to exist. Besides that, it has no other role or function. It is the most complex body as it originates from nescience and is unable to witness itself.
The Karana sharira is purely composed of avidya or Maya, the subtlest form of matter. In this context, avidya doesn’t refer to ignorance but refers to the basic fabric of Prakriti (Material world) or Maya (Illusion). It is infinite and continues after the dissolution of the universe.
The Karana sharira is associated with the Anandamaya Kosha, the state we experience in deep, dreamless sleep. In this state, the gross and subtle body becomes dormant and we lose our sense of self and time. However, the causal body is not the same as Atman, the soul.
The Karana sharira is even more subtle than the mind. The gross body can be experienced by us and others, the subtle body is only experienced by the Individual, and the causal body cannot be experienced even by the Individual.
The causal body is called beginning-less and indescribable. It is nirvikalpa rupam – the undifferentiated form characterized by nothingness or emptiness. Some philosophers call it the state when the Individual Self dissolves into the Universal Self and “I am” ceases to exist.
Vedanta believes that matter cannot be produced or destroyed. It always exists in its potential form and takes shape upon creation. First, the ‘possibility’ of the Individual exists in an unmanifested form. Just imagine how the idea of a tree already exists in the seed.
Similarly, the causal body is the un-manifest or potential form of the gross and subtle body before they exist. The Karana sharira exists as a seed waiting to be manifest.Upon birth or creation (Shristi), the causal body evolves into the gross and then subtle body.
During death or dissolution (Pralaya), the gross and subtle bodies dissolve back into the causal body. Therefore, the causal body is considered to be infinite or eternal.
Connections with Yoga
According to Advaita Vedanta, we are born from avidya or ignorance and live in a state of anatman, not able to identify with our (true) Self. This ignorance creates bondage to the three bodies and a false sense of “I am” which is the source of all suffering.
Together, the three bodies also create the ego and illusion that prevent us from recognizing the soul or Atman. Jnana yoga and Vedanta traditions encourage self-study or self-inquiry to dis-identify from the three bodies.
With the knowledge of this theory, you can approach yoga differently. The basic idea is to turn inward and investigate the three bodies using spiritual practices like pratyahara and meditation. As we experience these layers, we can stop identifying with them.
The three-body doctrine has also been propagated by various yoga gurus like Ramana Maharshi, Yogi Bhajan, and others. Mandukya Upanishad explains how one can use ‘Turiya’ meditation with Om chanting to realize we are not the waking, dreaming, or dreamless state.