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BG Chap 13 - Levels of Brahman realization

There are basically two Vedic systems by which one progresses indirectly, without descending information, in realization. The Second Chapter of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad describes one of them. It is called vyaṣṭi, the system in which a person directs his meditation toward the self and thus seeks to understand the Absolute by considering himself a fragment of the Supreme. Analogously, one can study the nature of the entire ocean by scrutinizing a drop. The second indirect system is called samaṣṭi, in which one studies the entirety of the universe while considering it the body of the Supreme.

In the vyaṣṭi system, one observes, encasing the living entity’s consciousness, five kośas, or sheaths: anna-maya, dependence upon food for existence; prāṇa-maya, living symptoms and life forms; jñāna-maya, thinking, feeling and willing; vijñāna-maya, distinguishing the mind and life symptoms from the self; and ānanda-maya, realization of the all-blissful nature. All five are progressively developed stages of subjective, individual consciousness (or self-concepts) and are also objective manifestations of the Lord’s energy in which Brahman, the Absolute or the greatest, is realized even if indirectly or relatively.

A mundane example of subjective consciousness that nevertheless has objective existence is one’s relationship with his country of birth. A citizen does not create the concept of belonging to that country as its citizen; the country itself creates the category and the requirements of citizenship. Citizenship, therefore, exists independently as a reality outside of an individual. However, a human being who possesses the requirement of a specific type of subjectively experienced consciousness will identify with his country and consider himself Indian or American or Russian. Dogs, monkeys, birds and so on do not possess the required subjective consciousness to identify themselves with their country of birth, though they certainly exist within that country. In the same way, the five kośas are both subjectively experienced stages of consciousness and objective energies—levels of Brahman realization—manifest by the Supreme.

One experiencing the anna-maya stage experiences a unifying oneness by viewing all as potential food. Such a consciousness makes no distinction between that which is alive and that which is not. It does not even possess any awareness of its own existence as separate from the existence of all else. Although this self-concept is the most basic form of consciousness, it is nevertheless also a manifestation of the Lord’s energy.
When one comes to the stage of prāṇa-maya, his consciousness advances to an awareness of his own active life symptoms, and he identifies with them. His view of the external world is unified by the principle of maintaining his own survival. Materialistic human society, more or less, exists on this primitive level of realization. Again, as are the kośas, this stage of consciousness is also the Lord’s energy.

In jñāna-maya, one’s self-concept expands to awareness of his own thinking, feeling and willing. One’s perception of reality is then based upon and limited by that vision. Śrīla Rāmānujācārya, however, explains that the Taittirīya Upaniṣad places on the jñāna-maya platform only those civilized human beings who follow Vedic culture. According to him, this is because one’s perceptions and actions must be based on actual knowledge, Vedic knowledge, to qualify one for the platform of jñāna-maya, which is full of knowledge.

These first three stages refer to a living entity trapped in illusion—one who fully identifies with and is limited by his field of activities. In the fourth stage, the vijñāna-maya stage, the living entity realizes himself as eternal spirit, separate from his gross and subtle bodies. This is the platform of transcendental knowledge. The Supreme Lord is known as ānanda-maya, full of bliss, and in this final stage of consciousness, one realizes and identifies himself as a servant of that supremely blissful Lord. Thus the Lord expands His energy as the five kośas and provides levels of consciousness to the kṣetra-jña, the knower of a field of activities.