Chapter 9- The subtle body
Ocean of the Nectar of Enlightenment
Prabodhasudhakara is one of the lesser-known works of Sri Sankaracharya.
It consists of 257 verses divided into 19 chapters. One distinguishing feature
of this work is that it recognises the paths of knowledge (jnana) and devotion
(bhakti) as equally valid and expressly declares the oneness of Brahman with and
What is it that human beings desire most? It would seem that there is no
single answer to this question. Desires seem to be as numerous as there are
individuals. Some crave for wealth, some for fame, some for power and so on. But
is it possible to reduce all these desires to one single desire, of which all
these are only different manifestations? The answer of Vedanta is in the
affirmative. The one desire that is common to all human beings, nay, all living
beings, is: “May I always be happy, may I never have to experience sorrow”.
Thus everything in this world is desired for the happiness it is expected to
bestow, but happiness is desired for its own sake and not for the sake of
anything else. Vedanta says that this universal desire happiness is because
happiness is our real nature. We suffer misery only because we have not realized
our real nature and wrongly think of ourselves as the body, senses or mind. When
a person says he is stout or lean or tall or short, etc, he looks upon himself
as his body. When he says, “I see”, “I hear”, “I smell”, etc, he
identifies himself with his sense organs. When he says, “I think”, “I
understand”, etc., he identifies himself with his mind. All these
identifications are wrong and result from ignorance of our real nature.
The highest goal of life according to Advaita Vedanta is the attainment
of a state of supreme bliss by the realization of our real nature. This is not a
state to be attained in some other world after the end of the present life, as
in other schools of Vedanta. On the other hand it is to be attained here, in
this world and during this life itself. This is the state known as Jivanmukti or
liberation-in-life. This is attained when one realizes that he is not the body,
or the senses, or the mind, but the self or Atma, which is identical with
Brahman. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita expound the means of attaining this
state. One essential requisite for this is purity of mind, which means a mind
free from cravings for worldly pleasures. This should not be misunderstood as
meaning that one has to renounce the world and take sannyasa. What has to be
cultivated is an attitude of detachment. One who has cultivated such an attitude
will be able to engage himself in his normal worldly activities, without
becoming unduly distressed by adversities or unduly elated by favourable
happenings. Only a person who has attained such a state of equanimity of mind
will be able to concentrate his mind on the teachings of the Upanishads and give
up his wrong identification with the body, senses and mind. When this wrong
identification is given up, he remains as what he is in reality, namely, the
Atma or self, which is identical with Brahman. Brahman is bliss and so when one
realizes his identity with Brahman he enjoys supreme bliss. The first few
chapters of the present book deal with the means by which such a detachment can
be cultivated. Thereafter the book proceeds to deal with such matters as the
nature of the Self, and leads step by step to the ultimate goal.
The work commences with a salutation to Krishna, described as the Supreme
Lord of the Yadava race, who is none other than the Unborn, Self-effulgent,
Supreme Being, who is Pure Existence, Consciousness and Eternal Bliss. Thus the
identity of the Personal God with Nirguna Brahman is established at the very
outset. The next verse points out that Brahman whom even the Vedas are unable to
describe, is certainly not accessible to the words of human beings. Though this
is so, He can be attained through the scriptures and by contemplation on, and
singing the praises of, Hari. However, spiritual practices, knowledge and
devotion are of no avail without the cultivation of intense dispassion.
Dispassion, knowledge of the Self and devotion-- these three together constitute
the means to liberation. Dispassion is total absence of desire for all objects
of enjoyment. The notions of 'I' and 'mine' are the obstacles to the rise of
dispassion. The notion of 'I' relates to the body and the notion of 'mine'
relates to objects such as wife, son, and possessions. If one ponders deeply
over the nature of the body and its relationship with objects, these two notions
can be gradually eliminated. The jiva (individual soul) takes a body in
accordance with his past karma, and is born as a result of the union of the
father and the mother. The jiva is baked by the flames of the digestive fire in
the womb of the mother, surrounded by mucus, urine and faecal matter. After
birth he undergoes sufferings of various kinds in childhood due to illness and
other causes. The jiva takes birth in eighty four lakhs of different species
such as insects, birds, animals, human beings and so on. The human body is the
highest in the scale of evolution. Even among human beings, birth in a noble
family of learned persons, which is conducive to the study and practice of the
teachings of the Vedas, is the highest and most to be desired. If, even after
attaining such a valuable birth, discrimination between the eternal Self and the
perishable non-Self is not acquired, the life is merely wasted. There cannot be
a greater loss than this. The next birth may be as an animal, or bird, etc., in
which there is absolutely no possibility of spiritual progress. These creatures
cannot even give expression to the suffering undergone by them.
The physical body is a collection of blood, bones, marrow, fat, flesh and
the like. It is covered outside by the skin. But for this covering, it would be
snatched and eaten by crows. The very sight of the phlegm emitted by the
nostrils and the mouth, and the faecal matter from the anus is revolting. If a
man sees a bone lying on the road, he would walk away from it in disgust, but he
does not realise that his own body is full of similar bones. The body is full of
foul-smelling matter from the hair on the head to the tip of the nails. People
anoint this body with sandal paste and various cosmetics in order to conceal its
defects. Fools praise the body, attributing merits to it. If a wound on the body
is not cleaned for three days, worms arise there and a bad smell emanates. The
body which till then slept on a beautiful couch is bound with ropes and pieces
of wood and thrown into the fire when life departs from it. People worship with
joy a king seated on his throne, but when he dies they do not like even to look
at his body. Forgetting the Supreme Lord because of whom the impure body is
sentient and active, man looks upon his body as himself. Where is the Self which
is of the nature of Pure Existence and Consciousness, and where is the body made
of flesh, blood and bones! Would any wise man think highly of the impure body?
The object in censuring the physical body in this manner is to generate
dispassion in the mind of the spiritual seeker.
The deluded man goes after sense pleasures which only weaken his body.
Just as a house made of mud, which has collapsed because of heavy rain cannot be
strengthened with mud, the man cannot regain his strength by indulging more in
sense-pleasures. A man is infatuated with his wife even if she is not beautiful
and this causes him mental agitation; but if she happens to be beautiful, his
unhappiness is even greater because others may look upon her with longing. If
the wife is very foolish, or disobedient to her husband, she becomes worse than
The Veda says that there is no 'world' for a man without a son. What is
the 'world' referred to by this statement? It is certainly not liberation. It
cannot also be this world or heaven, because there are other means to attain
them. The performance of sacrifices such as 'putrakameshti' are useless because
they do not lead to real and permanent happiness. Before a son is born, a man is
anxious to get one. When a son is born, the father
is full of anxiety about his life. He is also worried whether the son
will be intelligent and of good character, or otherwise. If the son hurts the
father, mother or other relatives, he causes further misery to the parents. Even
if the son has all virtues, there will be great unhappiness if he is diseased or
dies prematurely. If it is said that a son enables his father to attain to a
higher world after death, that also does not stand to reason, because each
person's future depends on his own actions and merits and not on somebody else.
Every person goes through innumerable births, in which he has different fathers,
mothers, sons and relatives. Such associations are therefore purely transient,
like wayfarers meeting at some place and then dispersing. The sons and other
dependants are happy only if they are fed and looked after well, otherwise they
become angry. Every one puts in great effort to acquire as much wealth as
possible. But if excessive wealth is acquired, there is danger from thieves.
Taxes levied by the Government may take away a substantial portion of the
wealth. Quarrels also start within the family about the sharing of the wealth.
Thus the objects acquired with
great effort for the sake of getting happiness lead ultimately only to
unhappiness and mental agitation.
(The object of this denunciation of objects of sense is to generate
dispassion in the spiritual aspirant. The idea is that one should not get too
attached to family, wealth, and possessions).
The mind, when possessed by the demoness of desire, becomes a devil. It
wanders all over, is sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, and so on.
It is sometimes virtuous and sometimes wicked. It is pulled in different
directions by pride, greed, desire, anger, jealousy and other emotions. One can
attain dispassion by giving up desires. The mind will then become calm.
The boat in the form of the human body is dragged here and there by the
force of past karma in the ocean of worldly existence which is full of water in
the form of sense-objects. This boat has nine openings (the two eyes, the two
ears, the two nostrils, the mouth and the organs of excretion and generation).
Water in the form of sense-objects enters through these openings and tends to
sink the boat. If these openings are kept closed, the jiva, who is the boatman,
can reach the other shore with ease. Without controlling the senses, none can
cross the ocean of worldly existence.
Some instances where free rein to the senses contributes to spiritual
downfall are now given. A man looks with longing at the young wife of another
man. This results only in his accumulating sin. A man listens to scandalous
tales about another man, who is, however, not in the least affected by it. The
only result is that the man listening to such tales incurs sin. When a person
makes false allegations about others, those persons are not affected in the
least, but the person who makes such allegations becomes a great sinner.
The pleasure enjoyed for a few moments because of the contact of the
senses with an object turns into life-long misery when that object is lost.
Therefore the wise man should give up hankering after such fleeting pleasures
and seek what is eternal. A man given to sensual pleasures is ultimately carried
away by death, just like the fish attracted by a piece of flesh in a bait. A
frog with half its body in the mouth of a snake goes on devouring flies.
Similarly, man who is in the clutches of death runs after sensual pleasures even
in old age.
If the mind is not allowed to go out towards external objects, but is
fixed on the Self, it will become identified with the Self. When the mind is
thinking of sense objects it becomes tainted and tamoguna predominates. When the
mind withdraws itself from sense objects and attains dispassion towards them,
sattvaguna will begin to manifest. (Prakriti, which is the material cause of the
whole world is said to be composed of three gunas or modes, namely, sattva,
rajas and tamas. The mind is also constituted of the same three gunas. The
proportion of these gunas varies from person to person. In the same person the
proportion varies from time to time, depending on the activities of the mind,
and one guna or other predominates. When sattvaguna predominates, the mind is
calm, receptive to knowledge and pure. When rajoguna predominates, the person is
actuated by greed and is inclined to engage in action for the fulfilment of his
desires, heedless of the consequences. When tamoguna predominates, the person
becomes lazy and goes into a torpor). The mind of the ordinary person constantly
seeks pleasure through the sense organs. If the desired object is not attained
the person thinks that he has lost something very valuable and is very unhappy.
Every one has to experience the consequences of his actions in this life
or in past lives. This is the inexorable law. The only way to prevent the mind
from running out in search of sense pleasures is by the cultivation of
happiness experienced in deep sleep is not born of any sense object because at
that time there is no contact of the mind with external objects through the
Just as a tiger confined to a place surrounded by high walls makes
repeated efforts to jump over the walls and, becoming exhausted, lies down
panting, the mind, failing in its efforts to go out on account of the sense
organs being restrained, becomes calm. Then it gives up all effort.
The mind gradually gives up all agitation if the breath is controlled
through pranayama, if the company of sages is resorted to, if the vasanas are
given up, and by the cultivation of devotion to the feet of Hari.
The mind and the breath are like two sides of the same coin and so when
one is controlled the other also becomes calm.
A person who has come as a guest for a short period to a house will not
be unduly elated or depressed by any good or bad happenings in that house.
Similarly, a person should stay in his house like a guest, unaffected by
whatever happens in the house. One who is free from the notions of ‘I’ and
‘mine’ and who has turned his mind away from sense objects is never affected
by anything even if he is staying in his house. For a man who sleeps in a forest
at the cool foot of a tree where the ground is covered by sand and thick grass,
the trees rich in leaves and fruits, the cool fragrant breeze, the birds which
sing sweetly and the rivers become friends. The man who has attained total
dispassion, whose mind is tranquil, who is free from desire, and who enjoys
whatever comes to him unsolicited, has attained fulfilment here in this life
If an object is lost due to carelessness, great sorrow is experienced.
But if the same object is presented to a deserving and respected person, there
is great joy for the giver. Similarly, if sense pleasures cease to be available
or if they cannot be enjoyed because of old age or other reasons, that becomes
the cause of sorrow for a long time. But if they are willingly renounced, there
is happiness and ultimately, liberation.
The mind forgets its true abode, the Self, and runs about here and there
in the terrible forest of sense objects in search of pleasure. It is tormented
by the forest fire in the form of the three kinds of afflictions, namely, those
caused by physical and mental ailments (known as adhyatmika), those caused by
other creatures (adhibhautika), and those resulting from natural calamities such
as floods, earthquakes, etc., (adhidaivika). It is captivated by desires for
enjoyment and runs after objects of trifling value. Ultimately it is destroyed
by the tiger in the form of sense objects. The mind is compared to a restless
deer which roams about in the forest in search of grass and falls prey to a
tiger. The never ending desires that keep on rising in the mind bring about the
ruin of the human being and stand as obstacles to spiritual progress. Detachment
is the virtue that should be cultivated most earnestly by every spiritual
Although the knowledge about the Self (Brahman) is contained in the
Upanishads, the spiritual aspirant should get it only from a Guru. The knowledge
of the Self obtained from a mere study of the Upanishads is indirect, like the
knowledge from the mere statement that ‘jaggery is sweet’, which cannot give
one any idea of what jaggery looks like or what is the nature of its sweetness.
The knowledge received from a Guru is like the knowledge obtained by looking at
the jaggery from a distance, which gives an idea of what jaggery looks like, but
not about how it tastes. The knowledge obtained by the aspirant by intuitive
perception or realization of the
Self is like the delight one gets on actually tasting jaggery. Thus, while the
scriptures and the Guru can only point out the way, actual realization of the
Self depends on one’s own effort.
What is it that enables us to experience taste, smell, form, sound, and
touch and everything else? It cannot be the physical body or the sense organs,
because these exist even in the dead body, but the dead body does not experience
any pain when burnt. It cannot be the vital airs (prana), because, even though
the prana is active during sleep, a person remains ignorant of thieves entering
the house and stealing things. If it is said that it is the mind that enables us
to experience all these, then why is it that the mind does not experience all
these simultaneously? It is because the mind is itself dependent on the sense
organs. This being so, what is it that enables us to have all these experiences?
Let a brightly burning lamp be placed on the floor in a room that is
totally dark. Let the lamp be covered by a pot with five holes on the sides. Let
various objects be placed all around the pot. The light from the pot, coming
through the holes illumines these objects and makes them visible. The visibility
of the objects is not caused by the holes in the pot or the lamp made of earth
or any other material, or the oil or the burning wick. It is only the light of
the lamp that illumines the objects. Similarly, it is the Self or pure
Consciousness within the body that enables us to experience the various objects
of sense such as taste, smell, etc.
Verse 95 of Prabodhasudhakara says that the Supreme Self who is nothing
but Pure Consciousness saw himself as ‘I’. Thus he got the appellation
‘I’. That was the origin of difference and multiplicity.
The above verse is based on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Br. Up), 1.4.1,
which says—“In the beginning (i.e. before creation), there was nothing but
the Self in the form of a person. He pondered and saw nothing other than
himself. He said, ”I am he”. Therefore he came to be called ‘I’ (Aham).
Therefore, even today, when a person is addressed, he first says, “It is I”,
and then only gives his name”.
Verse 96 says that the Self existed as (or became divided into) two
parts, as husband and wife. Therefore the space (by the side of the male) has
always to be filled by a female.
This verse is based on Br. Up. 1.4.3, which says (as commented upon by
Sri Sankaracharya)--“The Self projected a body as big as a man and woman
together in embrace. He then divided this body into two and they became husband
and wife. Therefore the husband and wife are like the two halves of a split pea.
Thus, till a man gets married the space by his side is vacant. This space has to
be filled by a wife”. This statement in the Upanishad shows that equal
importance is given to the husband and the wife. Moreover, it is implied here
that a man becomes complete only when he gets married. This should dispel the
totally wrong notion held by some that the Hindu religion frowns upon married
life and holds up renunciation as the model for all. The scriptures say that one
should normally go through the four ashramas one by one and enter the sannyasa
ashrama only at the last stage of life. Of course, a person who has developed
total detachment can go straight from brahmacharya to sannyasa, without going
through the grahastha and vanaprastha ashramas, but that is the exception and
not the general rule.
The Supreme Self created all creatures by its Maya, just as we create
various objects in dream. So the universe is only like a dream. Maya, which is
the power of the Supreme Self is neither different from nor identical with the
Self. It is beginningless and is dependent on the Self which is the only
reality. It is made up of the three Gunas, namely, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. It
brings forth the universe made up of the movable and the immovable. It is only
because of maya that every one identifies himself with his body-mind complex and
consequently experiences joys and sorrows resulting from external factors. When
a person has crossed over this maya he realises that he is Brahman and remains
as Brahman which is supreme bliss.
The mind is the connecting link between the Self which is pure
consciousness and the physical body. The physical body perishes, but the mind
continues, taking one physical body after another in numerous births. Death is
the separation of the mind, also known as the subtle body, from a particular
physical body. Birth is the entry of the subtle body into another physical body.
The subtle body perishes only on the realization of Brahman, when avidya or
ignorance is destroyed.
Just as the space enclosed in a pot or room is called pot-space or
room-space, the Self (or Pure Consciousness) covered by Nescience is known as
Jiva or individual soul.
A doubt arises here. How can ignorance cover Brahman which is pure
consciousness? Can darkness cover the sun? The answer is: Clouds which are
produced by the heat of the sun hide the sun from our view, but the fact that it
is daytime is still known. Similarly ignorance hides Brahman from us, but the
power of consciousness is not hidden and it is seen in all living beings.