Gross and subtle bodies

To explain the phenomenon of pleasurable and painful human experiences, Indian philosophy distinguishes between the gross and subtle bodies and the effects of past actions on the present life and the constituents of these bodies. The gross body is constituted of the five primordial elements, namely the sky, air, fire, water and earth when they combine with one another.

Adi Shankaracharya in his treatise Vivekachudamani explains this in detail to clearly highlight the role of the body and its fundamental role as a vehicle for spiritual advancement. Shankara compares the gross body to the house of a man. Just as the house comprises pillars, roof, walls, etc, the gross body is made up of the flesh, bones, skin, etc. Just as the house is meant for the owner to live in, this gross body houses the divine element, the atman. Just as the life of the house owner is more valuable than the house, the goal of man should be to realise the presence of the divinity within him, rather than on according undue importance to the gross body by excessive indulgence in sense pleasures.

Shankara says that depending too much on material pleasures to gratify the gross body is as foolhardy and dangerous as sitting on the back of a crocodile in the hope of crossing a river.

As mentioned, this gross body is made of the five elements. How and in what proportion they combine together is determined by one’s actions in previous lives. The resulting gross body experiences pleasure and pain proportionately. The omniscient Lord is only the dispenser of the fruits, strictly according to antecedent actions. Due to the inherent nescience, man identifies himself with the gross body and succumbs to sense attractions.

All bodily pleasures and pains are experienced only in the waking state. This is because the sense organs are enlivened by the inner divine presence. During the dream and dreamless sleep states, the sense organs cease to function. The sole witness to all these three states is the inner divinity. Thus, the gross body is the sole medium of contact of man with the external world. The inner consciousness, which takes on different functions, is explained lucidly with the examples of the same gold which takes different forms like a bangle, ring, a chain, etc, and the same water which is called a river, lake, tank, etc, depending on its appearance.

Similarly, the consciousness is called mind when it thinks and cogitates, intellect when it reasons and deduces, ego-sense when it produces worldly attachments and the ‘I’ feeling and memory when it recalls the past.

The aggregate of the five sense organs, the five organs of action, the five elements, the breath and the four states of consciousness constitute the subtle body. All the residual tendencies of past lives manifest themselves through this subtle body and go to make up the personality of man. The sole witness, the inner effulgence, which illuminates everything, remains a detached onlooker. This is what is to be sought after.

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