A subtle body is one of a series of psycho-spiritual constituents of living beings, according to various esoteric, occult, and mystical teachings. According to such beliefs each subtle body corresponds to a subtle plane of existence, in a hierarchy or great chain of being that culminates in the physical form.
The subtle body consists of focal points, often called chakras, connected by channels, often called nadis, that convey subtle breath (with names such as prana or vayu). These are understood to determine the characteristics of the physical body. Through breathing and other exercises, a practitioner may direct the subtle breath to achieve supernormal powers, immortality, or liberation.
The subtle body (Sanskrit: sūkṣma śarīra) is important in Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, mainly in the forms which focus on Tantra and Yoga. Other spiritual traditions teach about a mystical or divine body.
The Yogic, Tantric and other systems of Hinduism, Vajrayana Buddhism, as well as Chinese Taoist alchemy contain theories of subtle physiology with focal points (chakras, acupuncture points) connected by a series of channels (nadis, meridians) that convey subtle breath (prana, vayu, ch'i, ki, lung). These invisible channels and points are understood to determine the characteristics of the visible physical form. By understanding and mastering the subtlest levels of reality one gains mastery over the physical realm. Through breathing and other exercises, the practitioner aims to manipulate and direct the flow of subtle breath, to achieve supernormal powers (siddhis) and attain higher states of consciousness, immortality, or liberation.
Early concepts of the subtle body (Sanskrit: sūkṣma śarīra) appeared in the Upanishads, including the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and the Katha Upanishad. The Taittiriya Upanishad describes the theory of five koshas or sheaths, though these are not to be thought of as concentric layers, but interpenetrating at successive levels of subtlety:
- The anna-maya ("food body", physical body, the grossest level),
- The prana-maya (body made of vital breath or prana),
- The mano-maya (body made of mind),
- The vijñana-maya (body made of consciousness)
- The ananda-maya (bliss body, the subtlest level).
- Prāṇa, associated with inhalation
- Apāna, associated with exhalation
- Uḍāna, associated with distribution of breath within the body
- Samāna, associated with digestion
- Vyāna, associated with excretion of waste
A millennium later, these concepts were adapted and refined by various spiritual traditions. The similar concept of the Liṅga Śarīra is seen as the vehicle of consciousness in later Samkhya, Vedanta, and Yoga, and is propelled by past-life tendencies, or bhavas. Linga can be translated as "characteristic mark" or "impermanence" and the Vedanta term sarira as "form" or "mold". Karana or "instrument" is a synonymous term. In the Classical Samkhya system of Isvarakrsna (ca. 4th century CE), the Lińga is the characteristic mark of the transmigrating entity. It consists of twenty-five tattvas from eternal consciousness down to the five organs of sense, five of activity (buddindriya or jñānendriya, and karmendriya respectively) and the five subtle elements that are the objects of sense (tanmatras) The Samkhyakarika says:
The subtle body (linga), previously arisen, unconfined, constant, inclusive of the great one (mahat) etc, through the subtle elements, not having enjoyment, transmigrates, (because of) being endowed with bhavas ("conditions" or "dispositions"). As a picture (does) not (exist) without a support, or as a shadow (does) not (exist) without a post and so forth; so too the instrument (linga or karana) does not exist without that which is specific (i.e. a subtle body).— Samkhyakarika, 60-81
The classical Vedanta tradition developed the theory of the five bodies into the theory of the koshas "sheaths" or "coverings" which surround and obscure the self (atman). In classical Vedanta these are seen as obstacles to realization and traditions like Shankara's Advaita Vedanta had little interest in working with the subtle body.
In Tantra traditions meanwhile (Shaiva Kaula, Kashmir Shaivism and Buddhist Vajrayana), the subtle body was seen in a more positive light, offering potential for yogic practices which could lead to liberation. Tantric traditions contain the most complex theories of the subtle body, with sophisticated descriptions of energy nadis (literally "stream or river", channels through which vayu and prana flows) and chakras, points of focus where nadis meet.
The main channels, shared by both Hindu and Buddhist systems, are the central (in Hindu systems: sushumna; in Buddhist: avadhuti), left and right (in Hindu systems: ida and pingala; Buddhist: lalana and rasana). Further subsidiary channels are said to radiate outwards from the chakras, where the main channels meet.
The modern Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba stated that the subtle body "is the vehicle of desires and vital forces". He held that the subtle body is one of three bodies with which the soul must cease to identify in order to realize God.
In Buddhist Tantra, the subtle body is termed the ‘innate body’ (nija-deha) or the ‘uncommon means body’ (asadhdrana-upayadeha). It is also called sūkṣma śarīra, rendered in Tibetan as traway-lu (transliterated phra ba’i lus).
The subtle body consists of thousands of subtle energy channels (nadis), which are conduits for energies or "winds" (lung or prana) and converge at chakras. According to Dagsay Tulku Rinpoche, there are three main channels (nadis), central, left and right, which run from the point between the eyebrows up to the crown chakra, and down through all seven chakras to a point two inches below the navel.
Buddhist tantras generally describe four or five chakras in the shape of a lotus with varying petals. For example, the Hevajra Tantra (8th century) states:
In the Center [i.e. chakra] of Creation [at the sexual organ] a sixty-four petal lotus. In the Center of Essential Nature [at the heart] an eight petal lotus. In the Center of Enjoyment [at the throat] a sixteen petal lotus. In the Center of Great Bliss [at the top of the head] a thirty-two petal lotus.
Other spiritual traditions teach about a mystical or divine body, such as "the most sacred body" (wujud al-aqdas) and "true and genuine body" (jism asli haqiqi) in Sufism, the meridian system in Chinese religion, and "the immortal body" (soma athanaton) in Hermeticism.
In the 19th century, H. P. Blavatsky founded the esoteric religious system of Theosophy, which attempted to restate Hindu and Buddhist philosophy for the Western world. She adopted the phrase "subtle body" as the English equivalent of the Vedantic sūkṣmaśarīra, which in Adi Shankara's writings was one of three bodies (physical, subtle, and causal). Geoffrey Samuel notes that theosophical use of these terms by Blavatsky and later authors, especially C. W. Leadbeater, Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner (who went on to found Anthroposophy), has made them "problematic" to modern scholars, since the Theosophists adapted the terms as they expanded their ideas based on "psychic and clairvoyant insights", changing their meaning from what they had in their original context in India. 
Subtle bodies are found in the "Fourth Way" teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which claim that one can create a subtle body, and hence achieve post-mortem immortality, through spiritual or yogic exercises. The "soul" in these systems is not something one is born with, but developed through esoteric practice to acquire complete understanding and to perfect the self. According to the historian Bernice Rosenthal, "In Gurdjieff's cosmology our nature is tripartite and is composed of the physical (planetary), emotional (astral) and mental (spiritual) bodies; in each person one of these three bodies ultimately achieves dominance." The ultimate task of the fourth way teachings is to harmoniously develop the four bodies into a single way.
The occultist Aleister Crowley's system of magick envisaged "a subtle body (instrument is a better term) called the Body of Light; this one develops and controls; it gains new powers as one progresses".
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