I recently became a grandfather for the first time. Looking at my infant granddaughter, Vilasini, I think about what’s going on in her mind. Where’s her consciousness at this point in her life? The answer seems obvious: She’s mostly concerned with eating.

According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, babies are at the lowest level of consciousness, called anna-maya (anna, “food”; maya, “made of”). It’s the first of five koshas (“sheaths”) covering the soul. The other four are prana-maya, jnana-maya, vijnana-maya, and ananda-maya. Familiarity with these terms can help us understand that there are higher levels of consciousness than our present one—and that we should aspire for them.

As the name implies, the philosophy of “Krishna consciousness” is concerned with consciousness, a symptom of the soul. While some religious traditions emphasize being saved or performing good works to achieve heavenly rewards, the Vedic scriptures stress the need to elevate one’s consciousness to progressively higher levels of realization of the Truth.

People today might reject the assumption that individuals are at different levels of consciousness. In the West at least, people tend to think we’re all concerned with the same things. Everyone’s consciousness is, by necessity, absorbed in day-to-day existence, they reason. Our thoughts focus on work, family, friends, politics, entertainment, and so on. In other words, we’re all simply trying to live our lives as best we can.

This conviction is in fact a symptom of the second level of consciousness, called prana-maya, wherein we are satisfied just to be alive and we try to stay alive at all costs. Thoughts of a reality beyond the lives we know are uncommon.

But what about philosophical thoughts? What about stepping back and trying to understand what life’s really all about?

Philosophical inquiry is a step above concerns for the pressing matters of life in the twenty-first century. The thoughtful person rises above the masses to the stage called jnana-maya.

But just thinking about the big questions isn’t enough. The quest for metaphysical knowledge finds success when the philosopher realizes that the self is not the body but a pure spirit soul. That discovery of the true self is called vijnana-maya, or realized knowledge, and in our times it is rarely achieved.

Difficult as it is to attain, the vijnana-maya stage is not the end. What could be next? Self-knowledge is incomplete without understanding the self’s relationship with everything else, especially with the Supreme Self. With ordinary philosophical inquiry, one can know about God, but from the platform of self-knowledge one can, with further progress, know God—and one’s relationship with Him. Acting in that relationship is the status called ananda-maya. Although ananda-maya is listed as one of the five sheaths covering the soul, it is actually our pure, original state, free of the material coverings of anna-maya, prana-maya, and jnana-maya, and above the transcendental, yet still lacking, vijnana-maya.

The ånanda in ananda-maya means “bliss.” While bliss or pure happiness is part of our essence as spiritual beings, we can uncover it only by reuniting with God in loving service. Because He is the source of all happiness, our true happiness derives from our relationship with Him. Only when we remove the sheaths covering our pure consciousness can we attain the stage of ananda-maya and recover our right to uninterrupted bliss. The practices of bhakti-yoga can carry us beyond the lower stages to this platform of perfection.
—Nagaraja Dasa