Samskaras: Impressions in the Mind

All actions, enjoyments and experiences leave their mark in the subconscious and unconscious mind in the form of subtle impressions or residual potencies. These impressions are termed samskaras and are the roots of causing rebirth and experiences of pleasure and pain. The yogi dives deep inside and comes in direct contact with these samskaras. He directly perceives them through the inner yogic vision.

What are samskaras?

A vritti or thought wave arises in the mind-ocean. It operates for some time. Then it sinks below the threshold of normal consciousness. From the surface of the conscious mind, where it was uppermost for some time, it sinks down deep into the region of the subconscious or unconscious layers of the mind or chitta. There, it continues to be a subliminal action and becomes a samskara or impression. A conscious action, whether cognitive, affective or conative, assumes a potential and hidden (sukshma and avyakta) form just below the threshold of consciousness. This is termed as samskara.

Memory, a revival of samskara

Samskaras are embedded in the subconscious and unconscious layers of the mind whose seat is the cerebellum or hindbrain. You can recall past experiences from the storehouse of samskaras in these layers of the mind. The past is preserved in the chitta to the minutest detail, not a bit is ever lost.

When the fine samskaras come back up to the surface of the conscious mind as big waves, when the past vrittis come back to the surface of the conscious mind by recollection, the process is called memory recall. Revival of samskaras induces memory or smriti. Memory cannot exist without samskaras.

How a samskara is formed

An experience in the sense plane sinks down into the depths of the subconscious or unconscious mind (chitta) and there becomes a samskara. A samskara of an experience is formed or developed in the chitta at the very moment that the mind is experiencing something. There is no gap between the experience and the formation of a samskara in the deeper mind.

A specific experience leaves a specific samskara. The memory of this specific experience springs from that particular samskara only, which was formed out of that particular experience. When you perceive an orange and its taste for the first time, you get knowledge of an orange. You know its taste. You know the object: orange. A samskara is formed in the mind at once. At any time, this samskara can generate a memory of the object, orange, and knowledge of an orange. Though the object and the act of knowledge are distinguishable, yet they are inseparable.

Cyclic causation of thought and samskara

An object awakens or revives samskaras in the mind through external stimuli. Hence, a thought arises subjectively from within, without a stimulus from outside. When you think of a cow that you have seen before, you repeat the word ‘cow’ mentally and only then the mental image appears. Next, a thought is formed. Samskara causes thought, and thought causes samskara just as a seed is the cause of a tree and the tree is the cause of the seed in turn. A vritti in the mind produces a samskara and a samskara in turn again causes a vritti.

Owing to the force of stimuli either from within or without, the seed-like samskaras again expand and give rise to further activity. This cycle of vritti and samskara is anadi or beginningless, but has an end when one attains liberation. Now they dissolve into Prakriti or assume the state of laya. They cease to produce any effect on a jivanmukta, liberated being. Samskaras should be fried up by continuous samadhi. Then only you will be free from the cycle of births and deaths.

Samyama over samskaras

Samskara is also known as residual potency. When all vrittis or thoughts die away, the frame of the mind remains with samskaras alone. This is termed as the potential mind. In Vedantic parlance, it is called antahkarana matra.

All samskaras co-exist in the mind. One who has a yogic vision can vividly notice the marvels that take place in the mental factory, how the vritti arises in the mind lake, how it subsides and how a samskara is formed. You will be struck with wonder when you are able to observe this. Samyama or control over samskaras imparts direct knowledge of the residual potencies. A yogi brings into direct consciousness his previous lifetimes through the knowledge of his samskaras.

Positive and negative samskaras

Like all forces, samskaras aid or inhibit one another. When you notice a man suffering from a serious sickness and the feeling of mercy arises in your heart, all the samskaras of your previous merciful actions coalesce together and force you to serve and help that man. Similarly, all samskaras of charitable actions come forth to the surface of the conscious mind when you see a man in dire straits, and they force you to help him.

When one positive samskara or virtuous action comes into play, another samskara of a dissimilar nature may also emerge and come in the way of its fulfilment. This is the fight between a positive and a negative samskara. For example, when you try to fix your mind on the Self and think of purity, just at that moment all negative thoughts and samskaras burst forth with violence and vengeance. This is termed as ‘crowding of samskaras’. Positive samskaras also crowd together and help you to drive out negative samskaras. The father of Swami Advaitananda was a great bhakta of Chandi. At the time of his death, he was semi-conscious. He began to repeat all the shlokas of the Chandi Stotra which he had learnt by heart while he was young. This is crowding of spiritual samskaras.

Past samskaras constitute prarabdha

When you are born, the mind is not a mere tabula rasa or blank tablet. It is a storehouse of samskaras, predispositions, predilections, etc. A child is born with his individual samskaras, with his past experiences transmuted into mental and moral tendencies and powers. The mind evolves through the impressions received from the universe through the senses. It will take many lifetimes till it gathers the complete experience of the world. Every person is born with his inherent samskaras which are embedded, lodged or imprinted in the chitta, which is the seat for prarabdha or past karma. In earthly life, one gains many more samskaras or experiences through actions, and these are added to the original store and become the future sanchita karmas (accumulated actions).

All samskaras lie dormant in the chitta as latent activities, not only of this life but of all previous lives. The samskaras of one’s animal lives, a kingly life, a peasant’s life, are all hidden in the chitta. In each life, only those samskaras which are appropriate to that particular type of birth will operate and come to play. The other samskaras will remain concealed and dormant. As a merchant closing the year’s ledger and opening a new one does not enter in the new book all the items of the old, but only its balances, so does the spirit hand over to the new brain its judgement on the experiences of a life that is closed, the conclusions to which it has come, the decisions at which it has arrived. This is the stock handed over to the new life, the mental furniture for the new dwelling, a real memory.