From Conversations on the Science of Yoga – Karma Yoga Book 1, Karma

What role do samskaras play in one’s life?

Swami Niranjanananda: Samskaras are impressions which give birth to a mentality, behaviour, an attitude or a character. In the absence of samskaras, the attitude, character and nature are totally different and inactive. Samskaras are the catalysts that connect one with the world. They bring life and give nature and character. One is good or bad because of samskara. One thinks positively or in a pessimistic way because of samskara. One is a believer or a non-believer, an angry person or a peaceful person because of samskara.

If one writes with a black pen on a blank piece of paper, it is called writing. When something is written in a blank, empty life, it is called samskara. It is the writing on a blank personality. Samskara is received from many sources. The maturity of the past life is carried forward as samskara. Samskara is received from the family. We absorb a little bit of the nature of our parents, brothers and sisters. This is parental samskara.

The religious samskara determines if one has faith or not, if one feels the need to connect with God or not. One either accepts or rejects it, but one’s life is conditioned for a long period. The culture in which one grew up influences character, behaviour and personality. It provides cultural samskara. There is the national samskara, when one has to live according to the systems of a particular nation, one imbibes some samskaras.

Samskaras are writings in the mind which shape attitude, thoughts, character, interactions, performance, and one’s mental state, either happy or sad. They are absorbed by us, are taken in by us at an unconscious level. We can never decide whether this is the outcome of one understanding in life or some other understanding. What I am expressing now is which samskara? I don’t know. In the course of time, with the conditioning of the mind by the samskaras, we become fixed in one identity. Children are open to all samskaras, they are receiving from everything and everywhere. They are open and free. But, as we grow up, we become more and more conditioned.

Samskara is a combination of two words, sam means ‘collection of’, and akara means ‘form or shape’. Samskara means a collection of ideas in a form. One’s character, personality or nature is a compilation or collection of ideas. New thoughts, new desires, new passions, new frustrations and new ambitions come up every time one deals with one’s ideas. Those ideas shape and govern our life, and that is samskara.

Since the word samskara is derived from the two roots: akara meaning ‘form or image’, and sam meaning ‘balanced’, the literal meaning of samskara is a balanced, harmonious and integrated image of oneself, which needs to be developed.

Therefore, samskara also means education, impressions in the mind, leading to creative performance. Creating these impressions in the mind and educating the total mind is a continuous, lifelong process. The entire life pattern, personality, mind, behaviour and attitude is being educated not only by academic schooling, but also by the education that is derived from the mentality of the culture, family and environment. The academic education is only one part of samskara.

Samskara begins at the time of conception. There is ample evidence in the history of humanity to prove that the education of a child begins in the womb. Of course, this is not an academic education, it is the education of basic impressions, which determine the quality and future direction of life. This samskara, this inner education, manifests later on in the course of life in the form of attitudes, behaviours, performance, and in many other ways.

How do samskaras influence our responses and personality?

Swami Niranjanananda: Samskaras are the impressions, which form the conditioning of one’s nature to react or respond in a certain way. Samskaras are the library within a DNA molecule, containing everything that one has imbibed. One DNA molecule contains the total information of all the libraries in the world combined. Samskaras are like that too. Samskaras are the inputs of volumes and volumes of mental ‘books’ which a person carries within and which have been accumulated over millions of years.

The personality is conditioned to respond in a certain way by an internal mechanism, which is unconscious. Samskaras are always unconscious in nature. One is never aware of them until they have passed, and then one says, “Oh, that was a samskara.” The unconscious response can be triggered at any moment by a movement or alteration in the field of the unconscious mind. When the samskaras come to the surface of the mind, they are powerful. They can manifest in many ways, such as a desire for food or sleep or in the form of a sickness. Samskaras are the unconscious expressions of the human personality.

Why is it important to improve one’s daily life?

Swami Niranjanananda: Realization is an experience of perfection, of totality, which is more personal and intimate than anything a philosophy or book can ever provide. In order to achieve the experience of perfection and totality, one has to struggle with one’s mind, with one’s karmas and samskaras. The evolution of consciousness takes place when one eliminates one’s samskaras and karmas. The swamis in the ashram are not working for enlightenment. They are working to make themselves a little better, to become more perfect than they are, and for them that is good enough.

As the karmas and samskaras are exhausted, maybe one day the realization will suddenly come that one is ‘It’. It will never happen, however, by waiting for the searchlight to shine upon you. It is better to make every action perfect or at least to try to make it perfect. It is better to make every thought well-balanced and harmonious, or at least to try. Then, as the consciousness evolves, enlightenment will cease to remain rare and elusive, and will manifest automatically, spontaneously, outside, inside and everywhere.