Definition - What does Samskara mean?
According to various schools of Indian philosophy, samskaras are the subtle mental impressions left by all thoughts, intentions and actions that an individual has ever experienced. Often likened to grooves in the mind, they can be considered as psychological or emotional imprints that contribute to the formation of behavioral patterns. Samskaras are below the level of normal consciousness and are said to be the root of all impulses, character traits and innate dispositions.
Samskara is a Sanskrit term, derived from two roots; sam meaning ‘well planned’ or ‘well thought out’, and kara meaning ‘the action under-taken.’ As such, it is believed that actions performed with full awareness have the greatest impact, leaving impressions which are more easily traced and repeated.
In Buddhism, samskaras are understood as mental ‘formations,’ whereas in Hindu philosophy, samskaras are the basis of the development of karma, providing evidence of rebirth.
The same concept is referred to in Pali as sankhara.
Yogapedia explains Samskara
Samskaras originate when a vritti, or thought wave, arises in the mind. Once this thought wave has left the conscious mind, it sinks down into the subconscious or unconscious mind, where it remains in the form of a samskara.
As such, samskaras also serve as memory stores that hold all past experiences in perfect detail. When memories are recalled, samskaras come back to the level of the conscious mind in waves of recollection. Each time a samskara is recalled and repeated, the groove gets deeper and the impression gets stronger, ultimately leading to the formation of habits.
In addition to providing a record of the past, samskaras have a residual potency that can potentially influence a person’s future. They contain hidden expectations and unconscious ideas that are waiting to come to fruition, and in some cases, these can be strong enough to alter thought processes.
Yogic practices such as dharana and dhyana are believed to enable practitioners to encounter samskaras below the threshold of consciousness, thereby allowing negative imprints to be understood and replaced with positive ones.
According to Hindu beliefs of reincarnation, every person is already born with samskaras which are imprinted and embedded in their minds from past lives. During an individual's lifetime, they will gain many more samskaras based on their intentions, thoughts and actions.
As such, samskaras are associated with the theory of karma; the actions accumulated in one lifetime will be passed on to future reincarnations via samskaras.
Samskaras shape the moral and spiritual development of an individual and are considered to be the root of both pleasurable and painful interpretations of experiences.
Since samskaras can color perceptions of self and others, in either a positive or negative way, the aim of spiritual practice should be to seek out and strengthen certain samskaras while eliminating those which do not align with moral and ethical values.
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