Nov 7, 2010

PHILOSOPHY OF SAMSKARA - And the making of a personality

Humanly nature, qualities and behaviours are the most difficult for anybody to understand. It is as intriguing for me as for anybody else. And if we do not understand the hidden character of a person, then there are chances that either we will be deceived or hurt in our personal or social life. Apparently, it is difficult to understand the true character of a person as everybody looks the same in whatever circle we move in. This apparent behaviour is so deceiving that sometimes those who talk very sweetly, are not truly sweet, and are putting up a facade to impress. Sometimes, a person can be rude in response but very soft and kind hearted from inside. Sometimes, people project their image as gentle, honest and faithful, whereas in reality, they can be entirely different. Very few people understand the value of their words or actions. Sometimes, their ideology changes to suit their interests. Is it called street smarts or the ability to survive in the odds?  Is it mood swings or their backgrounds or their samskaras which they have inherited from their family, society, or from past lives? If it is the samskaras, then does it vary with the change in situations? Does education, social, or financial factors affect the samskara of a person in presenting themselves to the world?

I have raised a very strong topic to discuss with you all. Therefore, fasten your seat belts and be ready for your mind to take off. Do not feel shy in participating in the discussions. If you do not respond, then I will think that you agree with me fully, whereas I want you to disagree with me in order to enlighten my mind as well as our readers with your valuable inputs. Furthermore, the topic for discussion is purely a product of my mind and as such, I do not wish to quote or bring our ancient scriptures into the discussion, with a few Vedic terminologies as exceptions, to make our discussion easy.

Samskaras may be defined as the values which one carries in his or her life. The values may be moral or ethical forming the character of a person. Moral values differentiate a person from being good or bad. Society teaches us certain moral values and some we inherit from our families. Some moral values come naturally to us as instinctive. Ethics or ethical standards guide us through right or wrong and provide a sense of judgment in our reasoning. Therefore, if a samskara is of higher quality, then it may stop us from doing wrong or in contrary, encourage us to do something which is not acceptable from the social, religious, or ethical point of view.

Now the controversy of who decides these moral or ethical standards or in other words, what is the yard stick of measuring these standards in order to determine samskaras of a person, may arise.

The social rules and regulations are methods to govern a civilized society and they have nothing to do with the values of a person. To my mind, these values come from four sources:

1)    The Family – From the first day when we are born, we see how our parents act or react in different situations. If our parents are religious and we keep seeing them talking or doing good things then our mind gets programmed accordingly. Alternatively, if we see that our parents try to justify every wrong thing like stealing, lying, speaking poorly about others, or other immoral activities, then accordingly a shadow is cast on our minds, and we perceive those things as ‘right’ and create our own moral standards accordingly. This makes our samskaras follow the example of – “Like father like son or like mother like daughters”. However, here I am not talking about exceptions, which are always present.
2)    The Society – the society in which we live casts a heavy influence on our personalities and the way we think. If the society is full of hypocrites and demonstrative people, then we also become like them, or if we live in a society full of scholars and just people, then we also start thinking and behaving like them, which in turn makes our samskaras.
3)    The Religion(s) – Religion plays a dominant role in the making of our thinking and reasoning of a situation. If religion teaches us to be tolerant, kind or God-loving then we become like that, or in contrary, if it teaches violence or differentiates human beings on the basis of caste, creed or religion, then our mind and behaviour gets programmed accordingly.
4)    The Soul – For those who believe in past lives and travelling of the soul from one body to another, some of our samskaras of previous births get carried over to the present life. One may find several examples of this belief on YouTube which shows how children of a tender age can speak several languages fluently or write lyrics of any music by just hearing it once etc., which is otherwise not possible even by the people of the highest scholastic background.

Therefore, keeping in view the above sources of values, the samskaras can be influenced by three Gunas or qualities such as Sattvik, Rajsik or Tamsik, which play critical roles in the making of a personality.

Sattvik: I would like to define Sattvik as pure and true with the sense of divinity. This means a person’s mind has become absolutely pure and free of all doubts. If the samskara is Sattvik, then the person will perform every action keeping in mind the presence of the Divine. Sattvik people discharge the highest ethical and moral values in performing their duties. Their wisdom and dispassion is of par excellence.

Rajsik: The quality of the rajsik can be described as that of action, passion, and creation. Literally, rajsik may mean one that possesses princely qualities. The characteristics of a rajsik personality is more positive than the tamsik one, but lesser than the sattvik. Here, the moral and ethical values change as per the demand of time in order to manage personal or social lives with the sense of justification. People with the rajsik temperaments believe in divinity, but the belief changes to suit their requirements. Therefore there are elements of greed, passion, and attachment to the fruits of action. They do not give away anything without the prospect of a gain or respect in return.  

Tamsik: Out of the three Gunas (qualities) tamsik is considered to be of the lowest category. It represents darkness of the mind or complete ignorance of the real self or the soul. Tamas, from which the word tamsik has originated, may also mean intoxication. It means the mind is intoxicated with impurities. These kinds of people tend to think that they are the body and the body is the main source of enjoyment.  They try everything to gain physical and mental pleasures.  They live for the body and give value to materialistic pleasures. They may be selfish, self-centred, greedy, and jealous and justify these things to suit their personal interests. In order to gain materialistic or physical pleasures, they are more than willing to compromise morality, ethics, or principles of life.

Therefore, every soul is born with the qualities of one of the above gunas and once they associate with the body, then they appear to have tamsik qualities. When the soul associates itself with the mind, then appears to be rajsik, and if the soul gets associated with the intellect and divinity, then it appears to be sattvik. However, if a soul goes beyond all the three gunas then it’s called Nirguna or traigunatya. I would not like to dwell on them in order to avoid deviating from the main topic.

The above gunas or qualities provide a measuring tool to assess the levels of their presence in one’s personality, which makes up their overall samskaras. As per my experience, if two people get along well in life then their samskaras seem to be the same. Birds of the same feathers flock together. If people are too clever, foxy, jealous, critical, gossipers, or flaunt their wealth and/or knowledge and can get along well with similar types of people, then they will have common samskaras. Similarly, if one is religious in nature, God-fearing, wealthy but down to earth, truthful, and sincere, then they will get along well with similar types of people. The problem concerning people’s attitudes and behaviours comes in personal or social lives, when our samskaras do not match. Therefore, it is very important to understand and judge the company of people we know and interact with in our day to day lives.

Furthermore, samskaras also depend upon the varna (class) of a person from which they belong. Varna does not mean the caste system but instead, the inherent nature and the capability of a person to perform work. I have seen several people born in the so-called ‘higher class’ having tamsik nature and indulging in immoral activities. In that case, only fools and the spiritually illiterate will treat them as a person from a higher class. I believe that samskaras can be judged only by the presence of one of the above gunas in a person’s personality.

The role of education plays a greater role in shaping the samskaras of a person. If education is earned for the purpose of enlightenment of the mind and for knowing the true-self (the atman or soul), the source of its origin, the travelling path and how and where it is going to be culminated, is a true education. Otherwise, worldly education tends to emphasize reading books for the purpose of getting a job or earning for livelihood. Therefore, one should not get swayed away from the educational backgrounds of a person as they may be deceiving. One may find many illiterates or not so educated people having enlightened minds with the qualities of Sattvik or Nirguna (beyond gunas). In the modern time, the best example is Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa who was not educated from the worldly point of view but was above and beyond all the gunas.  His teachings are yet to be understood by the most qualified people in the world. He inherited godly qualities by performing Bhakti Yoga or supreme devotion, and as such, the world knows him as God incarnated.

Your feedback and intellectual outburst on the topic will certainly kindle the light of enlightenment in the minds of our readers, and will be much appreciated.

Suman Saran Sinha



This is indeed a very interesting topic. I have also wondered about the human nature and its unique aspects that make us all have virtues and vices. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, but disagree on some points as well.

Firstly, I do not think personality is as clear-cut or black and white as described by you. I do not believe that a person can be strictly sattvik, rajsik or tamsik. There are moments when everyone becomes lazy and irresponsible and yet hard working and highly moral. I suppose if you are evaluating one’s overall personality or core character, then labelling one to possess either of the three gunas could be valid or true to some extent. However, I feel that the human personality is far more complicated or intricate than that.

To elaborate, you mentioned that samskaras or values, if of a higher quality can stop us from committing wrong actions. I find this statement interesting as a ‘samskara of a higher quality’ is very subjective. What you may think wrong may be right as per my point of view and vice-versa. Of course, there are certain ethical standards established by society and passed down through generations by relatives, but even that differs on the society you live in and the different ethical standards followed by different families.

Secondly, I agree that family and society influence individuals greatly. With respect to religion, I do not or have not come across or perhaps have not read any religious literature leading me to believe that one must discriminate or use violence against others. Perhaps this is a lacuna on my part, but I feel that these factors are usually social or cultural. Hence, I feel a more appropriate category would be ‘social or cultural factors’. Because religion is usually closely tied with social and cultural influences, we look to it for answers, but different interpretations of religious literature/teachings lead to their integration in culture and thus change with culture also.

Next, the Soul is a deeply intricate topic and I would not like to go too deep into it, as one can say many things regarding this category. However, this is controversial and makes one wonder how one child can know how to speak so many languages after only hearing it once. Scientific research is coming up with answers on a lot of unexplained anomalies that result due to unusual chemical activity in our brains. It may be possible that specific areas of the brain may be enhanced or suppressed resulting in improved memory and learning. Genes also are starting to be recognized as a critical factor in the development of our personalities and physiology, and perhaps due to unusual gene function, one’s brain can do things we can’t even imagine.

Lastly, you mentioned that if someone gets along well with another then their samskaras are most likely similar. I beg to differ at this statement as it is slightly vague to me. I have always felt that as a species that tends to live in groups, we have the ability to get along will all kinds of people if we choose to do so. Hence, I am going to assume that you mean people of similar thought and mentality could have similar samskaras.

Now, before I digress, I will stop myself from going further. I enjoyed reading about this topic. Great work! And do let me know what you think in response to my comment.


Abhijit Bhattacharya said...

Namaste Sumanji,

I have reviewed both you and your daughter's reponses regarding this very interesting topic. First of all let us understand that till the moment we have this body consciousness and a feeling that we exist and are a part of this world, we must be reasonably supportive of the moral and ethical values and act within the peripherals established. Once we get established in the Atman concept, then it really does not mater. All the 3 Gunas cannot bind us. I am just jotting down what the incarnations and Swami Vivekananda has spoken.
At the same time I agree with the concept that Vrishali mentioned that the same person can display both Satvik and Tamasik gunas or Satvik and Rajasik gunas at the same time.
There is something called 'Chitta' which is mental mater, which holds the past lives impressions. The activities actually stirs up this Chitta (just like a lake) and our previous impressions or Samskaras pop up to lead us to do something right or wrong. This is the addition I have to make on the above subject. Actually today's Sw.Vivekananda's quote is significant and thought provoking -
Vivekananda: You see, I love our Muslims.
Nivedita: Yes, but what I want to understand is this habit of seeing every people
from their strongest aspect. Where did it come from? Do you recognize it in any
historical character? Or is it in some way derived from Sri Ramakrishna?
Vivekananda: It must have been the training under Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. We all
went by his path to some extent. Of course it was not so difficult for us as he
made it for himself. He would eat and dress like the people he wanted to understand,
take their initiation and use their language. "One must learn," he said, "to put
oneself into another man's very soul." And this method was his own! No one ever
before in India became a Christian and Muslim and Vaishnava, by turn!
Conversation on board a ship to England. Complete Works, 9.332.
Abhijit Bhattacharya

S N SINHA said...

Hai Suman
Sorry fpr my late response.
The topic you have chosen is very complex and tricky ( hope you donot mind if I say so).Pundits have written volumes on 'Samskara'.
The Samskara generally comes from the family and envoirments in which a child is brought up.
Gandhijee's sons went hostile- one converted into Muslim and another one went alcoholic. It is beyond any body's doubt that Gandhijee di not give proper Samskara to his sons. If you have seen old movie AWARA ( cast Rajkapoor and Nargis )where it was seen that how a Judge's son becomes a criminal though he was given best of education and care.
You have also mentioned 'Varna'. In our ancient holy books like VEDAS and UPNISHAD, Varna was divided in four catogeories. SHUDRAS were ( presently also the situation is not very good)treated very badly . VEDA says that if a SUDRA listens to the recital of any HOLY BOOK, molten lead should be poured in their ears. But see VALMIKI- who was a Shudra and robber by profession- wrote Ramayan.
It is therefore, very difficult to pinpoint that whether it is SAMSAKARA, GUNA or BARNA that moulds one's life.
It is not even the family back ground which alone influences the above.
I am not in a position to suggest which one plays the most important role in shaping a childs destiny: SAMSKARA,GUNA OR VARNA.
I am very impressed with your thought provoking write up and my congratulation to you for the attemp. Best of Luck= Sinha, SN

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