On Samskaras, Vasanas, And Thought

Annamalai Swami, like his sadguru Sri Ramana Maharshi, draws our attention to vasanas in his attempts to show us how the mind arises. Here are some relevant passages:


Those who are damp or wet can dry themselves out by sadhana, by having a strong determination to be aware of the Self at all times. Self is readily available all the time but we cannot be aware of it or even put our attention on the thought of it because our vasanas are continuously leading our interest and attention in other directions. That is why it is so important to have the awareness, ‘I am not the mind. I am the Self.’ You have forcibly to drag your wandering attention back to the Self each time it shows an interest in going anywhere else. Don’t be interested in the words that the mind is serving up for you. It is putting them there to tempt you into a stream of thoughts that will take you away from the Self. You have to ignore them all and focus on the light that is shining within you.

Final Talks, pp. 83-4


Your thoughts arise on a moment-to-moment basis because of your vasanas, but it is a mistake to think that you can do nothing about them. You can be interested in them, or you can ignore them. If you show interest in them, they will persist and you will get caught up in them. If you ignore them and keep your attention on the source, they will not develop. And when they don’t develop, they disappear.

Ibid, p. 91


Question: Why is this initial experience not enough?

Annamalai Swami: If vasanas are still there, they will rise up again and the experience will be lost. While they are there, there is always the possibility that we may again take the unreal to be real.

If we take the mirage to be real water, that is ignorance. Similarly, if we take the unreal body to be the Self, that is also ignorance. As soon as ignorance comes, you must question it. ‘To whom does this ignorance come?’ A strong determination to pursue enquiry in this way will dissolve all doubts. By questioning ‘Who am I?’ and by constantly meditating, one comes to the clarity of being.

As long as vasanas continue to exist they will rise and cover the reality, obscuring awareness of it. As often as you become aware of them, question, ‘To whom do they come?’ This continuous enquiry will establish you in your own Self and you will have no further problems. When you know that the snake of the mind never existed, when you know that the rope of reality is all that exists, doubts and fears will not trouble you again.

Ibid, pp. 100-01

Samskaras and Vasanas

In my commentary on Annamalai Swami, I’d like to draw a distinction between samskaras and vasanas. This–let me be clear–is a distinction that I make when I discuss these matters with conversation partners who philosophize and meditate with me. I’m not sure that supreme teachers like Ramana offer such distinctions. For them, or so I believe, a samskara = a vasana.

I define samskaras as “false identities.” (To read more about this term, see here.) That is, any samskara is what I believe and feel myself to be–yet am not.

Now, a vasana, in my book, is a mental tendency, a propulsiveness driving the arising of thought.

In my model, then, we have

  1. A samskara: that which does not disclose itself directly but can be inferred.
  2. A vasana: the propulsive power or energy that gives rise to a thought.
  3. And a thought: that which is evident immediately in and as phenomenal experience.

Deep, continuous practice allows us to dissolve all three.