The aim of our life oscillates between what Vedanta calls, ‘sukh prapti’ and ‘dukh nivritti’, that is, to pursue things which are pleasant or joyful in nature and avoid that which is painful or unpleasant. All of our physical and mental energy is directed between the two.
Through the crests and troughs of life, our mind is focused on dealing with the outer world. Losses and gains, gains and losses seem to be our only concern. And in the evening of our life, we realise that our life was one big trade. And no matter what our balance sheet reads, we leave it all behind, including the very vehicle (our body) that pursued and acquired it.
So what is the purpose of all the toil when neither happiness, nor pleasure; neither relationships, nor our material belongings have a permanent bearing in our life?
And to think that we dedicated a whole lifetime in the pursuit of that, which we leave behind, so unceremoniously and reluctantly. There must be more to ‘our life’ than this; there must be more to ‘us’ than this!
Does all our action and experience add to zilch?! Do we really carry nothing with us?!
According to the theory of transmigration, the soul or atman, has two kinds of body. The gross body which is made up of the five elements (tatva)- earth, water, fire and ether and the subtle body, which is composed of mind, intelligence and ego.
When the soul leaves, the gross body perishes (dies) but the subtle body transmigrates and carries with it the karmic residues (karmashaya) of all the actions it performs. These residues, which either conform to dharma (righteous actions), or adharma (unrighteous acts) have corresponding dispositional traces (samskaras). These dispositional traces (samskaras) determine our innate nature or svabhava.
Our samskaras, good or bad, make us who we are; it is our genetic code, a part of our DNA. We inherit them through our family and our past births. Depending on the kind of samskaras we have inherited, we acquire our innate nature (svabhava) – angry or calm, irritable or complacent, timid or courageous, fearful or brave, morose or cheerful…
Our nature (svabhava) controls how we experience the world and also how we express ourselves in the world. Which is why, our mental heredity is just as important as our physical heredity, if not more. Our good samskaras make us instinctively disposed to good actions, irrespective of our circumstances. Being just, kind and compassionate comes naturally to us, if we have acquired good samskaras. It gives us a peaceful, calm and trusting nature.
Our bad samskaras instinctively draw us to wrong actions, even when we are surrounded by people who mean no harm to us. Deceit, treachery and violence come naturally to us, when we inherit bad samskaras. It gives us a fearful, angry and anxious nature.
Our samskaras, also known as our innate mental tendencies, have the ability to make our destiny by giving us an inclination to a certain kind of action. Which is why, the role of a guru (teacher) was of such significance in earlier times. The gurus would inculcate good samskaras and subdue the bad ones in their students (shishya).
Even the parents can play a vital role in passing on good samskaras to their children by being ideal role models. And it is never too late to acquire them. By skillfully working on ourselves (sadhana), it is possible to acquire good samskaras. These good samskaras take us a long way in our spiritual evolvement by making us inwardly-directed.
Hence, Buddha says: ‘Work on what you can take with you.’ And it is our samskaras alone that we carry with us through various births and which eventually leads us to a permanent state of happiness – bliss (ananda).