Pre-Buddhist uses of saṅkhāra

The word saṅkhāra is an important doctrinal term in Buddhism. It has a wide variety of meanings, which is usually an indication of a long history. Here is a quick indicative survey of uses before the Buddha, in the primary pre-Buddhist texts, presented in rough chronological order. I’ll do a bit of a summary at the end.


Rig Veda

RV 1.38.12

susaṃskṛtā abhīśavaḥ
Let your reins be well-fashioned

RV 5.76.2

na saṃskṛtam pra mimīto
The well-performed/prepared (offering)

Not really clear to me!

RV 6.28.4

“readying-place”, slaughterhouse, bench for slaughtering animals for the sacrifice

RV 8.33.9

raṇāya saṃskṛtaḥ
readied for battle

RV 8.77.11

ubhā te bāhū raṇyā susaṃskṛta
both arms readied for battle


AV 4.21.4a

na saṃskṛtatram upa yanti
They do not lead them to the slaughterhouse

AV 11.1.35c

sukṛtāṃ loke sīda tatra nau saṃskṛtam
rest in the well-made (heavenly) world that is prepared for you

Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa


saṃskuru sādhusaṃskṛtaṃ saṃskurvityevaitadāha
Do thou prepare this oblation for the gods! do thou prepare it thoroughly!’ thereby saying, 'Get this oblation ready for the gods! get it quite ready!


tasmādu strī pumāṃsaṃ saṃskṛte tiṣṭhantamabhyaiti
Therefore a woman goes to a man in a well-built house

SB (and

the fore-part of the sacrifice he perfects (performs?) by this


yajamānasya gṛhāngaca tannau saṃskṛtamiti nātra
Go to the sacrificer’s dwelling,–that is the place prepared for us.


he thereby constructs the thunderbolt


it is made of the form of the year

(i.e. the ritual performed corresponds with the year with its seasons.)


śiraḥ saṃskṛtam
The head (of the sacrifice) is complete.


sa prathamā saṃskṛtirviśvavārā
This is the first consecration, assuring all boons


etasyātmānaṃ saṃskurvantyetaṃ yajñamṛṅmayaṃ yajurmayaṃ sāmamayamāhutimayaṃ so 'syāmuṣmiṃloka ātmā bhavati
they prepare him another self,–to wit, this sacrifice, consisting of Ṛc and Yajus and Sāman and oblations,–that becomes his self in yonder world

The action of the ritual creates a new or transformed self in the next life.

SB (also 9)

ime vā agnirimānevātmānamabhisaṃskaravai
They are Agni: I will fit them unto mine own self

Seems to be about transforming or perfecting one’s self by analogy with the ritual?

SB (and 33)

make him complete


saṃskariṣyanto bhavanti
they restore/prepare


triṣṭubātmānamevāsyaitābhyāṃ saṃskaroti
the Triṣṭubh is the body (self): it is his (Agni’s) body he makes up*


rūpaṃ tadasya tena saṃskarotyatha
he thereby creates that form of his (Prajapati’s)


he therefore creates him so as to be endowed with vigor

I.e. performs the ritual in the proper way, thus endowing the ritual with the qualities of the Garuda who is energy (vīrya).


mānuṣaṃ rūpaṃ tadasyatena saṃskaroti
he creates the human form (or divine form)


sadātmānamabhisaṃskariṣyāmahe maryāḥ kuṇapā
If we create this, such as it is, part of our own self, we shall become mortal carcasses, not freed from sin

SB (a common idiom)

sarvaṃ kṛtsnaṃ saṃskaty
he restores him so as to be whole and entire


sarvāṃ vācaṃ sarvam prāṇaṃ sarvamātmānaṃ saṃskurute
makes up for himself the whole Vāc (speech), the whole vital air, the whole body (of Prajāpati)


imameva taṃ lokaṃ saṃskṛtya samārohaṃste
it is this world they (the gods) ascended after completing it (the sacrificial fire)

SB (also 33, 34, 35, 36)

tanūstena cinvāna ātmānaṃ saṃskuruṣvetyetanmayuṃ
the form is the self: thus, 'Building up therewith, perfect thyself

Obscure to me, but related to the idea of the substitute sacrifice. The sacrificer begs Agni to accept the kimpuruṣa (“what man?”). The translator says it is unclear, perhaps a fashioned facsimile or else a monkey.

Chāndogya Upaniṣad

CU 4.16.2

manasā saṃskaroti brahmā
The brahma (priest) acts by mind


The overriding sense is to “make” or “create” or “fashion” something, especially in a good way, to “perfect” (which is in fact a close verbal parallel, “full-make”).

The oldest uses in the Rig Veda tend to emphasize the making or construction of some physical item, a use echoed in, say, Dhp 154, or the sense of “readied, prepared”.

Over time the sense of “prepared” (for the sacrifice) came to dominate. But this is really just a reflection of the kind of literature, which concerns the ritual, while presumably in secular usage it continued to have the sense we see in the Rig Veda. This usage is extremely common in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, these are just a selection of quotes.

This then leads to a more pregnant philosophical sense, where the action of the sacrifice builds or creates or transforms the self, by analogy or identity, so that the created self goes to heaven. This is evident in such Pali contexts as MN 120, although obviously the sacrifice has been replaced by ethical action.

The sense of “all conditioned things" is not found at all, and should be understood as a specifically Buddhist dialectic: “The world of creation embodied in your ritual (which you have worked so hard to get just right under the assumption that it is the eternal emanation of divinity) is really just the product of many different choices and actions, all of which are impermanent and corrupted, and which create a phenomenal world that’s just as bad”.

The positive connotation of saṅkhāra in the sense of “well-made, properly prepared” is an assumed ironic substrata of this:

Alas, perfections are impermanent!

I.e., “What you think is so well made is falling apart”.

In Buddhism the idea of a creative action being the ritual was completely replaced by ethical action, i.e. making good moral choices. This sense, as so often, rapidly dominated, so that later generations of Buddhists forgot the context in which the Buddha was speaking.


Fantastic Bhante! Cant wait to dive into this treasure trove after work!!

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We are fortunate to have been born with the opportunity to benefit from the results of B. Sujato’s dedicated efforts to elucidate the EBTs.

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to B. Sujato for the essay on Pre-Buddhist uses of sankhara. In this era, B. Nanananda promoted the concept of “preparations” as the translation of sankhara.

B. Analyo has pointed out that "during later developments of Buddhist philosophy, the meaning of the term sankhara expanded until it came to include a wide range of mental factors. In the Abhidhammic analysis of states of mind, the sankharas have become a collective term for assembling such mental factors.

It would be of great benefit to aficionados of the EBTs if the Venerable B. Sujato would consider the prospect of expanding the scope of the essay on sankhara from Pre-Buddhist uses to early EBT, later EBT.

Here is a resource on sankhara in Chinese:

The Translation of the Term “Samskara” in the Chinese Buddhist Literature - Ven. Hsing-kong

Thanks, Bhante, for finding and sharing all these references!

As to the sense of ‘properly prepared’, in the Pāli Canon we find susaṅkhata (Snp1.2).

Baddhāsi bhisī susaṅkhatā
I bound a raft and made it well

We had a little discussion about the term saṅkhata and it’s translation ‘conditioned’ a few days ago, with my opinion being that ‘conditioned’ is not the best translation. It has connotations in English that don’t really apply, primarily that of “set prior requirements on (something) before it can occur or be done” (Oxford Languages Dictionary). The word ‘created’ you use in your paraphrasing of the Buddha’s response to the rituals, I think is more accurate.


I think MN120 describes how vision or view is foremost. What kind of future sees one for oneself (or others)? If one is really resolved on that, this can become ones reality, future. Not only in rebirth after this life but ofcourse also in this life. Some people see in their youth already their future. And they realise it. They become doctor, dancer etc. because they are so resolved on this.
I was certainly not this kind of person.

The relation between views and choices is described in AN1.314 and AN1.315.
Here i see, view is the dominant factor. The kind of wiew decides what results will arise from choices and deeds.

What the Buddha says can also be verified in this life. Most of the time choices are not really bad or evil of people. But when based upon wrong views then the results are still bad.

I also saw that this is the real special quality of the Buddha, and if honoured he must not be honoured by his perfect ethics but because he is a visionair (DN1, i believe). A visionair sees what kind of views someone has, where he/she is resolved upon and what kind of future he/she will meet because of this view.

I also see this in the MN story of those who practice to live like a dog. They do this ofcourse with good intentions. The expact heaven from it, wholesomeness not unwholesomeness. Buddha says; the only result will be or rebirth as dog, or hell because of the wrong view.

What do you mean by this later Buddhist forgot the context? Can you give an example?

Later Buddhist i met are very aware how view or understanding dominates the rebirth proces because it dominates the kind of choices that are made. Or intentions. Later Buddhist i met are also aware that having good intentions makes one not a noble person and are always based upon defilement. Is true , i believe. Buddha also does not teach that good intentions are the Path to escape samsara, but a Path to higher rebirths and relative welfare in this life and after this life.

Reference is hereby made to Bhikkhu Analyo’s latest book: The Signless and the Deathless: On the Realization of Nirvana

“… what I present is simply a new way of approaching the topic of Nirvana, based on the viewpoint of the construction of experience as recognized in early Buddhist thought.”

He quotes affective psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett: “we humans are architects of our own experiences … We actively participate in constructing our experiences even though we are mostly unaware of that fact. Your perceptions are so vivid and immediate that they compel you to believe that you experience the world as it is, when you actually experience a world of your own construction. Much of what you experience as the outside world begins inside your head.”

B. Analyo offers a new translation of a passage from SN 22.79 Khajjanīyasutta.

Here is B. Sujato’ translation:

Choices produce conditioned phenomena; that’s why they’re called ‘choices’. Saṅkhatam abhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati.

And what are the conditioned phenomena that they produce? Kiñca saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti?

Form is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into form. Feeling is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into feeling. Perception is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into perception. Choices are conditioned phenomena; choices are what make them into choices. Consciousness is a conditioned phenomenon; choices are what make it into consciousness.

Rūpaṃ rūpattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, vedanaṃ vedanattāyasaṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, saññaṃ saññattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, saṅkhāresaṅkhārattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti, viññāṇaṃ viññāṇattāya saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharonti.

Choices produce conditioned phenomena; that’s why they’re called ‘choices’. Saṅkhatamabhisaṅkharontīti kho, bhikkhave, tasmā ‘saṅkhārā’ti vuccati.

B. Analyo’s new translation:

Monastics, “they construct the constructed,” therefore they are called volitional constructions. And what is the constructed which they construct? Bodily form, which is constructed, they construct into bodily form; feeling tone, which is constructed, they construct into feeling tone; perception, which is constructed, they construct into perception; volitional constructions, which are constructed, they construct into volitional constructions; consciousness, which is constructed, they construct into consciousness. Monastics, “they construct the constructed,” therefore they are called volitional constructions.

The key term here is Pali sankhara or Sanskrit samskara, which can be rendered in a range of different ways. For the purpose of my present exploration, I have chosen the rendering “volitional constructions,” without thereby intending to present this as the one and only choice. The Indic term is too multivalent for a single English counterpart to be able to convey all of its nuances, and in other contexts the more commonly used “volitional activities,” “volitional formations,” or even just “formations” can indeed be the preferable option.