Karma and Sanskara seam to be very much related. How are they related and how are they different.

  • You ought to clarify the question. You tag it as "pali" but use the Sanskrit forms.
    – sujato
    Mar 17, 2021 at 21:59

8 Answers 8


Saṅkhāra refer to all conditioned phenomena. That means everything else apart from Nibbana. Karma refers to volitional acts which is only a subset of Saṅkhāra. All Saṅkhāras come under the first noble truth, i.e. Dukkha. All Saṅkhāras are impermanent. All Saṅkhāras are non-self.


It seems that sanskaras are the precursors that lead to karma http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskara "In Hinduism sanskaras or samskaras (Sanskrit संस्कार meaning impression; under the impulse of previous impressions) are the imprints left on the subconscious mind by experience in this or previous lives, which then color all of life, one's nature, responses, states of mind, etc.[1] The Dictionary of Common Sanskrit Spiritual Words says, "Whenever an action is performed with the desire for a specific result (whether for oneself or another), sanskara is created for that person. These accumulate and determine the situations with which we will be presented in the future and will influence the scope of future actions."[2]"

Sanskaras are impressions derived from past experiences that form desires and fears that influence future responses and behavior (karma).

So it seems by being attached to the outcome of an action that karma results. Is that not something we can all agree on?

  • The question, while using the Sanskrit forms, is said to be about the meanings in Pali. And sankhara never has this meaning in Pali.
    – sujato
    Mar 17, 2021 at 21:57

I have translated (awk-word-ly) sankhara as 'own-making'. SAN = one, once, with, own, con, com; khara = make. This is not without precedence in that 'I-making' and 'my-making' are also found in the Pali, but it is not well accepted as of yet. It is kamma from the point of view of personalization. The making of one's own world. The definition is helpful:

Sankhara is identification with the intent to create personal experience through acts of thought, word and deed, and the identified with consequence. By pushing out the deed a marker of sorts is attached to the consequences which results in the experience "my---".

Like kamma, it is two sided: the doing and the result. In translations the danger for the reader is that it is almost always translated one-sidedly. 'Activities' or 'Fabrications' or 'Volitional activities' and then when dealing with the consequences an unrelated word is used: 'constructed', 'conditioned'.

You might find this discussion interesting: http://obo.genaud.net/dhammatalk/dhammatalk_forum/dhamma_talk/dt_009.conditioned.vs.own-made.htm

  • That's incorrect etymology. Here san- is equivalent to English con- and doesn't mean "self". We know this because the word is used widely in ordinary language contexts where the meaning "self" makes no sense.
    – sujato
    Mar 17, 2021 at 22:06

Saṇkhāra-paṭiccasamuppāda (kamma-bhava, karma) means it causes, conditions, becoming (jāti, upatti-bhava, 5 khandha).

Saṇkhata (5 aggregate-effects) means it is caused, is conditioned, by 5 aggregate-causes.

Saṇkhāra (5 aggregate-causes) means it causes, conditions, 5 aggregate-effects.

Asaṇkhata (nibbāna) means it is unconditioned by any saṇkhāra.

So, paṭiccasamuppāda is called vaṭṭa, never ending cycle, because it is a loop of aggregates causes and effects. For explanation: ignored, attached, and clinged aggregates had done the past kamma, saṇkhāra-paṭiccasamuppāda, to get the present effected aggregates, then ignoring, attaching, and clinging aggregates do the present kamma, kammabhava-paṭiccasamuppāda, again, to get the future effected aggregates, jāti of Ignored, attached, and clinged aggregates, suffering. Therefore, paṭiccasamuppāda is never ending loop cycle of aggregates, suffering.

When the practitioner contemplating paṭiccasamuppāda, 3 characters will gradually clearly appear to him. Then he can do high level insight meditation, 3 characterizes contemplating.

You can see these pali-words everywhere in canon. This is the reason that why I often told everyone to recite and memorize pali canon.


Karma is related to dharma as it is the feedback mechanism of the universe. There is no right or wrong but just feedback.

We can bring about change by working on clearing our minds so that we can develop patterns and habits (samskaras) which are more in line with the life we want to lead.

Quote from Pandit Tigunait, Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. "Instead of trying to penetrate the entire mystery of karma, samskara, vasana, and destiny, simply try to compose yourself. With a calm and tranquil mind, assess your strengths and weaknesses. Then decide whether at this stage you should place greater emphasis on eliminating your negative samskaras or strengthening the positive ones."

  • This answer sounds more like Hinduism than Buddhism
    – ruben2020
    Mar 19, 2021 at 17:13

One can explain kamma as sankhara and one can explain sankhara as kamma.

Kamma to be experienced is sankhara that will be coming into play.

Sankhara that has been is the kamma that has come into play.

Sankhara that is refers to kamma coming into play.

Cessation of kamma can be spoken of as cessation of sankhara.

"Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear... The nose... The tongue... The body... The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.

"And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.

"And what is the cessation of kamma? Whoever touches the release that comes from the cessation of bodily kamma, verbal kamma, & mental kamma: This is called the cessation of kamma.

"And what is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.

"And what is the cause by which kamma comes into play? Contact is the cause by which kamma comes into play.

  • Interesting answer however I have concerns about it. (i) AN 6.63 says sense contact is the means by which kamma comes into play (sambhavo; co-production); (ii) the eye, ears, nose, tongue, body & mind referred to as "old kamma" in SN 35.145 do not sound like sense contact. Therefore it may not be that "old conditioned sankhara kamma" has come into play; (iii) AN 6.63 only refers to the "new kamma" of SN 35.145 and includes the phrase "comes into play (sambhavo"). SN 35.145 does not include the term "sambhavo". Therefore, it appears uncertain "sambhavo" applies to the "old kamma to be felt" Mar 18, 2021 at 3:41

It seems the words 'sankhara' & 'kamma' share a common root, namely, the verb 'karoti':

karoti kar + o

does; acts; makes; builds.

'sankhara' appears to be 'saṁ + kar', which means 'together built'

'kamma' might be 'kar + man', which may possibly mean 'doing of a man/person'

Therefore, kamma appears to certainly mean the intentional actions of an individual, per AN 6.63, which says:

Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech and intellect. AN 6.63

Where as 'sankhara' has a very broad application, which can mean:

  1. conditioned phenomena, per SN 22.90 (each of the five aggregates is called a 'sankhara'), AN 3.136 or Dhp 277, including physical things, such as 'kayasankhara' ('breathing') or 'anusankhara' ('life-force'; 'vitality'). MN 43 says 'anusankhara' continues when perception & feeling end therefore it appears obvious here 'sankhara' is purely physical conditioned phenomena and unrelated to mental experience & mental concoctions/constructions

  2. a requisite or conditioning condition for another condition, such as in Dependent Origination, where sankhara means kayasankhara (breathing), vacisankhara (thought) & cittasankhara (perception & feeling), which are the requisite conditions for further mental & physical conditioning. For example, a spontaneously non-volitional thought may arise: "I feel like sex". This is the type of distracting thought found in MN 19 & MN 20. Based on this spontaneous thought, the body & mind (nama-rupa) may go through lots of trouble & hassle, such as going to night clubs, getting punched out by other guys, getting slapped in the face by women, getting charged with sexual harassment, etc, because of taking this "sankhara" seriously and pursuing its contents. Refer to SN 14.12, which describes how a mere sensual thought leads to a sensual quest/search and resultant disastrous kamma.

  3. aggregate of mental conditioning, namely, sankhara khandha, which creates intentions, ideas, views, cravings, defilements, emotions, identity, self-views, neurosis, grief, despair, suffering, etc. Thus Dhp 203 says "sankhara is the supreme suffering/torment" or SN 38.14 refers to the "suffering/torment due to sankhara" ("mental constructions").


The two words share the same root and similar senses. Both kamma and saṅkhāra are widely used in everyday sense to mean "work", "activity", "procedure", and especially "ritual".

In Buddhist doctrinal senses they both have the meaning "intentional action (that leads to consequences both in this life and the next)."

The difference is that kamma is used in moral contexts. It is about choosing to do the right thing. Saṅkhāra tends to be used in existential contexts like dependent origination: whatever choice you make, even a good one, it leads to suffering.

In addition, saṅkhāra is also used in a broader sense to refer to "all conditioned phenomena", i.e. everything we experience (except Nibbana).

  • I marked this down. Sankhara does not mean "choice" in D.O. It is simply too early. Cetana or choice is part of the namarupa link. In summary, ignorant asava generate sankhara (thoughts with feelings & perceptions plus agitations of breathing/kayasankharo). Then at namarupa, the mind makes a choice whether to follow the temptation of the sankhara or to otherwise eradicate the sankhara. MN 19 describes this process well, how a choice can be made at nama-rupa to eradicate unwholesome sankharas that lead to harm or to eradicate wholesome sankhara that hinder jhana. Mar 18, 2021 at 2:38
  • AN 3.136 appears to say sankhara occurs regardless of sense experience. Mar 18, 2021 at 2:43

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