What Are Vasanas?

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Vasanas definition

In Vedanta, Hindu, and yogic philosophy, the Sanskrit word vasana refers to unmanifest desires, or latent karmic imprints.

The etymology of the word carries the following connotations, which are useful for understanding how vasanas work:

  • A lingering smell
  • Clothing, garments, or a dwelling
  • A wish or desire

Vasanas Deep Dive

Various schools of Hindu philosophy, particularly Vedanta, hold that human beings are essentially Atman – the eternal Self or Soul – enlivened in body, mind, and intellect. And this being, or jiva as it is known, is composed of three qualities, known as gunas, which determine our level of consciousness and the makeup of our personality.

The Three Gunas:

Sattvicbalanced, self-controlled, detached
Rajasicdesirous, passionate, egocentric
Tamasicignorant, indifferent, lethargic

In a human being, one of these qualities will tend to dominate the others.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says these gunas are so influential that they seemingly influence us against our will. But what exactly determines our gunas? Where do they come from?

Vasanas determine the gunas. Latent, unmanifested, not-yet-operational behavioral tendencies that are the result of actions in past lives which have created well-worn energetic paths of least resistance.

an art piece of a man meditating with his past lives and vasanas depicted behind him
Vasanas follow you through cycles of reincarnation

The Yoga Sutras & Vasanas

In the Yoga Sutras, ch. 4 v. 7-8, it says:

7. karma aśukla akṛṣnaṁ yoginaḥ trividham itareṣām

8. tataḥ tadvipāka anuguṇānām eva abhivyaktiḥ vāsanānām

7) The yogi’s actions are neither black nor white; the actions of others are black or white or both.

8) Consequences surely follow these inappropriate tendencies.

In verse 8 you see vasanas translated as, essentially, “tendencies,” or “inappropriate tendencies.” In other translations of the text, we see them called “latent impressions,” or “unmanifest desires.”

How Do Vasanas Affect You?

But how do they affect you now? It may be helpful to see it this way:

Vasanas –> thoughts –> desires –> resultant action

They may be seen, therefore, as governing the body through the process of becoming thoughts, desires, and actions. The results of these actions add to your prarabdha karma, cumulative karmic baggage so to speak – which means more vasanas.

They reside in the Causal Body, lifetime after lifetime. It is often said that you would not even incarnate were it not for your vasanas. These latent desires become, in a sense, your reason for continuing to exist.

You could also think about it this way: let’s say you love doing yoga (there’s a good chance you do). You do yoga multiple times a day, and you read about it whenever you get the chance. Then bedtime comes, so you go to sleep. When you wake up the next morning, your love for yoga is still there, and you carry on as usual.

In your deepest sleep, where did your love of yoga go? It became a seed of potential, latent and unmanifest. This is how our vasanas operate from one life to the next. They cling to you, like the smell of smoke long after a campfire is extinguished.

a smoking campfire

Vasanas In Your Life

Maybe you have habits or tendencies you want to confront, and you’re thinking, is there something I can do about my vasanas?

Your approach here must be a holistic one. Because you can’t suppress them, nor can you indulge them. Instead, you must develop an awareness of them, and this can only be accomplished when your mission is one of spiritual evolution, self-knowledge, and liberation.

Thankfully, that’s what the path of yoga is all about. Set yourself on the path of karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga. Watch your tamasic and rajasic tendencies fall away and get replaced by sattvic pursuits.

Karma yoga – the path of selfless action. Dedicate your action towards the divine, your higher self, without expectation of reward.

Bhakti yoga – spiritual practices focused on devotion, worship, and love.

Jnana yoga – the path of knowledge. Immerse yourself in studying scriptures, and the guidance of saints and sages. Then perhaps most importantly, study your true self through meditation and pure contemplation.

Take your time. Your spiritual evolution is like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, or a snake shedding its skin. It can’t be forced, just stay on course. Your vasanas can become purified, and guide you towards awakening and liberation rather than self-centered desires.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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