Swami Vivekananda explains the traditional understanding:
Each work we do, each thought we think, produces an impression, called in Sanskrit saMskAra, upon the mind, and the sum total of these impressions becomes the tremendous force which is called “character.” The character of a man is what he has created for himself; it is the result of the mental and physical actions that he has done in his life. The sum total of the saMskAra-s is the force which gives a man the next direction after death. A man dies; the body falls away and goes back to the elements; but the saMskAra-s remain, adhering to the mind which, being made of fine material, does not dissolve, because the finer the material, the more persistent it is. But the mind also dissolves in the long run, and that is what we are struggling for.
In this connection, the best illustration that comes to my mind is that of the whirlwind. Different currents of air coming from different directions meet and at the meeting-point become united and go on rotating; as they rotate, they form a body of dust, drawing in bits of paper, straw, etc., at one place, only to drop them and go on to another, and so go on rotating, raising and forming bodies out of the materials which are before them. Even so the forces, called prANa in Sanskrit, come together and form the body and the mind out of matter, and move on until the body falls down, when they raise other materials, to make another body, and when this falls, another rises, and thus the process goes on. Force cannot travel without matter. So when the body falls down, the mind-stuff remains, prANa in the form of saMskAra-s acting on it; and then it goes on to another point, raises up another whirl from fresh materials, and begins another motion; and so it travels from place to place until the force is all spent; and then it falls down, ended. So when the mind will end, be broken to pieces entirely, without leaving any saMskAra, we shall be entirely free, and until that time we are in bondage… (Ref. 124)
The word saMskAra means “the impression on the mind of acts done in a former state of existence” and would appear at first sight to be synonymous with karma. The two words are used interchangeably by many writers, though the latter is more common. The word saMskAra also has the meaning “making perfect, purifying, cleansing” and has more positive connotations than the somewhat doom-laden overtones of karma.
There are actually three types of saMskAra. saMchita saMskAra is the sum total of saMskAra accumulated from all of the actions performed in the past (including past lives). The literal meaning of saMchita is “collected or piled up.” Some of that saMskAra is maturing now in this body – this is called prArabdha saMskAra, meaning “begun or undertaken.” This manifests in the form of new experiences. In fact, the traditional belief is that we are given this specific body in this particular time and place in order that this saMskAra may be fulfilled. If they are met in the right way, the saMskAra-s are nullified. (This will be dealt with when karma yoga is discussed in chapter 5 on spiritual paths but briefly, it means acting without any desire for a particular result.) Whenever we act inappropriately in the present, whether selfishly or not, the third type of saMskAra results - AgAmin, which is s aMskAra destined to mature at some time in the future.
Upon Self-realization, with the total understanding that one is not the doer, all of the saMchita saMskAra is destroyed and future actions incur no more AgAmin saMskAra. The prArabdha saMskAra, however, is said (by some teachers) to continue because they are associated with the body, which is an objective part of creation. I.e. it belongs to Ishvara and not to the jIva ( Ishvara will be discussed in chapter 7 on Reality in connection with creation). This is why the realized man still appears to continue as before with the same idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes (though there is no longer attachment to any of these).
In fact, there are three varieties of prArabdha saMskAra and two of these could be said to still apply to the realized man according to Ramana Maharshi:
prArabdha karma [i.e. saMskAra] is of three categories, ichChA, anichChA and parechChA [personally desired, without desire and due to others’ desire]. For the one who has realized the Self, there is no ichChA prArabdha but the two others, anichChA and parechChA, remain. Whatever a j~nAnI [Self-realized man] does is for others only. If there are things to be done by him for others, he does them but the results do not affect him. Whatever be the actions that such people do, there is no puNya and no pApa attached to them. But they do only what is proper according to the accepted standard of the world – nothing else. (Ref. 173)
It should be noted, however, that elsewhere he does state that there is no further saMskAra, once realized:
But the truth is the j~nAnI has transcended all karma-s, including the prArabdha karma and he is not bound by the body or its karma-s. (Ref. 174)
D. B. Gangolli , in Ref. 292, points out that the realized man no longer believes himself to be a doer or an enjoyer. He suggests that both are essential in order for the saMskAra to “germinate,” since they are effectively the water and fertilizer. There is therefore neither fruit of past action nor seeds being sown for future karma. There can also be no attachment to results when one knows that there is only the Self.
This illustrates that the truth of reality cannot be expressed at all. The way that things appear at the level of the phenomenal world is related to the state of the mind that perceives them and the sage aims to address the listener according to his level of understanding.