This term has, according to its context, different shades of meaning, which should be carefully distinguished.
(I) To its most frequent usages (s. foll. 1-4) the general term 'formation' may be applied, with the qualifications required by the context. This term may refer either to the act of 'forming or to the passive state of 'having been formed' or to both.
1. As the 2nd link of the formula of dependent origination, (paticcasamuppāda), sankhāra has the active aspect, 'forming, and signifies karma, i.e. wholesome or unwholesome volitional activity (cetanā) of body (kāya-sankhāra), speech (vacī-sankhāra) or mind (citta- or mano-sankhāra). This definition occurs, e.g. at S.XII.2, 27. For sankhāra in this sense, the word 'karma-formation' has been coined by the author. In other passages, in the same context, sankhāra is defined by reference to
This threefold division covers karmic activity in all spheres of existence: the meritorious karma-formations extend to the sensuous and the fine-material sphere, the demeritorious ones only to the sensuous sphere, and the 'imperturbable' only to the immaterial sphere.
2. The aforementioned three terms, kāya-, vacī- and citta-sankhāra are sometimes used in quite a different sense, namely as
3. It also denotes the 4th group of existence (sankhārakkhandha), and includes all 'mental formations' whether they belong to 'karmically forming' consciousness or not. See khandha, Tab.II. and S.XXII.56, 79.
4. It occurs further in the sense of anything formed (sankhata) and conditioned, and includes all things whatever in the world, all phenomena of existence. This meaning applies, e.g. to the well-known passage, "All formations are impermanent... subject to suffering" (sabbe sankhāra aniccā ... dukkhā). In that context, however, s. is subordinate to the still wider and all-embracing term dhamma (thing); for dhamma includes also the Unformed or Unconditioned Element (asankhata-dhātu), i.e. Nibbāna (e.g. in sabbe dhammā anattā, "all things are without a self").
(II) Sankhāra also means sometimes 'volitional effort', e.g. in the formula of the roads to power (iddhi-pāda); in sasankhāra- and asankhāra-parinibbāyī (s. anāgāmī); and in the Abhidhamma terms asankhārika- and sasankhārika-citta, i.e. without effort = spontaneously, and with effort = prompted.
In Western literature, in English as well as in German, sankhāra is sometimes mistranslated by 'subconscious tendencies' or similarly (e.g Prof Beckh: "unterbewußte Bildekräfte," i.e. subconscious formative forces). This misinterpretation derives perhaps from a similar usage in non-Buddhist Sanskrit literature, and is entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pāli Buddhism, as listed above under I, 1-4. For instance, within the dependent origination, s. is neither subconscious nor a mere tendency, but is a fully conscious and active karmic volition. In the context of the 5 groups of existence (s. above I, 3), a very few of the factors from the group of mental formations (sankhārakkhandha) are also present as concomitants of subconsciousness (s. Tab.I, Tab.II, Tab.III), but are of course not restricted to it, nor are they mere tendencies.