Sri Ramakrishna would warn his devotees about the power of samskaras. He would say that even a man of realisation can succumb to the overpowering nature of samskaras. To explain this idea he used to narrate an incident from the life of Sri Sankaracharya.
Sri Sankara was born in an orthodox Brahmin family and had been brought up in those orthodox customs and manners. Slowly by practising intense austerities, viveka, vichara and vairagya, he attained the highest knowledge of Brahman and came to be known as a realised soul. By virtue of this highest knowledge he knew that there was nothing except Brahman or unitary consciousness and all the differentiations seen in the manifested world were only Maya or illusion.
But once he too succumbed to the power of his past samskaras. One day in Benares, after taking a bath in the Ganges he was walking through one of the streets towards his next destination. He saw a butcher carrying a load of meat. Inadvertently, the butcher touched Sankara’s body. In spite of being fully established in the knowledge of Brahman, Sankara shouted angrily, “How dare you touch me?” The butcher said, “Sir, neither have you touched me nor have I touched you. Pure soul is neither body, nor the five elements, nor the 24 cosmic principles.” The truth struck Sri Sankaracharya like lightning. He realised his momentary lapse.
Thus Sri Ramakrishna would say even a person established in the highest knowledge can succumb to the alluring powers of the samskaras. But such great souls immediately regain their poise and thus are not affected greatly in a spiritual sense.
However, ordinary mortals have to be much more alert and careful as otherwise there is a likelihood of their losing their spiritual moorings. There are numerous instances of spiritual aspirants in the early stages of sadhana completely getting lost and going astray from their spiritual path.
-by Swami Shantatmananda, Sunday Guardian, 8th Mar 2014