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Tapas: Bringing Intesity to Our Practice

by M. Govindan Satchidananda


The great questions of life "Who am I?" "How can I know God?" "How can I find lasting happiness in a world of suffering?" can only be answered, according to the great spiritual traditions, by a process of purification. As humans, we are deeply flawed because of our ignorance of the Self and because of egoism, which causes us to identify with the body and the mind. Our attachments and aversions cause us further suffering. Yoga offers a practical means for overcoming these human imperfections. While Yoga can be viewed from many different perspectives, one of the most useful ways of seeing it is as a complete system of self-purification. Tapas or austerity, is the use of vows, will-power and endurance to purify oneself, by overcoming the limitations of our habit patterns. According to Patanjali, "By tapas (austerity) impurities of the body and senses are destroyed and perfection gained." (I.43)

The word tapas literally means "heat" or "glow." The early name for a yogin, in the Vedas, the most ancient spiritual texts of India, was tapasvin or practioner of tapas, voluntary self-challenge. Surya the name for the Lord in the Vedas, refers to the Solar Deity. According to the Vedas, Surya is the original practioner of tapas, and so, is the orginator of Yoga, known as Hiranyagarbha (Golden Womb or Sun). In the Bhagavad Gita (4.1) the Sun, Vivasvat is referred to as the primordial teacher of Yoga. Ancient Yogins or tapasvins were sun-worshippers, and the remnants of this archaic Yoga is still found in the Sun Salutation series common to all traditions of Hatha Yoga.

Patanjali tells us in Sutra III.55 that enlightenment occurs when the mind becomes purified like a mirror, and is able to reflect the natural luminosity of the Self, pure consciousness: "In the sameness of purity between beingness and the Self, there is absolute freedom."

Tapas means "intense practice" or "austerity." It refers to any intense or prolonged practice for Self-realization, which involves overcoming the natural tendencies of the body, emotions or mind. Because of the resistance of the body, emotions or mind, heat or pain may develop as a bi-product, but this is never the objective. The objective is to overcome their dominance to absorption of our consciousness, or Self-realization.

In Yoga-Sutra II.1 , Patanjali defines Kriya Yoga as: "tapas (intense practice), svadhyaya (self-study) and isvara-pranidhana (devotion to the Lord.)" In Sutra I.13 he explains clearly what we are to practice: " In this context, the effort to abide in (the cessation of identification with the fluctuations of consciousness) is a constant practice."

Tapas begins with an intention or a vow to deny oneself some indulgence. It could involve anything: a physical pleasure, certain food, casual sex, television, or if sitting in meditation, making an unnecessary movement. It involves standing back from any particular attachment or aversion, or any thought or feeling of "I am this feeling, sensation or thought" and letting it go. This is known as "vairagya" or "detachment." This requires effort and willpower, and consistent repetition for an extended period. How long? That is to be determined by the vow or intention. Meditation for 30 minutes, 60 minutes. Observing silence or fasting for one day. Abstention from a particular food, beverage or pleasurable activity for one month. Such effort requires endurance. As with an athlete, who develops his physical strength, the tapasvin develops his willpower gradually, by repeatedly and regularly exercising it. One begins with relatively short periods of postponing the satisfaction of a desire or aversion. The postponement gradually becomes longer, and finally one may let go of it altogether. However, the accomplished tapasvin, eventually reaches a state of equanimity, wherein one may simply enjoy, whether the object of desire or aversion is present or not. So, intention, effort and endurance are the key elements of tapas, but their result is equanimity in the face of the dualities of life.

In our pleasure seeking and consumerist lifestyle, such voluntary abstention and denial will strike the majority of persons as irrational and inconsistent with what is known today as "the good life." Such persons fail to recognize the delight which lies within ourselves, waiting to be discovered when control is exercised over neurotic impulses of attachment and aversion. The mind constantly dwells upon desires and fears, but when one exercises a little dispassion towards these, they vanish like clouds in the sky.

The Bhagavad Gita (17.14-16) speaks of three kinds of tapas: austerity of body, speech and mind. Austerity of the body includes cleanliness, chastity, non-violence, courteous behavior, compassionate actions, and devotional activities. Austerity of speech includes speaking only what is truthful, helpful, and necessary, after reflection, giving no offense. It may include chanting of the Lord's name in devotional activities. Austerity of the mind includes silence, serenity, concentration, discrimination, avoidance of unkind thoughts. These austerities cultivate uplifting emotions associated with love, gratitude, courage and acceptance.

Tapas should be done without expectation of reward and with faith in the process of Yoga. In this way one develops equanimity, which is the pre-requisite for enlightenment. Whether there is success or failure, loss or gain, whether it is comfortable or uncomfortable, hot or cold, whether one is rested or tired, one maintains a calm acceptance of what is, in the present moment. One goes beyond duality to unity.

By cultivating tapas, one develops great energy and willpower, which enables one to master one's life, and overcome all obstacles. One develops the light of supramental consciousness. One becomes radiant like the sun, not only in the subtle bodies, but ultimately even in the physical. One becomes a source of light, warmth and love for everyone.

Exercise:

1. Make a list of things to which you are attached, for example, certain foods, some form of entertainment, activities or games you enjoy, possessions.

2. Make a vow, in which you express your intention to avoid indulging one or more of these attachments during the next three weeks.

3. Make a list of things to which you are adverse, for example, sitting in meditation for more than a certain amount of time, particular postures, certain foods which may be healthy but are unappetizing to you, housework, exercise, socializing with certain relatives.

4. Make a vow, in which you express your intention to not involve yourself in one or more of these things to which you are adverse, during the next three weeks, regularly.

Copyright: M. Govindan Satchidananda, September 2006

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