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.
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
Copyright: M. Govindan Satchidananda,
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