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Tapas (Austerity or Asceticism)

Defining and Understanding Tapas

Tapas is listed as the third of the five Niyamas in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The word Tapas (तपः) means heat or fire. As a verb (from the root तप् – ‘tap’) it can also mean to cause pain or suffering or to heat something up. Some of the common translations of Tapas are asceticism, austerity, self-discipline, determination, mortification etc. This niyama implies that we are putting the body through intense heat with the purpose of purifying it. The action is similar to that of a goldsmith who puts gold through intense heat in order to make it of a purer grade. Through the practice of tapas, one can become "tough" both physically and mentally so that one can withstand hardships that one faces in life.

Vyasa defines tapas as "resisting the pairs representing duality such as heat and cold, thirst and hunger, standing and sitting etc". As one of the practices of tapas, Vyasa mentions the Chandrayana fast (described below). Practice of Tapas can include one or more of the following:

  • worshipping the deities, the guru, the parents etc.
  • Standing motionless for a period of time
  • Sitting motionless, presumably in a meditative posture, for a period of time
  • Practicing silence – either not communicating via speech or not even using physical or facial gestures.

From tapas are derived some of the commonly used words such as tapasya or tapascharya (the act of performing tapas) and tapasvin (one who practices tapas, an ascetic). Tapasya implies a self-discipline or austerity willingly observed both in restraining physical urges and in actively pursuing a higher purpose in life. Through tapas, a yogi or spiritual seeker can "burn off" or prevent accumulation of negative energies, clearing a path toward spiritual evolution.

On a practical, day-to-day basis, practicing tapas means disciplining oneself to do something on a regular basis that one is not normally comfortable with but is desirable. For example, giving up food that you may be very fond of but has been declared unhealthy by your doctor. Practicing tapas, for example, may include maintaining a regular yoga practice (which includes asana, pranayama and meditation), engaging in a charitable act on a regular basis, eating sattvic food in limited, measured quantity, observing fast periodically etc. As mentioned above, one of the fasts mentioned in the Vedic literature is called Chanrayana fast which is observed as follows:

"On the first day of the fast, which begins on the day of full moon, only one morsel of food is eaten. The number of morsels are increased on successive days (i.e. two morsels on second day, three morsels on the third day and so on). On the day of no moon (Amavasya), which is the fifteenth day, fifteen morsels of food are taken. From the next day onward the number of morsels is decreased by one everyday for fourteen days and a full fast is observed on the day of full moon."

Tapas in the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita

In the Yoga Sutras, Tapas is mentioned in two different contexts. In sutra 2.1, it is included as a part of the practice of Kriya Yoga:

तपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः॥१॥

tapaHsvaadhyaayeshvarapraNidhaanaani kRuyaayogaH

Here, in this sutra, Kriya Yoga is defined as tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (self-study or study of scriptures) and Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender to Ishwara, the higher consciousness). Patanjali goes on to say that through the practice of Kriya Yoga, one can minimize the afflictions and also pave the way toward attainment of Samadhi.

Tapas is again mentioned as one of the five Niyamas – shaucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (self-study or study of scriptures) and Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender to Ishwara, the higher consciousness). As you will notice the last of the three niyamas are the same as those mentioned as part of Kriya Yoga.

The Bhagavad Gita speaks of two kinds of tapas, demonic and divine:

Those who practice severe tapas without following the sacred lore, with  hypocrisy and egotism, impelled by lust, and attachment; senselessly  torturing the elements in their body and also Me who dwell within the  body; know these ignorant persons to be of demonic nature. (17:5-6) 

The honoring of gods, saints, teachers, and the wise; purity, honesty,  celibacy, and nonviolence; these are said to be the tapas of the body.  Speech that is not offensive, truthful, pleasant, beneficial, used for the  reading and teaching of sacred texts is called tapas of speech. Serenity of  mind, gentleness, silence, self-restraint, and the purity of mind are called  the tapas of thought. This threefold austerity practiced by yogis with  supreme faith, without a desire for the fruit, is said to be divine tapas.  (17:14-17)

Result of Tapas

Patanjali, in sutra 2.43, tells us what can be achieved when we are fully established in Tapas:

कायेन्द्रियसिद्धिरशुद्धिक्षयात्तपसः॥४३॥

kaayendriyasiddhirashuddhikShayaattapasaH

"Perfection of the sense-organs and body are attained after destruction of impurity through austerities."

By the physical practice of tapas, for example by fasting or practicing yoga on a regular basis, we burn our excess fat and cleanse the body of toxins. By mental tapas, we can burn our old "samskaras (impressions)". By verbal tapas, for example by observing silence, we can make our speech pleasant. When we practice tapas, obviously we may go through some hardships. But with practice we learn to accept hardships and suffering with the understanding that we are doing all this to purify ourselves so we can move along the path of spiritual evolution.

The word "siddhi" in the sutra usually means attainment of supernatural powers. These are some of the powers mentioned in Chapter 3 of Yoga Sutras. So, one interpretation of the sutra could also mean that through the practice of tapas, one can attain supernatural powers like becoming minute or invisible etc. My own understanding of the sutra is that tapas can cleanse the system of all impurities thus giving us excellence in both body and the senses. 

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