Tapasya and What It Means
Tapasya' is a Sanskrit word, which is derived from the root `Tap' to burn or to get heated up. It, therefore, means an act of getting burnt or an act of going through fire. Fire here is a symbolic expression that stands for troubles, tribulations and suffering. This term has a wider connotation in the spiritual parlance and needs to be explained in detail. This term is loosely translated in English as `penance' or `austerity'. Penance actually means a punishment for sins committed and austerity means denying or restricting certain comforts to one's self. Neither of these two words conveys the significance of the original Sanskrit word and what it conventionally stands for.
Even in the Indian context the term `Tapasya' is misunderstood and misinterpreted. People generally take it to mean a self-imposed restriction, suffering and denying oneself all that is good and attractive. This notion is derived from the fact that certain mendicants are seen standing on one leg either on the bank of a river or under a huge tree, some are seen fasting for months on end and some sit cross-legged or in some other posture without any movement, for a long period of time. This is not `Tapasya' but 'Hatha-yoga' or the practice of forcibly inflicting trouble on the body. `Tapasya ' in reality is an endeavour to put our life on the right track. It is an exercise to imbibe piety and purity. It is an effort to rise from animalism to divinity. It is an eagerness to enjoy all good things in life but with an attitude of detachment and renunciation. It is a combination of dedication and devotion to achieve the eternal bliss, peace and tranquility. It is a journey and not the destination. It is the means to a noble end but not the end in itself. It is a positive attitude to life and not a negative one. Another misconception about `Tapasya' is that it is supposed to be the forte of sages and savants and reserved for the ascetics and seers only and not a thing for the common man. Nothing can be far from truth than this mistaken notion. `Tapasya' is very much for the common man, within the reach of everyone and useful for one and all. For, it is a way of life that makes our life meaningful, enjoyable and fruitful.
`Tapasya' can be in thought, word and action. When we cultivate mental poise and equilibrium and purity and piety in our thinking as also nobility in our resolve, it is the austerity of the mind or thought. When all that we utter is truthful, gentle, compassionate and kind, it is the austerity of the word. Similarly, when all our deeds are for the good of the mankind, nay for the good of the whole creation, it is the austerity of the action. In other words, anything thought, uttered or done with noble intentions and pious resolve constitutes austerity. There is, however, again a catch here. Any austerity done with a selfish motive, for ostentation, for name and fame that leads to ego and arrogance is a contradiction in terms. It is no austerity at all or at best it is the devilish austerity.
Shrimad Bhagavad Gita describes three types of austerities, of mind, speech and body. It says, `Manahprasadah saumyatvam maunam-aalmavinigrahah, bhava sanshuddhir-iti etat-tapo manasam-uchyale - harmony, gentleness, reticence, self-control and purity of thought are the signs of the austerity of mind'. `Anudvegakaram vakyam satyam priyahitam cha yat, swadhyabhyasanam chaiva vangmayam tapa uchyate - pleasing, truthful, loving and beneficial utterances that do not cause grief, self-study and recitation of scriptures are the various qualities of the austerity of the word'. `Deva-dvija-guruprajnapoojanam shaucham-aarjavam, brahmacharyam-ahinsa cha shariram tapauchyate - Giving respect to gods, intellectuals, preceptors and the knowledgeable, cleanliness, rectitude, continence and non-violence are the austerity of the body'. It will be clear from these prescriptions that austerity has nowhere been defined as an act of inflicting injury on ourselves, denying worldly comforts or forcing some extreme regimen as a daily routine.
`Tapasya' is devotion and dedication. It is a singular attention towards achieving our goal whether mundane and worldly or spiritual and celestial. In our worldly affairs we often see that if we are wholeheartedly committed for a cause and dedicated in our efforts to work for it, we invariably succeed. Once we succeed our friends and admirers say that this success is the result of our `Tapasya'. Similarly, on the spiritual plane also, when we fix a goal for ourselves and then engage in the prescribed and chosen spiritual exercise, our resilience, doggedness and dedication crowns our efforts with success and we achieve the desired. Again our friends and admirers remark that we were engaged in `Tapasya'. These remarks are noteworthy and clarify the real connotation of this term and highlight its utility and relevance for a layman and a spiritualist equally. any other thing in this world and in our life, `Tapasya' also can be of three types, `Sattvika' or leading to light and knowledge, `Rajasika' or leading to passion and vigour and `Tamasika' or leading to darkness and ignorance. The Bhagavad Gita has defined these three types very clearly and lucidly. `Ashastravihitam ghoram tapyante ye lapo janaah, dambh-ahankara-samyuktaah kama-raga-balanvitaah, karshayantah sharirastham bhuta-gramam-achetasah, mam chaivaantah sharirastham tan-viddhyaasura-nishchayaan - Those who practice violent austerities not enjoined by the scriptures, given to hypocrisy and egoism, impelled by the force of lust and attachment, they torture their bodily organs, and Me too, who dwells within the body and, therefore, they are of demonic resolve'. `Shraddhaya paraya taptam tapas-tat-trividham naraih, aphalakankshibhir yukhtaih saattvikam-parichakhshate - The austerity can be threefold, that practiced with utmost faith without desiring any fruit is `sattvika' or the one leading to light'. 'Satkara-mana-poojartham tapo dambhena chaiva yat, kriyate tad-iha proktam rajas am chalam-adhruvam - The austerity practiced with the object of gaining respect, honour and reverence and with a show of arrogance is `rajasika' or leading to passion and is thus unstable and transitory'. `Mudha-grahena-atmano yat peedaya kriyate tapah, parasyotsadanaartham va tat-tamasam-udahritam - the austerity which is practiced with a foolish obstinacy, self-torture or for the purpose of harming another, is stated to be `tamasika' or leading to darkness'.
These prescriptions clearly denounce the practice of self-torture and those that make the body suffer. It has been rightly stated that taking care of our body and keeping it fit and healthy is the first step towards performing our duty and observing righteousness. `Shariram-adyam khalu dharma-sadhanam'. Whether those who stand in one posture for long periods of time like standing on one leg, or deny their body the necessities like food and drink, achieve something or not is a moot point and in fact debatable and doubtful. We have to understand that the body is a vehicle for all our activities whether spiritual or worldly. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that the body is maintained in a healthy and fit condition. Troubling and torturing it and denying it the basic necessities is neither desirable nor beneficial.
`Tapasya' or austerity does not need withdrawal from the world, seclusion of a forest or disconnection from day-to-day affairs. We can be very much householders and yet practice austerity and penance. Doing our duties with devotion and dedication, honesty and involvement and commitment is in fact the highest form of austerity. `Tapasya' is that situation where the seeker, the path and the goal merge into one entity. In other words, it is the 'Yoga' of the highest form and the Gita says, `Yogah karmasu kaushalam -- Yoga is the excellence in action'. That being so, there is no question of shirking the work or escaping from the ordained deeds. It is recorded in our Pauranic literature that even the great Narada, many times got bewildered when he observed the spiritual power of ordinary householders. The Good Lord in his kindness explains to him that this is because these householders are engaged in their duties with all sincerity, devotion and dedication. This is `Tapasya' in real terms and at the grass roots. This raises us to phenomenal spiritual heights, where divinity is manifest in our thoughts, words and deeds.
`Tapasya' has another dimension also. It is not circumscribed by either time or place. In other words we have not to earmark any specific time for this exercise nor have we to undertake it at a place of given specifications. As has already been stated earlier, since it is a way of life it has to be developed as our habit so that it comes to us naturally and becomes a part of our routine. We have obviously to exercise it at home in managing the domestic affairs. We have to practice it at our place of work, whether office, factory or business house in dealing with our seniors, equals and juniors as also general public if the job involves public dealing. We have to undertake it in dealing with fellow citizens in the society, in our country and, in these days of rapid and growing globalization, in the world at large. Our dealing with other species, nature, vegetation, animal world and natural resources, if creamed with `Tapasya', is bound to maximize our joy and pleasure and result in the common good of the mankind. Thus it will be seen that it is in reality our conduct that should get reflected at all times and at all places and in every situation whether good or bad.
It is widely believed that the transition from the Vedas to the Puranas was to the best advantage of the mankind. The Vedic Brahman was realizable by the intellectual few only but religion has to cater to the emotional and the spiritual needs of the masses, which are at a lower spiritual level. This need was fulfilled by the Puranas, which replaced Yajnas by worship, meditation and devotion. `Tapasya' became part of our culture. It brought morality and ethical behaviour to the forefront. Morality, as is well known, is a practical philosophy of life mirrored in a person's everyday behaviour and social interaction. `Tapasya' consists in being cultured, unselfish and noble and being men of conscience. Even the Gita teaches us detachment, which does not connote ordinary austerity but, as explained by Swami Krishnananda, flowering of wisdom in the form of recognition of the omnipresence of the Supreme. This recognition serves a death blow to all desires.
Our beloved Bhagavaan Gopinath Ji taught us two important functions, sadhana the spiritual exercise and seva service unto humanity. Both are two sides of the same coins. They both constitute Tapasya, one at personal individual level and the other at corrective social level. It is our bounden duty to practice these, preach and propagate this aspect of Bab ji's gospel without any greed for name and fame. That will be Tapasya in its real sense.
T. N. Dhar 'Kundan'