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The Bhagavad-Gita (17.14-16) speaks of three kinds of austerity or tapas: Austerity of body, speech and mind. Austerity of the body includes purity, rectitude, chastity, non-harming, and making offerings to higher beings, sages, brahmins (the custodians of the spiritual legacy in India), and honored teachers. Austerity of speech encompasses speaking kind, truthful, and beneficial words that give no offense, as well as the regular practice of recitation (svadhyaya) of the sacred lore. Austerity of mind consists of serenity, gentleness, silence, self-restraint, and pure emotions.
According to the Bhagavad-Gita (17.17), a rounded spiritual practice entails all three kinds of penance, and it is practiced with great faith (shraddha) and without expectation of reward. Such tapas is informed primarily by the quality of sattva, which stands for the principle of lucidity in the inner and outer world. The kind of austerity that has a predominance of the quality of rajas, the principle of dynamism in Nature, tends to be practiced with an ulterior motive, such as gaining respect, honor, or reverence, or for the sake of selfish display. Because of this, it also tends to be unstable and of short duration. When the quality of tamas, standing for the principle of inertia, characterizes the practice of austerity, it leads to foolish self-torture or injury to others.
Sattva, rajas and tamas are the three primary constituents of Nature (prakriti). All created things, including the human psyche or mind, are a composite of these three factors called gunas. Since tapas depends on the mind of the Yoga practitioner, it is colored by these three, as they manifest in a particular individual. Depending on the quality of a practitioner’s tapas, he or she will harvest the corresponding results. Unless the practice of austerity has a strong sattva ingredient, these results can range from physical pain and anguish to a complete failure of the spiritual process.
For instance, if a person practices tapas in order to acquire paranormal abilities (siddhi) that will impress or overpower others, he or she consolidates rather than transcends the ego and thus becomes diverted from the path. If, again, a practitioner confuses the balances self-challenge of genuine tapas with merely painful penance, springing from sheer ignorance and a subconscious masochism, he or she is bound to reap only pain and suffering that will undermine his or her physical health, possibly contributing to emotional instability or even mental illness.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, learned the important difference between genuine (I.e., self-transcending) tapas and misconceived penance. For six long years he pushed himself until his bodily frame became emaciated and was close to collapse, but still without yielding the longed-for spiritual freedom. Then his inner wisdom led him to take the middle path (madhya-marga) beyond damaging extremes.
Gautama abandoned his severe, self-destructive tapas and nourished his body properly. His fellow ascetics, who had always looked to him for inspiration, thought he had returned to a worldly life and shunned him. Later, after Gautama’s spiritual awakening, their paths crossed again and his radiance was so impressive that they could not help but bow to him with utmost respect.
Genuine tapas makes us shine like the Sun.
Then we can become a source of warmth, comfort, and strength for others.
- Georg Feuerstein,
from The Deeper Dimension of Yoga
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.