By Neera Kashyap
Tapas is an act of devotion, which aims through voluntary pain and discomfort, to purify both conscious and unconscious desires, so that we can lead clearer, more controlled lives
The word ‘tapas’ brings associations of something long, arduous and self-denying. It brings to mind the grim asceticism of yogis who for months, years and centuries lived in isolation subsisting on leaves, sand and water or simply on air in order to realise the atman. In essence, however, tapas is essential energy or a focused effort undertaken as a personal discipline to achieve a goal. Though this goal could be concrete such as achieving perfection in a sport or a field of study or work, it is more often an act of devotion, which aims through voluntary pain and discomfort, to purify both conscious and unconscious desires, so that we can lead clearer, more controlled lives. In Sanskrit, tapas means ‘heat’. As we attempt to move beyond our own likes and dislikes, our desire conflicts with our will to think and do what is right, igniting an internal fire which illumines and burns up our impurities. As a tool of purification, it transforms the mind from restlessness to peace. It can then be used for the higher goal of transcending the mind and abiding in atman, our real self. Tapas, is thus not a grim killjoy self-denial but a conscious and dynamic mode of self-enquiry.
The Bhagavad Gita speaks of tapas at the three levels – of body, speech and mind. At the level of body, it involves worship, cleanliness, simplicity, chastity and non-violence. At the level of speech, it involves using words that are truthful, beneficial and peace-giving and reading holy books. At the level of mind, it involves practising silence, selfcontrol, compassion and purity. The Gita highlights this with an important rider – this threefold harmony can only be called pure when it is practised with supreme faith and for the Supreme, with no desire for material benefits or reward.
According to the Upanishads, it is only in purity that the Self is realised and by the greatest tapas. Every vestige of the normal waking attitude which is appropriate and necessary in the daily struggle for material existence (artha), for pleasure (kama), and for attaining righteousness (dharma), must be abandoned. The really serious seeker must turn the mind inwards, with absolute disinterest in worldly pursuits, disinterest even in the continuance of his individual existence, for the Self is beyond the senses, mind, and intuitive awareness, that support the individual personality. This requires one-pointed focus on the Self and merger of all thoughts in this limitless Source.
The secret of creation
Hindu scriptures give us plenty of evidence of tapas undertaken and the motivations, aims and impact of this asceticism. One of the richest narrations of stories, and teachings, can be found in the Srimad Bhagavatam, which describes the lives and events associated with the different avatars of Lord Vishnu. A powerful story of tapas occurs before creation itself indicating the enormous preparation, self-discipline, and clarity, needed before we undertake any major creative endeavour in our own lives.
Before creation there was nothing but the flood of dissolution (pralaya), over which Lord Vishnu lay on his ten-thousand- headed snake-bed in yogic sleep, though his consciousness was awake, enjoying the bliss of his own nature. Every function was inactive except the function of Time. Impelled by rajas (the quality in our nature of activity) under the influence of time, the subtle bodies of the jivas in the Lord sought expression in a gross form. They sprouted suddenly from his navel as a lotus luminous like the sun. The Lord entered the lotus, and Brahma the creator, rose from it – known thus in the Vedas as the self-born.
But creation did not come easy. By sprouting four heads, Brahma first did a survey of the waters to assess who he was and what he had to do. He searched for the source of the lotus stem but could not find it, indicating that the search is not an external one. Though he could feel within him the need to create, he did not know how to and so felt dull, vexed and unhappy. He was helped out of his misery when he heard from the waters the sound of two letters pronounced twice: tap ah, tap ah. He recognised in this a need for penance, so closed his eyes in intense concentration for a hundred years till he saw in his heart the splendour of Lord Vishnu stretched on his snakebed containing all the worlds in his person. Despite this intense focus, despair did not leave Brahma as he prayed to the Lord to help him create. The Lord told him simply but kindly not to get lost in despair but to make effort using a specific mantra that was dear to him and the plan of the worlds would unfold. For only when concentration becomes perfect and devotion intense will he pervade Brahma, the universe and the jivas lying hidden within him.
Brahma meditated for another hundred years with his mind fixed on the Lord. It occurred to him to start re-creating the worlds destroyed at the end of the last yuga, using the all-powerful mantra given to him by the Lord. This he did by sucking into himself the heaving winds and water, splitting the lotus stalk into three and so creating the three worlds of heaven, earth and hell for the jivas to suffer/ enjoy according to the fruits of their actions.
From Brahma’s story of creation, we learn several lessons: an external orientation brings no results; a long period of selfeffort is needed in terms of focus and concentration before one is helped by the Divine to develop a key focus (with the mantra), which enables the plan to unfold by itself; despair will occur but will have to be controlled so that what rules is divine will and not mental despair; and that creation is not something new but a recreation of a continuous process which begins and ends only to start again.
Dhruva’s penance Another lesson we learn from Brahma’s story of creation, is that even after intense concentration we may not lose a strong mental tendency such as despair, which may become latent, but is not necessarily destroyed, except with grace and further effort. In Dhruva’s penance recounted in the Bhagavatam, his last and strongest desire before he undertook his most severe tapas was to succeed to his father’s throne which, as the eldest son, rightfully belonged to him. This remained with him even after tapas purified the remainder.
Dhruva was the son of King Uttanapada and Suniti. The king had a second younger wife Suruchi, whom he was very fond of. This filled her with great pride. One day five-yearold Dhruva was climbing onto his father’s knee as was Suruchi’s son. Suruchi rebuked Dhruva saying that though he was the elder son, he could not aspire to the throne till he took birth from her womb, for which she advised him to perform penance, and seek the Lord’s grace. The king heard this but remained silent, continuing to fondle the younger boy. Stung inconsolably, Dhruva recounted this event to his mother. She, in her wisdom, advised him to follow his stepmother’s suggestion and take to austerities with devotion, trusting the Lord to assuage his sorrow.
Dhruva left home immediately. Though Narada ran after him advising him not to take matters to heart, he was struck by the boy’s aspiration, and initiated him in a mantra and ritual for the worship of Lord Vasudeva. The boy’s tapas was rigorous – he ate fruit once in three days for a month, lived off dried leaves every six days for the second month, lived only on water every nine days for the third month, breathing air every 12 days for the fourth month and abstaining from all these in the fifth! When the Lord appears to him and asks his wish, he grants him his still-present desire to be crowned king by his father and only then attain the status of the permanent pole star. Later, Dhruva regrets that he could not ask for liberation because of this latent desire. So he has to rule righteously for 36,000 years before he is led by two heavenly messengers to ascend the highest sphere as pole star that navigates seafarers at night and householders in the day – the guiding intellect for right living! So a strong desire can go into latency but is destroyed only with grace and a long predominance of righteous self-control (symbolised by Dhruva’s kingship) before we attain the eternal.
Transcending sex One of the major themes of tapas in the Bhagavatam is specifically to control sexual impulses. Often individuals are cursed to undertake penance to overcome this particular weakness. Diti, daughter of Daksha (one of the mind-born sons of Brahma) is cursed by her own husband Sage Kashyapa, when in a moment of uncontrolled sexual desire she compels him to satisfy her even as he sits for worship. Kashyapa’s curse on her – she would bear two wicked sons who would be such a bane of existence that the Lord himself would descend to rid the world of them. Diti accepts the tapas of bearing the wicked and starting the asuric race purely because she knows that her sons would die at the hands of the Lord and attain liberation. The birth of wickedness to a virtuous woman was not considered so calamitous because it would be dealt with by the Lord, controlled and destroyed by Him. This would be the vindication of her faith in the Lord, infinitely more so than in her Brahmin husband.
In another instance, the two sons of Kubera take to drink and sexual indulgence, once they are elevated to associate with Lord Siva, and allowed to sport in a lush garden flanking Mount Kailasa. One day when Narada chances upon them with their lovers, the naked girls cover themselves in shame but not the sons of Kubera. For their arrogant indecency, Narada curses them to become trees for a hundred celestial years – trees symbolising an unselfconscious nakedness – to reflect upon their own false prestige and drunken indulgence. It is only when this long period of self-reflection is over that they’re released from the curse by baby Krishna, who recognises the two Arjuna trees as the cursed brothers, and brings them down with the mortar that his mother has tied to his waist as punishment for stealing curd! Shorn of their weakness, the brothers shoot out from the trees, bow to the Lord, effulgent with the knowledge that it was He who deserved the highest worship. For their recognition, Lord Krishna rids them of all material bondage and lets them return to their celestial abode.
Tapas also follows voluntarily when King Yayati and ascetic Saubhari both reach a significant point of realisation in their lives that desire is only inflamed by sexual indulgence and not slaked by it. Both then take to tapas till they attain union with the Supreme. In both cases, the wives follow in their renunciation.
Finally, the tapas that comes last but not least is perhaps the most relevant to our times – tapas after violence – the tapas that the great ascetic and Vishnu avatar Parasurama must undertake after single-handedly exterminating the Kshatriyas – sunk in rajas and tamas – from the face of the earth.
Parasurama has good reason for avenging his grief with the Kshatriyas. He is the son of holy sage Jamadagni. One day his father has occasion to feed the Kshatriya king Arjuna and his army in his hermitage with the help of his celestial cow Kamadhenu. But after receiving this honour, the king unceremoniously drives off with the cow, despite the protests of the sage, and the celestial animal herself. Parasurama battles with the king and his formidable army. Killing all in a massive bloodbath, he returns home with Kamadhenu only to be rebuked by his father for killing a king – a representative of the gods on earth – when it was better for a Brahmin to forgive.
But the next act of the Kshatriyas is unforgivable – King Arjuna’s sons enter the sage’s hermitage and slash off his head even as he sits in meditation, carrying it away. The Bhagavatam gives graphic details of how the city flows with a river of blood as Parasurama kills the whole princely race, making a high tower of their heads in the city centre. This battle against the Kshatriyas is undertaken 21 times till the earth is cleansed and Parasurama himself of his sense of righteousness over forgiveness. Thus purifying the earth and himself of all sin – tapas itself, he gives up all violence and retires to a mountain to meditate with a serene mind and to prepare himself for his destined task of propounding the Vedas in the next cycle. Thus only after completing his destined task of relieving the earth and himself of all stain could he propound peace and the means for attaining it! So even an avatara works on himself even as he works on others!
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