वृक्ष कबहुँ नहीं फल भखै, नदी ना पीवै नीर !
पर्मारथ के कारनै, साधुन धरा शरीर !
Trees never eat their fruits, river doesn’t drink its water;
It’s only for the ultimate good sages carry their body.
Tapas or Tapa literally means heat. Tapashcharya means way of living in which you bear heat. In the normal sense it means bearing discomfort or pain for greater good or Dharma. Tapas has had a great significance in Spirituality. From fasts to celibacy and non-violence to truthfulness–all austere pursuits which are dedicated towards spiritual advancement is considered Tapa.
It’s not just spiritual sense in which the word has been used. Puranas are full of stories where many demons did great tapas to get some occult powers to rule the world. Thus Tapas in the conventional sense has been used for the process of harboring power for some goal. Based on this definition it might be considered harmonious(sattvic), passionate(rajasic) or dark(tamasic) tapas. Examples from past will be: Bhagiratha’s tapas for salvation of his ancestors, Ravanas tapas for becoming a mighty king and Vishwamitra’s tapas for creation of another universe.
People who practice tapas in various ways are known as tapaswins. Many people who used to pursuade me to become a householder in my twenties used to say Grihsthashrama(school of householders) is a great tapasya. I used to listen their hollow arguments with compassion. It’s true that other three ashramas are dependent on householders in the material sense but no sane person will concede and appreciate the baseless arguments about their own virtue. Bhagvata Purana is considered best of puranas by many scholars and it criticizes Grihasthashrama and extols renunciates. Though this is not the point of the article I have been telling householders that it is indeed a great Tapas to live the life of householder and since I don’t deem myself fit for such Tapas I didn’t opt for it!
This brings us to another important point. There are people who surround themselves with pyres of great fire in scorching summers of tropic and there are others who sleep on nails. Some others eat only leaves and there are others who stand naked in the summer Sun for hours. Some others stand in the cold waters which are deep hours on in cold winters. Some others take vow of not moving their limbs for many hours. The other day I read that a person interpreted a verse of Geeta ( Chapter 2, Verse 69, which I covered in the article Jagrit Sushupti) to mean that a true yogi must not sleep and didn’t even sleep his entire life. He kept giving great pain to his body and his legs were always swollen. Jiddu Krishnamurti once told story of a monk who dismembered himself for keeping sexuality at bay! How horrendous could nature of tapas be–and all in the name of Dharma. The sheer masochism knows no bound. Krishna has warned clearly against such dark practices in Geeta and elsewhere. Buddha also did austere tapas for 6 years but knowledge eluded him and it was only after he took middle path that illumination dawned on him. Thereafter he always preached the middle way.
Ego loves difficult things. If renunciation is difficult–the BIG EGO will run after renunciation and if life of a householder is difficult then it will run after it–hence the argument of Grihsthashrama being a great Tapas. Because they have heard that it’s a great tapas by word-of-mouth it greatly appeals their ego and they advocate it for others. Ego avoids easy paths. Self is easy and immediate–laughter is easy and immediate-life is easy and immediate–all of these ego avoids. It keeps chasing mysterious, distant and difficult goals because only then it feels alive. That is why you see so much spiritual activity and YOGA. Yoga is actually Viyoga because there is no Viyoga. Search for God or Self is like the search of a fish in the sea which is looking for sea. Thus only attempts at Yoga cause Viyoga. The material activity gets transformed into spiritual activity and feels like tapas and it actually serves the purpose of burning knots of ignorance but it’s not indispensable. When knowledge dawns conscious Tapas ends.
Sages like Nisargadatta suggest that living through vicissitudes of life with perseverance is tapas enough for a human. True tapas is possible only when self-realization happens. Before realization there is an agent looking for some gains-either material or spiritual as results of tapas but after realization there is no persona left. The sage’s body seems active to others and whatever happens before its falling away-contributes to awakening of others.