Whenever the word Tapasya (penance, austerity) comes up, most of us imagine some sort of severe mortification of the body such as not eating food for months, or meditating while standing on one leg, or praying while immersed in a frigid lake. The numerous Amar Chitra Katha pictures which we have seen in our childhood immediately come to mind!
However, as Swami Brahmananda, who was a God-realized sage and a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna has explained below, real tapasya is not about torturing the body, but is about reforming our inner nature by controlling the mind and rooting out its negative tendencies such as selfishness, greed, fear, anger and lust. Now the one tool which proves critical in helping bring the mind under control is a healthy body. Because when the body is sickly and diseased, the sadhak’s will-power too weakens and consequently he/she finds it extremely difficult to overcome bad habits and thereby cleanse the inner nature. Even bringing the mind into concentration during meditation becomes an arduous task.
Therefore aspirants on the spiritual path of yoga, (especially those who are beginners and who have worldly duties to discharge such as taking care of their families), are advised to eat a well-balanced, nutritious and healthy diet, and to not torture their body excessively. While some amount of fasting can be indulged in (as a means to gain self-control), excessive and extreme fasting which impairs and weakens the body must be entirely avoided. This however does not mean that the aspirant gets a carte blanche to become greedy and eat whatever his/her mind desires, rather he/she must control the mind and eat only as much as, and that which keeps the body healthy and strong.
The following conversation with Swami Brahmananda has been recorded in the book Spiritual Teachings of Swami Brahmananda (Free Download). It has been excerpted below from there.
What is Tapasya (Penance)? The 3 Pillars of Tapasya
His Holiness Swami Brahmananda spent the last days of his life on this earth in the Head Monastery of the Ramakrishna Mission on the bank of the Ganges above Calcutta. The conversation which follows took place during this time. It was the evening of the 17th of March, 1922. The venerable figure of the Swami was seated on the eastern verandah of the Math (monastery). A group of disciples sat on the floor in front of him.
As the older sadhus (monks) of the Order finished their evening meditation, they came one by one to bow at the Swami’s feet in reverent salutation. The stillness of prayer and contemplation was in the air, broken only by the murmur of swift-flowing waters and the faint sound of Vesper chants from surrounding temples. Suddenly through the silence came the question, “Maharajji, what is meant by Tapasya, or austerity?”
Swami Brahmananda: There are different kinds of Tapasya. Some take a vow that they will not sit for a long period. I have seen a man who had taken a vow not to sit for twelve years. At that time he had almost finished that period only five or six months were remaining. By constantly standing, his legs had grown very stout as in elephantiasis. For sleeping he held to a rope. The rope was tied to both ends of a wooden piece, holding to which the man slept at night.
There are other kinds of Tapasya. In the winter season, one stands all night up to the neck in very cold water and spends the time in making Japam (mantra chanting)! In very hot weather one sits and meditates in the midst of five blazing Dhunies (fires) under a burning sun. In another kind one stands or sits in meditation on a seat with pointed nails.
Devotee: Is this true Tapasya, Maharaj?
Swami Brahmananda: Heaven knows! These people do these things with some motive. They hope they will become kings; or enjoy the world in their next birth. They have admitted this to me.
“The Sastras declare: Health is the vital factor in spiritual practice.
This means that one should see that the vitality of the body remains unimpaired. One should eat healthy food, avoiding that which excites or produces lethargy.”
– Swami Brahmananda
Devotee: Do they get these results?
Swami Brahmananda: Heaven knows!
Devotee: Then what is real Tapasya?
Swami Brahmananda: Real Tapasya is not in such feats. Any one can do these things by practice. It is very easy to conquer the body; but to conquer the mind is the greatest difficulty – to conquer lust, greed, desire for name and fame.
Real Tapasya lies in three things:
- You must be very truthful. Truth is the pillar to which you must always hold. Every inch of you must be truthful,
- You must get rid of lust (i.e. practice Brahmacharya, or complete celibacy in thought, word and deed).
- You must gain control over your Vasanas (desires).
These are the main things to be observed. Of these the second is the most important, that is, Brahmacharya. Real Tapasya lies here. Our Shastras say that by observing Brahmacharya for twelve years very strictly, God becomes easy to realise. This is very difficult. I can tell you from my own experience I have learned that no true meditation is possible without real Brahmacharya. It is very difficult to get control over the Sukshma Vasanas (subtle desires), so the rules for Sannyasins (celibate monks) are very strict.
The Sannyasin should not even look at a woman. By seeing one, a picture is formed in the mind. When we see anything beautiful to the senses, our natural instinct is to enjoy it. So we unconsciously enjoy in our mind. This is very injurious. Without Brahmacharya the mind will not gain the power to meditate. The mind will be thinking of this or that and will not think of His feet. You will not get the correct imagination.
When you develop Brahmacharya you will see everything in a different light. Everything will look fresh to you. By observing Brahmacharya, Ojas (spiritual energy) is aroused in you. But Brahmacharya should be accompanied by Japam (repetition of God’s name/mantra chanting). Otherwise Brahmacharya cannot stand.
True Meaning of Tapasya:
“Tapas means literally “to burn.” It is a kind of penance to “heat” the higher nature. (However) the body must be properly taken care of. The people who torture their flesh are demoniacal. Always keep your mind joyful; if melancholy thoughts come, kick them out. A Yogi must not eat too much, but he also must not fast; he must not sleep too much, but he must not go without any sleep. In all things only the man who holds the golden mean (is well-balanced) can become a Yogi.”
Real Tapasya is the Controlling of Passions & Desires:
“Meditation is not an easy thing. Eat a bit more and your mind will not settle that day. When lust, anger, greed and the whole host of evil passions are kept under control, then and then alone does meditation become possible. If any one of these asserts itself, meditation will be impossible. It is easier to sit in a circle of burning fire. But to keep the passions under control and not allow them to make an impression upon the mind that is real Tapasya. The control of passions and desires is the greatest penance.
“Even though a man may practice severe asceticism for a thousand years, by standing on one leg, he would nevertheless fail to obtain even one sixteenth of the benefit as he would have gotten had he practiced Dhyana Yoga (meditation).”
Uttara Gita, Shloka 2.39
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