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The above picture is of Lord Dattatreya, one of the most hidden of Hindu deities, especially to the West. He is an avadhut that is still said to be alive today, always practicing austerity. He is truly the Lord of Yogis. The four dogs you see are representations of the four Vedas. He was created out of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Blessed and beloved soul!
If your wanderings around the internet have brought you to see what you can find about that magic word Tapas and Tapasya, you have a rare fortune. but beware! Reading about austerity is one thing. But tapas, tapasya, is the one key spiritual topic that can truly only be put into practice.
Do you want to wade upstream from the normal currents of life? Are you yearning for something deeper and more meaningful about existence, or indeed wondering what's missing in your spiritual life? Perhaps you already realise, on a deep level, that at some point in your life it is time to:
a) Gather all the separate strands of your spiritual experience together.
b) Go boldly forth and become what some Buddhist traditions call "a stream enterer".
Spiritual practice should not be some cosy hobby you pick up and drop at your convenience, or do once a week at a gathering of like-minded souls. Nor is it you do once a year on a retreat. Otherwise, it just becomes something like another set of clothes for you to wear and discard. And what would be the value in that?
Tapas (the word loosely translates as fire from austerity) is the practice of restraint of the mind, the body, and the senses. It is most definitely not business as usual. It is the deliberate setting alight of your soul.
But for many involved in yogic practice, it has become something confined to the history books or the story of an ashram/monastery - woven into the myths of the Hindu faith as something the great Rishis of long ago did for an impossible number of years which has no possible relevance to modern life. Or else it is the kind of freak show that has sadhus binding their genitals, sitting on beds of nails etc etc... wearing ash, waving tridents and shouting at people.
How wrong this is! And yet how complex the whole subject matter. As Lord Buddha famously found, if you wind the guitar string too tight, it snaps, and too loose, it won't produce a true note. He practiced intense austerity before enlightenment, only to find the Middle Way. In this day and age, is it truly possible for any follower of the Yogic path to practice tapas, or is it all a waste of time?
Well... I reckon it is. Try the exalted example of my guru Shri Shri Shri Shivabalayogi who practised the most intense tapasya for 12 long years, from a very early age. Or Swami Sivananda and his disciples. Or Shri Maa, Or Baba Muktananda. Or Neem Karoli Baba... the list goes on. The famous disciples of Sri Ramakrishna all caught fire from tapasya. It's doable if you are a householder. One of Shivabalayogi's most exalted devotees was a very senior Indian army officer who found time, day day out, to meditate intensely between duties. It's doable, just takes a lot of committment.
Restraint means that you are making a decision to catch fire inwardly. It is part self-denial, part something far more pro-active. Austerity is perfectly possible living in the world, but only as long as circumstances permit - and common sense allows. You can hold down a job, a relationship, a family, and still be a tapsvin, one who practices tapas. But the fire is real enough, and you can sometimes almost hear yourself popping and crackling away. What gets burnt up are what are known as samskaras or tendencies often from former lives, skeins, strands, gobbets, chunks of subconscious impulses, memories, aversions, attachments.
Why do it? Because you might feel at some point in your life a call, a pull, the sound of Lord Krishna's flute beckoning you away from daily life. If you have a desire for tapas, it can be down to past-life tendencies, samskaras, making themselves felt in your awareness in a good way: you feel the urge to do it in a way that is hard to explain to anyone else.
Once upon a time i had a brief vision lying down after meditation - a mental picture that sprang from nowehere. But in this vision I was sitting on a grassy hill, overlooking a beautiful summers evening chant by thousands of devotees (don't know what was being chanted) when my Master Shivabalayogi appeared, with a trident and just wearing a loin cloth. He gesticulated to me in silence. I followed him and left that serene scene. He led me to what looked like a huge chimney stack stretching darkly up intothe night sky, with this pulsatinng blue light at the the top. Then, with another prod of his trident and no words said, he motioned me to start climbing up the tower, iron rung by iron rung. That is for me a neat picture of tapasya. You get up, you leave where you are, where it is comfortable...and you do something which seems so difficult at first.
What kind of tapas can you do in the world without harming yourself and others?
Here's a quick simple list of possible approaches which won't turn you into a mad person...
1) MEDITATE without fail for 1 hour every day.
2) Practice SILENCE for an hour.
3) No TV at all...forego the mobile phone
4) Forgo ONE MEAL.
5) Do a prescribed number of JAPA Malas.
6) PUJAs, PUJAs, PUJAs.
7) Tackle SWADHYA and stick to a long long text.
8) WAKE UP AT THE DAWN
9) BRAHMACHARYA: Celibacy for a prescribed period
10) Begin with a resolve - a SANKALPA
More advanced Tapasya
1) SPEND A WEEKEND in seclusion, no going outside
2) SPEND A WHOLE DAY chanting and meditating
4) Try 16 rounds of JAPA a day
5) Chant the CHANDI PATH for 108 days straight or commit to recitation of some text.
6) Meditate for 3 hours at a time
Tapasya as a way of life
Restraint of the senses is the clue to a noble life. But the ultimate focus is restraint of the mind. When the mind is fully gathered in, and only then, will the light of the Self dawn.
These are the two main reasons for tapasya, and unfortunately if you live in the world, that same world will be calling your senses and your mind with urges that are extremely hard to resist, especially if you are surrounded by the noise and bustle of family life.
What to do, how to keep the spark alive? Tapasya as a way life does involve doing disciplined tasks which may not be pleasant at first. The path will not be sweet when you start off. It will be tough. Furthermore, if you get it wrong, and go too tough too quickly, your mind body and senses will rebel... you'll experience an inner palace revolution.
So the key thing is start small, in tiny step by step increments. Then build. Be flexible, daring, joyful and patient. Limit your tapasya project to one small period, a weekend, a half day... repeat the sankalpa given below.
Beware excessive Pranayama
Perhaps the one real warning is over Pranayama: Be very very careful about doing this more than 10 minutes at a stretch. A day spent in pranayama will ultimately has serious consequences, so don't mess around with it.
There are cautions, of course. Something in you will kick up a huge huge fuss when you decide on a period of tapasya, will struggle like an eel in a bucket. Your Ego will think of a 1000 reasons why not to do it. psets, dramas, might suddenly appear before you. You may even get flu or a cold or some other light sickness that gives you an opt-out clause. Ignore it! Be courageous.
If you decide on tapasya, you will be on your own. There will be no applause from the sidelines. You will not get a special club card with benefits. You will against the flow of the entire world-river.
But, equally, something WILL dawn in you, some brilliant light WILL be unveiled. Miracles, marvels, wonders await for the tapasvin. True joy dances in your heart. You will stand tall and proud, and have the inner strength of a 1000 people. Your light will be seen in heaven. All auspiciousness will start to gather round you. Above all, you will be coming home... and it has been a long lonely journey so far, hasn't it?
Go boldly forth! Light those matches...
Tapasya according to the Bhagavad GitaYou can find the most wonderful discourse on tapasya in Chapter 17 of the Bhagavad Gita, and these are instructions to remember. We start at verses 14-19, and there follows the sequence.
We learn that tapasya is threefold, of the body, speech and mind:
Tapasya of the body
- Worship of the Gods, the Gurus, the teachers and the wise.
- Purity (Saucham)
- Uprightness/straight forwardness (arjavam)
- Continence (Brahmacharya)
- Non-violence (Ahimsa)
- Causing no excitement (anudvegakaram)
- Truthfulness (satyam)
- Pleasant and beneficial (priya hitam)
- Study of the Vedas/sacred recitation (Svadhyaya abhyasanam)
- Serenity of mind (manah prasadah)
- Good heartedness(saumyatvam)
- Silence (maunam)
- Self-control (atma vinigrahah)
- Purity of nature (bhava samshuddih)
Suggested Tapasya Sankalpa
Here's a resolve, a sankalpa that you could repeat if you serious about pursuing tapasaya: