Yoga’s Forgotten Foundation


Austerity & Sacrifice

Tapas तपस्

imageHE TENTH AND FINAL NIYAMA IS AUSTERITY, PERFORMING SĀDHANA, PENANCE, TAPAS AND SACRIFICE. ALL RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD HAVE THEIR FORMS OF AUSTERITY, conditions which one has to live up to—or which individuals are unable to live up to who are too lazy or too dull-minded to understand; and Hinduism is no exception. Our austerities start within the home in the form of daily sādhana. This is obligatory and includes pūjā, scriptural reading and chanting of holy mantras. This personal vigil takes about half an hour or more. Other sādhanas include pilgrimage to a far-off sacred place once a year, visiting a temple once a week, preferably on Friday or Monday, attending festivals and fulfilling saskāras, rites of passage, for the children especially, but all the family members as well. To atone for misdeeds, penance is obligatory. We must quickly mitigate future effects of the causes we have set into action. This is done through such acts as performing 108 prostrations before the God in the temple.§

Tapas is even more austere. It may come early in a lifetime or later in life, unbidden or provoked by rāja yoga practices. It is the fire that straightens the twisted life and mind of an individual, bringing him into pure being, giving a new start in life, awakening higher consciousness and a cosmic relationship with God and the Gods, friends, relatives and casual acquaintances. Tapas in Hinduism is sought for, feared, suffered through and loved. Its pain is greater than the pains of parturition, but in the aftermath is quickly forgotten, as the soul, in childlike purity, shines forth in the joys of rebirth that follow in the new life.§

Tapas is walking through fire, being scorched, burnt to a crisp, crawling out the other side unburnt, without scars, with no pain. Tapas is walking through the rain, completely drenched, and when the storm stops, not being wet. Tapas is living in a hurricane, tossed about on a churning ocean in a small boat, and when the storm subsides, being landed on a peaceful beach unharmed but purified. Tapas is a mind in turmoil, insane unto its very self. A psychic surgery is being performed by the Gods themselves. When the operation is over, the patient has been cut loose of the dross of all past lives. Tapas is a landslide of mud, a psychic earthquake, coming upon the head and consuming the body of its victim, smothering him in the dross of his misdeeds, beneath which he is unable to breathe, see, speak or hear. He awakens from this hideous dream resting on a mat in a garden hut, smelling sweet jasmine, seeing pictures of Gods and devas adorning the mud walls and hearing the sound of a flute coming from a distant source.§

Truly, tapas in its fullest form is sought for only by the renunciate under the guidance of a satguru, but this madness often comes unbidden to anyone on this planet whose dross of misdeeds spills over. The only difference for the Hindu is that he knows what is happening and how it is to be handled; or at least the gurus know, the swāmīs know, the elders know, the astrologers know. This knowledge is built into the Hindu mind flow as grout is built into a stone wall.§

A Lesson in Sacrifice§

Sacrifice may be the least-practiced austerity, and the most important. It is the act of giving up to a greater power a cherished possession (be it money, time, intelligence or a physical object) to manifest a greater good. There are many ways to teach sacrifice. My satguru taught sacrifice by cooking a great feast for several hundred people, which took all day to prepare. Their mouths were watering. They had not eaten all day, so as to prepare their bodies to receive this prasāda from the satguru. The meal was scheduled to be served at high noon. But Satguru Yogaswami kept delaying, saying, “We have not yet reached the auspicious moment. Let us sing some more bhajanas and Natchintanai. Be patient.” At about 3PM, he said, “Before we can partake of our prasāda, I shall ask eleven strong men here to dig a deep, square hole in the ground.” They stepped forward and he indicated the spot where they should dig. Shovels were obtained from homes nearby, and the digging commenced. All waited patiently for his will to be fulfilled, the stomachs growling, the mouths watering at the luscious fragrances of the hot curries, the rasam and the freshly-boiled rice, five sweet-smelling curries, mango chutneys, dal, yogurt and delicious sweet payasam. It was a real feast.§

Finally, just before dusk, the pit was completed, and the great saint indicated that it was time to serve the food. “Come, children, surround this pit,” he said. Two or three hundred people stepped forward and surrounded the ten- by ten-foot hole. Women and children were sitting in the front and the men standing in the back, all wondering what he was going to say and hoping he would not delay any longer with the feast. He said, “Now we shall serve our prasāda.” He called forward two of the huskiest of the eleven men, the strongest and biggest, and commanded, “Serve the rice. Bring the entire pot.” It was a huge brass pot containing nearly 400 pounds of rice. By this time, many had left, as they had been cooking all morning and singing all afternoon. Only the most devout had remained to see the outcome. When the day began, 1,000 had come. The preparations were for a very big crowd.§

Now he said, “Pour the rice in the middle of the pit.” Banana leaves had been laid carefully at the bottom of the pit to form a giant serving plate. The crowd was aghast. “Pour it into the pit?” “Don’t hesitate,” he commanded. Though stunned, the men obeyed Yogaswami without question, dropping the huge mass of steaming rice onto the middle of the banana leaves. He told one man, “Bring the eggplant curry!” To another he said, “Go get the potato curry! We must make this a full and auspicious offering.”§

As all the curries were neatly placed around the rice, everyone was wondering, “Are we to all eat together out of the pit? Is this what the guru has in mind?” Then the kulambu sauce was poured over the middle of the rice. Five pounds of salt was added on the side. Sweet mango and ginger chutneys were placed in the proper way. One by one, each of the luscious preparations was placed in the pit, much to the dismay of those gathered.§

Giving Back to Mother Earth§

After all the food had been served, the satguru stood up and declared, “People, all of you, participate. Come forward.” They immediately thought, finishing his sentence in their minds, “to eat together this luscious meal you have been waiting for all day as a family of śishyas.” But he had something else in mind, and directed, “Pick up the eleven shovels, shovel some dirt over this delicious meal and then pass your shovel on to the next person. We have fed our Mother Earth, who has given so generously of her abundance all these many years to this large Śaivite community. Now we are sacrificing our prasāda as a precious, heartfelt gift. Mother Earth is hungry. She gets little back; we take all. Let this be a symbol to the world and to each of us that we must sacrifice what we want most.”§

In this way, our satguru, Śiva Yogaswami, began the first Earth worship ceremony in northern Sri Lanka. He taught a lesson of tapas and sacrifice, of fasting and giving, and giving and fasting. By now the hour was late, very late. After touching his feet and receiving the mark of Śiva from him in the form of vibhūti, holy ash, on their forehead, the devotees returned to their homes. It was too late to cook a hot meal, lest the neighbors smell the smoke and know that mischief was afoot. We are sure that a few, if not many, satisfied themselves with a few ripe bananas, while pondering the singular lesson the satguru had taught.§

Let’s worship the Earth. It is a being—intelligent and always giving. Our physical bodies are sustained by her abundance. When her abundance is withdrawn, our physical bodies are no more. The ecology of this planet is an intricate intelligence. Through sacrifice, which results in tapas and sādhana, we nurture Mother Earth’s goodwill, friendliness and sustenance. Instill in yourself appreciation, recognition. We should not take advantage of all of this generosity, as a predator does of those he preys upon.§

Yes, austerities are a vital part of all sects of Hinduism. They are a call of the soul to bring the outer person into the perfection that the soul is now, has always been and will always be. Austerities should be assigned by a guru, a swāmī or a qualified elder of the community. One should submit to wise guidance, because these sādhanas, penances, tapas and sacrifices lift our consciousness so that we can deal with, learn to live with, the perfection of the self-luminous, radiant, eternal being of the soul within. Austerity is the powerful bath of fire and bright rays of showering light that washes the soul clean of the dross of its many past lives, and of the current life, which have held it in the bondage of ignorance, misgiving, unforgivingness and the self-perpetuating ignorance of the truths of the Sanātana Dharma. “As the intense fire of the furnace refines gold to brilliance, so does the burning suffering of austerity purify the soul to resplendence” (Weaver’s Wisdom/Tirukural, 267).§