Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part LIX

Tapas – The Penance

Continued from Part LVIII

Tapas is a spiritual practice in the Indian religions, particularly in Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) - the mother of all religions originated in the ancient Bharatvarsha (India). There is no exact corresponding term in Western languages though it is loosely translated and defined as penance or austerity in English. According in dictionary definition, the primary meaning of the penance is deeds done out of penitence i.e., punishment inflicted on oneself as an outward expression of repentance for some wrongdoing. Accordingly, in Christianity, the penance is used for the repentance of sins as also an alternative term in various sacraments of reconciliation or confession. Such practices vary even in the Indian religions. For instance, in Buddhism Tapas largely refers to spiritual practices including meditation and self-discipline and in Jainism it denotes ascetism that basically involves body mortification. Yet another Indian religion, the Sikhism was evolved as sect from among the Hindus and recognized as religion in due course, which does not accord much relevance to relating to Tapas practices, but Sikhs do believe in atonement for the sacrilegious acts.

In different sects and denominations of Hinduism, Tapas relates to a spectrum of practices ranging from the asceticism, and austere measures for inner cleansing to self-discipline. One would get routine instances in all ages and even legendary tales in the ancient texts of sages, kings and common man resorting to Tapas for self-realization, seek blessings of gods to fulfil a wish(es), community welfare, or even as a measure of atonement. Such Tapas practices are often resorted to in solitude involving several monastic practices, considered to be also necessary for Moksha (liberation). In the Vedic texts, many fusion words based on Tapas have been widely used to propound many spiritual concepts of austerities that necessitate and make use of the heat or inner energy, such as meditation. The term Tapsya has been abundantly used in historical texts like Puranas and Epics to describe austerities associated with the spiritual and yogic practices of many sages and kings in the ancient age. Also, in some contexts, the term Tapas is extended to penance, pious activity, and severe austerities like fasting.

Concept and Origin

Tapas is a Sanskrit word derived from the root “Tap” meaning "to heat, to burn, or to give out warmth” although in practice it is used for a range of spiritual practices engaging the body and mind, including penance in Hinduism. The early references of Tapas and its fusion words derived from the root Tap is found in the oldest scripture Rigveda as also other ancient Hindu scriptures. The most common practice as observed from many ancient Hindu texts has remained to mortify body through austere measures to burn away past karma in an endeavour to liberate Self from the karmic cycle. The Vedic scholars often used natural phenomenon of the heat required for the biological birth among the birds such as a hen sitting on eggs with motherly warmth, to describe the concept of Tapas in the context of the hatching of knowledge and spiritual rebirth.

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word Tapasya is "produced by heat", which relates to a personal endeavor of austerity set to accomplish certain objective or goal, including material and/or spiritual. While working on “Tapas in Rigveda”, an American research student Anthony Muruock in his thesis submitted to McMaster University in 1983 identified many hymns of Rigveda with the term Tapas and its fusion words with implied literal meaning of heat. But here again like many other Western scholars and Indologists, he had only succeeded in grasping the literal meaning of the term and not the essence that the Vedic hymns and later Upanishadic knowledge and wisdom actually conveying the deep insight of the Indian philosophy and spirituality.

In Hinduism, one who resorts to Tapas practices is called Tapasvin; the male ascetic is recognized as Tapasvi while the female one as Tapaswini. The sacred Agni (fire) plays an important role in Tapasya and rituals like yajna and homa associated with it. Agni is an important deity of Hindus since Vedic age that serves as the medium of all sacrificial rituals. In a nutshell, Tapas is a sincere and dedicated spiritual practice that is carried out by devout Hindus for the self-transformation and cleansing at physical, mental and emotional levels in their spiritual pursuits.

The usual large consensus among scholars is that the Tapas is a sincere and committed spiritual practice carried out in a sustained manner for a long period with focus on self-transformation. The austerity associated with Tapas helps in is cleansing the toxins and disorders at the physical, mental and spiritual levels. The traditional belief in Hinduism as evolved with time also suggests that the negative karmas incurred and carried over by the soul are thus get burnt out in the process to render it eligible for the divine grace and wisdom opening the vista for liberation. In other words, the Tapas paves the way for clarity of wisdom, thought and vision not only to identify but also to fulfil human life goals. It raises the consciousness of the person to a level at which he can easily perceive and pursue the real destination and divine.

Hindu Scriptures on Tapas

The earliest reference of Tapas and associated fusion words is found in the Rigveda in several hymns (6.5.446, 7.1.517, 7.82.598, 10.154.5). German Indologist Hermann Grassmann had compiled a dictionary specifically for Rigveda usage “Worterbuch zum Rigveda” wherein he had defined Tapas as heat, glow, warmth, flame torment (self-affliction) with the mortification of sensuality and disappearing in the transcendental. The Atharvaveda (4.34.1, 6.61.1, 11.1.26) and Satapatha Brahmana (5.3 - 5.17) suggest that the Vedic gods were Tapas-born (Tapojas) and the early life was created on earth from the Sun’s Tapas. The latter scriptural text is actually a commentary on the Sukla Yajurveda and is considered as one of the most complete, systematic, and important eulogy among the Brahmanas containing details of the Vedic sacrificial rituals, symbolism, and mythology.

As already explained in one of the previous parts, the Vedas are the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature as also the oldest scriptures of Hinduism and each Veda is comprised of four parts viz. the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices) and the Upanishads (texts explaining philosophy and spiritual knowledge in Samhitas). Atharva Veda verse 11.5.3, Tapas has been used in a symbolic way as spiritual rebirth of a student (Brahmachari) when he is accepted by Guru or teacher for imparting knowledge. The student becomes his embryo akin to one in the mother’s womb when the teacher prepares him to be worthy and eligible to enter world as Grihastha with requisite knowledge and skills.

The philosophy and spiritual significance of Tapas has been explained in many Upanishads and a few illustrations are references are given here. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad states that the realization of Self needs truth and Tapas, and here the latter term is used in the context of the meditation and other austere measures.

Tilesu talam dadhiniv sarpirapah srotahswarrhisu chagnih
Evamatmahtmani grihyatesau satyenanam tapsa yonupashyati.

{Like oil in sesame seeds, butter in milk, water in Srota, or fire in fuel-sticks, he finds in him own self i.e., Atman, who sees it through Satya (truthfulness) and Tapas (austerity).} (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.15)

In the following verse of the Chandogya Upanishad, the essence of Tapas is captured with the same wisdom and vision but different overtone symbolically, by suggesting that people engaging merely in ritualistic practices with priests and gods and priests may not succeed in their spiritual pursuits while those who absorb in Tapas and self-mortification will for sure succeed.

Tadya ittham viduh,
Ye ceme'ranye sraddha tapa ityupasate te'rcisamabhisambhavantyarciso'harahna,
Apuryamanapaksamapuryamanapaksadyansadfudanneti masamstan.

{Those who know this (about five fires) and live in the forest observing Tapas (austerities) with faith, they proceed to the world of light after death; from the world of light to the world of day, from the day to the world of the bright fortnight, from the fortnight to the bright six months as the sun moves northward.} (Chandogya Upanishad: 5.10.1)

The Mundaka Upanishad underlines the significance of Tapas and Satya (truth) in the following verse suggesting that the soul can be realized in its purest form by practicing these attributes.

Satyena labhyastapasa hyesa atma samyagjnanena brahmacaryena nityam,
Antahsarire jyotirmayo hi subhro yam pasyanti yatayah ksinadodsah.

(This Atman residing the body, splendid and pure, can be reached by truth and Tapas through acquiring knowledge and sexual abstinence; Sanyasins can see it in resplendent and pure form assiduously rectify its defects.) (Mundaka Upanishad Verse 3.1.5)

Adi Shankara in his commentary on Tapas has held it the highest form of concentration of the senses and mind. As with this and resorting to truthfulness, the spiritual energy of the man is turned towards beholding the Atman (soul), which is not possible through other mundane means such as the mere performance of Chandrayana (a form of penance). The two together also help in inculcating the virtues of true wisdom, knowledge and abstinence from sexual mores. The Tapas and truth illuminate the Atman in the same manner as a lamp within the building illuminates every nook and cranny of it. In essence, the Tapas is an element of the spiritual path that is extensively used and explained in the Vedas and Upanishads.

In Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, Tapas is described as one of the five Niyama practices as part of the eight-limbed yoga. Niyama are the second limb of yoga philosophy that essentially relates to the mandatory observance of inner virtues that offer a positive impact on the body, mind and soul of the practitioner. The other Niyama practices are Saucha, Samtosha, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana already dealt with in Part VII of this series, the regular and sustained observance of these Niyamas along with Tapas inculcate requisite inner strength and discipline in his pursuit and progression of the spiritual journey with a healthy living, enlightenment and liberated state of existence.


According to the Yoga Sutra, the Tapas is a yogic virtue of intense self-discipline and attainment of will power through a long and sustained practice. Tapas purifies and transforms the practitioner into a strong-willed person with the conscious awareness, suppressing the unconscious impulses and poor behaviour. It also enhances the spiritual energy manyfold and, in genuine cases, even lead to the release of Kundalini and attainment of enlightenment. Tapas is both physical and mental, the latter being more important and powerful in spiritual pursuits. A practitioner indulging in physical Tapas may be able to endure extremes of the vagaries of weather while the mental Tapas prepares him to remain serene and contented in all situations including adversity, disappointment and danger. Among the Niyamas, the practice of Tapas is considered the harshest and linked with the austerity and penance too. With the ojas (energy, glow) of Tapas, some practicing yogis are known to be shining like a ‘blazing fire’ in legendary tales.

Srimad Bhagavad Gita on Tapas

Shree Krishna’s teaching to Prince Arjuna is considered as the divine words emanating right from the lips of the Supreme Being Himself conveying the supreme spiritual mystery and essence of all the four Vedas. It is often called the epitome of all scriptures with translation in a number of Indian and foreign languages, and commentaries from numerous sages, scholars and Indologists. In this section, the nature and various types of Tapas is described with illustrations from the legendary stories of Hindu Puranas and Epics. The Tapas is described as under in the following verse.

Deva-dwija-guru-prajna- pujanam shaucham arjavam,
Brahmacharyam ahinsa cha shariram tapa uchyate.

(Devotion of the Supreme Being, Brahmins, spiritual master, wise, and the elders - when done with the observance of cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy, and non-violence - is declared as the austerity of the body.) (BG: Chapter 17, Verse 14)

As one meaning of the Tapas is “to heat up”, the essence of the aforesaid verse could be understood with the example of the raw gold ores being heated and melted up at high temperature on the fire. Consequently, the impurities are removed and gold in its purest form is obtained. The same way the austere practices help in removing the defects and impurities of the body and mind of the people. In this context, a quote from Rigveda (9.83.1) “atapta tanurnatada moshnute“, (Without purifying the body through austerity, one cannot achieve final state of yoga) is also relevant.

Shree Krishna has classified the Tapas into three categories of the body, speech, and mind, and in the aforesaid verse, he has explained the austerity of the body. The categories of entities mentioned in the verse are considered to be pure and saintly, hence sincerely indulging in their service eschewing own worldly cravings is acclaimed as austerity of the body. Here the very mention of Brahmin does not relate to the people declared “Brahmin” by birth but the ones who are bestowed with sattvic qualities. The qualities of a Brahmin are described in yet another verse in the following chapter.

Shamo damas tapah shaucham kshantir arjavam eva cha,
Jnanam vijnanam astikyam brahma-karma svabhava-jam.

(Tranquility, restraint, austerity, purity, patience, integrity, knowledge, wisdom, and belief in divine are the intrinsic qualities of Brahmins.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 42)

In the following two verses, Shree Krishna describes the austerities of the speech and mind as under:

Anudvega-karam vakyam satyam priya-hitam cha yat,
Svadhyayabhyasanam chaiva van-mayam tapa uchyate.

Manah-prasadah saumyatvam maunam atma-vinigrahah,
Bhava-sanshuddhir ity etat tapo manasam uchyate.

(Words that do not cause distress, are truthful, inoffensive and beneficial, along with the regular recitation of the Vedic scriptures, are declared as the austerity of speech. Serenity of thought, gentleness, silence, self-control and purity of purpose - all these are declared as the austerity of the mind.) (BG: Chapter 17, Verses 15, 16)

From the aforesaid verses, it would appear that the austerity of speech are the spoken words that are truthful, unoffending, pleasing and useful for the listener. The practice of the Swadhyaya i.e., reading and recitation of the Vedic hymns is also part of the austerities of speech. In this context, the austerity of mind is most important and is at even higher pedestal than the body and speech. It’s so because once a person is able to tame and control mind, the body and speech would be suo moto mastered. Thus, it is the state of mind that ultimately matters and establishes the state of the person’s consciousness as has been truly determined by Shree Krishna Himself in an earlier verse 6.5 that says, “Elevate yourself through the power of your mind, and not degrade it, for the mind could be the friend as also the enemy of the self.”

The mind could also be compared with the state of a garden maintained by the gardener. The garden could be maintained intelligently through regular attention and care or it may be ruined through negligence. Every gardener cultivates his land to grow flowers, fruits, and/or vegetables; while doing so, he takes care that weeds and wild grass does not grow with them. Same way, when the mind is groomed with positive and noble thoughts, the person turns into a noble and accomplished soul. On the other hand, if negative and unkind thoughts are allowed, the person turns into a vicious, resentful and hateful being.

After delineating various kinds of Tapas, Shree Krishna also explains how the three gunas affect the state of the mind of people and how they conduct under the influence of gunas in the same sequence. For instance, when the austerity (Tapas) is performed in the sattvic mode, it is done in a selfless manner without attachment to the reward(s). According to Shree Krishna, any austerity done with the selfish motive of seeking material benefits loses its virtue. The person’s faith in sattvic mode shall remain steadfast both in success and failures.

Shraddhaya paraya taptam tapas tat tri-vidham naraih,
Aphalakankshibhir yuktaih sattvikam parichakshate.

(When devout persons with ardent faith practice three-fold penance without expecting material rewards, they are designated as austerities in the goodness mode.) (BG: Chapter 17, Verse 17)

Having delineated the austerities of the body, speech, and mind, Shree Krishna now mentions their characteristics when they are performed in the mode of goodness. He says that an austerity loses its sanctity when material benefits are sought from its performance. It must be performed in a selfless manner, without attachment to rewards. Also, our faith in the value of the austerity should remain steadfast in both success and failure, and its practice should not be suspended because of laziness or inconvenience.

Tapas in sattvic or goodness mode could be illustrated with the legendary tale of the King Bhagiratha of Sagara clan in the Ikshvaku dynasty, who is accredited to bring the River Ganges to plains connecting it to the ocean. The River Ganges is often personified as goddess Ganga who descended from heaven to earth through Bhagiratha efforts. The story goes that learning about the tragic end of his forefathers at the hands of Sage Kapila and means of their salvation from own guru, he went to deep Himalayas practicing great penance/austerities to please goddess Ganga. Finally, she was pleased to liberate his forefathers from the curse of Kapila and told him to seek blessings of the god Shiva to sustain her torrential force and volume on earth. King Bhagiratha did severe penance again and with the help of god Shiva, he was able to bring goddess Ganga as river filling the sea drunk by legendary sage Jahnu. There was no selfish angle of Bhagiratha in this great act of Tapasa as whatever he did was for the salvation of his forefathers and welfare of the mankind. This story is narrated in the Vana Parva of the great Epic Mahabharata and in some Puranas.

Satkara-mana-pujartham tapo dambhena chaiva yat,
Kriyate tad iha proktam rajasam chalam adhruvam.

(Austerity that is performed with ostentation for the sake of gaining honour, respect and adoration is in the mode of passion. Its benefits are unstable and transitory.) (BG: Chapter 17, Verse 18)

The essence of Shree Krishna’s teachings in the aforesaid verse is that Tapas should not be carried over merely for own physical wellbeing and worldly pleasure; the austerities carried out for these purposes are under the influence of Rajas guna. This aspect of Tapas is illustrated through another legendary tale of Sage Chyavana in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata. According to the narrative, Chyavana was so engrossed in Tapas on a lake side that the termites had built up their mound on his entire body with only eyes left free. King Sharyati and his daughter Sukanya were on a pleasure trip to the place and the latter poked his bright eyes with a pointed object out of sheer curiosity. Thus violated, the sage became furious obstructing the calls of nature of the king’s entire army and was pleased only after the king agreed to give her daughter to the sage for marriage.

The later story goes that one-day Ashvins duo, physicians of Devas, came to the Sage’s hermitage and were attracted towards the bathing Sukanya. They offered her to leave the old and ugly sage to accept one of them as her divine husband and, in the bargain, to restore sage’s youth. As a faithful wife, Sukanya rejected their offer but later at the behest of the sage agreed to the proposal. Consequently, all three entered the lake and when they came out, all of them had same physique, features and attributes with youthful looks but Sukanya was able to recognise the real Chyavana to stay with him. This episode and subsequent developments of Chyavana favouring Ashvins in a devas’ assembly angered Indra, the king of devas, and in the ensuing conflict the sage used his extraordinary powers gained through his austerities against Indra to defeat and made him to accept own terms for a truce. Thus, while Tapas is a powerful virtue to gain spiritually but the sage used it for gaining physical power, respect from devas, king and other worldly gains.

Tapas carried out in tamasic (ignorance) mode has its own defects and devastating implications as can be seen from the following verse and the associated legendary tale.

Mudha-grahenatmano yat pidaya kriyate tapah,
Parasyotsadanartham va tat tamasam udahritam.

(Austerity that is performed by men with confused notions, and which involves torturing the self or harming others, is described to be in the mode of ignorance.) (BG: Chapter 17, Verse 19)

In Hindu mythology, Bhasmasura is depicted as a big and powerful asur entity, who was a devout follower of the god Shiva. He carried out a great Tapasya to please Shiva with the hope of seeking a boon from him. With the pleased deity, he sought supernatural powers that anyone whose head is touched by him shall burn to reduce to ashes immediately. Now he wanted to experiment his newly acquired charisma on Shiva himself. Shiva knew that he cannot take back this boon now, so he ran to god Vishnu to act as saviour. Vishnu assumed the form of an extremely beautiful maiden to allure the asura. Blinded by her beauty, Bhasmasura proposed Mohini to marry him but she put a condition that she would marry him only if the asura could match her dancing steps. Thus, disguised Vishnu staged a pose placing hand on top of the head; Bhasmasura tried to imitate Mohini and thus was tricked to place own hand on his head. Consequently, the asura immediately burnt to ashes relieving Shiva from the possible nemesis.

The Indian Puranas and Epics are historical texts of facts along with elements of symbolism and fiction purportedly built therein. Arguably, different tribes categorized as deva, asura, naga, yaksha, gandharva, kinner, etc., based on their origin, genealogy, socio-cultural behaviour and so on inhabited various parts in ancient India. Asuras were generally known for their negative attributes with violent and ignorant ways although some asuras like Kings Bali and Prahlad are also recorded in Puranas and Epics with sattvic gunas. The illustration of Bhasmasura suggests how some people misuse austere practices to heedlessly torture self physically and spiritually as also cause harm to others with their ignorant ways. Thus, austerities carried out in tamasic mode neither help the person nor the society in any way.


Tapas is penance inclusive, but decisively much more than mere penance as traditionally interpreted in Western literature, the essence of which the majority of Western scholars and Indologists are unable to capture. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be that Tapas is seeded in the Vedas, a grown tree in the Upanishads, flourished and prospered with branches and leaves in Puranas and Epics, but its flowers and fruits best described in the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The nature, applications and effects of Tapas as explained in the latter scriptural text are more down to earth, clear and comprehensive. The analogy of the Tapas effect on human beings as presented with the illustration of the incubation of eggs by the hen is probably the best way to depict it.

To be continued...


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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