Tapas and Tapasya are equivalent terms in Sanskrit. Tapas is one of the Niyamas or the ethical codes of conduct. In Raja Yoga or typical Ashtanga Yoga terminology, the Niyamas are the prerequisites for the progress in yogic path.
The practice of Tapas is prevalent not only in Hinduism but also in other Indian religions like Buddhism and Jainism.
The English translation for Tapas is “austerity” or “will power”. But austerity and willpower are less sufficient words to indicate the correct meaning of the term. Moreover, the word penance indicates the nearest meaning. Hence, a correct understanding of its meaning is necessary.
Let us have a look at its meaning, its relevance in yoga philosophy, and its practice in various religions.
Tapa in Sanskrit means ‘to burn’ or ‘heat’. The literal meaning of Tapas or Tapasya is ‘anything that burns’ or ‘anything that produces heat’. Hence the indicated meaning in yoga and religion is a practice that burns the negative or unintended aspects.’
It is a course of practice undertaken for a specific period of time with a specific goal, say a mantra chanting for 48 days or deep meditation upon a specific deity until the deity manifests. Ancient sages and Rishies performed such vigorous deep uninterrupted Japas and meditations. The practices of this type are termed Tapas. It may be understood as the practice of asceticism or hermitism.
In such practices, the goal is always single and anything other than the goal is strictly rejected. Strict celibacy should be maintained.
The performance of penance is Tapas only. But tapas are not limited to penance alone.
We may define Tapas as “undergoing a strict religious practice with a specific goal, time duration and manner as resolved already.“
As we have already seen, Tapa, Tapas, and Tapasya are equivalent terms. Tapasvi is one who performs Tapas; whereas Tapasvini is a female performer. Tapojan is one who is tapas-born. Tapariddhi is the extraordinary power gained by Tapa. It also means the capability to observe stern practices of austerity. Tapamada is pride in one’s practice of Tapa.
The Sanskrit word Vrata denotes the same meaning. However, Vrata is used to mean less vigorous practices than Tapasya. For example, performing one day of fasting or observing one day of silence every week is a Vrata and cannot be called a Tapas, and performing a twelve-year course of deep meditation without interruption is Tapas. Hence, the specific resolve and commitment to the goal are the basic commonalities of Vrata and Tapasya.Prayashcitta is the rite performed for the atonement of sins committed.
Tapas In Yoga
Yoga Sutra of Patanjali
Patanjali used the term Tapa in two verses in Yoga Sutra.
tapa svadhyaya ishvarapranidhanani kriyayogah Tapa, study of scriptures, and surrendering the fruits of work to God are called Kriya Yoga.
Kriya Yoga is the workout for attaining Samadhi. After describing the nature and varieties of Samadhi, Patanjali begins to explain the means to attain them. Kriya Yoga is the way. What is Kriya Yoga?
According to Patanjali, Kriya Yoga is the combination of Tapa, the study of scriptures, and surrendering the fruits of work to God.
While commenting on this Sutra, Swami Vivekananda says
Those Samadhis with which we ended our last chapter are very difficult to attain. Hence, we must take them up slowly. The first step, the preliminary step, is called Kriya Yoga. Literally this means work, working towards Yoga.The organs are the horses, the mind is the reins, the intellect is the charioteer, the soul is the rider, and this body is the chariot. The master of the household, the King, the Self of man, is sitting in this chariot. If the horses are very strong, and do not obey the reins, if the charioteer, the intellect, does not know how to control the horses, then this chariot will come to grief. But if the organs, the horses, are well controlled, and if the reins, the mind, are well held in the hands of the charioteer, the intellect, the chariot, reaches the goal. What is meant, therefore, by Tapa (mortification)? Holding the reins firmly while guiding this body and mind: not letting the body do anything it likes, but keeping them both in proper control.Patanjali Yoga Sutras: Commentary by Swami Vivekananda
Now, we come to know, according to Patanjali Tapa is Kriya yoga and one of the ways to attain Samadhi.
kāyendriya–siddhir-aśuddhi-kṣayāt tapasaḥThe practice of Tapa destroys the impurities and thereby special powers of the body and senses accrue.
Performing penance, it annihilates the impurities like ego, lust, anger, greed, etc. The removal of impurities results in occult powers of the body like levitation, buoyancy, etc., and powers of the senses like clairvoyance, clairaudience, etc.
According to Patanjali, Tapas is a spiritual practice carried out to attain Samadhi and spiritual purification.
Tri Sikhi Brahmana Upanishad, Darshana Upanishad, Varaha Upanishad, and Shandilya Upanishad list Tapas as the first and foremost of ten-fold Niyama. By this, we come to know its importance. According to Shandilya Upanishad, one attains liberation by adherence to painful austerities known as Krichchra and Chandrayana rites as prescribed in the scriptures.
Darshana Upanishad defines Tapa as the spiritual practice carried out according to the phase of the moon and similar practices as prescribed by the scriptures. It is layman’s meaning; whereas for a learned one, Tapas is a series of inquiries like what is liberation, how one gets into the cycle of birth and death, and what are the means to attain liberation, etc.
Tapas In Hinduism
In Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas, Tapa finds an eminent place. One can find a rich source of references in them. Let us examine some of them to have a better understanding.
The seventeenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita describes the term Tapa in detail.
aśhāstra-vihitaṁ ghoraṁ tapyante ye tapo janāḥ dambhāhankāra-sanyuktāḥ kāma-rāga-balānvitāḥ karṣhayantaḥ śharīra-sthaṁ bhūta-grāmam achetasaḥ māṁ chaivāntaḥ śharīra-sthaṁ tān viddhy āsura-niśhchayānThose who undergo stern austerities and penances not prescribed in the scriptures perform them out of pride and egotism. They not only harm the limbs of their body but also me, the super-soul who reside in them. Know this for sure, they are of demonic nature. Bhagavad Gita 17.5 and 17.6.
Hence performing a Tapa not recommended by scriptures stalls the spiritual progress, though it is done with complete faith and great intensity.
Kinds of Tapas
According to Bhagavad Gita, Tapa is of three kinds: Sharira Tapa, Vanmaya Tapa, and Manasa Tapa. Sharira Tapa is the austerity of the body and Vanmaya Tapa is the austerity of the speech; whereas Manasa Tapa is the austerity of the mind.
deva-dwija-guru-prājña- pūjanaṁ śhaucham ārjavam brahmacharyam ahinsā cha śhārīraṁ tapa uchyateObservance of Shaucha (cleanliness), Arjava (simplicity), Brahmacharya (celibacy), and Ahimsa (non-violence) along with worshipping God, Brahmins, Guru, and elders is known as austerity of the body.Bhagavad Gita 17.14
anudvega-karaṁ vākyaṁ satyaṁ priya-hitaṁ cha yat svādhyāyābhyasanaṁ chaiva vāṅ-mayaṁ tapa uchyateRecitation of scriptures (vedic mantras) combined with the words that do not cause distress to others, that are truthful (Satyam), that express kindness is known as austerity of the speech.Bhagavad Gita 17.15
manaḥ-prasādaḥ saumyatvaṁ maunam ātma-vinigrahaḥ bhāva-sanśhuddhir ity etat tapo mānasam uchyateAusterity of the mind constitutes the purity of thought, kindness, observance of silence, self-control, and purity of purpose.Bhagavad Gita 17.16
śhraddhayā parayā taptaṁ tapas tat tri-vidhaṁ naraiḥ aphalākāṅkṣhibhir yuktaiḥ sāttvikaṁ parichakṣhateWhen people perform these three kinds of austerities with dedication and without yearning for any material gain, they become Satvika (filled with goodness, peace, kindness, love, etc.) austerities.Bhagavad Gita 17.17
satkāra-māna-pūjārthaṁ tapo dambhena chaiva yat kriyate tad iha proktaṁ rājasaṁ chalam adhruvamWhen people perform austerities with the expectation of gaining honour, respect, and adoration, they become Rajas (filled with passion, power, control, etc.) austerities. The benefits are temporary and unsteady.Bhagavad Gita 17.18
mūḍha-grāheṇātmano yat pīḍayā kriyate tapaḥ parasyotsādanārthaṁ vā tat tāmasam udāhṛitamPerformance of austerities with confused notions which harm the Self and others are of the kind Tamas (filled with ignorance, dullness, etc.)Bhagavad Gita 17.19
Tapas and Om-Tat-Sat
tasmād oṁ ity udāhṛitya yajña-dāna-tapaḥ-kriyāḥ pravartante vidhānoktāḥ satataṁ brahma-vādināmThose who believe in the supremacy of scriptures always begin the acts of sacrificial rites, charity and austerity by uttering the word “Om” as prescribed by the scriptures.Bhagavad Gita 17.24
tad ity anabhisandhāya phalaṁ yajña-tapaḥ-kriyāḥ dāna-kriyāśh cha vividhāḥ kriyante mokṣha-kāṅkṣhibhiḥThose who do not desire rewards in return and desire to be bereft of material entanglement utter the word “Tat” along with the acts of sacrificial rites, charity and austerity.Bhagavad Gita 17.25
sad-bhāve sādhu-bhāve cha sad ity etat prayujyate praśhaste karmaṇi tathā sach-chhabdaḥ pārtha yujyate yajñe tapasi dāne cha sthitiḥ sad iti chochyate karma chaiva tad-arthīyaṁ sad ity evābhidhīyateThe reality of existence is the reality of auspiciousness and related activities. The word “Sat” describes the establishment in performance of sacrificial rites, charity and austerity and any act for such purposes.Bhagavad Gita 17.26 and 17.27
aśhraddhayā hutaṁ dattaṁ tapas taptaṁ kṛitaṁ cha yat asad ity uchyate pārtha na cha tat pretya no ihaThe activities of sacrifice and austerity without faith are known as “Asat.” These are useless both in this world and other worlds.Bhagavad Gita 17.28
Tapas in Jainism
According to Uttradhyayana, one of the earliest texts of Jainism, the path of liberation consists of four elements, viz. right knowledge, right faith, right conduct, and austerity. Some texts include Tapas in right conduct and come up with three principles as Ratnatrya. However, it is a means to attain liberation in Jainism.
The ninth chapter of the Tattvartha Sutra deals with annihilating the influence of Karma and inhibiting the accumulated Karma. According to this text, meditation is a type of austerity and meditation is one of the means of attaining liberation.
Samanthabhadra of the Digambara sect talks about destroying the past karma and attaining the path of liberation by practicing Tapas or Dhyana.
Tapas in Buddhism
Earlier Buddhism did not consider Tapas as the means of attaining liberation. Before enlightenment, Buddha tried ascetic practices of Sramana (Jainism) Religions. But post-enlightenment, Earlier Buddhist doctrines like Middle Way and Noble Eightfold Path did not talk about the practices of Tapas as the Moksha Marga (path of liberation).
The Buddhist Scholar Dharamakirti strongly criticized the ascetic practices of Jainism. Buddha once said, “The Niganthas (Jains) proclaim that good and bad experiences are caused by our past karma, so by destroying the old karma by means of Tapas and not making new karma we can attain liberation.”
In Hinduism, Tapas may be a practice observed for any specific goals. Whereas in Jainism, it is a practice to destroy the accumulated karma and means to attain liberation. Similarly, in Buddhism, it is mild a practice and has not much importance. In yoga, it is one of the prescribed activities for self-discipline to be observed for the attainment of Samadhi.