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Tapasya and the Three Gunas

Part 80 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Tapasya is practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline. Literally it means the generation of heat or energy, referring to spiritual practice and its effect, especially the roasting of karmic seeds, the burning up of karma. It also refers to the heat necessary for the hatching of an egg. Without tapasya there is no significant spiritual progress. So Krishna tells us of three levels of tapasya as well as its characterization according to the dominant guna of the persons engaging in tapasya.

Tapasya of the body

Reverence for the gods, the twice-born [dwijas], teachers and the wise; purity, straightforwardness, brahmacharya and non-injury: these are called tapasya of the bodyy (17:14).

Reverence (pujanam) is internal, so why does it come first in the list of physical tapasya? Because Krishna is not thinking of mere philosophizing or abstraction–empty words. He is thinking of action, of kriya, which creates positive karma in the form of purification and enlightenment. Puja is the word usually translated worship, and some translators use it rather than reverence. Worship in Krishna’s view is not mere verbal praise or glorification, but a living out of the interior attitude of reverence. As Jesus once asked: “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46) So to reverence a spiritual authority is not to flatter, grovel, and promote them or shower them with money and gifts. Rather, it is faithfully and seriously applying their teachings. Krishna speaks of four kinds who deserve our reverence: gods, twice-born, teachers, and wise men.

Devas are gods–not the Supreme God, but highly evolved beings who can affect our life. We might think of them as angels or saints, bodiless beings that interact with humans and help them in many ways. All viable religions have some form of devas.

The dwijas are the “twice-born.” Often this term applies to those who have undergone the upanayanam ritual and received the sacred thread (yajnopavita) and instruction in the Gayatri mantra, but here a wider sense is meant. The twice-born are those who have awakened inwardly, whose consciousness has been quickened and is continuing to expand. Such persons may not be perfectly enlightened, but if they are ahead of us in evolution they deserve our respect and can benefit us by their experience.

Teachers have even more experience and are qualified to give spiritual instruction and guide their students in their spiritual practice and development. These are valuable, indeed.

But most valuable are the sages (prajna), those that are fully awakened, totally conscious, knowing themselves and the Absolute. To be with them is to be with God and to receive the bounty of God. To find such a rare being is the highest good fortune if his company is cultivated and his teaching scrupulously followed.

Now here is an interesting question: Since the list ascends in spiritual excellence, why were devas/gods at the bottom of the list? Because there is no substitute for contact with living, breathing human beings that are examples of the ideals we should pursue. More importantly, it is easy to fantasize and believe we are in contact with high spiritual beings when it is all a projection of our minds. Even worse, we can be duped by the entities known as tramp souls or astral trash that are always ready to show up and claim to be everyone from our grandfather, to Abraham Lincoln, to Krishna, Buddha, or Jesus. It is important to have as teacher an honest human being that will be truthful to us regarding whether or not we are practicing correctly and progressing as a consequence. The ego may not like it, but the spirit will be liberated. That is why Vyasa, the greatest sage of India, sent his son Sukadeva to King Janaka of Mithila for spiritual instruction, rather than teaching him himself. This was necessary so the father and son egos could not intrude themselves and prevent absolute honesty from prevailing.

Krishna has presented us with four disciplines that are necessary for physical tapasya: purity (shaucha), rectitude (arjavam), celibacy (brahmacharya), and non-violence (ahimsa). Here is how A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines them:

Arjavam: Straightforwardness; honesty; rectitude (from the verb root rinj: “to make straight.”

Ahimsa: Non-injury in thought, word, and deed; non-violence; non-killing; harmlessness.

Shaucha: Purity; cleanliness.

Brahmacharya: Continence; self-restraint on all levels; discipline.

We must realize that Krishna is presenting us with a total package. To lack a single one of the elements listed in this verse is to lack in physical tapasya.

Tapasya of speech

Speech which causes no distress or vexation, truthful, pleasant, beneficial, instruction in the knowledge of the Self: these are called tapasya of speech (17:15).

Anudvegakaram vakyam, has three meanings: 1) speech that does not cause distress; 2) speech that does not overawe; 3) speech that does not cause apprehension. And it means all three.

First, it is speech that does not cause the hearer to feel anxious or coerced, to feel that he must do what he is told or dire things will result. Such speech makes him feel that doom is hanging over him, and that the speaker–or his ideas–alone can avert disaster. Such speech disturbs the hearer’s peace of mind, making him feel pressured.

Second, it is speech that does not make the hearer feel minimized, disempowered, and insignificant. It does not make him feel that the biggers and betters know what is right, not him, and that if he does not do what they say is right then he is bad, even evil. He does not dare to contradict or deny what they say. Often, he does not even question or rebel against such bullying, but bows his head and complies and conforms.

Third, it is speech that does not cause fear. Sadly, fear and greed are the prime motivators of most human beings. So fear is used on all sides by those that intend to make profit from the duped person, whether it be advertising, medicine, politics, ecology, health, religion or social pressures. The many-headed monster of fear has been shaping humanity from its beginning.

Of course, this all overlaps. The three aspects cross-pollinate one another. As I have mentioned, in the final analysis negative speech is a form of coercion, of bullying. And it comes into every aspect of our life, though it is popular and safe to attribute it to religion exclusively.

Satyam is speech that is absolutely true, both from a factual standpoint and from the reality of things. Satyam leads to ultimate truth when practiced uncompromisingly. Satyam reveals the truth of things, and never implies anything false or veiled. Satyam is plain and straightforward.

Priya is speech that is agreeable and pleasant, even kindly and endearing.

Hitam is that which is beneficial and wholesome. So it is informative and improves the status of its hearers–if they listen. It is not trivial chitchat and small talk. It makes the hearer better for the hearing.

Swadhyayabhyasanam is the practice of study of oneself (self-analysis). This is not imposed on the aspirant, it is a voluntary thing altogether. It must be altogether self-motivated, coming from no other source than an awakening consciousness

All of this is tapasya of speech–speech that includes the exercise of thought and intelligence.

Tapasya of mind

Tranquility of mind, kindliness, silence, self-control and purity of the mental state: these are called tapasya of the mind (17:16).

Sri Ramakrishna often said: “the mind is everything,” so this is of extreme importance.

Manaprasada means a mind that is peaceful, clear, calm, and of a positive disposition towards others.

Saumyatwam, means gentleness, benevolence, and mildness.

Maunam is silence in the sense of stillness, or absence of mental chatter. In such positive silence intuition manifests and dominates, imparting a knowing that is beyond mere talk.

Atmavinigraha, is self-restraint, self-control. It is not mere discipline, but real mastery of the mind–and therefore of the entire being.

Bhavasamshuddi is purity of the state of being, including the entire state of mind and heart.

What Krishna describes is a state, a condition, of the mind, not a veneer of speech and action that may mask just the opposite of what he describes. As my beloved friend, Swami Sivananda, put on the wall of the satsang hall as a motto and had printed on pencils he gave out: BE good; DO good. First we must be what we aspire to; then we can act truthfully and positively. In the West we continually get cause and effect reversed, thinking that if we act and speak in a certain way it will make us what we appear to be. That is terribly wrong. We must get to the root of things, to the consciousness of which the mind is an instrument. We must practice tapasya of mind.

Sattwic tapasya

This threefold tapasya practiced with the highest faith by those without desire for fruits and steadfast, is considered to be sattwic (17:17).

There are some key words we should look at in this verse to appreciate its profound meaning.

Shraddhaya paraya, highest faith, means mumukshutwa: intense desire or yearning for liberation (moksha). This is the sole basis for sattwic tapasya, the primary trait of a sattwic spiritual aspirant.

Although tapasya accomplishes many things in the life and mind of a tapaswin (one who engages in tapasya), not the least of them is intense purification and opening of higher faculties of awareness. All those aspects of sattwic tapasya are but the means to the single end: liberation of the spirit. Thus it is called aphalakankshibhir–without desire for personal gain (fruit) in the egoic sense, though of course moksha is the supreme attainment (paramartha).

Such an aspirant is then described as yuktaih–always “in yoga,” through the continual fixing of the mind upon the Highest.

Such are the sattwic, and such is sattwic tapasya.

Rajasic tapasya

Tapasya which is practiced with hypocrisy to gain acceptance, honor and reverence, is declared to be rajasic, unstable, and transitory (17:18).

Three words are used in the first line:

Satkara, which means honor, reverence, favor, or hospitality. Literally, it means “good-doing,” so it implies that the rajasic tapaswin wants to be thought well of in general, which of course will result in the four meanings just listed. Mana, which means honor and respect. Puja, which usually is translated as “worship,” but can also mean reverence akin to worship. In India they basically go together. Guru puja is quite common, and almost as common is the claim of disciples that their guru is really an avatar, a divine incarnation. This is carried to absurd lengths all the time. Contrary to Buddha’s assertions, many contemporary Indian teachers are fingers pointing to themselves–not to the goal of nirvana.

Dambhena means fraudulent and hypocritical. Such people supposedly engage in extreme ascetic actions and continually have the most exalted experiences. But when you look closer it is all puff and patter. They do nothing but sit around being adored and toadying to the rich and the influential, occasionally emitting a string of platitudes whose banality is astonishing–but not as amazing as the mindless plaudits of their admirers.

Swami Sri Yukteswar, the guru of Paramhansa Yogananda, continually cautioned people to never believe the claims made about yogis, especially the claims made by their disciples. Rather, he counseled them to carefully examine matters for themselves. As a young man he heard of a yogi who always slept in a state of levitation. So he hid under the yogi’s bed and waited. Nothing but snores. So he crawled from under the bed and said in a loud voice: “I don’t see any levitation–only sleep!” The yogi woke up, and to cover himself shouted: “I wondered why I did not levitate tonight as usual. You were spying on me!” The young Priya Nath merely laughed and went his way, not impressed by the declaration.

Pious hypocrisy is common coin of the crowd-pleaser. It is a favorite ploy in India to claim that you spent decades doing intense tapasya in the Himalayas. I personally know one Big Baba of Bengal who claims he spent over twenty years in the Himalayas, when investigation easily shows that he was a building contractor in Calcutta all the time! Swami Sivananda humorously wrote some instruction for these people. First, he said, rent a little house (kutir) in Rishikesh or Hardwar for six months. Arrange to have your food brought to you, and never be seen by anybody. Sit around inside and do what you like, including a lot of sleep. During that time write two or three “trash leaflets” (his expression) and a couple of bad devotional songs (bhajans). Then at the end of the six months go down to the plains and put it out that you have been living in silence (mauna) for many years way up in the Himalayas, even beyond Uttar Kashi. Arrange for yourself a few meetings where you will talk aimlessly, sing your bad songs, and give out your worthless leaflets. In no time at all you will be a sought-after guru, and maybe even an avatar.

This is no idle allegation. Once in Rishikesh I was stopped and grilled by a fairly well-educated “sadhu” who begged me to tell him how to get to America and make a splash. On another occasion in holy Naimisharanya a monk told me that if I would spend a few hours with him each day for a week, “I will show you how to get the people of America in the palm of your hand.” And he even held up the palm of his hand as he said it. That is how these people think. Rajasic is too nice a word for it.

Krishna winds up the subject by saying that rajasic tapasya, besides its obvious flaws, is worthless because it is chalam–unsteady and wavering–and adhruvam–impermanent, infirm, and unfixed. This is because rajas by its nature is restless and changing. A rajasic person does not hold single-mindedly to anything for long. Therefore any tapasya will be impermanent, especially because it is not oriented toward the unchanging and ever-existent Absolute, but rather toward the ever-changing and unsteady ego-dream.

Tamasic tapasya

Tapasya which is practiced with deluded notions of the Self, and self-torture, or for the purpose of harming another, is declared to be tamasic (17:19).

There is a lot to look at here, and all unpleasant. But the result will be positive.

Mudhagrahenatmano means with deluded or confused understanding or concept of the Atman, the Self. This is a crucial point. For if there is no right understanding of the nature of our Self, we will do a great deal of foolish and pointless things. This is true of religion in general. In Sanatana Dharma alone is there a clear understanding of the Atman-Self. And if you do not even know who or what you are, how can you even live life in a sensible manner? Most people do not. What kind of religion can we have if we have no clue as to what we really are? Any discipline will be as mistaken as our ideas about ourself. This is why most religion is destructive, as are the disciplines–or lack thereof.

When people mistake their physical and psychic makeup for their Self, they cannot help but misunderstand what is really needed for spiritual life, and will waste their time to no purpose, ultimately harming themselves. Such persons will often engage in padaya–torture or torment. They will torture the body with strenuous and painful actions, even mutilating it or hastening its death by injury to its health. Ritual mutilation is often practiced on their own bodies by those engaged in negative ascesis. Or just the opposite: they will harm the body through deluded indulgence and lack of discipline or purification. But most of all they will torment their Self by burying it beneath ignorant ideas and actions, clouding and distorting their minds so there is no hope of comprehending true spiritual matters or disciplines. They will live a life contrary to their real spirit-nature, and thus bring nothing but suffering to themselves and others.

Finally, tamasic tapasya is sometimes engaged in as a kind of evil magical practice whose intention is to gain the power to harm another, or to placate negative entities who will do the harming on behalf of the tapaswin. I am sorry to say that this is found in India even to this day. I know of a “sadhu” who lives in a temple in Kerala and does incredibly complex and strenuous disciplines to get such power. This man was once hired to bring about the death of a friend of mine, supposedly through placation of a “deity.” Fortunately a letter from this evil man to the one hiring him was missent to my friend, who spiritually armed himself and came to no harm.

The expression used for this in the text is parasyotsadanartham, which means the destruction of another, but it can also mean for the overturning or defeat of another. This is often the aim of such tapasya: either the unseating of a person in authority or advantage, or the bringing about of his loss of money, position, or reputation.

Sometimes tapasya is engaged in just to be thought “more ascetic than thou” in relation to others engaged in spiritual discipline. A kind of ascetic one-upmanship and rivalry is often found among monastics of all religions. This was especially the case in Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert during the third century (and after) when enough time had lapsed for the Church to have greatly forgotten what Jesus had really taught about spiritual life and discipline. Regarding this, in his book, Benedictine Monachism, Dom Cuthbert Butler wrote:

“The spirit, the dominating principle of this monachism, may be thus characterized. It was a spirit of individualism. Each worked for his personal advance in virtue; each strove to do his utmost in all kinds of ascetical exercises and austerities, in prolonging his fasts, his prayers, his silence. The favorite name to describe any of the prominent monks was ‘great athlete.’ And they were athletes, and filled with the spirit of the modern athlete. They loved to ‘make a record’ in austerities, and to contend with one another in mortifications; and they would freely boast of their spiritual achievements. One who had seen them describes the Nitrian monks as ‘surpassing one another in virtues, and being filled with a spirit of rivalry in asceticism, showing forth all virtue, and striving to outdo one another in manner of life.’ But it is in Palladius’ account of Macarius of Alexandria that this spirit shows itself most conspicuously: ‘If he ever heard of any one having performed a work of asceticism, he was all on fire to do the same;” and Palladius illustrates it by examples. Did Macarius hear that another monk ate nothing but one pound of bread a day? For three years he ate each day only what broken bread he could extract in a single handful through the narrow neck of a jar. Did he hear that the monks of Pachomius’ monastery ate nothing cooked by fire throughout Lent? He did the same for seven years. Did he hear that their observance was ““great””? He did not rest satisfied till he had gone to see, and had beaten them all.’ Thus the practice of asceticism constituted a predominant feature of this type of Egyptian monachism. Their prolonged fasts and vigils, their combats with sleep, their exposures to heat and cold, their endurance of thirst and bodily fatigue, their loneliness and silence, are features that constantly recur in the authentic records of the lives of these hermits, and they looked on such austerities as among the essential features of the monastic state.” Much more crazy things were (and are) done, but this is sufficient for us to get the idea–and hopefully avoid it.

In conclusion

Krishna has given us all this information so we can determine the type and quality (guna) of our personal spiritual practice. This alone would make the Gita unparalleled in value for those who seek the higher life. And it contains so much more.

All glory be to Sri Vyasadeva, the supreme guide of all who aspire to liberation!

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Charity and the Three Gunas

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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