The ABC of Penance


Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

The boy (nay, he was but an infant) was supporting himself with just a toehold on earth. His palms were held high above his head, joined in supplication. His young and thin body was emaciated with continuous fasting, with not even liquids to sustain the physique. Bones were covered with just a thin layer of flesh, the body having long back exhausted the accumulated reserves of baby fat. His eyes were shut tight, to ward off external distractions. He had retracted his listening faculty too into his mind, so that no mundane sounds disturbed his concentration. The only sign of life in him was the barely perceptible rise and fall of the chest. Unbeknownst to himself, his body was covered with an aura, a halo, that signifies all arduous spiritual endeavour.

Despite all this, Dhruva was awash inside with an indescribable bliss, the bliss of constant contemplation of the Ultimate, which made him oblivious to the aching leg (he had forgotten how long he had been on his feet—correction—on his left foot, for he was standing on a single foot, with the sole of the right foot placed on the instep of the left), the razor-sharp hunger gnawing at his innards and all the attendant physical inconveniences. All mundane thoughts had been banished long back from his pure mind, which now had space and focus only for the glorious form and magnificent attributes of Sri Hari—“Atmani asEsha DEvEsam stthitam VishNum amanyata” says the Vishnu Puranam, describing Sri Dhruva’s unprecedented penance for God-realisation.

Madipakkam Sri oppilliappan Pattabhisheka Ramar Sri Ramanavami uthsavam Day -37

This, then, is the form of Tapas that Dhruva engaged in. Having heard such tales from our childhood, of Dhruva and of other worthies who performed penance of such high order, we have a healthy respect of the word “Tapas”—the respect we reserve for exalted things which we admire in characters from the Scripture, whether it be the infant Dhruva or the hardened VisvAmitra Maharshi. It is a respect we reserve for things, which we know well, are much beyond our own contemplation, leave alone achievement. When we hear the word “Tapas”, we do not think of it as being applicable to ourselves, but only to mythological or Puranic characters. The very word, and the accompanying thought of attendant physical and mental hardships, make us decide that Tapas is not for weaklings like us—we can at best admire its practitioners, that too from a healthy distance, but adopting it ourselves appears beyond our limited reserves of physical and mental strength.

Before we decide whether “Tapas” is for us or not, let us see how the Shruti extols Penance. Of all spiritual endeavours, Tapas appears to command a pride of place, if the numerous adulatory references to it in the Vedas are any indication.

The Narayanavalli of the Taiitiriyopanishad tells us that for acquiring wisdom regarding the Ultimate, Tapas is indispensable. In fact, the Upanishad accords Penance such an exalted stature that it regards all spiritual endeavour (((, whether it be common good qualities like Truthfulness– “Ritam” and its variant, Satyam–, lending our ears to words of wisdom—Shrutam–, acquisition of inner peace and tranquillity—ShAntam–, munificence and philanthropy–‘DAnam”–, performance of various sacrifices—“Yagyam” ))) as but different forms of “Tapas”. Here is the beautiful quote from the Upanishad—

“Ritam Tapa: Satyam Tapa: Shrutam Tapa: ShAntam Tapa: DAnam Tapa: Yagya: Tapa:”

It is thus clear that Tapas is the Crowning Glory of all forms of activities aimed at liberation.

The very same Upanishad also tells us that not only should we ourselves practice Penance, we should teach it to others too, so that the glorious practice lives on to confer its generous benefits on mankind, generation after generation—“Tapascha svAdhyAya pravachanE cha”. A TapasvI of renown named “Poursishti” asserts that more than everything, it is Tapas which is overwhelmingly superior—“Tapa iti tapO nitya: Pourusishti:”. Not to be outdone by Pourusishti, VaruNa, the Deity of the Waters, tells his son Sage Brighu that the latter should regard Tapas as verily the Lord Himself: it also doubles as the strategy for realising the Lord—

“TapasA Brahma vigigyAsasva, TapO Brahma iti”. Making us wonder whether the Taittiriyopanishad is one continuous eulogy to Tapas, the Upanishad has an adulatory reference to Penance, at the end too—

“TapasA dEvA dEvatAm agra Ayan, TapasA Rishaya: Suva: anva vindan, TapasA sapatnAn praNudAm ArAtIm, Tapasi sarvam pratishttitam”

The Celestials have attained their exalted status due to Penance, which is also the reason for Rishis reaching Svargam. If you want to overcome those who have nothing but hate for you, Tapas is the strategy therefor. With all this, inquires the Upanishad, is it any wonder that Tapas is touted to be the best among all its contemporaries which pass as spiritual endeavours?-_”TasmAt Tapa: paramam vadanti”. All the others are based on Tapas, without which they are but empty shells, comments this compendium of wisdom–”Tapasi sarvam pratishthitam”.

The importance of Tapas can be understood from the fact that the great Epic Srimad Ramayanam begins with the same word—

“Tapa: svAdhyAya niratam tapasvI vAgvidAm varam
nAradam paripapraccha VAlmIki: muni pungavam”

Both Sri Narada and Sri Valmiki are glorified as being adept at Tapas, having performed it for long.

Azhwars too consider Tapas to be extremely important. When Sri Tondaradippodi lists his own shortcomings, it is primarily to the lack of Tapas in him that he alludes first—“TavattuLLAr tammil allEn”. The same Azhawar says that exalted deities like Rudra and BrahmA practice penance for aeons, just to have a glimpse of the Lord—

“PeN ulAm sadaiyinAnum Piramanum unnai kANbAn
eNNilA oozhi oozhi tavam seidAr”.

If this Azhwar rues his lack of Tapas, there is another who boasts of being endowed with the virtue in good measure. Here is Sri BhootattAzhwar bragging about his accomplishment—

“yAnE tavam seidEn Ezh pirappum eppouzhudum
yAnE tavam udayan Emperuman!”

Perhaps the best definition and classification of Tapas are to be found in the Gita, in the 17th Chapter. Here, the Lord gives a detailed discourse on the form, attributes, types and requisites of Penance. Classifying Tapas into three categories, that using the body, the spoken word and the Mind, the Gitacharya tells us in detail about each of these.

Sri Ramar triplicane

1. What constitutes Tapas in the physical sense? Sri Krishna enumerates the constituents of physical Tapas—

“DEva dvija Guru prAgya poojanam Shoucham Arjavam
Brahmacharyam ahimsA cha shAreeram Tapa uchyatE”

A. Worshipping the Celestials led by the Lord, Brahmins well versed in the Scripture, one’s AchAryAs and the wise ones.
B. Keeping the body pure through frequent baths in sacred rivers like the Ganga
C. Complete identity of thought, word and deed, with scrupulous avoidance of hypocrisy
D. Eliminating base thoughts that occur at the sight of beautiful women, treating them as mere objects of pleasure (“YOshitsu bhOgyatA buddhi varjanam”). The eye, upon falling upon the fairer sex, should regard them as one’s own mother—“MAtruvat para dArEshu”
E. Absolute avoidance of HimsA in any manner to anyone and espousal of non-violence in its most comprehensive form.

2. Coming to Tapas that can be performed by the spoken word, the Gitacharya tells us how to fashion our speech. It is here that we recognise the Gita to be the comprehensive manual of practical wisdom, for, most of what is said by the Lord in this context is what forms the basis for the lengthy lectures delivered by our Management Gurus and Behavioural Specialists. What, then, constitutes Tapas of the Spoken Word?

A. Our speech should not create a feeling of fright, terror or unnecessary excitement in others. Revealing of other’s personal frailties, verbal abuse, words of anger and hate, etc. are to be shunned.

B. We should speak the absolute Truth, as we know it. As has been emphasized elsewhere too, lying is an abuse of the God-given faculty of speech and is to be avoided at all cost.

C. Our speech should be pleasing and beneficial to others. Enquiring after others’ welfare, praising their good qualities, making them feel at ease and comfortable in our company—all these fall under this category.

D. Perhaps the best and most superior component of this type of Tapas is the learning and recitation of Veda, which is the sacred duty of all TraivarNikAs. Since each letter and syllable of the Shruti denotes the ParamAtmA, Veda adhyayanam and PArayaNam represent the best type of Penance that can be performed through the spoken word. This is why the Upanishad exhorts us never to forsake learning and propagating the Vedas—“SvAdhyAya pravachanAbhyAm na pramaditavyam”. This is also glorified as “Japa Yagyam”.

Here are beautiful words of the Lord, extolling the “VAngmayam Tapa:”—

“anudvEga karam vAkyam, Satyam, Priyahitam cha yat
SvAdhyAya abhyasanam chaiva vAngmayam Tapa uchyatE”

3. The third and last type of Penance is that performed with the Mind. This too has several components, as enumerated by the Lord:

A. Clarity of mind, unclouded by anger, jealousy and attendant maladies. The mind should be like a clear and inviting pond, full of pure and pleasing waters, and not a muddied cesspool or a raging sea, incessantly pounded by waves of unwanted emotions.

B. Benignity or Soumyatvam is another attribute, which constitutes mental Tapas. Our intentions towards others should be the best possible, shorn of all possible anger, jealousy, etc. that are the root causes of ill will.

C. Silence is one of the best virtues one can cultivate and forms a penance in its own right. Though Silence is really a virtue of the tongue, since it is really the Mind that prompts speech, it is indicated as a function of the Mind too. And Silence can extend to the Mind too—when the Mind is absolutely tranquil, with no waves of emotion buffeting its shores, silence is what prevails, inside and out.

D. Mind Control—this refers to ensuring that thoughts do not travel in undesirable channels.

E. Since it is highly difficult to eliminate thoughts altogether and keep the mind blank, the Lord prescribes the strategy of canalising all thought towards Himself and His glorious form and attributes.

“Mana: prasAda: Soumyatvam Mounam Atma vinirgraha:
bhAva samshuddhi: iti Etat Tapa: MAnasam uchyatE”

These, then, are the three types of Tapas expounded by Sri Krishna in the Gita—Bodily, Mental, and that through the instrument of Speech.

Based on the intentions behind this Tapas, the Lord classifies Penance into three more classes—SAtvikam, RAjasam, and TAmasam.

Penance performed with absolute devotion, with no specific object other than the Lord’s pleasure, is the best of all Tapas and is called SAtvika Tapas.

Tapas undertaken with the intention of attaining recognition, appreciation and admiration is classified as “RAjasam”. The fruits of such penance are extremely ephemeral and lead to temporary attainments like Svargam.

Penance undertaken by adamant fools, who have no assessment of their own capabilities for performing such exalted tasks but are prompted by obstinacy and obduracy, as well as Tapas aimed at causing harm to others, come under the category of TAmasam. Penance undertaken by most of the asurAs would fall under this class.

We must acknowledge that our idea of Tapas as a forbidding endeavour, reserved for the Rishis and Sages of yore and beyond the contemplation of simple mortals like us, must have undergone a change, after the aforesaid clarifications offered by the Lord. What the Gitacharya says does put Tapas within the ambit of even our limited capabilities, provided we have the requisite devotion and firmness of purpose.

All this is fine, but what about people like us, who are unable to focus our minds on the Lord even for a second, leave alone for interminable aeons, and unable to skip even a single meal without pangs of hunger consuming us alive, leave alone foregoing food for long?

For those like me, for whom even the relatively simple prescriptions of the Lord appear much beyond their capabilities, here is Sri Tirumangai Mannan telling us that what can be achieved by severe penance (involving extreme physical hardship, prolonged fasting, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, an extremely Spartan diet consisting of fruits, roots and leaves intended solely to keep body and soul together) can be attained easily by seeking refuge in the Lord at Tirucchitrakoodam. In fact, Azhwar categorically forbids us from undertaking the aforesaid arduous forms of penance, having found an effective and unfailing alternative for achieving the avowed objective of liberation. Here is the beautiful pasuram, which relieves us of all responsibility of having to perform such gruelling Tapas—

“oon vAda uNnAdu uyir kAval ittu udalil piriyA pulan iyndum nondu
tAm vAda vAda tavam seyya vENda tamadA imayOr ulagALakirpeer!

KAnAda maggyai kaNamAda mAdE kayalAdu kAneer pazhanam pudai pOi
TEn Ada mAda kodi Adu Tillai Tiruchchitra koodam chendru sErmingaLE!”

What a graphic description of the travails of Tapas! The body becomes skinny and emaciated due to prolonged denial of essential nutrition. However, one cannot forego food altogether, as body and soul have to be kept together through minimal intake in the form of water, fruits, roots, etc., so that continued penance is possible. All faculties are under terrific strain, due to this great physical distress. In some forms of penance, the devotee is required to stand amidst raging fire, exposing his body to the enervating heat and flames, and in others, to stand neck deep in the bitterly cold waters of lakes and ponds, during the severest of winters.

All these, says Azhwar, are totally unnecessary when the merciful and magnificent Lord of Tirucchitrakootam awaits us with open arms. If we study the aforesaid pasuram and the one that follows, it would appear that a mere journey to Tirucchitrakootam and reaching there would suffice, without even any positive act on our part, for us to achieve all that can be accomplished through hard penance of the sort described above.

“KAyOdu needu kani uNdu veesu kadum kAl nugarndu nedum kAlam—iyndu
teeyoodu nindru tavam seyya vENdA TirumArbanai sindayuL vaitthum enbeer!”

Merely fixing our thoughts on the Lord with the inseparable Consort would obtain for us the hard-to-attain fruits of liberation, which are otherwise to be achieved through tough Tapas, says Azhwar.

Here is Sri BhootattAzhwar prescribing an equally effective manner of Penance, for those who insist on espousing the same, without any of the rigours indicated above. This Azhwar gives us a new definition of Tapas, telling us (who are afraid of the hard physical strain it involves) that it is nothing but paying obeisance to the Lord, worshipping Him with the choicest of flowers and singing paeans of praise on Him, in the form of the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram—

“Etthi paNindu avan pEr eeraigyooru eppozhudum
sAtti uraitthal Tavam”.

The basic idea behind the prescriptions of the Azhwars is that highlighted by the Upanishad, telling us that what is to be achieved by hard Tapas can be equally accomplished by an extremely simple strategy, viz., Absolute Surrender or Sharanagati. The concluding passages of the Upanishad reveal the esoteric truth that Sharanagati is by far superior to Tapas, achieving in a trice and without sweat or tears, what unstinting and uncompromising penance would take to accomplish, in births spanning several millennia—“TasmAt nyAsam EshAm TapasAm atiriktam Ahu:”

With matters simplified so much, tell me, who is afraid of Tapas now? Gone are the notions that Penance is reserved for the sages of yore, with Azhwars placing it very much within the reach of the common man. Gone from our mind are the forbidding images of Dhruva and others, which we normally associate with Tapas. First the simplified norms prescribed for Penance by the Gitacharya and then the more compassionate ones advocated by Sri Kalian and Sri Bhootattazhwar and the eminent alternative unfolded by the Taittiriyopanishad, make it an eminently possible exercise, even for the likes of us.

Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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