This past year, a young friend and I chatted over the internet about his experiences abroad as a college student. He had fallen into a slump and felt the weight of tamas overtaking him: dullness, lack of motivation, complacency, following the crowd, no inspiration, etc. His spiritual practice and studies had suffered since living abroad and studying secular subjects outside the spiritual supports of home. While discussing this he woke up to how the two were related; it needed no prompting, just a dharma friend to talk with. His conclusion was, "I need austerity." He set himself on a regimen of Vedantic study and japa, and perhaps other practices. I was impressed with his insight and resolve. I have seen precious few young people consider austerity to combat unhappiness or depression, and have in fact, seen many more seek distractions, intoxicants, or even accept the antidepressant offered to them. I was more than impressed by my young friend; I was inspired. We saw each other on the internet several weeks later and he was back in a balanced mood and was slowly increasing his practice.
What is austerity? This word seems to conjure up everything from sack cloth and ashes, nail beds, and people standing for years on one leg, to fasting, asanas, and weight lifting. The same Sanskrit word translated as austerity is also called penance or mortification at times. In the contemporary Christian culture where I live, which has been uneducated in the inner meanings of Christian observances, rituals, practices, etc., the purpose behind certain deprivations is lost as well as the discrimination between which are beneficial and which are simply pointless for the intended goal, and amount to mere body torturing. Even in the East there are problems on this score. So important is austerity in the scheme of sadhana, spiritual practice, and purification of the mind, that Sri Krishna divides the different kinds of austerities according to what guna they represent (Gita, chapter 17). (See previous blog for explanation of the gunas.)
Tapas is the Sanskrit word in question here, and it implies both heat and thought or knowledge. One's illumined guru is often referred to as a purifiying, ignorance-destroying source of heat -- if you want to get warm, you have to go near the fire. The impurities of the mind are burned away through austerity. Sri Krishna states in the Gita that in all the worlds there is no purifier like knowledge (Gita 4:38). "As the blazing fire reduces fuel to ashes, so does the fire of knowledge reduce all karma to ashes." (Gita 4:37) In the Mundako Upanisad, [Saguna] Brahman's tapas "is Knowledge of the whole of creation in the ideal form before it concretizes" (Sw. Sarvananda): "From brooding thought (tapasa) Brahman swells (with the joy of creation). Thence Food is born and from it Energy, mind, the True (5 great elements), the worlds, and endless entanglement in works. Brahma the Creator, individual beings, and nourishment for creatures - these spring from Him, the all-wise and omniscient, whose creative thought (tapas) is Knowledge itself." (Mundako Upanisad 1:1:8-9)
What will burn the impurities (karmas, samskaras, ignorance, dullness, restlessness) of the mind? Can fasting do that? Can mere deprivations (I will give up smoking, drinking, TV, ice cream, etc.) transform the mind? The great Bengali poet-mystic, Ramprasad, sings, "If you imagine that Mother Kali's Wisdom Feet can be experienced by sitting with closed eyes, then why are all blind persons not illumined sages?" To really understand beneficial austerity, which is the hallmark of spiritual practice, it is useful to begin with Sri Krishna's teaching in the Bhagavad Gita. As mentioned above, Sri Krishna divides the nature of austerities according to the guna that motivates the performer of them.
Tamas: "That austerity which is practiced with a foolish obstinacy, with self-torture or for the purpose of destroying another, is declared to be tamasika." 17:19 Austerities that cause harm to the body intentionally and heedlessly are not useful and will enforce body-consciousness at the very least. Regarding the dire warning concerning austerities for the purpose of causing harm, the entertainment industry produces movies every year depicting characters undergoing intense practices and preparations in the marshal arts, magic, the occult, technological arts, and other feats of physical and mental prowess in order to destroy or gain power over others. Not all such movies inspire aversion for twisted, deluded austerities and leave the impressionable (non-discriminating), young and old alike, fascinated in the dazzle of special effects and the cleverness of wayward characters. The effect of tamas is clear: it makes what is bad look good and what is good look bad.
Rajas: "The austerity which is practiced with the object of gaining respect, honour and reverence, and with ostentation is here said to be rajasika; it is unstable and transitory. 17:18 The rajasika orientation is so pervasive in society as to almost go unnoticed, and therefore be accepted as natural. It is nothing more than shopkeeping. I'll do this so I can get____. There is no sincerity in it, and its instability and transitoriness are due to the fact that if one does not achieve the desired aim one is unhappy or angry, which leads to states of tamas. If one does achieve the desired results, happiness lasts only as long as that result is delivered afresh, as in praise and honour. Losing the result is always a fear in the back of one's mind, and boredom ensues if the reward is unceasing (back to tamas!). The intelligent practitioner will see through this see-saw of happiness and unhappiness and seek what is stable.
Sri Krishna gives us a threefold practice when He describes the sattvika austerity: austerity of the body, speech, and mind. (17:14-17)
Austerity of the body: "Worship of the Gods, of the spiritually dedicated, teachers, and the wise; purity, uprightness, continence, and noninjury…." My teacher, Babaji Bob Kindler, emphasizes this teaching - the true austerity of the body is not fasting or hatha yoga; it is worship. One is to keep the body clean and associate it with pure places and activities, which happens naturally if one practices worship and spends time in holy company (the spiritually dedicated, teachers, and wise beings). From association with the holy, one gains detachment and acquires the desire and capacity for self-control. Celibacy is an important aspect of continence, which needs to be practiced sacramentally, as a conscious offering. Merely being without a partner does not constitute brahmacharya, translated here as continence. More to the point is the conscious sublimation of one's vital and mental energy via restraint of the outgoing senses, for the purpose of realizing God - Saguna or Nirguna Brahman. Not engaging the body for violent purposes is also an austerity.
Austerity of speech: "Speech which causes no excitement, which is truthful, pleasant, and beneficial, and also the practice of sacred recitation…." One's words should lean neither toward manipulation of other's emotions to incite anger, hatred, disgust, etc., nor should they lean toward flattery. The art of speaking truthfully without hurting others is practiced in this austerity, as is the discrimination between what is beneficial truthfulness and what need not be said at all. Sri Sarada Devi cautioned, "Should one speak such words as would hurt another? Even if it is truth, it should not be told in an unpleasant manner. Finally, you will end up with that kind of nature [fault-finder]. If one's sensitivity is lost, then nothing will control one's speech." The practice of sacred recitation, Svadhyaya, cannot be overestimated as an austerity. Time spent studying, memorizing, and reciting the sacred texts transforms the mind. Whatever one is deeply involved in comes out in one's speech. The scriptures treating Atmajnan and Premabhakti, Self-knowledge and ecstatic Love, will enlighten the mind and eliminate all frivolous and harmful speech.
Austerity of mind: "Serenity of mind, gentleness, silence, self-control, and purity of disposition…." It is not easy to keep the mind serene. Swami Vivekananda poses the question in one of his books on the four yogas: what takes more strength? to allow the mind to wander where it will, or restrain it? A serene mind refuses to be affected by the excitement of rajas, the dullness of tamas, or even the pleasure associated with sattva. It is significant that Sri Krishna does not place silence with the austerity of speech, but here in the mind. Most people have a constant chatter going on in the background of their mind representative of their fears, desires, worries. This must be quelled before the silence that results from peace can arise. Self-control, resisting the tendency of the mind to follow the impulses of desire or aversion through the senses is the first step.
These three austerities of sattva work together and are greatly related to the yogic limbs of yama and niyama*. At least eight of the ten are mentioned or implied, and all three of what Patanjali emphasizes in his kriya yoga are listed: austerity, sacred recitation, and worship. If one is not able to practice the austerity of mind, dedicated practice of the austerity of the body and speech will certainly prepare the way. This is what my young friend immediately intuited - that his mind was not balanced, therefore he needed to re-engage himself in the austerities of body (worship via japa) and speech (sacred study).
Sri Krishna concludes His teaching, "This threefold austerity practiced steadfastly with the utmost sraddha (reasoned faith), desiring no fruit, they call sattvika."
* 5 Yamas: noninjury, truthfulness, noncovetousness, continence, nonacceptance of gifts
5 Niyamas: austerity, purity/cleanliness, contentment, sacred study/recitation, worship