Eyes blazing with the fire of transformation: The benefits of tapasya (austerity) in spiritual practice

swami satyananda

‘When my Guru, Swami Satyananda, performed the panchagni tapasya (austerity of sitting amidst five fires) at Rikhiapeeth for nine long years, his eyes developed such immense tejasa and brilliance that it was often difficult to look him straight in the eyes. One had to lower one’s eyes in respect and surrender to the beauty and brilliance that his eyes would emit.’ – Swami Satyasangananda

I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Gangotri, high up in the Indian Himalayas. Gangotri is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus, as it is here that the river Ganga was originally received by Lord Shiva. Out of compassion for the condition of humanity, the Goddess Ganga decided to descend upon earth to help alleviate suffering – however, the impact of the river’s descent would have been so great that it would have destroyed the planet. Therefore, Lord Shiva offered to receive Ganga on his head first to soften the blow and to make a graceful descent possible.

Gangotri is a hotspot for sadhus, saints and sages. Bitterly cold most of the time, as it is a valley that doesn’t receive much sunshine, it attracts only those who can handle a bit of austerity. Sure, thousands of people visit for a couple of days and trek up to Gomukh (where the source of Ganga is now located due to the receding glacier) and even higher up to Tapovan, but the people who stay more permanently tend to be the sadhus. Some (very few) even stay throughout winter, when the road closes due to heavy snowfall, causing Gangotri to be cut off from all services, including electricity, phone and food supplies.

Near Gomukh

Near Gomukh

During my visits to Gangotri, I’ve been blessed with the company of sadhus who have lived there for years. This time, I was fortunate to spend time with a sadhvi (female sadhu) who has lived in a cave about an hour from Gangotri for the past thirteen years. She has also lived at Tapovan (a high mountain above Gomukh at an elevation of 4500 m) for three years under a rock. Mind you, this sadhvi is not a young lady – she is almost sixty years old and did not take sannyas until she was in her early 40’s. However, when I met her for the first time, I was blown away by her radiant face and blazing eyes. This meeting took place at Gangotri temple, and I watched her as she gracefully descended the stairs towards me in her geru robes, with long grey hair framing her delicate face. She was so beautiful and full of light that I couldn’t take my eyes off her for the entire time we were talking.

I’ve seen this glow on the faces of a number of Himalayan sadhus. Another sadhu I visit from time to time is Nirmal Baba, a Bengali sadhu who has been living in Bhojwasa (near Gomukh) for the past twenty-six years. It is a severely cold place, and he lives there all year around in his stone house by the Ganga which he has built himself – without a fire place or heating of any kind. As part of his seva (service), he offers kirtan chanting twice a day during the pilgrim’s season – and he sings some of the most haunting, beautiful bhajans I’ve ever heard. The atmosphere in his house becomes so magical that I don’t feel cold or hungry and that it doesn’t matter to stumble to his house in the snow before dawn.

Nirmal Baba has the same glow on his face, the same blazing eyes. I am convinced that this has to do with the intensity of devotion and trust in God with which these sadhus live – their hearts are so alight with love of God and Truth that it outshines the cold and other hardships they encounter in this forbidding environment. And of course, add to that the high prana in the Himalayas and the peace that a solitary lifestyle in nature can bring.

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Nirmal Baba of Bhojwasa

Yet another sadhu I’ve met lives even higher up in a cave in Tapovan all year around, where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter. He lives there without fire and keeps warm by pranayama breathing exercises. This sadhu is young, twenty-seven years of age, and has been observing silence since he was nineteen years old. Last year he was caught in a snow storm and sat under a thin door frame for three days before he could start to dig himself out. And yet, he is one of the happiest, energetic and radiant people I have ever seen.

Tapovan Mouni Baba

Tapovan Mouni Baba

You may ask yourself (as I have done in the past!): what exactly is the point of all this? Does one have to live in such austerity to love God? Surely there are easier ways than living in a remote cave and eating a mono-diet of rice and dhal surrounded by snow and ice?

Sure. There are easier ways, and I don’t believe it’s necessary for most people to live in this way. But looking at the radiance of these sadhus, at the consciousness and focus they emanate, one cannot discount the benefits of their chosen lifestyle either. There is something about living so close to nature, on Her terms. Some of the sadhus I’ve met don’t keep mobile phones, and obviously there is no electricity in the caves. Their simple food (which they tend to receive by donation) is cooked on fire, or sometimes gas, and they spend most of their time in spiritual practice and contemplation. In such a lifestyle, where one learns to overcome the limitations of the body, the fire of tapas (austerity) burns away many karmic impurities. The glow that stems from such close encounters with Truth in turn shows externally.

Admittedly, this lifestyle is considered extreme even in India, and most likely judged as insane in the West. In India, most people have at least some admiration and respect for this type of austerity, as it is believed that renunciation leads to moksha (liberation). I’d also say that unless it is your karma, generated by lifetimes of spiritual dedication, you are unlikely to renounce everything and live in a Himalayan cave. But how can we apply some of the principles of tapasya into our modern lives? And what are the benefits of doing so?

My Gurudeva, Sri Prem Baba, often speaks about ‘intelligent austerities’. With this, he doesn’t mean harming your body by excess austerity, but renouncing something that you know isn’t good for you. For example, he advocates the practice of mouna (silence). Silence is tapasya for many of us. Our minds are not used to keeping silent and turning the focus inwards. We are constantly looking outwards for stimulation and validation, and the practice of silence (inner and outer) takes all that away. And once we are further along on the spiritual path, silence becomes the sweetest, most exquisite state of Being, as it is in silence that we can hear and become one with God.

Another example of tapasya would be cutting out self-destructive tendencies, such as eating things that aren’t good for us (excess sugar, fat, processed foods), smoking, drinking, drugs, unhealthy relationships, oversleeping etc etc. While we all know that these things don’t benefit us, we often do them nonetheless. So how to change this? In yoga, we make use of something called a sankalpa (intention). A sankalpa is like a vow: once taken, you cannot break it, no matter what. So a common sankalpa would be to recite a certain mantra X times in X days; to get up at 4 am every morning for meditation for the next 90 days; to stop eating sweets for the next three months; to stay in a given place for a year; etc etc. After the sankalpa has been completed, one can take up the old habit again – but one often finds that the body doesn’t want to do so any longer because it recognizes that it feels better without the habit.

These actions are called intelligent austerities because they purify our bodies (our temples in which Spirit dwells) and thus bring us closer to Truth and to who we really are without our conditionings. They may be hard to do initially, but the benefits will soon outweigh the cost. It may not be on a par with living a hermit’s life in a cave, but it’s very much doable and applicable to our modern lifestyles that often include many responsibilities. And you may find that some of the glow of tapas will find its way into your eyes and onto your faces, too.