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.

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Do you need to renounce the world to advance spiritually, and is it selfish to do so?

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda

‘Solitude is necessary to become established in the Self, but Masters then return to the world to serve it. Even Saints who engage in no outward work bestow, through their thoughts and holy vibrations, more precious benefits on the world than can be given by the most strenuous humanitarian activities of unenlightened men.’ – Paramahansa Yogananda

‘I was directed by my Master to visit various Swamis. At first I thought, ‘I am wasting my time; these are useless people. They are withdrawn from the world, sitting under trees. Why do they do that?’ – Swami Rama

Himalayan cave dwellers get a bad rap sometimes, I feel. People who withdraw from society to dedicate their lives to realizing the ultimate Truth are often seen as escapists and accused of being idle and antisocial. In a way, this is understandable, because when you go to India, you soon realize that not everybody who wears geru robes is a noble sadhu or Saint-in-training. Quite often, according to a sadhu friend, Indian men become renunciates because there is some problem in their families, because they don’t want to work any longer, or because they simply want to be free of rigid societal demands. Life as a sadhu can be quite easy in certain places: in Gangotri, for example, a sadhu eats three very nice meals a day provided by the local bandharas. In India, it’s also seen as auspicious to feed and donate to a sadhu and hence the whole cultural set-up supports those who leave the world in search of loftier ideals.

Sadhu in the Himalayas

Sadhu in the Himalayas

But, fake sadhus aside, what about the people who genuinely renounce worldly life to find union with the cosmic Beloved? People who may have fulfilled their obligations, have had families that are now grown up, or who simply don’t feel the need for marriage and family life? Is it really selfish to renounce society and spend your days in prayer and meditation, as some would have us believe?

Let’s look at this more closely. I’ve often heard spiritual leaders say, ‘You don’t need to withdraw from society and live in a cave to lead a spiritual life. Be in the world, but not of it.’ Ironically, some of these Gurus say this after they themselves have spent many years in solitude and spiritual practice. This is a bit like telling a poor person that he doesn’t need money after you have earned lots of it and then realized that it doesn’t bring you happiness. Sometimes I get the feeling that spiritual leaders only say this so that society doesn’t fall apart.

Mind you, the Gurus are probably right; you don’t need to live in a cave to become enlightened as we have seen in the example of many Saints such as Ammaji, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Lahiri Mahasaya, or my dear Guruji Sri Prem Baba. In history, we’ve seen many householders who became realized and turned into great Gurus. I believe though that this depends on previous karma and auspicious samskaras from past lives. And, at the same time, we also have many examples of sadhus and yogis who lived in caves or in extreme renunciation and attained the same goal of liberation: Swami Rama of the Himalayas, Swami Satyananda Saraswati or Mahavatar Babaji, to name a few. Cave-dwelling or not, those who become liberated seem to have one thing in common: a one-pointed focus on their goal, discipline, inner renunciation, and/or complete surrender to their Guru and/or God.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa

Ramakrishna Paramahansa

We may not need to go to the mountains to attain realization, but from my own experience I can say that sustained periods of solitude and silence are very good for strengthening one’s sadhana and focus. The world, with all of its charms and beauties, has the enchanting ability to distract us from our sadhana, often simply due to time constraints. Yes, we can use our families and our work as sadhana, but in a way, I feel that’s a different sadhana altogether. Ideally, you should be able to do your sadhana in the market place, but how many of us can really do this without having practiced in solitude first?

For systematically progressing in meditation or pranayama, a lot of time is needed, which is hard when you have to take care of a million other things in your life, such as small children, work, cooking, cleaning or simply surviving. As the musicians or writers among you will know, to master anything, you have to invest many hours in it. Psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson talked about a ’10.000-hour rule’ in his research that suggests that it requires at least 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain. Add to this that some places are also more conducive to sadhana than others. Sages haven’t flocked to the Himalayas for the mastery of spiritual practices for nothing over the ages – the mountains are rich with spiritual vibrations and a peaceful atmosphere that can propel your sadhana to different heights.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s really important to share what we accumulate. Especially the spiritual blessings and insights we gain. It’s vital in this age. But who is to say that the Himalayan cave dwellers don’t do that? They help many people from afar by increasing the spiritual vibrations of the world and raising the collective consciousness. Sages send out prayers and blessings with every breath they take, though they may do so anonymously and the world at large may never know about it. And after many years of solitude, once they have actually attained their spiritual goals, many sages decide to come back into the world to help others to become liberated, too.

And just look at what we received from all those cave-dwelling rishis of India: if they had not sat in meditation channelling universal wisdom in their mountain caves for years, would they have been able to bring us the wisdom of the Vedas? I doubt it very much.

The sacred Himalayas, abode of sages

The sacred Himalayas, abode of sages

I don’t think that this question is so clear-cut that you can divide it into ‘selfish’ and ‘selfless’. First of all, before we are realized, our actions are always going to be of a selfish, ego-centred nature. This is simply because the ego motivates us in all we do, even though we’d like to believe otherwise. We may be engaging in wonderful humanitarian work, but it will always come from a place of ego: because it makes us feel good or important, because we want to right old wrongs, and so on. A humanitarian can be selfish, and a sadhu can be selfless, and vice versa. Some may need to live in the mountains, others may need to live in the world.

But I don’t think that it’s fair to label those who choose a reclusive lifestyle to further their sadhana as selfish. Samadhi, the highest state of wisdom, actually shows us the union between all that is, thus stripping us of selfish desires and the feeling of separation. It is when liberation is attained that the practitioner actually realizes that all is One, which then automatically leads to authentic selfless service. At this point of Oneness, it’s not even ‘service’ any longer, as there is no difference between you and anything else any longer. Everything is you, and you are everything. So why would it be selfish to aspire to attain this goal, if the goal brings us the ultimate union?

Beloved Master Swami Rama sums it up beautifully in this video, shot in the solitude of Gangotri’s forests. One of the most accomplished yogis ever, he came to the West to fulfil his Master’s mandate of helping humanity through spreading the wisdom of yoga. But before he did so, he spent around forty-five years in the Himalayan cave monasteries 🙂

Hari Om Tat Sat.

If you enjoy  my writing, my book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India.