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On asceticism and tapas

Asceticism is a widespread concept associated with spiritual practice and lifestyle. It affects almost all religions and teachings. For reference, the word derives from the Greek word asceo and means a methodical long-term exercise in order to obtain any result e.g. sports, crafts and alike. Then the word took on a slightly different connotation. But practices and concepts related to asceticism existed long before in different parts of the world. In India it is tapasya (tapas).

Tapas comes from the word “tap” (burn, shine, parch, warm) and means heat, warmth, fire. The earliest references to this word are associated with the process of birth – with maternal warmth, with the hatching of eggs by a bird. In Vedic times, this analogy was used to explain the concept of "hatching knowledge" and spiritual birth. When I asked in India what tapas meant, they answered: “Tapas is when you sit in one place for a long time.”

But everything is not that simple. Tapas as heat is associated not only with birth, but also with the cause of this birth, that is, with sexual heat, fire, or, as yogis say, with Kundalini fire and creative power. And to a greater extent, tapas is precisely this internal fire, and not external fire or heat.

In the Vedas and Brahmanas there are references to the fact that Rishis and all the Gods are born through tapas (tapojās), and the whole world is created from the tapas of the Sun. Also, there is a story about how Prajapati created the world through his tapas (inwardly inflamed). And this is where the concept takes its beginning: to perform tapas means to kindle the inner mystical fire, the heat in oneself. Ascetic practices and what is called tapasya are connected with this.

That is, asceticism and tapasya are aimed, first of all, at kindling this fire, which gives light (enlightenment), knowledge, power. The fact that tapas has come to be identified with torture and severe self-restraint, with the mortification of the flesh, is a later thing, and it depends on the tradition. Different traditions and teachers have developed different methods of obtaining this heat, including the most severe ones.

Tapas is closely connected with the concept of offering and sacrifice (tyaga), with detachment (vairagya). I think it is no coincidence that Agni, who is called the Great Tapasvin and who himself represents tapas, in rituals (havan, yajna) accepts sacrifices (offerings). By means of sacrificial offerings into the fire, the heat increases, and along with this, the internal heat also increases in the one who performs yajna. In fact, in tapas there is always a sacrifice, and this may be the very mechanism that ignites our inner fire – the inner yajna.

For example, when a yogi goes to the forest and sits there for 10 years near dhuna, this is called tapas in India. His sacrifice is sitting in one place, refusing to travel, to communicate, to get new experiences, etc., restriction in nutrition. At the same time, of course, he performs his sadhana. As a result, such a yogi (and the place where he sat) acquires strength, wisdom. I have met such tapasvinis, and this power is easy to feel. This may seem very simple compared to standing on one leg, for example, or having your arm raised for years and withering away. But one must understand that the latter options are extremes, which are more related not to tapas itself, but to the worldview of the cults that practice it – for example, they can deny the manifested world and consider the body as a limitation for the spirit, and therefore practice mortification flesh in various forms. In the texts of Nathas, as you can see, extreme forms of tapas are not recommended, as well as extremes in general, in Nath tradition, tapas is the middle path, existence in complete non-involvement, in detachment.

It is important to understand that tapas and sacrifice are different for everyone. Usually Guru blesses and gives recommendations for performing tapasya, knowing his disciple well. In tyaga it is important to sacrifice what is dear and to which there is attachment, otherwise it will not be a sacrifice. If there is no sacrifice, there will be no tapas either 😃 The tapasyas associated with the body are of course the most difficult, but perhaps that is why the most effective: the body is our greatest attachment. There are tapasyas associated with food, and indeed with anything, it all depends on the person. You can sit in the heat surrounded by fires (using scorching sun as the natural factor). And you can practice yogic sadhana, hatha yoga, and kindle the fire of Kundalini by other methods. Breath-holding in pranayama also ignites the inner fire, if you notice. There is even such an expression – prana-agnihotra, and breathing is considered as a constant libation, a sacrifice into the fire of Kundalini.

Nathas give following definition to tapas: fire that burns all extremes in itself, the fire of Sushumna which absorbs Ida and Pingala. It is important to mention that tapas is not only a component or practice of yoga, but also the way of life in general.


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