The word ‘tapas’ brings associations of something long, arduous and self-denying. It brings to mind the grim asceticism of yogis who for months, years and centuries lived in isolation subsisting on leaves, sand and water or simply on air in order to realise the atman. In essence, however, tapas is essential energy or a focused effort undertaken as a personal discipline to achieve a goal. Though this goal could be concrete such as achieving perfection in a sport or a field of study or work, it is more often an act of devotion, which aims through voluntary pain and discomfort, to purify both conscious and unconscious desires, so that we can lead clearer, more controlled lives.

In Sanskrit, tapas means ‘heat’. As we attempt to move beyond our own likes and dislikes, our desire conflicts with our will to think and do what is right, igniting an internal fire which illumines and burns up our impurities. As a tool of purification, it transforms the mind from restlessness to peace. It can then be used for the higher goal of transcending the mind and abiding in atman, our real self. Tapas, is thus not a grim killjoy self-denial but a conscious and dynamic mode of self-enquiry.

The Bhagavad Gita speaks of tapas at the three levels – of body, speech and mind. At the level of body, it involves worship, cleanliness, simplicity, chastity and non-violence. At the level of speech, it involves using words that are truthful, beneficial and peace-giving and reading holy books. At the level of mind, it involves practising silence, selfcontrol, compassion and purity. The Gita highlights this with an important rider – this threefold harmony can only be called pure when it is practised with supreme faith and for the Supreme, with no desire for material benefits or reward.

According to the Upanishads, it is only in purity that the Self is realised and by the greatest tapas. Every vestige of the normal waking attitude which is appropriate and necessary in the daily struggle for material existence (artha), for pleasure (kama), and for attaining righteousness (dharma), must be abandoned. The really serious seeker must turn the mind inwards, with absolute disinterest in worldly pursuits, disinterest even in the continuance of his individual existence, for the Self is beyond the senses, mind, and intuitive awareness, that support the individual personality. This requires one-pointed focus on the Self and merger of all thoughts in this limitless Sourc