The Yogic Teachings on Austerity and Self-Discipline


This talk is based on the teachings from the Bhagavad Gita on, what’s translated as, austerity, or endurance – the word is tapas, which has the sense of heat or burning in the original.  Three times ‘austerity’ will be described.

“Worshipping the gods, the holy ones, teachers, wise men, purity, honesty, brahmacharya (continence) and non-injury are termed the bodily austerities.  The speech which causes no excitement and is true, as also pleasant and beneficial, and also the practice of reciting ‘OM’, are said to form the austerity of speech. Serenity of mind, good-heartedness, silence, self-control, purity of nature – this is called the mental austerity. This three-fold austerity, practised by devout men with the utmost faith desiring no fruit, they call sattvic (spiritual).”  (Verses 14-17 Chapter 17 of the Bhagavad Gita)

The Gita explanation of tapas is very wide, as we’ve seen.  Traditionally it meant endurance of opposites.  The Chinese pilgrims who came in the 5th and 7th centuries to India and left behind very full reports of what they’d seen, describe some of these forms of endurance, as they had been described a thousand years before by the Greeks visiting India.  The Greek ambassador to India in 300 B.C., who described some of the brahmins, said they would sit without moving for a whole day.  This is one of the forms of tapas, or endurance. The Gita reading is much wider than simply endurance.  (But first of all we’ll take the lower section.  We have to take the lower one because of the geography of the blackboard.)  There’s a coincidence, quite a striking resemblance between the kriya yoga (on the right) and the yoga of action.  In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, three elements are quoted; the first being tapas, endurance of opposites; the second, what I’ve translated as self-study, study of one’s own scriptures and applying them to oneself, and also the repetition of the name of God, especially OM; and thirdly, devotion to the Lord – and in another sutra Patanjali says this leads to perfection in samādhi.

These three elements then – tapas, enduring the opposites, self-study and lastly devotion to the Lord leading to samādhi – these are the factors of the yoga of action, the yoga, Patanjali says, for people in the world.

Now Shankara in his commentary on the Gita, verse 39 of chapter 2, defines karma yoga, and there’s a striking resemblance between the two.  He says it consists in doing action, but enduring the opposites as well, practising samādhi as well, and the last factor, worship of the Lord.  So we see that enduring the opposites and the worship of the Lord factors are exactly the same.  Samādhi yoga corresponds in Patanjali to repetition of OM, which he gives in his first book of sutras as one of the most important ways of attaining samādhi.  Shankara says this is action to be done and worship of the Lord and these are the elements of karma yoga.  There’s a striking resemblance.

The wording of the commentaries which Shankara wrote on the Gita and the newly discovered one that he wrote on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are sometimes word-for-word the same.  Endurance of the opposites, heat and cold, hunger and thirst – Shankara in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras says [this includes] either enduring these things as they come up naturally, or not taking the usual precautions against them, for instance, reducing the precautions against heat and cold.  In neither case do they recommend a deliberate self-torture, and the Gita condemns the tapas that is based upon self-torture, and says it is not authorised by the scriptures.

Study of one’s own, self-study, he says, is the study of the scriptures that relate to release, which are purifiers and is also the repetition of OM.  These three elements, the tapas, the self-study, and devotion to the Lord, in Patanjali, come again in sutras 30 and 32 – and he adds something in his commentary there.  Very interesting is the fact that Shankara’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras, on devotion to the Lord, the last one, is an exact parallel to many phrases in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.  He says, devotion to the Lord means offering all one’s actions to the Lord, or offering the results of those actions to the Lord, as a sacrifice to the Lord – and this is one of the main themes in the Gita.

This shows a remarkable parallel between the definition of karma yoga which Shankara gives, when the word first comes in the Gita.  The Indian students were expected to be able to remember, they had very good memories, they didn’t rely on books – and therefore the rule was at the beginning to give the definition, and students were expected to remember that definition throughout. This was his definition of karma yoga and (on the right) is the definition in Patanjali of kriya yoga, the yoga of action.  Now our teacher lectured on Patanjali for two years and as a little hint of what he understood or how he explained tapas or austerity [he said]:

“Without deliberate or conscious planned austerity in daily life your life is of no use whatsoever.  This is my little experience.  You cannot strengthen your will unless you undergo austerities, self-imposed and with delight. There is no greater curse than luxury.  The makers of Japan, now destroyed, were great tapastrians, men of tapas.  I had the honour to know some of them.  Men like Kido, whose lives were examples of austerity.  You should sleep sometimes every week on the carpet with joy; set a few hours apart after midnight and do your practices; keep silence every week for a number of hours; learn to retire into yourself; keep fasts; stand meditating on OM; speak the truth the whole time; avoid salt and condiments and live on the simplest vegetable food.  The heights that the great men attained and kept were not acquired by [comfort] – when companions slept they were up in the night.  Actions and negations, self-imposed, improve the will-power and make you candidates for the inner vision.

“Austerity, self-study, surrender to God, these are the three items of the kriya yoga that the yoga of action of Patanjali.  Svadhyaya means self-study – the study of the Fourth Gospel, the Imitation of Christ, Saint Augustine, the Gita, Rumi’s works.  Ishvara pranidhana – this is variously translated.  In the commentary of Shri Vyasa it means deep aspiration after God; making every object secondary to the discovery of the cosmic principle of life and activity in one’s own being. Surrender to Him, God, in mental form or spiritual form.  God as it is said in the Gita is like a river, out of which men take water according to their vessel’s capacity, be it a tiny glass or a great pitcher.  People according to their capacity form an idea of God.  Some take Him to be carrying the cross, some as Shri Vishnu, as Shri Dada, and some an unhewn piece of rock which they worship as Shiva.  All that is meant is the inner faith and feeling from which worship proceeds.  He will answer your prayer out of a piece of rock, if there is faith, purity and an unwavering devotion to it.  If a man follows this devotion to God it leads to the other two, tapas and svadhyaya.  Like a steam of oil poured from one vessel to another without intermission, the yogi pours out his whole life on one manifest in nature as described by Wordsworth, in the great mental world, who is proclaimed by the whispering stars and the humble daisies on the lawn.  Ceaseless devotion to Him in the form of OM, OM, OM.”

Well, this is the main commentary that he gave in that lecture.  He did these three elements again in a later lecture.  I quote one point from it:  “Those who do not perform tapas”, says Vyasa, “they do not achieve success in Yoga.” And our teacher said, “Things have to be taken most solemnly.  A man not given to tapas will not even be a successful family man.  The object of penance or austerity is that the beginningless impressions of taints arising from the network of sense contacts with the objects is destroyed for ever. These impressions have been accumulating for incarnations.  The way to rub them out is tapas, and there is no other way.”

So one other parallel (and that is the top list) and that is the yama and nama.  These are the ten qualifications for the yogi which are given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and which are adopted by Shankara in many places in the Thousand Teachings, for instance.  These are essential qualifications for candidates to liberation, and they are nearly all paralleled very closely by the passage on tapas which was read, the verses from the Gita.  (I simply for interest have noted the words – yama and nama and the Yoga Sutras and tapas in the very wide new sense which is given in the Gita.)

The first element is ‘non-injury’ – the word is ahimsa (Gandhi made this word well-known), this is the word used in the Gita, exactly the same Sanskrit word; ‘truth’ – satya, is the same in the Gita (This is one of the important forms of tapas); ‘no scheming’ – the parallel (not quite the same word) in the Gita is ‘honesty’; ‘brahmacharya’ in Patanjali and ‘brahmacharya’ in the Gita – all these come in chapter 17. ‘Not taking’ – aparigraha – that doesn’t  come in chapter 17, it comes in chapter 6, the same word; ‘purity’ – shaucam – the same word in the Gita; ‘contentment’ – it’s not the same word in the Gita, it’s ‘serenity’; ‘tapas’ in Patanjali and in the Gita; ‘self-study’ – svadhyaya in Patanjali and in the Gita.  All these terms come in that short passage in chapter 17 of the Gita, and they’re all called tapas.  The last element is devotion to God and this doesn’t come as a form of tapas – it’s the only one that doesn’t.  Well, this is just a matter of interest – but the Gita was composed long before the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; and it certainly looks as though, in constructing this list, which became very important – not only in the Yoga school, but in the Vedanta school, and was taken up especially by Shankaracharya who refers to it repeatedly – this was taken from the Gita verses on tapas.

Well the final point on tapas, a very important one, is that it must lead to independence, to cutting off our slavery, not simply to pairs of opposites, like heat and cold, but to familiarity and reliance on familiar things.  It’s very difficult to realise how dependent one can be on familiar things.  To illustrate a point sometimes an extreme example is very useful.

A very experienced interrogator during the war, told me that people who use brutal threats or treatment generally don’t know their job.  People under that sort of thing will say anything to stop it, and then you have to send out men to check it out and find out whether it’s true or not – and generally it isn’t; and, after all, the man may not know anything at all, he’ll just simply say something.  He said, “Those people don’t know their jobs. You don’t need all that.  When a man is put in prison, he immediately forms a relationship with his cell – immediately, he settles down in the new place.  A skilful interrogator will change the man’s cell every day – sometimes it’s a big one, sometimes it’s a small one; sometimes there’s lots of noise outside, sometimes it’s dead silence; sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s cold.  When it’s repeatedly changed many people simply collapse because they can’t form bonds with their environment.” This all seems very unlikely and we’re all sure that we’d be perfectly immune to that; but he was a very experienced man, and as I understand a very successful one, and this was his experience – that people instantly seek to form a connection and a reliance and to have something familiar in their environment.

The tapas must not disturb the mind.  Our teacher said on this, “Tapas must not be a destroyer of mental composure.” This is from Vyasa on Patanjali.  “The mind,” our teacher said, “must rest in composure and then do the tapas, and this requires great will-power.”  We noticed in the earlier examples he gave, he said, ‘to sleep on the carpet with joy’ – not to grit the teeth and sleep on the carpet.  “If tapas destroys mental composure it is the hatha yoga tapas, not the raja yoga tapas; contortions of the body may bring some benefit, but the benefit is I assure you very dubious.”

Now the point is then, Shankara says in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra, people then say, “Oh well – it’s no use my doing tapas, because it upsets me” – and then he quotes Vyasa, who says, “Those who don’t do tapas don’t succeed in Yoga.”  And our teacher says, “Tapas must be done, but it’s not a question of doing it by force and will-power – the mind must be kept calm.”

One example, this is again a physical example, and not a form of tapas that’s recommended in Yoga at all – there is a form of tapas that consists in standing under a waterfall on the mountains in the winter, when there’s snow on the mountains, so the waterfall when it comes down is icy.  People stand under it for a quarter of a minute, or half a minute.  Now when the man goes to stand underneath it and the leader says “No – now drop the shoulders,” it’s not an easy thing to do.  The temperature of the water is the same, but there’s an instinctive sort of huddling for warmth and it’s quite difficult.  He says if you can’t enter it with serenity and composure and stay there and come out, then you’re not doing it.  This is an example, that it’s not so much of the endurance of the cold as the ability to retain, or try to retain, composure of mind.  In the same way a swimmer is told to learn to swim and finally you must swim in a rough sea, but don’t swim in such a rough sea that you lose control and lose your breath. But that doesn’t mean, of course, “If I swim in a rough sea I’ll lose my breath”; but it means gradually increasing the ability to swim in a rough sea without losing the mental composure.

Svadhyaya – self-study, this includes the study of the scriptures, comparing them and trying to go deeply into them, and the instructions of the teacher, to go deeply into those; and because it’s self-study it means applying them in some way to the self.  One example is of two pupils, a man and a woman.  The woman was very clever, very witty, but she had a habit sometimes of making witty and rather biting comments about people.  Sometimes they were very funny, very accurate, but she was not above occasionally exaggerating them a little bit to make a better story.  So she didn’t have many friends, although she had some admirers.  The man knew this and one day they were with the teacher; and the teacher suddenly began making the most venomous remarks about someone known to them all, cutting, sometimes witty remarks, but ones which were patently untrue, that he was simply making up. This went on, and they were horrified, and they simultaneously said, “Teacher, you can’t say that”, and then it cut off as if a tap had been turned off.  Then there  was a silence and then the teacher began to talk of something else.  They went away and, after a time, the man noticed that the woman was no longer making these remarks and he thought how privileged he’d been.  He’d seen an example of spiritual teaching from inspiration. Then after a little more time, he thought,  “I wonder if I would ever say things like that,  I do make jokes, well nothing like that – well, perhaps once, no twice…”  And then he began to think, and finally he came to the conclusion that, perhaps, it was the woman who’d been privileged to be there at a great spiritual teaching from inspiration.  The essence of the svadhyaya is to apply the teachings to the self.

The last point, worship of the Lord – this comes in all of the great traditions.  Christ was asked what is the greatest commandment and he said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul and strength.”  This is the best-known text in the old testament – every pious jew reads it twice a day.  And yet, if we think, there’s something wrong.  Someone I know has two little girls, 7 & 9; and the little girl of 7 is a very pretty little girl.  He went to school one day on a sports day, and a little boy, also of 7, came up to him and said, “Are you Sophie’s dad?”   He said, “Yes” – so the little boy said, “Sophie says she does what you tell her.  Tell her to love me! I love her, but she thinks I’m terrible.”  When we hear that, we realise how ridiculous it is – you can’t command people to love someone else; and yet, we have these commands. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God!  Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  On what basis can it take place?

Well, it can happen, we can see it in other spheres.  When children begin to study music, the things they like are the Strauss waltzes – cheerful, sensual little pieces, very skilfully orchestrated.  That’s what they like, and that’s what they would stay with. But the teacher says,  “Get to know Beethoven.”  Children don’t like Beethoven. It seems ridiculous for the teacher to say, “Learn to appreciate Beethoven.”  But it isn’t ridiculous because the teacher knows that, if the musical faculty is developed, they will come to Beethoven, that it will be a natural thing, that there’s something in them already; and so the commandment has sense.  It doesn’t mean, force yourself to like Beethoven, but it only means, remove the obstacles, the obstacle being that you don’t listen to him.  If you listen to him, you will come to Beethoven; the music teachers know this from experience.  So the command, as it seems to be, is not a command to do something, or to force something unnatural, it’s only a command to remove obstacles, and to make something that’s natural more easy.

A teacher was asked about the spiritual background to action and he said, “The actions without a spiritual background won’t be effective, however well they’re meant, however kindly they’re meant.  The benevolence which isn’t based on wisdom will not be effective.”  The man he was talking to protested and said, “Look, the fact is, if somebody’s in need and if, maybe the greatest villain in the world, gives him a hand, that’s going to be the same as if the greatest saint had done that.  It’s the same thing.”  But the teacher said, “No.”   Then the tea came, and they had some beautiful sweet cakes, and the teacher said, “Would you like one of these cakes?”  The man said “Yes,” so the teacher went and rubbed his hands in a muddy pool.  Then he came back and picked up the cake, and [offered it to him, saying], “Do you like that?”

The purpose of these disciplines is to purify the mind.  All these are actions, and Shankara said, “These are all actions, and their purpose is to purify the mind.”  Therefore, the Gita says the tapas must be undertaken, not for selfish ends.  The tapas will produce results in the world if those are desired; but tapas must be undertaken, not for selfish ends – then it will produce a clarity. There’s a strong, striking parallel [with] verse 22 of chapter 17 of a Thousand Teachings of Shankara: “When mind becomes pure like a mirror, knowledge shines forth.  Therefore, mind should be purified by yama and niyama, by sacrifice, by tapas – austerities of the body, speech and mind should be performed to purify the mind – samādhi and discipline of the body and the senses should be practised.”

These are the verses that begin with, “When the mind becomes pure like a mirror, knowledge shines forth.”  This is very close to a quotation from Vyasa from the Mahabharata, which Shankara quotes in the Gita commentary. “Knowledge springs up on the destruction of sinful karma, when the Self is seen in the self as in a clean mirror. “  The same simile is made.  The tapas, the yama, the niyama, the practice of samādhi purify the mind until it becomes like a clean mirror and then it is seen clearly – knowledge springs up.

Shankara says our intelligence becomes clear in everyday life.  It is not the same as having a great intellect – as Einstein pointed out, he said, “Scientists are supposed to have great intellects, but most of them are doing exactly the same thing that a storekeeper does. He keeps the records accurately and he keeps things in apple-pie order; the figures in and the figures out agree – and that’s what he’s doing.  What the things are that are going and coming, he doesn’t know or care; he just does it precisely and accurately and reports the results.”  He said, “It’s only one in a hundred who really wishes to know – he is the intelligent one.”  Simply skill in handling units has the impression of being intellectual, but it may not be intelligence.  Intelligence is not at all the same as knowing a lot of facts; it’s the ability to see clearly.

In a drought, a man was washing the car and somebody protested.  He said, “The little I use won’t make any difference.”  This is a lack of intelligence, not intellect – a lack of intelligence.  Whether to pronounce the names of cities as the people there pronounce them, or in English style, much can be said on both sides.  That’s a question of intellect.  You can say, “It’s going to be impossible to pronounce the names as local people pronounce them. You can’t do it – say, Yokohama.”  Other people say, “No, we try to do it in the way they do it.”  That’s a question of intellect and a great deal can be made on both sides.  But what is a question of intelligence is, if a man says, “The best-known port in Japan is ‘Yoko’hama’, but there other ports which are just as big as ‘Yo’kohama’.” – or if he says, “You can go to ‘Prague’ via Frankfurt, or you can go direct to ‘Praha’.”  This is lack of intelligence, when you’re using two different pronunciations in the same sentence – nothing to do with the intellect, it’s a lack of intelligence.  The fallacy of fluctuating rigour – is a lack of intelligence, not intellect.  It can be justified very intellectually, but it’s a lack of intelligence.

When the things turn up which one doesn’t like, one applies the full rigour against it; but when things turn up that one does like, one is much more tolerant, one will accept much less.  For instance, we can say about devotion to God, “The world, after all, in Shankara’s doctrine, is maya, illusory, so the worship of God will be in illusion; and therefore it should not be undertaken.”  If you say to him, “Well, you won’t be shopping for breakfast tomorrow because that’s all in illusion, isn’t it?  It would be pointless to prepare your breakfast in illusion.”  He says, “Oh, it has a practical reality.”  This is not a logical fallacy, but a psychological fallacy – that the same point is applied very strictly in one case and, in the other case, very loosely.

Well, what is lost by that?  What is lost is that, knowing the world to be an illusion, the man rules out the worship of God; and so he doesn’t see that the illusion has a purpose and a beauty and a bliss and a creativity in it.  And he loses by this, because the world becomes meaningless, pointless, frightening and dead and uncreative.  Our teacher said that, in this case, the stream is drying up, the steam of inspiration begins to dry up.  Like all these things, for a time it doesn’t seem to make any difference, there’s still some water in the reservoir.  Then, quite suddenly, there’s no new life coming, and what water there was has become very little and is becoming stagnant.  There has to be inspiration.

What would be the nature of that inspiration?  One example is given of a disciple of the Buddha.  He was a man who tried very hard, but he had a defect of memory, he was unable to remember.  He asked a fellow disciple every morning to read to him, ten or twenty times, one of the verses of the Buddha’s teachings. He would try to memorise it and carry it around with him all through the day; but he invariably forgot it and the next day, the same verse…  This went on for a month, and then he was going to commit suicide and the Buddha met him and he explained what it was.  The Buddha said, “Well, as you are so sincere, as you’re so one-pointed that you’re willing to give up your life if you fail, you don’t need to memorise the verse.”  And he showed him a cloth with stains on.  He said “Look at this, meditate on this.”  After six months that man was cleaning the wooden sandals of the sangha; and, as he was wiping the sandals, he had this flash of realisation.  This would be inspiration.

Another case is a man, who complained, he said, “I can’t stand all this compulsive morality: ‘You must do this; you mustn’t do that!’  It’s against life; it’s a limitation of expression.”  He was director of a sizeable company.  The teacher said to him, “When you approve one of the plans, what do you do, how do you prove it?”  The man said, “I write ‘right’ and just initial it.  The teacher said, “Oh, show me”.  So the man dashed off this word, ‘right’, drew a line under it and then his two initials.  The teacher said, “Why have you put that line under it?”  The man said, “Well, the fact is, in my experience, the company like to feel that the director is a man who knows his mind, and that line gives the feeling that the man had made a decision.”  So the teacher said, “Well, why not just make the line?”   “Well, that would not convey the meaning.”   The teacher said, “By spelling out all those letters, R-I-G-H-T, don’t you feel you’re limited, you’re constricted – there’s no free expression of this tremendous will. You’re held to those letters, that have got to be like that.” The man said, “Of course, I write them very quickly, but the letters have to be recognisable; they can’t be so far away from the printed form that they’re unreadable.”  The teacher said, “It’s the same with these rules; we’re not expected to keep to them, like a robot mechanically.  There is a freedom of expression in them, but it mustn’t be so far away that the meaning is not conveyed.  Your expression will be through these very limitations, just as your expression of the word ‘right’ is through the limitations of those letters, but you have a special way of writing them which conveys your whole inner self.”

There’s a reproduction of a famous picture – this is one of the Chinese immortals, one of the gods. He represents the beauty of extreme old age; and yet there’s an inner radiance, which is shown by the artist.  The deer and the crane have got special symbolic meanings.  The pine tree is an evergreen – even under the weight of snow the pine tree’s green always.  All these things have a meaning for the picture. There’s something under the white, the hare and the deer – there’s something that’s green.  These two children (in those days they used to shave the heads of small children), a boy and a girl are bowing to him.  The meaning is: within this, there is this, there is what Shankara calls ‘the upspringing youthful life’.  Though the movements are limited, there’s an expression of eternal youth in it, through these limitations. This is somehow, the artist says, expressed more clearly.

There’s a poem, not by the artist, but it’s probably by a woman – they invented their own style of calligraphy, which very few men can do, and it says, “Though what you are doing may be a menial task, if there’s a purity, a clarity in your heart, the gods will manifest themselves there.”



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