Tapas, derived from the Sanskrit root tap– meaning “to consume or destroy by heat” (Kaelber 192) is an important concept in Hindu asceticism. Tapas or “inner heat” is obtained through ascetic practice. There are other meanings however. It can also be used to refer to penance (Kaelber 207), the destructive nature of heat (Kaelber 198), as well as sexual heat (Kaelber 343). It is believed to be a fundamental aspect to the religious experiences associated with fire and heat (e.g. ascetic practices and austerities) (Knipe 101).
Some of the ascetic concept of tapas is related to the creation of the cosmos. It takes part in an ongoing idea of the cosmos being associated with a spiritual unit or “mystical universe” (Knipe 36). For instance, the stars are believed to be created by Prajapati exerting himself in tapas for a thousand years. It is said that the stars are created from the pores of his heated body (Knipe 115). In another example, it is the creative power of this ascetic heat (tapas) which is the beginning in all myths regarding the creation of the universe (O’Flaherty 41).
As previously mentioned, tapas can be used to refer to the heat of asceticism. This type of heat is sometimes referred to as voluntary or “unnatural” heat. In this respect, tapas not only refers to the heat created through asceticism but to the practice of asceticism itself (Kaelber 343). Tapas, when being used for spiritual rebirth is always a voluntary, self-imposed asceticism rather than natural (Kaelber 359). These types of voluntary practices include such things as seclusion or isolation, silence, fasting, and brahmacarya or chastity, to name a few (Kaelber 359). It is important to note however that tapas can also be used to refer to natural heat, such as that given off by the sun or fire (Kaelber 343). According to the Brahmanas, tapas are understood as a sort of personal austerity or asceticism (Kaelber 201). Individuals, who undergo this asceticism, purify themselves through tapas; the impure condition of that individual is overcome which moves him from the state of impurity to the purity (Kaelber 205). This then allows for individuals to rise to a celestial condition (Kaelber 207). Tapas then, refers to the practices performed; it is the practice of asceticism. Tapas, however, also refers to the result of that asceticism (e.g. the heat generated through ascetic practice). Through asceticism (or tapas) the ascetic becomes heated (Kaelber 360).
The concept of destructive tapas is observed both in the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda. The pain which is associated with this kind of tapas is both undesirable and unpleasant and can be either physical or mental (Kaelber 198). Destructive tapas is correlated in ritual literature with “the external purification of ritual objects” (Kaelber 196). This is believed because the destructive heat of the fire is said to purify directly. For example, in the Dharma Sutras, when they refer to the purification of objects at sacrifices, these objects are said to be cleansed of their impurity by being exposed to the flame of Agni (Kaelber 197). In this sense, it is tapas that comes to be viewed as the power of purification (Kaelber 197)
Tapas is also used to refer to sexual heat (e.g. heat of sexual yearning, the heat of sexual excitation, and the heat generated during intercourse) (Kaelber 343). The association of tapas and sexual heat is more directly seen in the relationship between tapas and the notions of love, desire, or lust. These three ideas are often translated into the Sanskrit word kama meaning “pleasure” (Kaelber 347).
We find tapas to be associated with many of the gods in Hinduism. Siva, an extremely important figure in Hindu mythology, is often referred to as the great lord of tapas (Knipe 101). In many Hindu myths, we find the mention of tapas. For example, in the myths regarding Parvati trying to win Siva as her husband, she sets out to perform tapas (austerities). By setting out to perform tapas, it is believed that she leaves her world of the householder and enters into Siva’s world, which is that of the renouncer (Kinsley 43). This concept is also associated with the Hindu god Agni whose consuming heat is one side of his tapas-producing character (Kaelber 194). In close association to this we find that Agni-Prajapati is born of tapas or “cosmic heat” (Knipe 115). We find that tapas and Brahman (ultimate reality) are also associated, “by tapas seek to know Brahman (for) Brahman is tapas” (Knipe 119). This statement implies a direct association between the Hindu concept of Brahman and the concept of tapas. In Hindu mythology, it is believed that one of the most effective ways to obtain what it is a person wants is to perform ascetic austerities (tapas). With enough persistence, so much heat (tapas) will be generated that the gods will have no choice but to grant the ascetic a wish to save themselves from being burned by the tapas (heat) of the ascetic (Kinsley 42).
We see that tapas is an important ascetic practice and concept within Hinduism. It can also be used to refer to many different contexts such as ritual-ascetic heat/sweat, sexual heat/semen, etc (O’Flaherty). In some myths for example, it is the spilling of seed which translates into these contexts (e.g. Brahma becoming overwhelmed with lust while looking upon Sati, his seed spills to the ground and forms clouds which release water upon the land [O’Flaherty 42]). Given the many different meanings behind tapas, it is in this sense that it can be viewed as both process and product.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Kaelber, Walter (1976) “Tapas”, Birth, and Spiritual Rebirth in the Veda. History of Religions,
Kaelber, Walter (1979) Tapas and Purification in Early Hinduism. Numen, 26, 192-214.
Kaelber, Walter (1989) Tapta-Marga: Asceticism and Initiation in Vedic India. Delhi: Sri
Kinsley, David (?) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious
Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Knipe, David (1975) In The Image of Fire. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
O’Flaherty, Wendy (1973) Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press.
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Article written by: Sarah Hammett (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.