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This Sanskrit word is from the root tap, meaning “heat” or “fervor,” but it got the extended meaning of “austerity”, “suffering,” and “pain.” One is often said to be “doing tapas” when one engages in practices of discipline involving denial, discomfort, or even self-inflicted pain. Some claim that by these means one can overcome one’s attachment to the physical body and worldly attractions.

The third stanza of the famous “Hymn of Creation” from the Rg Veda (x.139), quoted in part in The Secret Doctrine (I:26), states that “the One” brought forth the world from its “mighty tapas”; in other words, tapas is considered there to be a creative force. Part two (the Sadhana Pada) of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras lists tapas as the first aspect of the preparatory path of yoga. Helena P. BLAVATSKY uses the term in the sense of “religious devotions” at one point in her The Secret Doctrine (II:174). In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna identifies one of his attributes as tapas (10.5) and indicates that he is “the tapas of the practitioners of tapas (7.9). Krishna also states that tapas involving bodily torture is “demonic” (17.5) and he disparages tapas done for the purpose of gaining “respect, honor, or praise” (17.19). Proper tapas, he states, is of three kinds: of body, of speech, and of mind, and involves devotion, purity, moral rectitude, non-violence, truthfulness, gentleness, self-restraint, etc. (17.14-16). He says that it is one of the essential qualities of a true Brahmin (18.42).

Perhaps the most interesting mention of tapas in Hinduism is in the prefatory part of the sacred chant called the Gayatri. After the sacred syllable “om”, there is the following list of words (cited here as declined in the chant): “bhur, bhuvah, svar, mahar, janah, tapah, satyah.” Note that the sixth word is the nominative singular of tapasThe Secret Doctrine (II:321), citing a commentary by Bhaskara on the Visnu-Purana, identifies these seven as different places or planes (lokas) of our world. The implication seems to be that they correspond to the physical, etheric, astral (or kama-loka), mental, intuitional (or buddhic), and atmic planes, to use theosophical terminology. If this is so, tapas would represent creative energy at a very high level of reality, energy which is unitive, yet begins the process of separation. Under this interpretation, it is by tapas that the world is created, as the Rg Veda states. But also it is by tapas that we evolve powers to realize the Creator, as its more common meaning suggests.


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