For some of us, especially those who are relatively new to the yogic path, may have heard of the term ‘tapas’. But what, exactly, do people mean when they talk about practising tapas?…
The term tapas originates from the Sanskrit root ‘tap’, which means to give off heat, to shine (like the sun), or to practice austerities. Tapas is often used to mean self control or cultivation of willpower.
From a formal point of view, tapas is an act of making a commitment to perform a particular spiritual practice or observance for a specified amount of time.
After having learned yoga practices, the aspirant is intended to apply them on a daily basis and to assume specific forms of tapas like diet, asanas, pranayama, meditation, etc. If practiced according to the tradition, tapas, the third niyama, is seen as being the source of all spiritual accomplishments.
We can also define it as the use of such commitments to develop and purify the will to the extent that it can take us deeper in the spiritual practice. If we assume a tapas and succeed in the challenge, we gain a momentum and confidence in this pure will. In this way, we can skilfully take on more and more difficult challenges to slowly build up willpower over time.
‘Strengthen your willpower, so that you will not be controlled by circumstances, but will control them.’
– Paramahansa Yogananda –
The concept of tapas is found in virtually all spiritual traditions. Jesus said that we should develop a “faith that can move mountains,” and this is precisely what is meant by tapas. In Christianity, as well in other traditions, austerities have been performed to build the will and faith in order to live a spiritual life. In this way, we can also say that tapas is the capacity of maintaining a state of equilibrium even when subjected to very challenging influences.
‘If you do not fast from the world,
you will not find the kingdom.
If you do not celebrate the Sabbath as a Sabbath,
you will not know the Father.’
– Jesus Christ –
In the trantic tradition, the fifth great cosmic wisdom of the Hindu pantheon and one of the great Mahavidyas, Tripura Bhairavi, embodies the transformation force of the practice of tapas. She is fierce in her form: radiant like the sun, she is often depicted as smeared with blood and wearing a garland of human heads or skulls. Tripura Bhairavi is therefore often worshipped by those seeking divine inspiration in their tapas practice. While she is terrifying, Tripura Bhairavi also represents the transformation that comes from the destructive practice of tapas and in this way, she is the guiding light of the practice. Below is an image of the Tripura Bhairavi yantra.