Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #1 – Tapo Divyaṁ-Divine Austerity

January 1st, 2018

When they saw me unexpectedly walking up the entrance pathway to their garden hermitage, the family of my vrajavāsī friend immediately woke him up. He was sleeping outside his simple dwelling on a plain rope bed common in rural India, trying to take advantage of the midday winter sun. I didn’t intend to disturb his deep sleep, especially as he has been struggling with high blood sugar and was taking a needed rest after lunch. I felt sorry for him. When you are ill, except when there is an initial fever, the body generally doesn’t generate much heat. I began to envision what it would be like without heat and hot water as the winter season gradually intensified. Even when he was healthy I could not imagine what it would be like to tolerate such extreme weather without counteracting such harsh conditions with the help of modern amenities such as a heater, hot water and or an air conditioner. But as I was thinking like this, my mind suddenly changed.
After all, isn’t this how all people have lived for hundreds of years? I started to see the benefit of such a simple life. When you live naturally you have to tolerate. In other words, you must practice tapasya, or austerity. It is healthy because when there is tapasya one is forced to abstract the mind from the body and it is this conjunction that is the root of all suffering. Modern amenities may thwart some temporary discomforts, but their excessive use is at a price. The major discomforts such as old age, disease, death, natural disasters, and a myriad of life’s challenges cannot be adjusted by a flick of a gadget, but can only be ameliorated by transcendence. The constant and artificial adjustment of the environment to avoid the practice of tolerance spurred by bodily identification only mires one to the body and thus intensifies the experience of pleasure and pain.
The long range tragedy of unwarranted bodily indulgence is best expressed in the aphorism, “a pinch of suffering is felt more than a ton of happiness,” which means that for every excess in the avoidance of natural austerity, the congregate amount of life’s suffering increases many fold. And this doesn’t include the mental malaise and even depression that is a result from an increasing disconnect from the soul caused by excess indulgence and consequent bodily identification.
In summary: As the soul’s identification with the body is just a mental concept, only by abstracting the mind from the body can one ultimately transcend its suffering. This arises only by the practice of tapasya, when the bodily discomfort impels one to loosen one’s absorption in the body. Let me share a personal example.
The austerities I performed my first three years in Vṛndāvana, when I stayed without break, were brutal. Without going into the details, just imagine living through summers in a climate that reaches, at its peak, nearly 118°F (~48°C) with the sporadic relief of an overhead fan, if you could call it that, limited to a few hours daily stunted by continuous electrical load shedding. The cloudy, heatless and hot-waterless winters were no less austere. After three years I returned to the US during the summer and visited my parents. My father took me to the dentist, who was also his good friend.
At that time the dentist never gave Novocain or any form of local anesthesia. He just told me to hold his left hand and squeeze if the drilling became too painful. He keep drilling and drilling, but I never gave any indication it was too much. He kept looking at my father appreciating my tolerance. It became clear to me then how much the austerity I performed increased my level of tolerance and enabled me to naturally abstract the mind from the body.
I am not recommending by this example that this level of austerity is required; It is just an example of how the mechanism of tapasya works. Living in the extreme climate of Vṛndāvana at the time was just a natural consequence of my service. And that’s the point. We don’t have to impose artificial austerity, but just accept sincerely the austerity of surrendering in devotional service and to live simply accordingly. I found a purport in the BBT’s edition of the eleventh canto of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam that succinctly defines tapasya in this way: “Despite the irrational impulses of the mind one should remain fixed in executing his proper duty in life.” (Bhāg. 11.3.24, purport)
Anyway, seeing my friend in his simple dwelling and meditating on tapasya has been a bit of wake-up call. I do live relatively simply, but still my sannyāsa/guru life has eased into a mood a little too cushy as the standard of life in ISKCON has been raised considerably from our early pioneer days in Vṛndāvana. I am energetic and healthy for my age, but there is no doubt that at 67 one has entered the end game and one should fear entering that game in the bodily concept of life. I do. I noticed that since thinking about the simple life of my vrajavāsī friend, I have been inspired to follow suit. At least the winter has started and the heater hasn’t gone on yet. Why unnecessarily always fall prey to the call of the mind for comforts when you can practice a little tapasya well within the capacity of your health and mind to endure? I find the instructions of Lord Ṛṣabhadeva comforting:

tapo divyaṁ putrakā yena sattvaṁ
śuddhyed yasmād brahma-saukhyaṁ tv anantam

“Perform divine austerity that purifies the heart and brings unending spiritual happiness.” (Bhāg. 5.5.1)

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